How Law School Admissions Works

John Cleese
John Cleese didn't just play a lawyer on TV, he really was one.
Mark Elias/AP Images

Juris doctorates are among the most prestigious postgraduate degrees available. Having a law degree can set one set up shop as a practicing attorney in a wide variety of areas, from intellectual property law to environmental law to that old stalwart, criminal law. While often the butt of jokes, attorneys provide an important service to American society, by defending the accused and prosecuting the guilty.

A law degree doesn't necessarily lead to a legal career; a number of high-profile people like comedian John Cleese, baseball manager Tony LaRussa, Vice President Joe Biden and restaurant-rating magnate Nina Zagat all earned law degrees before pursuing other interests [source: Corcos]. The rigorous intellectual training in areas like writing, logic and debate was enough to persuade them to pursue a J.D.


The prestige associated with law degrees is based largely on how hard it is to get them. Getting through law school is tough enough; getting in can be even tougher. Law schools in the U.S. are notoriously picky when it comes to admissions, as they have the luxury of only accepting their top choices. For example, Yale Law School, the top-ranked school in 2009, accepted only applicants with a grade point average of at least 3.77, and an LSAT score of at least 170. (We'll talk more about the LSAT in this article, but you can head to "How the LSAT Works" for a comprehensive look.) Although it's a little farther down the ladder, the Duke University School of Law isn't much easier to get into; the school required at least a 3.61 GPA and a 167 LSAT score. Even more daunting, only 7.3 percent of applicants got into Yale Law, with only 26.6 percent being accepted to Duke Law that year [source: ILRG].

And then there's paying for it. In 2008, the median tuition for law school in the U.S. was $27,000 and $33,000 per year for out-of-state public and private schools, respectively. Those who enrolled as in-state students at public schools fared better with a median cost of about $14,400 a year [source: Weiss]. (See "How Law School Financial Aid Works" for more on paying for school.)

We're getting a bit ahead of ourselves, though. The law school admissions process begins years before you'll ever apply. It's centered on the courses you take in college and the interests you hold.


Tracks to Law School

debate team
Lifelong, involved pursuits and activities like being a member of the debate team, are advantages for law school applicants.
Donna McWilliam/AP Images

If you know early on that you want to go to law school, keep that in mind as you choose your undergraduate courses. Many schools don't offer a dedicated pre-law program, and most law schools don't require one. Even more, the American Bar Association (ABA) doesn't stipulate courses that law schools should require for admission [source: LSAC]. Instead, preparing for pursuing a law degree as an undergrad amounts to a curriculum with a heavy emphasis on research and writing.

Since attorneys write legal briefs and opinions, as well as perform expert research on precedent-setting legal cases, undergraduate coursework that incorporates these two concepts will help bulk up a law school applicant's resume. Majors and minors in history, economics, political science, English and many sciences use these skills. Philosophy is also a good undergraduate pursuit for law school, as it teaches the logic used in law.


People who are opting for a law degree after they've already graduated and spent time in the work force shouldn't fret: Law schools are famous for accepting nontraditional students as well.

In addition to studies, law schools generally look for candidates who have either a number of interests or one or two areas of deep interest that have been pursued for a number of years -- if not a lifetime. Which of these will make it likelier that you're accepted depends on the goals of the school. Some law schools look for well-rounded students with a number of established interests. Other schools seek to cultivate a well-rounded campus, by assembling students that have demonstrated long-term interest in a single activity.

Demonstrating interest is what many law schools refer to as evidence of leadership and engagement. Some pursuits may be more applicable than others. For example, membership in debate clubs from a young age signals an applicant who can withstand the rigors of cross-examination.

With a robust transcript and resume under your belt, you're going to want to get the LSAT handled, too.


Taking the LSAT

Lsat kid
You can cancel a poor LSAT score and take the test over again.

If you've taken the SAT (or can remember taking it), you have a rough idea of what the Law School Admission Test (LSAT) is like. As the name implies, you'll need to take it before you're admitted to law school. The LSAT is a five-part standardized test with four scored parts (the fifth is included prototype questions that will appear in scored segments in future incarnations of the test). The LSAT tests takers' reasoning, critical thinking and verbal skills, with a 35-minute writing assessment. The scores run from 120 to 180.

The sooner you take the LSAT the better, as your LSAT scores (if you take it more than once) are averaged and submitted with your law school applications. This, however, should be approached with caution. To get rid of a low LSAT score, you'll have to expressly cancel it and take the test all over again. You'll have to pay the fees associated with the test again, and there is a risk you'll do worse the next time around. However, studies of LSAT scores show that test scores tend to rise slightly when taken another time, so it may be a good bet when you get a low score [source: LSAC].


It's a good idea to take practice and sample LSATs wherever you can find them; cramming isn't recommended. In fact, the Law School Admissions Council (LSAC) points out that the skills tested by the LSAT are cultivated over several years [source: LSAC]. There are also a number of reputable companies that offer prep courses for the LSAT.

Ultimately, the most prepared LSAT taker is one who has put himself or herself through heavy writing, research and logic courses, taken practice tests and spoken to others who've already taken the test (and passed). After that, it's important to remember to breathe.

Next up, it's time to apply to law school.


Applying to Law School

professor and student
You'll want to ask for letters of recommendation from professors who know you well (and like you).

The process of applying to law school can actually be less daunting than applying for undergraduate admission. If you're enrolled in college, it may be helpful to tap the knowledge of your school's pre-law adviser. Some of the bigger universities maintain such a position. If you lack access to an adviser, don't worry; the Law School Admissions Council (LSAC), which administers the LSAT, also serves as a central routing hub for most American law schools through its credential assembly service. The Council aggregates your personal data, like transcripts, LSAT score and an academic summary. This is combined into a law school report that schools can view when considering you as a candidate.

In addition, you'll also need a writing sample (usually a personal statement essay) around three to five pages in length, and letters of recommendation.


Just about every law school requires two or more letters of recommendation. These letters, written on the author's letterhead, essentially vouch for your character and potential. They should come from professors or other people who aren't friends or family; non-traditional students can get these from employers and colleagues [source: Duke Law].

The Princeton Review has some good tips on personal statements. If you read between the lines, all it really amounts to is creating a well-written, concise narrative that manages to set you apart from the pack. Use the personal statement to describe what makes you who you are and why those qualities make you a great candidate for law school. As the Princeton Review points out, it's "not the time to describe what your trip to Europe meant to you, describe your affinity for anime or try your hand at verse" [source: Princeton Review]. Plumb deeper and find those qualities that drove you to law school or a dream of holding a J.D. in the first place and lay them out in the most moving, clear language you can muster. And then scrap it and write it again.

Applying to law school is hard work, but pursuing a law degree is a noble pursuit -- whether you use it professionally or not -- and one that's worth the effort.


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

  • American Bar Association. "Preparing for law school." Accessed April 29, 2010.
  • Corcos, Christine A. "What else you can do with a law degree." Lousiana State University. April 14, 2010.
  • Duke University Law School. "JD program application instructions." Accessed April 28, 2010.
  • Internet Legal Research Group. "2009 raw data law school rankings: acceptance rate (ascending)." Spring 2008.
  • Law School Admission Council. "Frequently asked questions - LSAT." Accessed April 29, 2010.
  • Law School Admission Council. "Preparing for law school." Accessed April 27, 2010.
  • The Princeton Review. "Tips for your personal statement." Accessed April 29, 2010.
  • U.S. News and World Report. "How to get in: Indiana University Maurer School of Law." April 15, 2010.
  • Weiss, Debra Cassens. "GAO puts blame on US News rankings for high law school tuition." October 27, 2009.