May 30, 2005
Admissions Myths (Last in a Series)
Posted by Christine Hurt

I've been putting off posting the last of admissions-related posts this season.  (I've chronicled my maiden admissions committee journey here, here, and here.)  This post relates to pieces of conventional wisdom that were passed down to me in high school and college about law admissions that actually are not true.  As with the other posts, I want to point out that the information I am passing along is meant to depict what does happen, not what should happen or what I wish would happen in the admissions process.  So, I would like to dispel some myths, but of course most, if not all, readers of this blog are too far along in their law school admission journey to change courses.  However, if you have younger friends, please do not continue to pass along these commonly-held misperceptions of the admissions process.

1.  It does not matter where you went to college.  This is false.  Now, that does not mean that you have to go to an ivy-league school to get into law school, even an ivy league law school.  This adage is true, but only to a point.  Admissions committees like applicants who went to schools with which we are familiar.  In addition, LSAC generates a sheet for every applicant that details facts about the undergraduate degree-granting school.  So, if 49% of graduates from your college score in the bottom 10% of the LSAT, this shows up and instantly discredits your gpa.  Committee members are happy to accept gpas from [Name your favorite private school] and from [Name your favorite state school], but get a little nervous when the gpa is from [School no one has heard of that appears to be unable to produce graduates who can complete the LSAT.]  So, you may think it's shrewd to pass up a selective college for a college where you can "party" and get a 4.0, but it could come back to haunt you.

2.  It does not matter where you went to college, Part 2.  How many colleges did you go to?  In my hometown, some common advice that high school teachers gave was to go to community college first, save your money, then transfer to a university.  Let me just hint that most law professors did not go to community college.  So, when admissions committee members see a lot of moving around on a transcript, people get nervous.  Lawyers are very linear people.  So, if you know you want to go to law school, start your academic career at a university.  If you can't take the culture shock of being a freshman at a major research institution, then the first year of law school may be a little painful, too.

3.  It does not matter what your major is.  Again, false.  But, like #1, this maxim is true to a point.  It does not matter whether you major in Poli Sci, English, Business, History, Biology, Engineering, etc.  However, it does matter whether you major in a subject that is widely recognized by admissions committees as an "academic subject."  Again, the common advice in my hometown high school was to pick a major that you would like and that you would excel in.  True, as among commonly known academic majors.

Law school is about reading, analyzing, and writing, so your gpa should reflect how well you do in those types of activities.  So, a major that is unclear to outsiders as to the content of that major is not a safe choice.  Admissions committee members get very concerned with applicants with high gpas in majors that seem either artistic (Dance, Theater, Design, Music (Performance)) or physical (Kinesiology, Corporate Fitness).  If this is your love, minor in it or at least minor in a more traditional subject.

Admissions committees look at thousands of applicants with the same gpa.  They have to distinguish them.  Generally, distinguishing between majors is quite popular.  High gpa in Engineering or Economics?  Great.  High gpa in Fashion Merchandising?  Hmmm.  Hard sciences stand out because so few applicants majored in the hard sciences.  Criminal Justice is an odd major because I'm sure that some college students think it will help.  It doesn't.  Unless you want to be in law enforcement, major in something else.

4.  Admissions committees respect work experience.  Not really.  Not unless your work experience is really interesting or amazing.  Then the experience stands out as an interesting or amazing thing on your resume, not because it is work experience.  I find it interesting when applicants were in Teach for America, Americorps, Jesuit Volunteer Corps, or the Peace Corps.  Or people who followed a dream for awhile.  But no one ever says, "Given this applicant's outstanding record of service for the past two years at [Name your favorite retailer], I think he/she would be an excellent J.D. candidate."

5.  You can always take the LSAT again.  I'm probably the only person who believed this myth, but I'll put it here anyway.  I was advised to take the LSAT without taking a prep.  If I did poorly, I could always take a prep class and take the LSAT over.  Well, this could have been a disaster for me if I didn't have some weird, LSAT-type mind that luckily took to the standardized test like a duck on a June bug.  If not, then I would have been hosed because most, if not all, schools average your LSAT.  Oh, we look at both the LSATs, but we know that the average LSAT is the one reported to the all-powerful USNWR.  So, take an LSAT prep!!  Yes, I know how expensive they are.  Start saving now.  This is probably the single most important investment you can make in your application.  Unfortunately, lots of other applicants are taking a prep course, so that ratchets up the scores.  Sorry.

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Comments (32)

1. Posted by Jamie on May 31, 2005 @ 8:52 | Permalink

I would modify number 5. I don't think it's vital to take a test prep course, per se; however, it is vital to take the LSAT seriously, prepare, and do the best you possibly can. That may require a test prep course, but it may not. If a bright applicant is unphased by standardized tests, it's likely that he or she would be best served by simply ordering the big packet of past tests from LSAC and practicing the test questions, especially under simulated test conditions. Many of those same people really do waste their money on test prep courses, especially the part of the course (in some instances the major component of the course) that give clues on how to game the test (e.g., how to choose which questions to skip; which types of answers are the "best" guesses if you just don't know; pick C if you have no idea; etc.). That's just not helpful and is a waste of money, if you actually have the potential to answer every question knowledgeably and correctly. I don't mean to suggest that all test prep courses are worthless by any means; they're just not necessary or sufficient for many people.

2. Posted by Jay on May 31, 2005 @ 9:55 | Permalink

Transferring from a City collge into a private university will not neccesarily hurt your chances (IMO). First, transfering once from a city school to a private institution can hardly constitute as "a lot of moving around." If your decision is well grounded i.e. you explain in your personal statement the financial restraints you faced in your undergrad career, this path will probably not be looked down upon. Indeed, I took this route, and got into a great law school, and excelled. When I interviewed at law firms, no one asked, nor really cared whether my resume included a complete list of institutions I had attended.

Second, when law schools report who their feeder schools are, they will report your graduating undergraduate instintution, and do not have to report the one city college or array of schools the student attended. Also, if you have a high GPA, this GPA is not qualified when the law school reports their median means etc to USNEWS. Boosting their GPA for USNEWS/ranking purposes makes a big difference to law schools--regardless of what they otherwise may say. So, if you go to a non-ivy, get a 4.0 and get high 160's on your LSAT, the fact that your undergrad institution produces students who score in the bottom 10% in the lsat will only paint you more as a standout student.

I would say that going to a IVY undergrad, and doing well there, will of course give you an advantage. Particularly when applying to top 10 schools. However, I felt compelled to post my view of the otherside of this coin.

3. Posted by Christine on May 31, 2005 @ 10:06 | Permalink

Jay, everything you say is true, to a point. A few points, though. First, a city college is not the same as a community college or a junior college. Second, when I wrote of moving around, I was actually thinking of the applicants that I saw that went to 4 or 5 schools, not two. I have not heard anyone disparage someone who transferred once. Third, none of this matters if you have a really good LSAT, but all of this matters if you are one of a zillion applicants in the 50th percentile of the LSA with a 3.4. Then, everything matters.

And yes, gpas are reported to the USNWR with no discount, which would tend to make you believe that admissions committees would not care where the gpa came from. But again, this advice comes into play when a committee is judging applicants with fungible gpas and LSATs. If your LSAT pulls you out of that fungible pile, then you could have majored in interpretive dance at Christy Hurt Community College of 83rd Street and gotten into this law school. However, you may then be in a different fungible pile for a Top 10 school.

I guess my main point is that your undergraduate school does matter on the margin.

4. Posted by Gordon Smith on May 31, 2005 @ 10:53 | Permalink

Jamie, I agree with you. That was exactly the approach I took to the LSAT. I was a very poor undergrad, and I didn't have the money for a prep course.

5. Posted by Laura on May 31, 2005 @ 11:14 | Permalink

Just wanted to add my agreement to Gordon and Jamie that you do not have to take a prep course. When I was preparing for the LSAT (not so long ago), I was post-college and making only $18K, and thus could not afford the big course. Instead, I purchased a couple of LSAT prep books with sample tests and practiced every single night for the two months leading up to the test, and did very well. It does take some discipline, but poorer students should not feel obligated to fork over cash to Princeton Review or Stanley Kaplan.

6. Posted by Gordon Smith on May 31, 2005 @ 11:18 | Permalink

Christine, What sort of information can we reasonably expect from GPAs? Not only is there great variation from major to major and school to school, but grade inflation has become so rampant in undergraduate programs that I find GPAs almost meaningless.

7. Posted by Christine on May 31, 2005 @ 11:28 | Permalink

First to answer Gordon's question, I view a high gpa as a "sine qua non." If you can't figure out how to get a good gpa these days, then I'm not sure what problem-solving skills you have. So, I basically discount poor gpas rather heavily unless there is a reason. The worst thing for me is if someone's major gpa is lower than their overall gpa. Change your major. I don't think that hitting one's head against a wall is a good quality in an attorney. (Obviously, engineering is a different story if the grades in that department are severely depressed.)

Second, I would still encourage my kids to take an LSAT review. We lucked out. However, we probably did well on the SAT, too. But, I think when Gordon and I took the LSAT, a lower percentage of test-takers took the prep. Now, I think there is an arms race mentality.

8. Posted by Gordon Smith on May 31, 2005 @ 11:40 | Permalink

GPA as disqualifier makes some sense. I can see that.

But I am not sure about major GPA v. other GPA. I assume that most people take more advanced classes in their major than outside. It might be quite easy to ace general ed classes, but more difficult to ace advanced classes in your major. Depending on the major, of course.

9. Posted by Angry on May 31, 2005 @ 11:42 | Permalink

You seem to be under the impression that partying and “good schools” are exclusive. Without fail, all of my colleagues from “Ivies” have admitted to being drunk for at least one semester. In fact, the Ivies are notorious for grade inflation, because, perhaps, the professors (or rather, their research assistants) are keenly aware of the importance of getting a high GPA regardless of how intellectually curious or “caring” one is. Unless and until people start seriously trying to *double blind* grade undergraduate work, UGPAs will be nothing more than a reflection of who you can schmooze or sleep with.

Your point about the number of schools someone attends is too vague. In fact, most students at law school have at least two transcripts (even if one is from summer classes.) The reason that people who start at community colleges never make it to become professors, is that they probably are just from a different social class then people who will become law professors. Let’s face it: if your parents make over $200,000/year, you don’t NEED to save money by going to an Community College, and your parents think that a “good” school has more “value” than transferring. I know a lot of professors, and NONE of them came from families on public assistance.

I don’t know what “lawyers are linear people” means. I worked at “BIGLAW” for 5 years. Very few of the people in my firm went straight from highschool to college to law school to BIGLAW. In between there was time teaching, clerking, working for the government, or surfing. We just like to tell people that we are linear. This must be one of those vague platitudes that people like to tell freshmen. Likewise, the Freshman year at a large research university has nothing in common with 1L.

10. Posted by David on May 31, 2005 @ 16:26 | Permalink

I have worked in admissions for over a decade now. Most of what you say is modestly true, but you portray it as too black and white.

First of all, never - yes, absolutely never - is a GPA 'discredited' simply because of the average LSAT performance of other students at a particular school. Ever. A GPA is only 'discredited' when it is very high (e.g. 3.75+) and the LSAT score is very low (i.e. 145-). Otherwise, each applicant should get a fair spin of the wheel. No exceptions.

The reason for this is obvious - not all undergrads attend the 'top' schools, even if they are accepted to those schools. That is, idiots get into Ivies (legacies, anyone?), and stunningly gifted students often attend no-name state schools (poor people who can't afford to leave their jobs/families to go chasing a fancy name). Believe me, I've seen thousands of each in my time.

Secondly, if you like art, study art as an undergrad. If you like science, study science. There is nothing more boring than seeing a student who gets a great GPA in a hard major, but the reason they chose that major is to impress me. I'm impressed by those applicants who had the guts to study what they loved, instead of becoming standard political science major robots. I've also found that with the average four year degree these days, most students study about two years of general education requirements common to most majors. Give or take, obviously, but not by much. Anyone with a four year degree is adequately prepared for law school. Please, whatever you do, don't study something because you think it will help you get into law school. The only thing that will help you get into law school is showing me that you're passionate about your education. Nobody's passionate about political science. Stay off the sports degrees though.

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