How do law schools pick applicants?
Most law schools like to say that they consider applicants holistically. This is not quite true. Ultimately, your GPA and LSAT scores are weighed very heavily. You can pretty accurately predict which law schools you will be accepted to based only on those two factors. There are even websites that predict it for you.
In general, your LSAT score is likely to account for about 50% of the admission “points” that are awarded, GPA gets another 40%, and all other factors combined will share the remaining 10%. This is a rough estimate, and different schools have different methods. Some schools publish their methods. But they’re all something like this.
By the time you start thinking seriously about applying to law school, your GPA is pretty fixed. But you can take the LSAT a couple of times to get up to the schools you want. Law schools do see all your scores, but most schools only care about your highest.
Where do I start with the LSAT?
The LSAT is important, but what exactly is it and how should a potential law student approach it?
The LSAT is a standardized test that is administered by the Law School Admissions Council (or LSAC). It is essentially a kind of IQ test in that in theory you only have to 1) understand what all of the words mean, and 2) have a good grasp of formal logic. But in practice, the test-writers follow patterns. That makes it learnable. If you can identify the patterns, then you can score well on the test.
The LSAT has four sections: a reading comprehension section, a “logic games” section, and two (logic-based) multiple choice sections. Scores range from 120-180. They are strictly tied to your percentage of correct answers relative to the average performance of all other test-takers for the same test.
There are a ton of free resources available online that can help you learn the LSAT:
- LSAC’s website. LSAC has a huge number of really useful free resources available to potential law students, so I highly recommend familiarizing yourself with their website. For example, they have videos describing the four basic sections of the LSAT here, 2 free practice tests along with various paid preparation resources available here, and the option to purchase copies of all previously-administered LSAT tests available here.
- Many youtube channels provide free videos where people work through and explain LSAT problems, for example here, and here, and here.
- LSAC free resources for aspiring law students page.
- Khan Academy “Official LSAT Prep” (created in collaboration with LSAC).
Other options: you can pay for a premium test-prep service or tutor, you can spam your brain with practice tests, or you can just take the LSAT cold. Personally, I (Peter) took the spamming-brain approach—I sat down and worked through a full practice test every day for a month straight, and then I took the test.
Whatever you do, I recommend having some kind of system in place so that you can maximize your performance. Give yourself a lot of time and a schedule (and stick to it!). A few months of hard study can potentially improve your score by 10 points or more. If you learn this test well, you can dramatically improve your chances of admission and scholarship at top law schools.
I have some acceptance letters. Which school should I pick?
There are two main questions here.
- How high was the school ranked by US News?
- What was the cost of attendance, after accounting for any scholarship offers?
Law schools know that all the other law schools are also deciding based on GPA and LSAT. They have a pretty good guess what other schools you’ll get into. If you are one of their “reach” applicants, they will probably offer you a merit-based scholarship to convince you to pick them. If you come from a lower or middle-class background, then many schools will also offer a need-based scholarship.
For example, I (Peter) had two clear contenders:
- Rank: #13
- Scholarship: about $42,500/year (about 1/3 merit-based)
- Tuition (2014-2015): about $53,000/year
- Rank: #18
- Scholarship: about $45,000/year (entirely merit-based)
- Tuition (2014-2015): about $57,500/year
Given the higher rank and comparable scholarship offer, Georgetown ended up being a clear winner. But even with a great scholarship offer from a great school, I ended up with about $200,000 in debt by the time I graduated.
How does that happen? Here’s the breakdown:
- About $16,000 in carryover debt from my undergraduate degree. Most of it accrued interest for the three years in law school.
- The scholarship covered most of Georgetown’s tuition, but it still left about $10,000 unfunded in the first year, plus living expenses.
- Tuition increased by about $2,000 year until it was about $60,000/year when I graduated. Today, the cost is about $67,000.
- Living in a city like Washington, DC, will run you another $25,000-$30,000 per year.
- I chose to pursue a joint-degree program that included one extra semester of classes to get an LL.M. in Taxation. That extra semester cost an extra $31,000 or so in tuition alone ($45,000 in new debt including living expenses).
Without scholarship aid, I could easily have ended up with over $300,000 in debt. Law school is very expensive, with or without a scholarship, so you should think carefully about what you want to do with your career and whether law school will be a good investment for you. Only go to law school if you are sure you want to be a lawyer.
You can also bargain with law schools. For instance, tell USC how much of a scholarship Georgetown offered you. Asked if they would increase theirs to match it. Since USC has higher starting tuition, phrase this in terms of how much is left over for you to pay at each school. Presumably all schools know how much the other schools charge, but you might as well prompt the human reading your email to think they’re behind and need to catch up. Separately, ask Georgetown if they’ll match the dollar value USC offered you. I (Nathan) did this, and Georgetown offered me a bit more of a scholarship.
- If you are going to a school outside of the top 20, then you should think carefully about whether you want to spend your career in the city where the school is located. Chances are, you will put down roots and make connections while you are going to law school, and you will have an easier time finding a job in that geographical region than in another locale.
- Religious affiliation.
- Some law schools have an overt religious affiliation. Others have a historical religious affiliation that doesn’t bleed too much into daily life at the school.
- If you want to learn about the culture of a law school, I suggest visiting a few weeks before fall semester finals and chatting up some of the 1Ls—do you still want to go?
- A law school’s ranking on US News will tell you a lot about the job prospects that you will have when you graduate, but it may be more helpful if you research the actual percentages of students who went on to work in different settings.
- Keep in mind that some schools have been caught engaging in questionable practices with respect to reporting employment numbers, so approach with a healthy dose of skepticism.
If you have more questions or want to talk to someone who has gone through the process, reach out to a mentor on the legal careers team.