How do law schools look at graduate work?
Although the majority of law school applicants are coming straight from college, there are many that are just coming out of graduate school, or have a graduate degree in addition to their Bachelor's. For those students, their grad school degree and grad school grades can sometimes be a source of discomfiture: How are these grades considered? Are they included in your GPA calculation? Can they make a not-so-great undergraduate GPA better? Do they give you an edge in admissions?
Let's take a look at how law schools evaluate graduate work. Perhaps the most important thing to keep in mind when discussing how law schools look at grad work is that it is not included in LSAC's GPA computations. Although you still have to send your graduate or professional school transcripts to LSAC (much in the same way that you have to send your undergraduate transcript or transcripts), they do not undergo the same evaluation and summarization process that your undergrad grades do. From the LSAC website:
Although LSAC does not summarize graduate or professional school work, it does list these transcripts on the law school report and send copies of them to law schools. [...] Law schools receive a copy of graduate school transcripts with the law school report, but do not calculate an overall grade-point average combining undergraduate and graduate school performance.
So, what does this mean? Let's extrapolate.
- When it comes to the primary GPA that law schools look at, it's your undergrad GPA. A grad GPA is nice, but it doesn't replace or get combined with the UGPA.
- A low UGPA will not be bolstered by a high grad GPA. On the other hand, a low grad GPA won't bring down a high UGPA.
Now, although generally speaking a high grad school or professional school GPA will not really bolster a low UGPA, I do believe that it can soften the blow a bit (in some cases). For example, if you graduated from college 7 years ago with a 3.0 GPA, but then got into a reputable grad school program five years after college, performed at a 4.0 level there, and are applying to law school directly from grad school, you could make a compelling argument to law schools that you have honed your academic skills and that your prior UGPA is not as representative of your potential as your grad GPA is. A high graduate school GPA can show law schools that you can handle work at the graduate level, even if you didn't perform so well in college. It won't do this for everyone (I believe that a lot of what a graduate degree can do for your law school application matters on where you got your degree, what it's in, and how you performed), but it will certainly work for some.
Now, on to more important things: Does having a graduate or professional degree give you an edge during the law school application process? Now that's a question worth analyzing. Here's my take: As I mentioned above, I believe that, unlike with your undergraduate GPA, it does matter where you got your graduate degree. It also matters how you performed in it (grad schools are often considered to be lenient graders--meaning everyone does at least somewhat well--so if you've got a smattering of Cs, Ds, or Fs, it will look even worse than it normally would), and what your degree is in. The more prestigious the university (and the better regarded the graduate program is within that university), the better. Those with graduate degrees from lesser-known or less well-regarded institutions may not really reap the benefits they're looking for during the law school admissions process. The moral of the story here, if you're looking for a grad degree to help you out later on, is "aim high."
As a side note: Engaging in graduate work is also specially useful for applicants who have been out of college for a while, since it will let you establish rapport with your professors and obtain academic letters of recommendation that may not have otherwise been feasible (after all, can you really go back to your college professors 5+ more years after you've graduated and expect them to really remember you?).
Let me reiterate that you still need to submit your grad or professional transcripts to LSAC for processing. Although they won't get summarized, they will still be included in your law school report. It's imperative that law schools have the whole picture when evaluating your profile and making a decision--if nothing else so that they can make an informed one. And, if you're planning on using your graduate grades and degree to try to ameliorate any shortcomings in your undergraduate performance, don't forget to include an addendum.
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