"Will one bad semester jeopardize my chances of getting into law school?"

    lawschoolacceptance-300x203.jpgIn addition to answering questions from students on our forum and as part of our law school admissions counseling programs, I also often answer law school admissions questions on Yahoo! Answers. I answered a question recently that I've answered many times before in various iterations, and I thought I would take the time to shed some light on it as part of the Law School Admissions Tip of the Week series.

    The question went something like this:

    My freshman year of college I had a 3.87 GPA. Then, my first semester of sophomore year, my grades suffered and I ended up with a 2.73 for the semester. If I were to achieve great grades (straight As) for the rest of my undergraduate career, would I still have a shot at a decent law school?

    This is a question many, many students ask themselves every year, because--let's face it--students who have 4.0s are few and far between (despite what you may tell yourself as you lay awake at night, busily bashing your law school chances). For most of us, there has been a bad stretch of classes where we did much worse than we would like, for whatever reason: we transferred schools, we discovered college parties, we dealt with illness--the list is extensive.

    So, let's answer it: Will that semester of less-than-stellar grades hurt your chances of getting into a good law school?

    Here's the upshot: Not necessarily. But a lot depends on when the bad grades happened, and how you did after them.

    Everyone's allowed to mess up a semester during college. It's not ideal, but it happens.  Law schools understand this, and will not penalize you for it--as long as you do not mess up again, and excel from there on out. Here's what I told the student:

    If you get straight As from now on (and assuming you take the same number of credits each semester), you will graduate with a 3.81, which is a extremely respectable, very competitive GPA--and you will also show not only an upward grade trend, but an extreme sharp increase that stays elevated. The one single semester will then look like the exception, not the rule--and the fact that it happened in the first two years of college, rather than the last two, will also help.

    Pay special attention to the bolded section of my answer. It deals with two very important aspects of bad-semester damage control:

    1. You have to blitz out the rest of your college career. Straight As. An occasional B isn't going to kill you, but it will bring your GPA down, so don't risk it. If you manage to get straight As after your bad streak of grades, then the bad semester will stick out not because it's so bad, but because everything else is so good. You'll have a much easier time and a better chance of explaining it away if everything else on your transcript is golden.
    2. Messing up during your freshman or sophomore year is much better than messing up your junior or senior year. This is due to a variety of reasons:
      • During your first two years, you can still fall back on the "I was young and silly" defense. You're fresh out of high school, you're getting your feet wet, it's the first time living on your own--whatever the reason, it's much easier to forgive an 18- or 19-year-old for academic inconsistency than a 20- or 21-year-old with at least a couple of years of college under his or her belt.
      • If you mess up during your freshman or sophomore year, you will be able to put at least a year between you and the bad grades. Not so if you mess up junior or senior year. The more time between you and your foul-ups, the better (this is also why I recommend that students with a poor undergraduate performance consider taking a few years off between college and grad school to work on their professional profile, and demonstrate that they can excel elsewhere, even if not in school).
      • If you mess up junior year, those are the most recent set of grades law schools will see. Remember, you're more than likely applying at the start of your senior year, so those grades aren't around yet. The last thing you want is law schools wondering why you did so great your first two years of college, and then messed up when your started to take more difficult, upper-level courses.
      • If you mess up senior year, you're literally ending your college career with a fizzle rather than a bang. Don't think that law schools won't see that, either--they'll want an updated transcript once you've graduated. And those grades will be on that transcript. Do you really want to have to field that awkward "what happened?" phone call from the law school to which you've been accepted?

    So, here's your bad-semester plan: If you must mess up, do so during your first two years of college. If you do mess up, do everything in your power to immediately boost your grades--and keep them there! And, finally, consider writing a brief addendum explaining what happened that one fateful semester. Don't ever leave the AdComs guessing and coming up with their own explanations.

    Is a bad semester of grades the end of the world? Absolutely not--but only if you quickly take decisive action. Make sure to be proactive in correcting the situation (and ensuring it won't happen again), and you should be just fine.

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