It's hard, given how much of your law school application rides on your LSAT/GPA combo, to see the forest for the trees. Many students with excellent LSAT scores and GPAs are lulled into a false sense of confidence about their application: I already have an awesome profile. I can just wing the rest of this application stuff, and I'll be fine. Sure, you'll be fine with some schools, but not with all--and if you're looking to get into an elite institution (as all of you should), you won't be fine at all.
Pretend you're a law school AdCom. Whom would you rather admit to your school: Someone with a 3.8/173 who wrote a so-so essay that may or may not have been thoroughly proofread and submitted letters of rec from professors that may or may not have known the applicant well, or the 3.8/173 with the carefully crafted essay and targeted LORs? If you have think for very long about your answer, I'm scared for your apps.
Although your GPA and LSAT score will definitely be the linchpins of your application, there are other aspects that will come into play. These are the other parts that will matter:
- Your personal statement. This is the creative essay you will write and include with your application. Many students write about why they want to attend law school; while this is definitely a worthwhile topic, it is not necessarily what you must write about. The personal statement is the one part of the application that you have complete control over, which is why it is also one the most important after your numerical indicators. It shows law schools your writing abilities, judgment in selecting a topic, and ability to engage an audience. The University of Chicago Law School has some great tips on what they look for and what to watch out for an avoid in a personal statement. And so do I--here, here, and here.
- Your letters of recommendation. I would say that these are second in importance to the personal statement, although they are certainly not unimportant by any means. The LORs allow law schools to hear others talk about your academic, personal, and extracurricular achievements and abilities. AdComs can tell a lot from your letters, what is written in them, and who wrote them for you. If it is obvious that you chose someone that doesn't know you at all simply for the sake of having an impressive title attached to your recommender, then that speaks very poorly of you. If you chose someone who knows you extensively and wrote a glowingly positive letter filled with personal anecdotes, then that speaks highly of your choice. If you (God forbid) chose someone who writes a negative letter, then it calls into question your judgment (and negative letters are not as rare as you may think!). It's not just about what's in the letter, but also what can be surmised from it that matters. A good letter should be lengthy, overwhelmingly positive, and filled with stories that only someone you have worked with closely would be able to write. And do I have suggestions on how you can have great ones? Of course I do! You can find my tips here and here.
- Your résumé. This will tell law schools a number of things--What you were/are involved in, what you chose to showcase, how far you've risen within the leadership of any groups you are in, what you've done for employment, etc. It essentially tells the story of your life outside of the classroom. This is why it is important--it lets them have a glimpse into an area of your life that may not be addressed elsewhere (unless you choose to discuss a previous job or activity in your personal statement). Check out my take on résumés here.
- Your transcript. Although your GPA will be the primary element gleaned from your transcript, a number of other things can be surmised as well: Your major (and the relative difficulty of it), your grade trends (did they go up consistently? Did they start high and continue to stay elevated? Did they go down as you went through school?), and your course selection (is your transcript filled with elementary and introductory classes? Did you choose high-level courses?). Your transcript tells a story much broader than just your GPA. I break it down here, here, and here.
Although none of these elements will, on their own, hold as much weight as your GPA/LSAT combo, in the event that there are other qualified candidates with your same credentials (or in the event that you are a "splitter"--i.e., someone with a high LSAT but low GPA, or vice-versa), then these "softs" will play a much bigger role, and may even end up playing the determining role in your admissions decision.
There are a few others that could come into play (addenda, any additional essays), but the four above are the main ones.
Moral of the story? Everything matters. Pay as much attention to the rest of your application as you do to your GPA and LSAT score, and you'll be giving yourself the greatest chance possible to get into your top choice schools.
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