Next to your LSAT score, your GPA is the most important thing on your law school application. Like it or not, those two numbers hold the greatest weight when it comes to how likely you are to get into a particular school. Unlike your LSAT score, though, your GPA has another facet to it: Your transcript. Whether your transcript has a positive or negative effect on your application, though, depends on what's on it.
Let's take a look at what your transcript can say about you.
Before we start, though, a disclaimer: Not everyone's transcript will be analyzed. I would imagine that the people who run the greatest risk (or have the greatest chance, depending on how you look at it) of having their transcript looked at fall into a few categories:
- Splitters (e.g., those with a high LSAT/low GPA or low LSAT/high GPA combo).
- Those with a good GPA that could have been a great GPA had they not messed up one or two semesters.
- Those with a lower GPA but who undertook a non-traditional (for law school) major, such as a hard science or math.
- Those who attended more than one undergraduate institution.
- Non-traditional applicants, particularly those that have been out of school for a while and may not have had the best GPA when they were in school.
If you're a PoliSci major (or any other "traditional" law school major) with a 3.5+ GPA, I don't think your transcript will be scrutinized in any fashion. You can rest easy.
For those of you that will get scrutinized, though, let's see what the different aspects of your transcript may say.
Your grade trend
What pattern do your grades follow? Do they start off strong, and go down as you go progress through college? Do they start off weak, and get stronger? Do they start off weak, and stay there? Do they fluctuate up and down throughout your college career? All of these different scenarios will say different things about you.
Those that start off with strong grades that get weaker may be telling law schools that they can't handle more advanced courses (since, typically, college students start of with easier, general courses during their freshman and sophomore years, and take more advanced, specialized courses in their junior and senior years).
Those with grades that are weak at the start but get stronger as they go have a good case they can make about their potential and maturity. They could easily tell law schools that they had a hard time when they started off college (for whatever reason: It was your first time on your own, you went crazy for a semester, etc.), but then got their act together and excelled when it mattered most: When the classes were tougher, the sections smaller, and the material more advanced. This also looks much better than those with a downward grade trend, since you'll have your highest grades be the most recent.
Those with weak grades that never get better have a lot of explaining to do. Hopefully, they have an LSAT score that belies these grades, or they pursued a major is that is known to be objectively very difficult (and preferably at a university that has a reputation for being exceptional in that field). Neither of these makes the transcript look better (after all, a low GPA is a low GPA, and if someone comes along with a higher GPA in the same discipline, they will be looked upon much more favorably), but they make take some edge off. However, a weak GPA is never a good thing, no matter how many reasons you can point to for it. If law school is your eventual goal, then aim for a 3.5+. No real two ways about it.
Those with grade trends all over the map probably have it worse than any of the other trends presented above, because they can be taken to be an unknown quantity. There's no rhyme or reason for their performance--sometimes they do well, sometimes they don't. Class types, subjects, times of the year--none of these seem to make any difference or create a pattern. Law schools might look at this grade trend and wonder--which student will they get? They one on the upward grade trend, or the one that downward spirals? If you have a trend like this one, specially if it's combined with a less-than-stellar GPA, you will definitely want to address it in an addendum.
Your class selection
Ah, the great debate over class selection. There are some that say that it doesn't matter which major or which classes you take, as long as you get that coveted 4.0. Needless to say, I'm on the dissenting camp. I believe that an "A" in Underwater Basketweaving will not be considered the same as an "A" in Advanced Calculus. Call me old-fashioned: I judge a person's academic prowess and potential based on the difficulty of their courses--and I'm willing to bet AdComs do the same. I'll go further and says that an "A" in Underwater Basketweaving wouldn't hold a candle to even a "B-" in Advanced Calculus.
The moral of the story: Don't pick classes because they look easy. Pick classes because they complement your major and will challenge you. And then do well in them. If you end up doing not-so-well in them, at least you can fall back on the "it was a truly difficult course" excuse. You can't do that if you get a "C" in Dog Walking 101.
There's a lot of chatter about what constitutes a "good" major if you're planning on going to law school. I'm of the opinion that any major that is reading-, research-, and writing-intensive is good, even if it's not in the realm of the "traditional" law school majors (PoliSci, Econ, English, etc.). People with notoriously difficult majors (Chemistry, Physics, Biology, Math, Engineering, etc) will get a little more leniency if their grades aren't stellar. Not only have professors in these disciplines been found to be tough graders, the subjects are also tough in and of themselves.
On the other hand, much like with class selection, those that take the painless way out major in the super-easy just for the sake of an easy "A" may also be looked upon not as favorably. Above all, law schools want to see that you can handle the rigor of law school classes, and that you are ready for the academic intensity that they will entail. Yes, your major should be interesting and easy for you to be engaged in--but it should also speak to your academic potential.
Your major GPA vs. your overall GPA
Some students have a high major GPA, and a low overall GPA, or viceversa. This can be due to a number of things, but you should be prepared for what this major vs. overall GPA scenario might say about you. If your major is, for example, in a hard science, and you did very well in it, but did very poorly in the less-scientific/more right-brain classes outside of your major, law schools may see you a risky candidate--law school classes, although they are certainly rooted in analysis, also require subjective and intuitive skills.
On the other hand, if you're overall GPA is a good one, but your major GPA is poor, that may say that you lose interest in delving deeply in a subject, and that you do better when you have multiple subjects to choose from and study at once. While that might say wonderful things about your personality, it may make law schools a little leery--law school (any professional or graduate program, really) is about advanced study in a single field. If you haven't shown that you can focus intensely on one subject and succeed in it, what will happen when you have to study nothing but law for three years?
Your undergraduate institution
I am a big believer in that your undergraduate institution really doesn't hold that much weight (if any) during the law school admissions process. Don't believe me? Check out Harvard Law's list of undergraduate institutions represented during the 2010-2011 school year. It's not just the Ivy League represented--there are plenty of state universities, small private colleges, and liberal arts institutions, too. Where you come from doesn't matter as much as how you did when you were there. Instead of worrying about the relative "prestige" of your institution, worry about doing well in your classes while you're there..
Some may say that taking the time to scrutinize your transcript like this borders on the obsessive and overly analytical. While I agree, to an extent, I also believe that knowing what all the different aspects of your application say about you is also incredibly beneficial. It is only by learning to listen to your application that you will be able to put together the most effective admissions package, and increase your overall chances of acceptance. Take the time to hear what your transcript (and all the other parts of your application) are saying, so that you can better harness their words.
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