As a current student at Stanford Law School, I find myself frequently talking to current prospective law students wanting to know what they should be doing now to get into a top law school. My immediate response is always the same: strengthen your GPA and crush the LSAT.
A typical law school admissions application will include essays, letters of recommendation, and other personal information, but a student's undergraduate grade point average (GPA) and LSAT score are the two most important factors--by far--in a student's application. The LSAT (Law School Admissions Test) is the standardized test that law schools require for admissions, much like medical schools require the MCAT and business schools often require the GMAT. Law school admissions pay particular attention to the LSAT because it serves to put candidates on an equal playing field, whereas letters of recommendation and even GPAs can be hard to standardize across applicants.
Why do GPA and LSAT matter so much?
Admissions committees care about GPA and LSAT because, combined, these two factors make up for almost one-fourth of what goes into U.S. News and World Report's annual law school rankings. And whether formal or not, most admissions deans carry the significant burden that is helping their respective law schools maintain, or most often, improve their law school ranking. A higher ranking means, among other things, more perceived prestige. More perceived prestige leads to more applicants, which help to drive a lower acceptance rate (another weighted factor in the rankings), more application fees, better faculty, most likely a boost in donations from alumni, and hopefully more candidates with high GPAs and LSAT scores from which to choose. If you are the dean of admissions, you can't control the other factors that are part of the rankings, such as peer assessment and faculty resources, but crafting a class of students in such a way that serves to drive up the median GPA and median LSAT is largely within your power.
If I want to go to a top law school, what GPA and LSAT should I be aiming for?
This chart indicates the GPA and LSAT ranges for admitted students at the top 14 law schools this past academic year.
Students wanting to go to one of these schools should aim to be above median for both GPA and LSAT. For an admissions committee, this can be seen as a win-win. If, however, one of these factors is below median, it's important that you offset it. So, if your GPA, for example, is closer to the 25th percentile for a school, your LSAT should be closer to the 75th percentile for that same school.
Using this data, the Law School Admission Council (LSAC) website (www.lsac.org) can suggest target schools for applicants after putting in their own GPA and LSAT. In my experience, I found www.lawschoolnumbers.com to be much more useful. That website contains thousands of applicants' data from application cycles in the most recent years. Though the data is not comprehensive across all applicants, there are enough data points to provide compelling insights that allow prospective applicants to see how candidates with certain GPAs and LSAT scores have fared in recent admissions cycles.
What about these other things?
When I tell prospective law students that GPA and LSAT matter most, I often then get asked many of the following questions:
If I want to go to the best law school possible, should I not take hard classes then because it might hurt my GPA?
If you are taking a hard class because you think it will look good on your transcript when the admissions committee sees it, then don't take that class. A high GPA will catch their eye; hard classes won't.
So does that mean I should only take easy classes?
There is a ton to be gained individually and intellectually from taking challenging classes. I personally think that people shortchange their education when they avoid taking challenging classes. But again, if your motivation is to impress admissions, whether right or wrong, this is better done with a high GPA than with a transcript full of arguably difficult courses.
What about extracurricular activities and internships? Do those even matter?
No law school admissions dean is going to tell you that these things don't matter. But they pale in comparison to the weight that is given to your GPA and LSAT score. Your GPA and LSAT score will move the needle between acceptance and rejection; being president of the political affairs society won't.
If you want to join student council or do an on-campus internship because you think it will be personally enriching, help you get involved, push you to learn more about what interests you, etc., then do it! If you want to do these things, however, because you think it will impress admissions and offset your poor GPA, then you're better off spending more time in the library raising that GPA.
Given two candidates with comparable GPAs and LSAT scores, yes, activities and internships are likely to provide an edge; however, these factors alone can not overcome a poor GPA or LSAT score. These pursuits are often very valuable for students, but that value is unlikely to be unlocked in the form of a law school admissions boost.
So what now?
Each student must figure out for him- or herself what is to be made of the undergraduate experience. More often than not, the decisions to be made entail multiple, sometimes opposing, motivations, each of which deserve their own personal and thoughtful consideration. But if we're talking about what it takes to get into a top law school, then students should remember: there's your GPA and your LSAT score, and then, far down the line, everything else.