What does it take to shine in law school? It comes down to strategy and mettle in the most private moments. Standing out requires the stamina to absorb hours of complex and contradictory material in one sitting. It involves writing and reviewing intricate outlines in anticipation of make-or-break final exams. Success hinges on maintaining the discipline to stick to a study schedule – all while consciously sharpening your reasoning skills. Even more, it demands the courage to raise your hand, along with the humility to ask for help.
Think of law school as an all-consuming Wall Street job that commands 100 or more hours of your week…for three years. It is a primer on time management and preparation, not to mention taking advantage of the expertise and resources around you. These habits and qualities may distance you from your peers, but they won’t necessarily guarantee you a spot in your target law school. Law school admissions, as the saying goes, is a numbers game. For adcoms, intangibles are often reflected in test scores and grades.
SAME LSAT SCORE – DIFFERENT VALUE BY SCHOOL
Why should numbers have anything to do with being a lawyer? You can make a case that lawyering is an art, one that relies on probing every angle, strategically framing facts, and maneuvering within the process. That calls for talent and judgment, not the ability to cram cases or master multiple choice, right? In reality, grade points and LSATs are strong predictors of success – particularly during 1L, where grades often determine the career paths and internships available to you. A GPA correlates to commitment and consistency, an indicator of motivation and habit. At the same time, an LSAT is an apples-to-apples comparison of students, one that shows if you possess the foundation to adopt new forms of thinking…and operate under intense pressure.
That’s not to say an indelible personal statement, imposing resume, or crackerjack recommendation won’t move your application to the top of the pile. In the end, those are all subjective instruments. A high LSAT or GPA delivers a certain comfort level to adcoms that, odds are, you can make it to graduation – and excel once you leave campus. At the same time, LSATs and GPAs account for 22.5% of a programs’ all-important U.S. News ranking. Law schools may take risks – but not enough to jeopardize their spot and risk the prestige and future applicants that come with it.
That’s why it’s important to know where you stand before you apply. That’s particularly true with LSAT scores. For example, let’s say you notched a 166 LSAT. Pretty impressive, right? Well, a 166 is perceived differently depending on the school. At Harvard Law, the median LSAT is a 173, with LSAT scores in the 25th to 75th percentile ranging from 170-175. Odds are, without a truly compelling backstory, you’ll get waitlisted or rejected. Now, look at this 166 LSAT from the vantage point of another private Ivy League program – Cornell Law. This program’s median LSAT is 167. At the same time, their scores run from 163-168 within the 25th to 75th percentile. In short, you are a more competitive candidate for admittance at Cornell Law than Harvard Law.
MORE APPLICATIONS MAKES YOUR NUMBERS MORE IMPORTANT
Now, take it a step further and apply to Boston University, which ranks 22nd overall with U.S. News. Here, the median score is 165, with your 166 being at the 75th percentile. With Boston University accepting nearly 30% of applicants, you enjoy better odds of landing a seat here than at Cornell Law (22.2%) or Harvard Law (15.8%). Better yet, as you’d rank among BU’s top students, you’re more likely to be offered a better financial aid package. At Boston University Law, 91.5% of students receive grants to the average tune of $25,000 – or roughly half of tuition – with the median grants running from $20,000-$30,000. In short, your LSAT score shows you where to devote your time to reap the biggest return. In this example, you can be a beggar at Harvard Law, a possibility at Cornell Law, or a darling at Boston University – all with the same LSAT.
LSAT score isn’t the only key index to weigh when deciding where to apply. Undergraduate GPA also plays a role, though it is often balanced against the quality of the school and the difficulty of the major. At the same time, the acceptance rate exposes your odds of making the cut overall, while annual tuition uncovers just how determined you are to attend law school if you’re stuck paying full ticket price.
That’s critical, as law school applications rose by 10.6% in 2016-2017. Fueled by a booming economy, cyclical increase in applications, and the proverbial “Trump bump,” law schools are now fielding more candidates than they have in nearly a decade. That means adcoms can be more picky in who they choose, which makes selecting the right program all the more important in coming years.
A 162 GETS YOU INTO THE 75TH PERCENTILE…AT THE BOTTOM OF THE TOP 50
Take LSATs. A standardized test, the LSAT, in many ways, resembles the dreaded final exam – a grade definer with results often relegated to a curve. Here, you’ll find patterns emerge. Within the T14 schools, for example, students score a 170 or better in the 75th percentile at all but one program (and Cornell Law’s median is 169 at this level). Among Top 25 law schools, 24 reported a score of 167 or above at the 75th percentile (Emory Law, the lone exception, came in at 166 – with Vanderbilt Law cracking the 170 realm). When you extend this to the Top 50, the lowest median at the 75th percentile – 162 – was shared by three schools. What’s more, medians don’t fall below 160 at this percentile until you reach 65th-ranked Missouri Law.
Bottom line: LSAT scores are extremely competitive across the board, with top performing students often clustered in packs where a point or two difference on the LSAT can shift applicant’s odds substantively. While you can still land an acceptance letter if you score below the 25th percentile, such offers are few-and-far-between.