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September 13, 2005

Admissions: Does undergrad GPA really count for non-traditional applicants?

Reader “Doc” is requesting your input on the following question:

How much does undergrad GPA matter in getting into a top law school? I goofed off during my BA and got a 2.6 GPA in English. But I went on to get a masters degree (3.78GPA) and a PhD in English (3.8GPA), I have numerous publications and I've been a visiting assistant prof of English for the last couple years. (I graduated with the BA ten years ago, now.)

I fully expect to pull a 170+ on the LSAT. Assuming I do, will I be able to get into a top-10, maybe top-15 law school, or will that BA GPA come back to haunt me?

I don't really know the answer to this question, but I would say that any school that's going to care about your undergrad GPA after you've accomplished so many other educational goals is a school you shouldn't really care about getting into. Sadly, my impression of law school admissions is that the process is often so rigidly processed that they really do just punch in the numbers (undergrad gpa and LSAT score) and weed from there. So my guess is it's going to matter, even though that's ridiculous.

The more important question is: What the hell is an English PhD thinking to jump ship from academia into law school? Are you really really really sure you want to do that, Mr. Doc? I'm thinking you're going to be sorry, but I could just be projecting... ;-)

Posted by mowabb at September 13, 2005 09:24 PM

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My instinct would be to say that, yes, it will matter but you can overcome it.

You have to start by being That Guy. You know, the one who calls admissions offices and makes sure they know your name. The one who goes to law school fairs and talks to the school reps and makes sure they remember you. The guy who writes a different essay for every application, one that really stresses all the cool stuff you've done. The guy who knows the strengths and weakness of every program he's applying to and can articulate them to the admissions staff in informational or admissions interviews.

In the end, my guess would be that there will be schools you feel you "should" have gotten into, given your grad school performance and LSAT, that you won't get into simply because of yield factors. (These will typically be larger schools with enormous numbers of applicants.) And there will probably be schools you will get into that you considered a long shot -- these will be the schools that really do take that "holistic" approach they all talk about.

As I see it, the most important thing in getting into a top school with a blemish on your record is to know WHY you are applying to that school. Do not apply to Harvard if you think you will be miserable at Harvard. How will you come to such a conclusion? RESEARCH. Don't apply to any school you would not be happy attending, unless you plan to try and play the scholarship game (playing offers off multiple schools; a tricky game to play, i might add). If you know why you want to attend a certain school, it will be reflected in your application and it will make you memorable to admissions committees.

Posted by: kristine at September 13, 2005 11:48 PM

I am, arguably, a non-traditional law student (UofMichigan). I was 48 when I got accepted to law school after having had a lengthy business career and having gotten an MBA 10 years after I finished undergrad and 15 years before coming to law school. My undergrad GPA was good, but not great. Worse than that, however, was the fact that I went to a no-name state college (Metropolitan State College). I spoke with the admissions officer in advance of applying and she told me that they would still look at my undergrad work and GPA, but that it would carry much less weight than it might otherwise because of the total package that I submitted.

I got in.

Posted by: Denise at September 15, 2005 12:16 AM

I was a non-traditional law student back in the mid '80's. In the early '70's I dropped out of college without formally withdrawing and earned 2 "F"'s and a "C" that semester. (Even I wonder how I got the "C".)

I aced the LSATs which were on a scale of 1-50 at that time, scoring, if I recall correctly, a 47 or 48.

In had some good business experience after college, and was older and a woman which was important at that time to admissions' people.

I addressed the GPA issue in my essay and for some reason got into my top three choices.

Put it on the table and go for it.

Posted by: Jane at September 15, 2005 11:44 AM

Thanks for the input, guys.

I've talked to quite a few people about this, and it appears the consensus is that the undergrad GPA won't really matter so much anymore, except maybe to a few schools that remain obsessed with numbers (NYU, Penn, Northwestern -- these are some of the offenders, from what I hear).

Going in to this, I thought maybe a couple top-10 schools (Virginia, Cornell) would be my longshots, and that I'd probably get in to a few top-25 schools. (Wash U seems, from what I can tell, to be a sure thing so long as I get 170+ on the LSAT.) But after talking with law students, law profs, and yes, several admissions offices, it seems that I could bump my "longshots" up to the likes of Yale and Chicago, and that I can expect to have a reasonably good shot at several top-20 schools.

Good to hear.

Thanks again for the input...

Posted by: Doc at September 18, 2005 11:07 AM

I'm 37, have a PhD in the biosciences from a top-tier school, have first-author publications in top-tier journals, popular articles in news stand magazines, letters of rec from tenure professors and other prominent personages saying I walk on water... but I have a B+ undergrad GPA and scored 70th percentile on the LSAT. Two years in a row I got waitlisted at every school that didn't outright reject me (applied to about a dozen in the US News "top 100", spanning groups A-C according to a table I found on Boston U? Web site). I got two offers the second year from a couple schools south of the US News median, one from the only school I actually visited, and another from a school that I only applied to at the last minute, and to which I remarked in my application that I was certainly moving to their town come-what-may for the sake of my spouse's career, and so my choice would be them or that other law school in the neighborhood (they admitted me with a scholarship). Never got any feedback from any admissions office but for offers and rejections, so I have no idea what they made of me, except I do have a vague sensation of having been hit with a blunt instrument. (Why so middling on the LSAT? Can't do those damn games to save my life. Lost most points there and a few on the reading comprehension, where I had the bad luck of getting a passage that was on my PhD dissertation topic and so I comprehended it better than the test writers did)

Posted by: Anon at September 20, 2005 12:51 AM