The two factors that law schools weigh most heavily are your undergraduate GPA and your LSAT score. Of the two, some schools more heavily emphasize your undergraduate grades, while others pay more attention to your LSAT score. However, success in undergraduate school seems to translate to success in law school, because good study habits in one naturally carry over to the other. Law schools may also consider other factors like essays, recommendations, law-related work experience, gender, race, and disability status. Before talking about when and how law schools consider those other factors, though, you need to know something about how law schools make admissions decisions.
The Rolling Admission System
Most law schools use a rolling admissions system to fill each entering class. This means that a school begins offering admission to applicants well before its application deadline has passed. How is a school able to do this? Actually, figuring out who to make offers to before a school knows how many applications it will receive is a remarkably straightforward process. Every fall, each law school creates its own admission index, which is a number derived from a mathematical equation that combines the GPA, the LSAT, and a third constant. This admission index is the “magic number” for the law school for that year. If your index score is at or above the point where the law school has pegged its admission index, the school offers you admission. If your index score is below that point, some schools will put you into a “wait-and-see” category; you may or may not get offered admission, depending on the strength of the remaining applicant pool. Applicants whose index scores are below a certain cutoff point find letters of rejection waiting in the mail.
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The trick for a law school, of course, is figuring out exactly where to peg its admission index. Set the index too high, and the law school courts disaster. The result may be too few offers, resulting in empty seats in the class. Conversely, if the index is set too low, the school may find itself with too many students. Law schools would rather have too many students than too few. To make sure this happens, a school may set its admission index a bit on the low side at the beginning of an admission cycle. As the admission process continues, the school will tweak its admission index up or down (most likely, up) to fine-tune the number of students it admits. The thing to realize is that because any given school is likely to have a lower admission index early on, there may be some advantage to applying early. Not a big advantage, mind you, but any legitimate advantage you can get is worth taking.
As you can tell from this discussion, most admission decisions are based on GPAs, LSATs, and little else. So when do things like recommendations, essays, gender, race, and work experience get considered? The answer is that all law schools actively recruit minorities and women, groups that have long been underrepresented in the legal community. Being a member of one of these groups can only help, not hurt, your chances for law school admission. Law schools also do their best to offer reasonable accommodations to applicants with disabilities.
Recommendations, essays, work experiences and the like tend to get used as “tiebreakers”. For example, the top law schools get far more applications than they have available spots. Most of the applicants to these schools have very high GPAs and LSATs, so the schools must rely on the tiebreakers to distinguish one applicant from the next. Other law schools may also look to these tiebreakers as they approach the end of an admission cycle, if they have many more applications than openings to fill.
This does not mean that you should ignore or downplay the significance of these other admissions factors. If any part of your application is incomplete, a law school will not consider your application no matter how strong your GPA or LSAT. A sloppy application will not create the kind of impression you want, especially if the admission decision comes down to a close call between you and another applicant with roughly equal qualifications. It can be argued that law schools are interested in seeing just how well you are able to follow painstaking instructions and pay close attention to details.
In short, most law schools use an admission index based heavily upon GPA and LSAT scores to offer admissions in a rolling admission system. Because law schools would rather have too many first year students than too few, the admission index may be set lower early in an admission cycle. This means that there can be a slight advantage in applying to law schools early. Applicants to the top law schools have very high GPAs and LSAT scores, so other criteria must be used to distinguish one candidate from the next. All law schools are actively seeking to improve diversity in their ranks, so women and minorities are encouraged to apply.