Welcome to the Pre-Law Corner, a forum to publish and promote articles providing pre-law advice.
By Britta Redwood, Admit Advantage
Britta Redwood holds a J.D. from Yale Law School a B.A. in philosophy from Princeton University. At Yale Law School, she was editor-in-chief of the Yale Journal of International Law and member of the Allard K. Lowenstein International Human Rights Clinic. After law school, she worked at Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton LLP, a global law firm headquartered in New York. She went on to complete a human rights fellowship, and now is an Acting Assistant Professor, researching topics in international law.
As an underclassman interested in law school, you may be wondering what you can do right now to improve your prospects of getting into a law school you are excited to attend. Upperclassmen—for whom the LSAT and the law school application process may be around the corner—have a fairly clear-cut set of tasks in front of them. This article is meant to provide guidance for freshmen and sophomores to make the most of their college time so that they are well-prepared to apply to law school when the time is right. That said, it will also be helpful to upperclassmen who may decide to delay applying to law school until a year or two after graduation.
1. Earn the best grades you can
Earning a good GPA in college is extremely important to law schools. For the most part, law schools continue to use a student’s GPA as an initial indication of the strength of their candidacy, and as a proxy for their ability to perform in law school. Even as many schools have pulled out of the U.S. News and World Report’s rankings, average student GPAs tend to remain important in the rankings to schools that have not. While a lower-than-average GPA should never discourage an otherwise stellar candidate from applying to a given school, the higher a candidate’s GPA, the better their chances of being successfully admitted.
As a college student, then, you’d do well to focus on earning the best grades you can. Study hard, take exams and assignments seriously, and seek out help and tutoring when you need it. That said, you should never take classes just for an “easy A.” Law schools care deeply about candidates’ GPAs, but they will look beyond the numbers to your transcript itself. A “B” in an upper-level, challenging class may be more impressive than an “A” in a lower-level class with unexacting requirements. It is not that your transcript needs to be full of high-level classes in physics, but you won’t fool anyone by earning a 4.0 in classes that are widely considered to be less than challenging.
2. Choose your classes wisely
In addition to not choosing to take classes solely on the basis of whether they are easy to ace (see point #1 above), you should opt for classes that will help you improve your analytical skills and your ability to read closely. You can find these classes across a wide variety of subject areas, but classes in the social sciences and humanities may be particularly helpful. This is especially true for science and math majors, who may otherwise not have the opportunity to develop close reading skills in a classroom setting.
Equally helpful are classes that focus on writing, especially if you receive detailed feedback on your writing. Writing is such a critical skill for law students and lawyers, and law schools are looking for candidates that have solid skills in this area. Look for classes that require you to read closely and write frequently (whether that means response papers, essays, or a research project that stretches the length of the semester). Classes that feature a workshop element (requiring students to read and provide feedback on one another’s work) are helpful, especially if they include equally detailed feedback from an instructor. Such classes are likely also beneficial to future law school candidates because they are almost always small, meaning that they offer a real opportunity for your professor to get to know you and your work in greater depth. This will help you secure a more compelling letter of recommendation (see point #3).
3. Cultivate mentors
Law schools require letters of recommendation—usually as many as three or more. While it is acceptable for candidates with significant work experience to submit a letter of recommendation from an employer, all candidates must submit letters of recommendation from former professors as well.
The best letters of recommendation are specific and detailed, and so the people best-equipped to write them will know you well and be familiar with your work. Professors who teach small classes—like seminars or workshop-style classes—often fit this bill. Unlike professors who teach large lecture-style classes, they will have had occasion to hear from you and provide feedback on your work, and will have formed an impression of you as a student and as a person. Speaking up in class, going to office hours, and expressing interest in your professor’s research interests or field are all ways to deepen this relationship, and are likely to result in stronger letters of recommendation.
That said, professors and professional connections are meaningful beyond their ability to provide strong letters of recommendation. These individuals have likely seen other students apply to professional and graduate schools, and may have valuable advice for you as you embark on the process. They may be able to connect you with former students or interns who have been to law school, which may be helpful in navigating the application process and even the beginnings of law school career. For this reason, consider communicating your interest in law school to trusted professors and employers even before it is time to ask them for a letter of recommendation. If these individuals are interested in mentorship, they will be eager to help you and connect you to resources and advice—so let them!
4. Seek out extracurricular activities
Extracurricular activities (including internships and jobs) demonstrate that you are a well-rounded person, and that you have sought out opportunities to develop leadership and other professional skills that are difficult or impossible to learn at school. You might get engaged in community service initiatives, student publications, student government, on-campus activism, or even a political campaign. Choose activities that genuinely interest you, and in which you can engage and develop over time. Rather than filling your plate with lots of different commitments to things that you ultimately do not spend that long with, it is better to do fewer activities and commit more to them. You will have the opportunity to indicate how many hours per week you devoted to your extracurricular(s) on your law school application.
In addition to seeking out extracurricular activities during the school year (especially activities that you are happy to come back to year after year), consider an internship or an externship. Internships (during the summer or other school breaks) or externships (which are performed during the semester, often for class credit) are excellent opportunities to gain some professional experience and try something that may help you get a better sense of your interests and strengths. If you have the opportunity to work closely with an employer or a professional mentor, these opportunities can also lead to strong letters of recommendation.
Beyond their ability to enhance your law school application, extracurriculars will likely help facilitate your personal development and give you a better sense of what you may want to do in the future. They can help you begin creating professional networks that you may choose to draw on later. They can also help you speak with authority and conviction about what motivates your desire to go to law school when it’s time to begin your application.