Applying to Law School
A general information packet for interested juniors and seniors

Introduction

As an undergraduate, you should not be overly concerned with law school application until the second term of your junior year.  Any real attention paid to it prior to that time is probably wasted energy and only anxiety-producing.  Needless to say, some attention should be paid to your grades, which will be pretty well established by the end of your junior year.

By that time, you should take stock of your general qualifications for law school application.  Foremost at that time would be your overall grade average (GPA). As a general rule, you should maintain a minimum overall grade average of 3.30 by the end of your first term in your senior year to be eligible for at least second tier law schools, and your grades over your junior and senior years should reflect a gradual increase rather than a leveling off or gradual decline. A large number of students change majors after their freshman or sophomore years produced mediocre grades, and their real current performance abilities would be reflected in their most recent semesters. Naturally, your score on the Law School Admissions Test (LSAT, discussed below) is equally if not more important, and a higher percentile scoring on the LSAT can in some circumstances compensate for a lower overall GPA. But you should not count on that, especially if you have specific law schools you are interested in. Students with an overall grade average below 3.30 will have to do very well on the LSAT to move into consideration at many law schools and might well also consider alternative avenues of graduate study or career directions, or look into paralegal programs. Solid, reputable post-graduate paralegal programs, such as the one offered by Duquesne, are also fairly competitive - a 3.00 GPA is about the minimum for applying to those types of programs.

An overall GPA of 3.30 or above will place you into minimal consideration only. Most competitive undergraduates have a GPA in the 3.50-3.70 range and have a fairly diversified academic background, having completed a dual major, a minor, a certificate program, or a study abroad experience, and are active in campus organizations However, a high GPA will get you nowhere if you have mediocre score on the LSAT. A standard rule might be that a minimum of 50th percentile would be needed for application to the least competitive law schools.  Law schools in Pennsylvania tend to require somewhat higher minimum than that - around the 65th-to-85th percentile.

Don't be fooled by rumors that despite poor grades, someone got into law school because he had 'pull.' Basically your grades and LSAT scores place you into consideration.  If you don't have the minimum levels of either, it doesn't matter if you are class president, dorm queen, or have a father on the Board. In fact, admissions committees tend to establish their minimum application thresholds over a period of years as a predictor of first-year law school performance. Granted, standardized tests like the LSAT do not reveal the ‘whole person' or how one might respond to the academic demands of first year law school, and that is why a number of law schools place greater marginal  emphasis on grade performance and rigor of course selection. All this should dissuade you from hoping that a sudden and perhaps unexpectedly high LSAT score would overcome a three years of modest grades. Truth be known, there is often a pretty good correlation between one's grade profile (assuming it reflects a range of rigorous courses) and one's LSAT score, and unless the LSAT scores is fairly high, a law school admissions committee is unlikely to give more consideration to grade performance, course rigor, curriculum diversity, or other intangibles such as working part-time or high student activity responsibilities. Most admissions committees value a minimum threshold score on the LSAT, and while they may admit a candidate with a higher LSAT and a lower grade profile, they are less likely to admit a candidate with a lower LSAT and a higher grade profile.


Taking and interpreting the LSAT 

The LSAT has been changed a number of times over the last two decades. Most recently it consists of five 35-minute sections of multiple-choice questions. Four of the five sections contribute to the test taker's score. The unscored (fifth) section, commonly referred to as the variable section, typically is used to pretest new test questions. The placement of this section will vary. A 35-minute writing sample is administered at the end of the test, however LSAC does not score the writing sample, but rather sends copies of the writing sample to all law schools to which you apply.

The LSAT is designed to measure skills that are considered essential for success in law school: the reading and comprehension of complex texts with accuracy and insight; the organization and management of information and the ability to draw reasonable inferences from it; the ability to think critically; and the analysis and evaluation of the reasoning and arguments of others. The three types of multiple-choice questions in the LSAT are:

  • Questions Testing Reading Comprehension - These questions measure the ability to read, with understanding and insight, examples of lengthy and complex materials similar to those commonly encountered in law school. The Reading Comprehension section contains four sets of reading questions, each consisting of a selection of reading material, followed by five to eight questions that test reading and reasoning abilities.
  • Questions Testing Analytical Reasoning - These questions measure the ability to understand a structure of relationships and to draw logical conclusions about that structure. You are asked to reason deductively from a set of statements and rules or principles that describe relationships among persons, things, or events. Analytical Reasoning questions reflect the kinds of complex analyses that a law student performs in the course of legal problem solving.
  • Questions Testing Logical Reasoning - These questions assess the ability to analyze, critically evaluate, and complete arguments as they occur in ordinary language. Each Logical Reasoning question requires the test taker to read and comprehend a short passage, then answer a question about it. The questions are designed to assess a wide range of skills involved in thinking critically, with an emphasis on skills that are central to legal reasoning. These skills include drawing well-supported conclusions, reasoning by analogy, determining how additional evidence affects an argument, applying principles or rules, and identifying argument flaws.

Most importantly, the sections are not testing your knowledge but rather your reasoning skills under time constraints. Half of the test is devoted to logical reasoning, and repetitious practicing of sample tests, and perhaps taking a course in logic may help you prepare. The online site My LSAT Test provides a comprehensive walk-through of the exam, its various sections, sample exams, and test-taking strategies.

Law schools strongly urge you take the first LSAT offered in the testing cycle, usually June between your junior and senior years, and make application during the fall of your senior year. Scores from the June LSAT will be sent to you by early August, allowing you several alternative courses of action:

I would be the first to admit that the LSAT may not indicate whether you are capable of doing law school work.  Some individuals perform brilliantly on standardized exams and others do not.  The point is that the LSAT is what law school admissions committees use to interpret the capabilities of potential first-year law students, as a hedge against trying to interpret different grade averages from different undergraduate colleges and universities.


Whether to go to law school, and if so, which one?

Students with excellent qualifications and students with marginal qualifications always end up asking the same question at the end - which school do I really want to go to?  For students with highly competitive qualifications, the choices are wider, and they should consider such things as (a) size of student body, (b) availability of specialty courses, (c) opportunity for work experience while in school, (d) placement patterns for graduates, and (e) sheer cost. Also a major consideration: the setting and climate of the law school -- Is it small and self-contained? Is it within a major state university? Is it in a warm clime? Is it near the shore? Does it have good snow for skiing? These may seem frivolous issues, but remember, you'll be there for three years - this is a major relocation. For this reason, I strongly urge you to visit each school in which you have a serious interest while it is in session, talk to faculty and students, get a feel for each place before you make a decision.

Students with less competitive qualifications should not be dismayed, since a number of good law schools will consider them competitive. While their options definitely will be narrower, there are more than 150 accredited law schools in the United States, and several are looking for students with those qualifications. This is even more the case in recent years as the law market has shrunk noticeably and fewer college graduates are taking the LSAT or applying to law schools. Law school enrollments have dropped an estimated 20 per cent in size as fewer students matriculate, especially in the less competitive schools (the top 25 are still full and have hefty waiting lists), and law schools have responded in three ways: (1) to expand the marketability of their graduates by offering more skills- and experience-based courses in the curriculum, (2) by reducing the size of the entering freshman class, thus making admission more competitive in those schools, and/or (3) they have reduced the baseline numbers on minimally-acceptable LSAT scores and grade averages, thus making admission possible if not likely in some schools that five years ago would have rejected their admission outright.

To turn away from law school because "the market is terrible" implies you are making the choice of graduate study direction based on what the market for its graduates will be 3-5 years in the future. How can we know that? If you really want to study law, and many still do, then by all means explore it - carefully - and do not artificially narrow your options. More often than not, a student artificially narrows the schools he/she is interested in for non-academic reasons peculiar to him/her, e.g. by having a preference for staying close to home, having a life-long dream of attending a particular school, etc. On occasion, I have seen a student who wanted to stay in-state apply only to Pittsburgh, Dickinson, Duquesne, and Temple, and then get rejected at all of them, never once considering schools in neighboring states or outside the region at which his/her chances for admission were much better.  If there are only certain law schools you are willing to consider, then you may get yourself into a box if you don't gain admission and don't have a fall-back position. The question becomes - do you want to go to law school or only go to a particular law school? Look around!  There are many good law schools in many parts of the United States.

Finally, the law schools you apply to should be reasonable choices.  Applying to a law school that is far beyond the range of your credentials is often a waste of your time (filling out applications), the time of professors (from whom you request recommendation letters), and money (each application must be accompanied by an application processing fee which some schools waive to attract application by more competitive students).  Carefully consider whether you would actually attend the law schools to which you apply - if you are accepted at Yale or Penn, are you prepared to actually matriculate and bear the costs of law school education there over three years? And if not, why are you applying -- just to see if you can get in? Be prepared to justify your choices to professors and parents since they are the ones bearing some of the burden of your applications.

Selection of which law schools to apply to is a tricky business. Reputation, cost, location, size are all considerations. Curriculum is also a key variable - all law schools offer the same basic core of courses, but what else do they offer, particularly in the second and third years? If you really do your homework, some factors will often stand out, including:


The Pitt-Johnstown record of law school acceptance

We have had a good record of law school admissions for those students applying to schools at which they are competitive. Are Pitt-Johnstown students competitive for law school admissions? The answer is yes. The table below will give you an idea of the range of law schools that have offered admission to Pitt-Johnstown graduates and each successful applicant's LSAT percentile:

Law schools that have admitted Pitt-Johnstown graduates 1975-2016*

36th-52nd %                        53rd-80th %                        80th+ %

Delaware State                        Pittsburgh                            Northeastern
Dayton                                    Duquesne                            Virginia
Toledo                                    Dickinson/PennState            Pennsylvania
Ohio Northern                     American                                Texas
Tulsa                                     Syracuse                                  Notre Dame
Thomas Cooley                   Florida                                        Harvard
California Western               Temple                                   Hastings (CA)
Widener Commonwealth      Columbia                               Georgetown
Akron                                   Wake Forest                              Duke
                                              Case Western Reserve            Michigan
                                              Washington and Lee              Cornell
                                              Richmond
                                              Albany
                                              Suffolk
                                              New England
                                              Western New England

    *listed by applicant's LSAT percentile in the year the test was taken


An appropriate timetable for applying to law schools

In June during the summer prior to your senior year

The best strategy is to take the LSAT in the summer (June) sitting. Registration for the current cycle (June through the following April) LSAT is available on-line at www.lsac.org, the mega-site for the Law School Admission Council (LSAC).   The mechanics of how to register for the exam and for LSAC's Credential Assembly Service (CAS) are all explained on that website.  When you register for the LSAT, you can also register for the CAS and send them an official transcript of your grades through end of junior year. CAS will also compile your letters of recommendation as well. If your grades are not as high as you would hope by the end of your junior year but you believe the fall semester grades from your senior year will improve your application, do not send your transcript in until after fall semester grades are posted. CAS will automatically respond to any law school to which you have applied  and send your Report. So be prepared for the costs of application -- $180 for LSAT, $175 for CAS, and $30 each for reports sent to law schools, not counting application fees charged by individual schools.

Note that LSAT preparation courses, which basically walk you through the mechanics of the exam, the logic behind each of the sections of questions, how to prepare for and anticipate answering these types of questions, and a series of practice exams, are very useful, but most area universities no longer offer such courses. You have several options. First and easiest, check out the LSAT questions site linked above - this is a good place to start, as it will expose you to the types of questions you will see. Second, if you want to make the investment, the best, most intensive prep course is offered by Kaplan (or check out PowerScore ) but it tends to be expensive. Students have reported that the Princeton Review prepares one for basic levels of competitiveness but not at the higher levels, especially in certain sections of the LSAT. Third, you can also study from old LSAT exams available from the LSAC site (Official LSAT PrepTests in four versions) or in books sold commercially (like Barron's). One recent graduate reported great success in checking the message board at www.top-law-schools.com for help in preparing for the LSAT, gauging which prep courses might be most useful, etc. Remember, your LSAT score will largely dictate where and even if you gain admission - preparing for the LSAT is therefore critical to good placement. The more you are committed to preparing for the LSAT, the better the outcome is likely to be.

Also, if it is not possible for you to take the June LSAT (you may be participating in a study abroad program or working full-time), you can simply register for the September exam. If you put off taking the LSAT until December or February, you risk not getting your score back soon enough to adjust your school options or to plan to retake the exam. Also, most law schools have 'rolling admissions,' meaning they admit students progressively starting usually in December or January. If you delay taking (or retaking) the LSAT until February or later, the number of seats available shrinks and the competitiveness for them increases. In certain circumstances, a 'lag' year may be appropriate, i.e. sitting out the year after graduation to study for a retake of the LSAT, optimally with a prep course.

In August at the start of your senior year

Carefully consider your LSAT score and the kinds of law schools it may qualify you for.  If you want to retake the LSAT in October, check the deadlines for that in early September. If your LSAT score is satisfactory to you, consider the various law schools you may be interested in by looking at their recent catalogs on-line and begin strategizing your application process (below). You may also want to purchase the  ABA-LSAC Official Guide to ABA-Approved Law Schools with your LSAT registration.  All the information in the Guide is actually available on-line, including LSAT and grade average profiles from each school's most recently admitted freshman class, allowing you to check how competitive your own profile is against their pattern of admissions. You can then cross-reference this information against each law school's website, which can be directly accessed through the LSAC link mentioned before. You can also refer to the ‘geographical guide' in the Guide, a series of regional maps of all law schools across the country, and make a list of law schools that match your interests and qualifications, and their admissions minimums. At this point you will also want to write to or email each of the law schools on your select list and request for information, applications, and financial aid opportunities. You may discover that on-line application may qualify you for a waiver of the usual application fee.

There are three useful on-line sources of information that will greatly assist you in strategizing at which law schools you might have a better chance of admission. The first is www.top-law-schools.com, mentioned above. It gives you access to a full range of information on individual law schools. Second, a good provider of admissions profiles (numbers, rankings, graphs of applicants recently admitted, etc.) for each law school in which you might have an interest is www.lawschoolnumbers.com. If you do your homework on this site, you can get a fairly accurate profile or pattern of admissions qualifications, especially at the margins. Finally, check out www.lawschoolpredictor.com, a site that allows you to calculate your LSAC standardized grade point average and enter it with your LSAT score into a databank that will then list a probable decision from each law school, ranging from DENY, to WEAK CONSIDER, to CONSIDER, to STRONGLY CONSIDER, to ADMIT. Be careful how you read these listings - a school that comes up "strongly consider" is not a guarantee that it may admit you, nor is it a guarantee that you may be remotely interested in attending that school. Again, do your homework on schools you believe are in your range and consider their tangibles and intangibles. And do not necessarily confine your range to just the 'best bets' - if a school is listed as "weak consider" but in many respects is very desirable from your own point of view, put it on your short list anyway.

In November of your senior year

Winnow your list of potential law schools down to 8-10 that cover a range between 'probable' or 'sure-bet' acceptance (see above) to those at which you have a more marginal chance.  Process your application forms to a range of those schools, and identify them to CAS to have your credentials sent to them. Personally solicit letters of recommendation from appropriate faculty and others - two or three at most. Most law schools accept letters only through CAS, so letter-writers will be electronically uploading their recommendation letters addressed "To whom it may concern" directly to CAS rather than to each law school individually. Try to have all this done and your own application forms sent in by Thanksgiving if possible. Several cautions:

In January in your senior year

In the first week of January, it might be a good idea to phone CAS to verify your application file is complete and has been sent to those schools you requested. You could contact the Admissions Office of those schools you are most interested in to verify that your file has been received and is complete.  Most schools will not (on their own initiative) notify you one way or the other, and will not even consider your application until it is complete. Often the missing item is a letter of recommendation. The burden is yours to be sure the application is complete and ready for the admissions committee to consider.

During March of your senior year

Admissions committees will let you know as soon as a decision is made. Some will do so early (sometimes in January or February) if they use rolling admissions for those who clearly above a school's minimum threshold for admission based on a composite LSAT and GPA score.  Other programs start their admissions consideration process in February or early March. Marginal applicants usually have to wait -- often until May, June or even July, and during that time they may receive a 'wait-list' notification or no communication from the law school at all.  If you are offered admission to a law school, you will be given a deadline for accepting and submitting a matriculation deposit (usually in the $300 range) to hold your spot. If you are put on a wait-list at a school you prefer to the one that has already admitted you and asked for a deposit, then putting the deposit down is an insurance policy - a wait-list school may admit you in August, weeks before you re scheduled to start classes at the other school.


The role of the prelaw adviser

The prelaw adviser at Pitt-Johnstown provides a number of services, mostly in the area of counseling. He counsels all undergraduates on a walk-in basis during the academic year, juniors preparing to register for the LSAT and considering LSAT preparation courses, and seniors selecting law schools to which they will apply. All students registering for the LSAT will be asked on their registration form if they wish their LSAT score sent to their Pitt-Johnstown prelaw Adviser as well, and many say 'yes', and a few (perhaps fearing the embarrassment of a possible low LSAT score or simply not wanting anyone to know they are applying) say 'no'.

There are two types of critical advising the prelaw adviser can provide involve:

        (1) how a student can adjust his/her undergraduate course selection to build skills that will serve him/her well either in the LSAT itself or in first-year law school. This would ordinarily include emphasizing courses of analytical reading and extensive writing, considering extra-mural (off-campus) academic experiences, especially study abroad, and being extremely academically conscientious - not just 'getting by' with grades that are 'good enough.'

        (2) which law schools fit the student's competitiveness profile, or even their social comfort level. Regardless of one's 'life-long dream' of attending one law school or another, law schools have a competitiveness threshold they adhere to fairly strictly. While competitiveness has lessened a bit in the past five years, it varies from school to school and students will be advised to consider each school carefully in terms of competitiveness, location, social fit, and sheer cost. In many cases, the prelaw Adviser is not a student's academic or major adviser and students should seek him out. A final caution - the prelaw adviser is simply an adviser - he does not have all the answers and cannot do the homework for you. He can show you where to look and advise you what to consider. But the basic choices rest with you.

Finally, any good prelaw adviser has an obligation to be candid with students, not merely along the lines of how competitive or noncompetitive they may be, but also and perhaps more importantly giving close scrutiny to a student's motivation in wanting to attend law school. Even among the most generally competitive (top) students, law school is not for everyone. It is a three-year vocational training that is, as many graduates would admit, a grind and rarely exciting or philosophical. All students, and especially those who have aspired to law school admission for years, should also consider other options - not as a fallback but as an actual career direction.

The prelaw adviser at Pitt-Johnstown is:

    Dr. James R. Alexander
    Office: Krebs 104
    Phone: 814-269-2983
    Email: zander@pitt.edu


August 2017