Without a doubt, the undergraduate GPA and LSAT score are among the most important factors in the law school admission decision making process. As numerical indicators, they are fairly objective; however, this does not mean all is lost if one of these is off the mark for your target school.
This is particularly true of the undergraduate GPA, even if you have already completed your undergraduate degree. While one cannot undo a poor past academic performance, there are multiple strategies to mitigate it. In some cases an academic addendum might be appropriate. Applicants might seek to soften the blow through smart letter of reference writer selection. In certain circumstances, an effective strategy might be building an alternate transcript.
Creating an alternate transcript – or demonstrating another set of grades post-bachelors degree – can provide law schools with evidence that one’s past academic performance may not be the most accurate indicator of current academic potential and the law school may attach less weight to the past grades. The effectiveness of this strategy will depend on a number of factors.
Randomly taking courses in various disciplines or taking a couple 100-level courses or an introductory golf course will do nothing to help your case, even if you receive A’s in the classes. Choose your courses wisely with the following considerations in mind:
- Take courses that allow you to develop a thorough knowledge-base of a particular area. Just as there is no one ‘pre-law’ undergraduate curriculum, there is no prescribed list for acceptable post-bacc coursework. However, the coursework should interest you and should ideally complement the themes and ‘wow’ factors of your application. So, if you want to get into patent law, for example, engineering classes might be in your best interest. Other applicants might be best advised to steer toward the liberal arts end of the spectrum.
- Take courses that will strengthen the skills most critical to success in law school. Senior Consultant Amy Johnson says that while law school admission committees don’t “discount the rigor or value of hard science or business courses, they have to be certain that a law school applicant can write well and has the ability to read and comprehend large volumes of material, as well as articulate well-reasoned perspectives or conclusions from that material.”
- Look to correct a perceived deficiency of your undergraduate record. Did you perform poorly in English literature classes? Logic? While certainly it doesn’t make sense to retake bio-chemistry classes if this is what is pulling your undergraduate GPA down, if your past academic troubles manifest themselves in coursework more closely related to law school (writing, etc.) then some additional courses to assuage these concerns might make sense.
- The rigor of the coursework and the reputation of the institution count. Amy emphasizes that “law schools want assurance that you are taking challenging coursework which allows you to be engaged in classroom discussions with your professors and classmates – just as you will be doing in law school.”
Letters of Recommendation
Chances are that an applicant who needs to strengthen an academic record through additional course work does not have past professors lining up to write letters of recommendation. Taking additional courses can provide the perfect second chance to secure one. Begin classes from day one with an eye on creating this opportunity. Participate in class discussions; visit professors during office hours to discuss projects and exam results. Your goal is to create a story that shows you are a different student than the one reflected in your undergraduate GPA.
Depending upon your particular situation, a good way to reinforce an alternate transcript may be to have a testimonial through a recent letter of recommendation by a university faculty member to back that up. In this case, the faculty member writing the letter should be made thoroughly aware by the applicant of the role that his or letter will play in the application.
Commit Yourself 100% to Success the Second Time Around
Mediocre post-bacc work will not do anything to mitigate a poor undergraduate GPA; if anything, it will create greater doubt as to your ability to handle the academic rigors of law school. If you decide to pursue an additional semester or two of coursework, be sure that you have the time and motivation to do it well.
An alternate transcript can sometimes be an effective strategy in correcting a deficiency in past academic performance. It is worth noting, however, that additional course work, will not change the undergraduate GPA as calculated by LSDAS, and therefore will not be factored in to the index calculation used by law schools. The schools will certainly see the academic work, as they will receive a copy of the transcript; however, applicants are often disappointed when they learn that the GPA side of the index calculation cannot be changed once an undergraduate degree has been conferred. In this regard, alternate transcripts can be considered as ‘soft factors.’
Additionally, not all schools weigh post-bacc coursework equally in the decision-making process. The circumstances of an individual applicant will further dictate the effectiveness of this particular strategy, even within the same school’s applicant pool. Accordingly, the presentation of information regarding post-bacc coursework should be carefully planned and executed.
Amy recommends that applicants submit an addendum to explain post-bachelor’s degree academic work. “The addendum is an extremely important document. It allows you to explain why your grades were low during college, serves to clarify why you completed post-bacc work after you’ve already received a bachelor’s degree, and allows you to ‘make your case’ to the committee.”