Students often assume that the weight of their law school candidacies rests squarely on the shoulders of their LSAT score and undergraduate GPA. While it’s certainly true that these indicators are a bigger part of the equation than they were when you applied to college, most selective law schools take a holistic approach to the application process.
Therefore, presenting your background, interests, and accomplishments in a compelling, coherent, credible, and creative way can tip the balance of your admissions decision in either direction. If you’re keen to get into a top law school, we cover all you need to know about how to prepare and apply.
What is a Top Law School?
Before you start preparing, it’s worth knowing exactly what a top law school is. While it may seem logical that the best schools are the most well known, there is more to it than that. According to the American Bar Association (ABA), only those schools that have been ABA-approved are considered reputable. Anything that hasn’t been approved by the ABA is not accredited and thus cannot be deemed a top school.
Currently, there are around 200 ABA-accredited law schools in the US; a further 30 are unaccredited. Therefore, you should bear this in mind when searching for a potential school.
Another key barometer is to look at university rankings. Any schools that make the top 10 are the most reputable as they are assessed based on research impact, academic reputation, and employer reputation. Below is a list of the top 10 law schools in 2021 according to QS US Law School Rankings and the QS Worldwide University Rankings.
|Law School Ranking||QS US
Law School Ranking
Law School Ranking
|1||Harvard University||Harvard University|
|2||Yale University||University of Oxford|
|3||Stanford University||University of Cambridge|
|4||Columbia University||Yale University|
|5||New York University||Stanford University|
|6||University of California, Berkeley||London School of Economics (LSE)|
|7||University of Chicago||Columbia University|
|8||Georgetown University||New York University|
|9||University of California, Los Angeles||University of California, Berkeley|
|10||University of Michigan, Ann Arbor||National University of Singapore|
Aside from prestige, these universities are recognized for their expertise in legal issues and ability to prepare students for the legal profession. While rankings change year on year, Harvard, Yale, and Stanford University consistently rank in the top 4 in the US. Internationally, University of Oxford and University of Cambridge (UK) are usually in the top 3.
Be Selective During Undergrad
Applying for a top law school also requires forward thinking. If you already know you want to be a lawyer while you’re fresh out of high school, it’s important to choose an undergraduate program that aptly prepares you.
Top law schools look for students with a well-rounded set of skills, so it’s a good idea to take courses that prepare you in critical thinking, library research, structuring an argument, and honing your writing and spoken language skills. The importance of these skills also become apparent when it comes to the LSAT and when you write your motivation letter for law school.
In terms of which subjects to study, aside from obvious ones like Law, you’d also do well to take up well-established courses like History, Philosophy, Economics, Sociology, Latin, and more. As writing is also essential, you may want to take advanced writing classes and opt for subjects that involve constructing an argument.
Obtain High GPA & LSAT Scores
One of the most obvious ways to get into a top law school is to obtain high GPA and LSAT scores. To gain these grades, you’ll need to perform well consistently from the start of your undergrad. It’s also worth remembering that getting into a top law school requires outstanding grades, not just good ones.
According to the Law School Admission Council (LSAC), students need a GPA of at least 3.59 and an LSAT of 162 or more to get into any top 10 law schools. However, that is the bare minimum, and you should aim higher if you want to increase your chances of getting into the top 3.
Hone Your Motivation Letter
One of the biggest challenges in the law school application process is to credibly convince an admissions officer that you want to go to law school, have thought carefully about it, and have a good plan for how to use your degree.
This might sound obvious, but the number of applicants each year who apply to law school as a “default” or “safe” next step in life without much forethought is staggering. It’s easy for an admissions officer to get a sense of this from your application and almost a default presumption that you do not have a compelling reason to attend law school.
It’s difficult—and takes a lot of thought—to craft your unique origin story in terms of your interest in law school and legal career thereafter: “I’ve wanted to be a lawyer since the time I first started speaking”, “I love arguing, and people have told me I’m great at it my entire life”, “my father/mother is a lawyer, and I would to follow in his/her footsteps.”
It’s easy to tell yourself you’d never write something so clichéd, but unfortunately, many bright applicants center their candidacies around pillars like this. Granted, they do so with more polish and flair than the above, but it reads all the same to an admissions officer who flips through dozens of applications per day.
To craft a decent letter, you’ll need to demonstrate why you have the necessary skills that make you an excellent student and lawyer. Many top law schools also look for an eclectic mix of students, so don’t be discouraged if your experience is varied. In fact, it’s a good idea to capitalize on your experience and explain how it gives you a unique perspective and set of skills. Also, avoid simply listing all your professional achievements as your CV will cover this. Great topics to cover include voluntary experience, leadership roles, or competing as an athlete.
Get Professional Experience
While this isn’t a requirement, professional experience goes a long way on your application. Making your interest in law integral to your work experience and story in a unique way gives admissions officers a strong basis to advocate for you because doing so in the first place sets you apart from most applicants. You should think about your interests and how they relate to the law.
One of the best ways to get experience is to do an internship where you can obtain letters of recommendation from practicing legal professionals. Internships also look great on your CV and show the admissions department that you are committed and hard working. Being able to juggle school work with the demands of an internship also demonstrates that you can manage multiple workloads.
Prepare for the Interview
The interview may seem far off in the future, but it will arrive sooner than you think. To ensure you’re adequately prepared, make sure you practice ahead of time with a mentor or someone with experience. Be sure to avoid scripted responses and prepare by brainstorming potential questions and how best to answer them.
Along with everything you’ve submitted on paper, the interview is a crucial opportunity to share your experiences and passion while convincing the admissions officer that you are the best fit for their institution and for law school generally.
Lastly, apply early! As most law schools operate on a first-come, first-served basis, it’s vital you send in your application well in advance of the start of the academic year. If you leave it too late, you could end up on a waiting list or not getting in at all.
Another reason to start early is that leaving things until the last minute means the risk of missing information or making mistakes. If you want to get into a top law school, start your applications as soon as possible. You should also have a backup plan in case you don’t get in.
To provide a clearer picture, the points above can be summarized into an “archetype” of a successful top law school applicant (bear in mind, though, there isn’t such an archetype). Generally, that person would have the following qualities, characteristics, or accomplishments:
- A 3.8 GPA or higher (unweighted on a 4.0 scale) from a university with a track record of several admits year-after-year at your target law school
- 75th percentile or above LSAT score (as compared to the previous year’s admitted students at a particular target law school)
- At least one year of work experience in an area that somehow relates your academic focus in college to the law in a way that doesn’t follow a highly traditional path (i.e. paralegal work, or other non-specialized work in a legal setting). For the past several years, the percentage of the incoming students at the most selective law schools that have gone K-JD without taking any kind of gap year has been steadily declining.
- An excellent application that frames the narrative of your candidacy and connects the dots between college and your interest in that law school—a one-size-fits-all application is unlikely to succeed across the board. For example, your applications to Yale Law School and Harvard Law School might highlight very different aspects of your candidacy.
Don’t think of the law as a “monolith” that you can only demonstrate interest in by doing pre-law journals and societies, paralegal work, and other traditional (and frankly uninteresting) paths. Fortunately, any subject or interest can relate to the law. It’s how you think about that relationship, how your experience pertains to it, and how you present it in your application that will help you stand out among a pile of similarly situated applicants.
If you follow our points above, you’ll be in good stead when it comes time to submit your application. Good luck!