Many factors will impact the success of your law school application. Outside of your LSAT score, one of the most prominent ones is your undergraduate GPA. This can be a frustrating reality if you have not received the grades you would have liked. Additionally, once you graduate, your undergraduate GPA is set in stone. You can retake the LSAT, revise your application essays, get new recommenders, and even reapply to schools, but at that point, you cannot change your undergraduate GPA. However, no matter what your GPA is, you should not panic.
In this blog post, we at Stratus share the top five questions law school applicants ask about their undergraduate GPA and discuss how to handle the problems that might stem from a less-than-stellar GPA.
1. What if I failed a class?
It is never good to fail a class. You likely have some regrets about how you handled the class. Maybe the content was difficult and frustrating for you. As upsetting as failing a class can be, you should be prepared to move beyond it. If you are still in college, you can retake it—but the official LSAC GPA calculator will only count your first attempt, so it might be better to just focus on your other classes. While an undergrad, you should move beyond a failed class by working as hard as you can to improve your overall grade in subsequent semesters, as this will help raise your GPA.
Here are some tips on how to proceed if you have failed an undergraduate class:
- Self-reflect and strategize. If you are still an undergrad, engage in some self-reflection and really ask yourself if you took the best approach for success in the class. If you think you did, look further at why you might have failed. Maybe a particular concept derailed you. If you must deal with that concept in other classes, be proactive in mastering it; if you can avoid it in future classes, do so. If you need to switch majors to avoid failing in the future, consider it. As we discuss later in this post, law schools are not too particular about undergrad majors.
- Write an addendum. If you have graduated, be prepared to explain the “F.” It is a good idea to write a brief addendum about it. Do not get into the specifics about why you failed, such as having a busy social life, a difficult relationship, or a bad professor. If you socialized too much, just write generally about how you had difficulty adjusting to the responsibilities of school but eventually got on track. If a personal issue caused you to fail, you can write about your experience, but do not get too granular.No matter how good your addendum is, you will likely receive questions about the failed class in a law school interview. If your grades later improved, point to that as proof that you overcame the conditions that caused you to fail. If your grades did not improve but you have relevant work experience that makes you a more qualified student, share detailed examples.
2. What if I have a low GPA?
Even if you did not fail a class, you could still have a low GPA. Although the definition of “low” can be relative, most law schools are competitive in terms of GPAs. You can check the U.S. News & World Report rankings to see where your GPA stands with regard to the median of various schools, and this can help you identify target schools. If your GPA is below the median at schools of interest to you, depending on your LSAT score, you might be out of the running or the schools could be “reach” schools. If you are around the 25th percentile in terms of GPA, a school is a reach school; anything significantly below that means you are extremely unlikely to get in.
As noted earlier, if you are still an undergrad, you should focus on doing everything you can to improve your GPA. Whether that means changing your study habits, switching majors, or being more strategic about selecting classes, it is worth it to raise your GPA—no matter how low it is.
A strong LSAT score can often make up for a weak GPA, but there are some limitations. If you have a 2.0 GPA and a 178 LSAT score, you still might have a hard time getting into Yale, for example. But if you are in the 75th percentile for the LSAT and in the 25th percentile for GPA for a particular school, you likely have a decent shot at admission, so it is important to invest a lot of time studying for the LSAT. However, if you are still an undergrad, do not dedicate all your time to LSAT prep, as doing so could hurt your GPA.
As with failing a class, writing a concise and professional addendum can help mitigate the damage from having a weaker GPA.
3. Will taking time off between college and law school make up for my low GPA?
Many law schools pride themselves on accepting applicants from various professional backgrounds. In the old days, the stereotypical “ideal” law school candidate was a pre-law or liberal arts major who applied during their senior year of college. More recently, law schools have gone out of their way to say they will accept someone with ten years of post-college work experience. Consequently, many students think they must take time off after receiving their undergraduate degree in order to get into law school, especially if they have a weaker GPA.
Taking time off can be helpful for a few reasons:
- More time for LSAT prep: The first is to give you time to study for the LSAT. This is particularly helpful if you need to make up for a low GPA. The LSAT can consume a year of your life in terms of preparation and retakes. It can be hard to find enough time and brain power to do that while trying to maintain a high GPA, so taking a year or two to study when you are not in school can be a major boon.Now, you should NOT just sit at home studying for a year or two. But even with a steady 40-hour-per-week job or an internship, you could have a good amount of time available to study. It still might be a lot to juggle, but many find this easier than balancing LSAT prep with their college courses.
- Real-world experience: Additionally, law schools do appreciate their applicants having some work experience to demonstrate that they have lived and worked in the “real world.” This does not mean that an applicant without work experience is less appealing to law schools, but work experience could make an applicant more appealing.
- Debt reduction: Also, taking time off can help you pay off undergraduate debt. Depending on your salary, even a few years of work can go a long way in paying off debt.
- Break from school: Moreover, maintaining a strong GPA in higher education can be exhausting, so some people need some time off to recharge. In the working world, typically when you go home from work, you are done for the day. There is no exam to study for or paper to write. Furthermore, while you should always aspire to do your best at work, not getting graded down to each individual percentage can be a nice break.
It generally does not matter what kind of work you do. If you want to be a criminal defense lawyer, working as a paralegal in a criminal defense firm will paint a clearer picture of your career aspirations. But if you cannot find a job there, or you need the money from doing something else, like consulting, it will not harm your application.
However, while working between college and law school can provide a slight advantage to law school applicants, doing so will not rescue a low GPA or LSAT score.
4. How does my major factor into my GPA?
A succinct answer to this question is “It really does not.” But in reality, the answer is a bit more nuanced. If you are a STEM major, you can likely afford a little bit lower GPA. However, this does not give you a free pass to tank your GPA. Judging by majors alone, a law school would likely take a 3.8 English major over a 2.7 engineering major. STEM majors can be difficult, so if you know you want to go to law school and feel you cannot maintain a strong GPA in a STEM major, it might be worth reconsidering that major.
Some people do well in their major GPA but have a low overall GPA because they performed poorly in their required general education courses. Unfortunately, law schools largely care about your overall GPA.
Now, sometimes students have a strong major GPA and a weak overall one because they took their general education courses during freshman year, when they were struggling to adjust to college. If this is the case, it is worth writing an addendum explaining this. It is not as if law schools will then look only at your major GPA, but it still might help a little.
5. Will my strong graduate degree GPA make up for my weak undergraduate one?
While taking time off between college and law school, some people pursue a graduate degree in another subject. For a myriad of reasons, some students perform much better academically in their graduate studies than they did in undergrad.
Although having a high graduate GPA is an accomplishment, unfortunately, it will not make up for a weak undergraduate GPA. Cynics would say it is just because the law schools only care about raising their average undergraduate GPA for the rankings. But in reality, it is easier to judge applicants’ performance in their undergraduate studies—which everyone must complete in order to attend law school—than to judge their performance in various master’s degrees, which have vastly different structures and requirements.
It is not a good idea to pursue a graduate degree just to get a strong GPA because you think doing so will help make up for your weak undergraduate GPA. But if you had an initially weaker GPA resulting from difficulties adjusting to college, and then improved your GPA during college, and later excelled in a graduate program related to your career, that can be another data point to help explain how your undergraduate GPA does not represent your potential performance in law school. Again, this will not completely make up for having a weaker GPA, but it can still make a difference in your overall application.
Undergraduate GPAs DO matter in law school admissions. Therefore, if you are still an undergrad, you should do anything you can to improve and maintain your GPA. But if you are beyond your undergrad studies, do not let a low undergrad GPA derail your law school ambitions. By taking an informed and careful approach, you can maximize your ability to mitigate problems that your GPA might cause in your law school candidacy.