What Do I Do Now?
As we begin approaching the season of thin white envelopes, we here at Stratus often get the question, “What do I do if I don’t get into my top choices?” The answer to that question is very simple: Calm down and wait for your results. Funnily enough, however, that answer does little to assuage the anxieties of our clients, who are stuck in the purgatory between application and acceptance. For those that are checking the mailbox every three hours, it helps to have a fall-back option in case of the worst.
For them, the answer is that those that fail to gain admission to the law school of their dreams have two options: postpone, or transfer.
The first option is obvious: try again next year. Such a strategy is not unwise, especially for applicants who applied for the first time this year. Second-time applicants can learn from the mistakes that they made in their first application process. For instance, students that tested poorly on the LSAT can redouble their efforts towards test preparation, or (and not to toot our own horn too much) students that struggled with the more personal aspects of their application, such as the personal statement, may consider outside help. These students are well-advised to try again, and indeed, many of Stratus’s most successful applicants are on their second go.
The other path, however, is less evident, and virtually unknown among law school hopefuls. The road less taken is to apply to and obtain admission to a lower-ranked school, with the goal of transferring after the 1L year.
How It Works
The transfer mechanism itself is fairly straightforward. First, one gains admission, commits to, and attends a school with a lower rank than that which was originally desired. Second, one excels in their 1L class. Third, one goes through the application process all over again, this time hopefully succeeding in obtaining admission to their law school or schools of choice. That person would then pass their remaining two years in a different law school, and their degree and resume would reflect that they graduated from the second school, with no mention of the first.
The process is not without its pitfalls or risks, but, at the end, an applicant that successfully navigates the 1L transfer can graduate with the name of a top-25 school on their diploma.
Who Should Consider Changing Law Schools?
To be fair, it is the road less traveled for a reason. Transferring law schools is not for everyone, and works best for a few specific types of people, first among them those that feel pressure to attend law school this year. For these students, their admission to law school – any law school – is the primary goal, and transferring after the 1L year merely a perk or an option. These students explore the transfer market because they don’t mind the idea of graduating from a lower-ranking law school, but appreciate the option of being able to transfer.
The second category of person that may do well to explore the transfer option is the student that often performs well in the classroom but, for whatever reason, does not excel at standardized tests. Let’s face it, the LSAT is not for everyone, and even students with perfect GPAs have difficulty posting top 10thpercentile scores. Because the transfer process places more emphasis on other criteria than it does the LSAT (more on that later), these students engage the transfer process in the hopes that they academic prowess will cover whatever shortfalls their LSAT score may present.
The final major category of applicants that may benefit from a law school transfer would be those that need to change their location for whatever reason. Perhaps they started law school in one city and their spouse’s employment situation moved them to another, or maybe they need to take care of a sick relative. Regardless the circumstances, changing law schools may be necessary for such persons.
For those that decide to transfer, the process will be similar to their first go-round with applications, with some notable differences. In form, the process is the same: there will be a grades component, letters of recommendation will be necessary, applicants will write a personal statement, and the LSAT score must be submitted. It is in their relative importance that applicants will find the difference, as the transfer application places more importance on grades and letters of recommendation, and less on the LSAT.
The first step in the transfer process is obvious. In order to transfer law schools, an applicant must first gain admission to and attend a lower-ranking law school. The choice of school does matter, it is logically easier to get into a higher-ranking school when one already attends a high-ranking school. It is easier to get into Yale when one is starting at Pennsylvania rather than Vanderbilt, easier to get into Vanderbilt from North Carolina than Hawaii. Location matters, too – of the 31 students that transferred into UCLA last year, for example, 17 came from California schools. Students keen on transferring should keep their school’s rankings and locations in mind when making a commitment.
The next step is the hardest: do well. 1Ls that grade in the top 10% of their class are more likely to transfer than those that grade in the top 20%, while students that are outside the top 30% have virtually no chance. The University of Pennsylvania Law School admitted only ten transfer students last year, each averaging around a 3.8 GPA. Obtaining such marks is no easy task, as 1L studies are notoriously more difficult than anything most students encounter at the undergraduate level. Then, too, the competition can be fierce, especially given the rewards for being in the top 10% (although Paper Chase examples are perhaps exaggerated).
Beyond grades, aspiring transfers must also be able to develop and cultivate relationships with their 1L professors, as the letter of recommendation is doubly important. The reason for this should be fairly obvious: while law schools care about the opinions of your undergraduate professors, those professors are often not lawyers, and in any case are not teaching law school. The opinions of your law school professors, however, matter more. They know exactly whether or not you have what it takes to succeed in law school, and their opinions can be trusted. What’s more, oftentimes your professors even at lower-ranking schools will have attended a top-20 law school, and in some cases may even be able to write you a letter for the specific school they themselves attended.
Students that successfully navigate their 1L year, however, are rewarded with an application process that is somewhat different. Therein lies the largest advantage. Because of the greater importance of other aspects of your application, the LSAT matters less during the 1L transfer process, which is more focused on your demonstrated capacity to succeed in law school. The LSAT is a strong predictor for how you will succeed in your 1L year, but your 1L grades are even better at predicting 2L performance. Nothing matters more than your grades, and your LSAT score can even play third fiddle to the recommendations from your professors. Students with weaker LSAT scores can therefore use the transfer process to game the system, stacking the odds in their favor by placing greater emphasis on the area where they excel: the classroom.
In effect, such applicants gamble on themselves. They know that they have reached the limit of where the standard application process may bring them. They commit to a lower-ranking law school knowing that they can score the grades in the classroom that will overcome their deficiencies on the LSAT.
Wrapping It Up
Whatever their reasons for wanting to transfer, however, the fairest thing to say is that it is not an easy process. Effectively, applicants stretch out the normal week-long application into an entire school year, putting their first year on trial before the better schools. It’s not an easy undertaking, and the fact remains that the best method for most people will remain the traditional application process. However, for a certain class of student, most notably that which performs poorly on standardized tests, the transfer market remains an alternative path to the best schools.
Whether you’re a transfer or a traditional applicant, we at Stratus want to help you get into the law school of your dreams. Click here to see what we offer.