With the first round of admissions decisions just around the corner, there are inevitably going to be more dissatisfied applicants than successful ones. There are only so many spots available at the top law schools, and even students with strong LSAT scores and high GPAs might find themselves disappointed with their admissions results (Harvard Law School, for example, has an admit rate of only 7%). Nevertheless, some still choose to attend law school. Such students might find themselves considering the transfer process, wherein students enter their 1L year at a lower-ranked school and hope to transfer to a higher-ranked school for the completion of their studies. If you count yourself as one of those applicants, you’re in the right place.
The best advice one can give to such an applicant can really be summed up in two words: start now.
Start Early—Earlier Than You Think
The key to a successful transfer application is, above all else, preparation. An aspiring transfer student essentially consents to putting their entire 1L year on trial before the best law schools. It is therefore imperative that such a person make the most of their first year of law school. If you’re going into your first year knowing that you intend to transfer, start preparing now. If you’re already in your 1L year and have just now made the decision, start preparing yesterday.
There are four main components that go into a successful transfer application: 1L school, 1L grades, 1L recommendations, and the personal statement. The rest, such as undergraduate GPA and LSAT score, are ultimately significantly less important than the first four. Of these four components, an aspiring transfer can begin working on three before their 1L year even starts. The fourth will need to wait until sometime in the second semester—for good reason, which we’ll explain shortly.
The transfer process ideally begins before an applicant has even committed to their first school— that is, the school out of which they want to transfer. It’s not a joke to say that the transfer process begins before the first day of school. In fact, it begins around April of the year before they want to transfer. It’s around that time that applicants begin receiving rejection letters from their ideal schools and start getting acceptance letters from their “safety schools.” At this point, an eventual transfer applicant faces their first choice: where to begin.
When trying to get into a great school, it’s best to already be at a good school. It’s easier to get to the top if you’ve already completed 90% of the climb; logically, it follows that it’s easier to get into Yale from Cornell than from Irvine, into Cornell from Irvine than from Emory, and so on. Then, too, for whatever reason, some schools are more likely to accept applicants from the local region—51% of law students who transferred to UCLA for the 2019–2020 academic year came from other schools in California. Some schools might even have other preferences, such as aspirations toward public service or other types of programs.
The price of failure must also be considered. Ultimately, the transfer process is far from a sure bet, and many students who enroll in a lower-ranking law school with the intent to transfer do not succeed in doing so. When considering which school to attend for their 1L year, a student should always acknowledge that they might wind up staying there for good. For instance, if you hate cold weather, don’t go to the University of Wisconsin–Madison—you could be there for longer than the single year that you anticipate.
With the school component out of the way, the next step is to get good grades. While your 1L GPA isn’t going to single-handedly make a transfer application, it is the component that can most easily break it. Simply put, students in the top 30% of their class can usually transfer to better schools, and students outside of that subsection generally can’t. The students in the bottom 70% can make a lateral transfer—perhaps they’re unsatisfied with their current school, or a pressing situation is calling them to another part of the country—but will very rarely succeed in transferring to a higher-ranking school.
Even for the top 30%, though, placement is difficult, and students in the top 10% will obviously have an easier time transferring than students in the 11%–30% range. Transferring is competitive; the top schools are usually just trying to fill any open spots left by 1L students who dropped or failed out. Sometimes that number can be relatively high (UCLA took on 39 transfers for the 2019–2020 academic year), and sometimes it can be low (Cornell accepted just 10, Yale 11). However, the median GPA for transfers to all three of those schools was high: for UCLA, a 3.59; Cornell, a 3.51; and Yale, a whopping 3.88.
All of this is to say that the GPA is an extremely important component of a successful transfer application. It is the baseline, the price of admission. Students aspiring to transfer should therefore do everything they can to maximize that GPA. Contrary to what might be students’ first instinct, however, execution of a proper transfer GPA does not begin on the first day of classes, but rather on the first day of summer. There are a number of optional summer preparatory classes available to help aspiring transfers boost their GPA up to the right level. Students that take these classes are much less likely to experience 1L shell shock—that look that 1Ls get around halfway through their first semester, when they realize how much studying law school takes. Even more significantly, students who go through prep classes are much more likely to be adequately prepared for their exams.
That said, while the 1L GPA is important, it’s not everything, and it won’t win you your transfer all by itself. Think of your GPA as being the absolute minimum that you need for your application, sort of a ticket to ride. Students with high GPAs are invited to play but then have to compete against all the other students with high GPAs. Only the applicants with the best overall applications will be able to successfully transfer. That’s where the next two aspects of your application come into the picture.
Transfer applicants are already familiar with letters of recommendation. They undoubtedly had several when they applied to law school the first time around. They’ve probably also sought a handful of others to apply for jobs or internships. The transfer letter of recommendation is, however, more important.
I often tell clients that the single most important question to answer in writing their applications is “Can I be successful at law school?” Most often, the way to answer that question is to show how you can succeed as an attorney. In the case of a transfer application, though, there is a faster and easier path to the answer the admissions committee seeks: ask competent evaluators. There can be no more competent evaluator than a law school professor who has taught an applicant, seen them fail, and seen them succeed. There is a significant difference here: the letters that an applicant submitted for their original application were speculative. The recommendations coming from law professors are concrete and dispositive.
The obvious approach to this issue is to begin tackling it when the law school opens its doors for the first day of classes. But the obvious approach is wrong—or at least, not as effective. While classes might be on break over the summer, professors certainly are not. More often than not, a law professor can be found in their office, working on the next piece they intend to publish. An eager incoming 1L can take this opportunity to schedule meetings with the professors who will be teaching their classes. Doing so will allow the student to get one up on the competition and, more importantly, to establish relationships with the professors who will write those letters of recommendation.
While these relationships should begin forming in the summer, actual letters should not be written until well into the spring semester. Again, the point of these letters is to evaluate your performance and your ability to succeed as a law student. If an applicant has not yet performed, then there is nothing to evaluate yet. Asking professors for their recommendations in January gives them enough time both to evaluate you and to write the letter in anticipation of applications opening in May.
Spring is not only the right time for an applicant’s professors to evaluate them but also the time for an applicant to begin self-evaluation. That brings us to the personal statement, for which there is really only one prompt: “How I succeeded in law school.” There could be several permutations—for instance, “What I changed in order to succeed in law school,” “How I reacted to problems in law school,” or “What I did not anticipate about law school and how I resolved the resulting problems”—but the underlying theme will always be the same.
Remember, the goal of an application is to answer the question “Can this applicant succeed in law school?” Much like with letters of recommendation, an applicant’s original personal essay is speculative. It attempts to divine the response to a question that can really only be answered in the future. On the other hand, a transfer applicant’s essay is proven by history. A transfer applicant does not need to draw parallels between their previous life and what they imagine law school will be like because they have already experienced law school and know how they performed there.
Although the prompt might seem easy, writing the essay is often tricky, and there are numerous pitfalls that can sink what would be an otherwise successful statement. Showing success while admitting to failures, being frank about the law school experience but not so frank as to turn off admissions committees, and knowing how to discuss your achievements without bragging all represent so many plates of a balancing act. The actual penning of the personal statement should ideally begin sometime in March and end in April. Applications open in May—sometimes right after the last day of school—and it pays to be the first to submit one. At the same time, writing a personal essay while cramming for law school finals is inadvisable. If a lull exists in the 1L year, that lull should be used to write out the personal statement.
The Bells and Whistles
Everything else—the LSAT score, the undergraduate GPA, a TOEFL score (if necessary)—should all already be on the LSAC website. They matter significantly less this time around, however. The LSAT is a tool for predicting an applicant’s future performance in law school, but a law school GPA is a measurement of a student’s actual performance. LSAT scores are speculative, while 1L GPAs are conclusive.
Because law school transfer windows open in May—Harvard’s typically opens in early May, while other schools’ open closer to the middle of the month—everything necessary for the application, with the notable exception of second-semester grades, should be completed by May 1st. At that point, an applicant can send in their application incomplete and follow up later, once grades are released.
Of the four big factors in deciding a successful law school transfer application—school choice, 1L GPA, recommendations, and the personal statement—you can and should start working on the first three before your 1L year even starts. Picking out a school should be done as soon as possible. Studying for the 1L year begins in the summer. Developing relationships with professors who can write recommendations is best commenced before school starts. And even though the personal statement should ideally be written in March and/or April, you should start thinking about what should go into it much sooner.
It really can’t be stressed enough: the most competitive transfer students often turn to outside help, such as Stratus or other admissions consulting firms. I don’t say this to brag about our services or to advertise—you’re already on our website, and you’ve already read a lengthy article—but just to highlight a truth. Transferring to a top law school is harder than gaining admission in the first round, and the best of the competition all have professional help. It’s certainly not impossible to go it alone, but it is quite a bit harder.
Time is of the essence. Get to it. And if you think you’re going to need assistance, set up an appointment for a free chat. We’re here to help.