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Which Grades
Will Law Schools Consider?

Law schools will see ALL your reported grades from every undergraduate college you attended. This will include foreign schools if they appear on your own school's transcript, or if they are listed in the Law Services Bulletin as schools which report grades. Some schools "drop" failing grades from your gpa if you retake the course, or if you change majors; Law Services will include these grades in their calculations, lowering your gpa significantly.

Multiple Schools

The admissions officer will see summer schools at other colleges in the United States, even if you attended them before you began college (as some students do in the summer before their senior year of high school), and even if your own college counted them as "pass/fail" courses. This means that those summer courses you took at the shore, earning C's but getting credit at your own college, will come back to haunt you, as will that college you dropped out of fifteen years ago without filing the proper withdrawal forms (earning you a slew of F's).

"High School" Grades

Running Start. Upward Bound. Share time. No matter what your high school and your state call it, if you took courses at a community college, even if you were in ninth grade at the time, those grades will be included in your gpa. Unfair? Personally, I think the program is unfair, not the result of it, but we can discuss politics another day.

Graduate Work

Law schools will not consider any grades earned after you received your undergraduate degree, whether or not they were part of an advanced degree program. The prevailing theory is that since all grades in a graduate program are A's and B's, these grades are not as accurate an indicator of your potential as your undergraduate grades. (Law schools will consider graduate education as an indicator of motivation and diligence, but the grades themselves are rarely significant.)

Upward Trends and "Split" Grades

Often a student starts off poorly and does better later.  If that change is gradual and moderate, (less than a full point from first semester to last), schools will tend to use the cumulative gpa.  It won't hurt you to point out the improvement, but it may not help.  

If the change is more pronounced (more than a full point) it's worth highlighting in a brief addendum:  "I had a very hard time adjusting to college, and received a 2.2 my first semester; by my second year, my grades had improved to a 3.5, and have remained there.  I hope you will consider this...."

Once in a while, a student has "split" grades -- a sharp line between bad, older grades and good new ones.  This is almost always marked by some change in circumstances; occasionally, the change will simply be maturity after some time off.   

Some schools can be talked into ignoring the bad older grades.  This is only likely if:

  • there is at least a .5 improvement between every bad old semester and every good new one;  
  • the applicant can name a reason for the change -- an illness, excessive work load, immaturity;
  • the applicant points to hard evidence beyond the transcript that the problem has been resolved -- the illness is over, the job has been quit, years have passed, or an event was a wake-up call

If all three of these conditions are met, you should write a clear and brief letter explaining the problem and its resolution, and pointing out your gpa after the problem has been solved.  A very few schools will then use the newer grades to recalculate your index number.  More will use the cumulative number and the new one, and make a judgment.  

At most schools, no matter how much improvement you show, if your cumulative number is below a certain presumptive deny range, you will be rejected.  Hardly any top school will admit an applicant with a gpa below 3.0, and hardly any school will go below a 2.5, no matter how good your recent work has been.

High LSAT, Low Grades

Usually folks contact me with a good gpa and a low LSAT score, and the complaint, "Why won't they focus on my four years of good grades?"  But once in a while I get emails from folks in a different boat -- an LSAT of 165 or better and a gpa of 2.5 or lower.  

What can you do? You have two basic choices:

1. Settle for less: 

  • Go look in the ABA/Official Guide at the grids of who got in.  The grids are very reliable in this range (as opposed to the high gpa/low LSAT part, where many minorities and non-English speakers cloud the issue).
  • If the school doesn't have a grid, look for a very low 25th percentile gpa.
  • DO NOT use the LSDAS online percentages.  They are not accurate.  The section where you ask it to show you schools that took at least one person with your numbers was more reliable, but has been removed as of this writing.
  • Don't waste your time and money on the top 25.  It ain' t gonna happen -- certainly not in this time of increasing applicants and median wars, at any rate.
  • And please don't ask me to do this research for you.  Why should I give you a free hour or two of number-crunching in a free, public domain web site?

2. Give them more..

  • If you already have split grades (e.g., two years of bad and two years of good), explain the causes of the difference and make sure they see the split.
  • If your grades are roller-coaster ups and downs instead of a clear split, you're in the same boat as people with continuous bad grades (see below).  
  • If you don't have two years of consistent good grades to show them, make it happen.  Re-enroll at the most academically rigorous school you can afford, in a regular undergrad program.  Get at least two consecutive semesters of very high grades; then reapply.
    • Grad program grades don't count.  
    • Practicums and clinicals don't count.  
    • Extension or continuing ed grades don't count.
  • Wait five or more years and do something meaningful with the time.  

"But don't they understand that I had bad grades because ....?" Yes, they do -- you and everyone else in that box of the Official Guide. According to Law Services, about 150 of you have LSATs above 165 and GPAs below 2.5, and 3/4 of you are Caucasian.   All of you had the potential but didn't succeed because you weren't engaged with your school work.  It might have been a sick parent, it might have been romantic crises (for four years?  I hope not!), or it might have been anger at being forced into a school you didn't want, but all of you in the country have the same basic explanation -- the problem was emotional.  

"But they took two people with my numbers."  Yes, they did.  Those two either had two years of good grades or have been out of school five or more years and succeeded professionally.  

"But its not fair!"

Why not? You're not giving them what they want, so they're not giving you what you want.  

You didn't understand that they want people who have proven they can study long and hard, so they won't understand that you deserve their school.  Sounds exceedingly fair to me.  

Bottom line, folks, is that if you've screwed up, you either fix it or pay for it; I don't know of any other solutions.  

"Don't They Understand...?"

That your mother was sick? That you had a learning disability? That you had to work full time? Not unless you tell them. The burden is on you to present a good reason for them to look at some of your grades and not others. Your argument is more persuasive if:

  • The problem can be documented. A learning disability or financial need is more easily proved than mononucleosis or a family crisis.
  • The divergence in your grades is great.
  • A single "F" in a rough course caused a sudden drop in gpa.

When an admissions officer sees 6 terms of 3.5 and one of 1.8, she will be looking for an explanation. When she sees variations from 3.2 to 3.7, she'll just think it's the normal course of luck and energy.

An "F" in physics is easy to understand. An "F" in Intro to Sociology is not. Explanations about instructors who didn't like you are usually met with skepticism.

How Can I Prove It to Them?

If the problem is one of financial need or an "F" in physics, you don't need documentation. Just point out the problem in an attached note. The supporting documentation (financial aid forms or transcripts) will already be in your file someplace. If the problem is a learning disability, include a letter from whoever at your school processes your requests for extra exam time, use of calculators, etc. If the problem was an emotional one, such as a family illness, it might figure into your essays. If it's not important enough to be part of your essays, it's probably not important enough to matter.

Won't they think less of me?

Law schools rarely penalize an applicant for a rocky past, as long as the problem is clearly in the past.  Your job is to present the problem, explain it, and show it won't recur.  See further discussions of Overcoming Obstacles in your past and Minimizing the Risks in your application. Besides, you're forgetting that they already think less of you  -- or of your gpa, to be more precise.  They're planning to reject you; what have you got to lose?

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