Ask Anna: The Return of the Smart Slacker

by | March 31, 2009

Anna Ivey is a private admissions counselor who works with people applying to the top business schools and law schools. If you have a question for Anna Ivey, send her an e-mail.

Question: I am 40 years old and have an undergraduate degree, but during the time I was in school I was not really focused. The past 10 years I have been in corporate software sales with a great career. I am now considering law school, but wonder if it would be worth my time to apply with an undergraduate GPA of 2.3. I know that I can earn a good score on the LSAT with preparation, and a law degree is a goal and career for which I have a strong passion. I would appreciate any info that you can provide. Thank you.

Anna's Answer: There are very few deal-breakers in law school admissions. That's not to say that applying with a 2.3 GPA is going to make your life easy -- it presents a real marketing challenge -- but if it's true that your undergraduate performance doesn't accurately reflect your potential in law school, you can and should make that argument in your applications, preferably in an addendum.

Assuming you do perform very well on the LSAT, admissions officers will worry that you're one of those people with the potential to be a great law student (which your LSAT score is meant to measure) but whose academic track record suggests that you're the kind of guy who doesn't do anything with his academic potential. In other words, they'll worry that you're a smart slacker. Your admissions competition is too tough to allow that reasonable but incorrect impression to go unchallenged.

The fact that almost two decades have passed since your "unfocused years" in college works to your advantage. If you had just recently graduated with a lousy GPA and were chalking it up to lack of focus, it would be hard for you to argue compellingly that you've all of a sudden woken up one morning with focus and seriousness and ambition, positively brimming with academic promise. You, on the other hand, have had almost twenty years to get your act together, and a lot can change in twenty years. Admissions officers understand that some people aren't at their peak performance when they're in college for one reason or another, and they're willing to hear you out if you want to persuade them that you're a different person now.

There are a couple of ways you can support your argument. You should focus on those aspects of your career accomplishments that rely on the skill set that admissions officers care about most: analysis, writing and research. You're in a sales job, which tends to be less analytical than, say, finance, so you may need to drum up some opportunities between now and the time you apply to flex those muscles. You should also emphasize the non-academic traits that prove you're no longer that guy who settled for mediocrity in college. Good examples would show, for example, that you aim high and exceed expectations, identify and seize leadership opportunities, and carry your weight as a team player. You should also ask your boss to write you a recommendation that supports your argument.

Another way to prove your current academic potential is to take some classes at a nearby college. Ideally you would take classes that are heavy on analysis, writing and research (typically courses in the humanities). But if that's not possible because of scheduling reasons, for example, any course that challenges you will serve to demonstrate that you're a different student than you were back in the day. If you can knock it out of the park in a multivariable calculus class, that's still valuable information about your academic potential that admissions officers wouldn't otherwise have. Smart slackers just don't have the inclination or make the time to take classes while they're working full time, so that's a great way to distance yourself from your academic past. Basically, in taking courses, you are offering admissions officers additional data points beyond your undergraduate performance that they can rely on when they're trying to gauge how you'll do in law school.

A word of caution: if you do decide to take classes, you can't afford to do less than superbly in them. You will have to submit whatever grades you earn to LSAC, so if you can't commit to excelling, don't bother. The last thing you want to do is confirm suspicions that you can't hack it in school. It's hard to take classes while working full time and taking care of family responsibilities, but I've worked with plenty of applicants who've pulled it off. One or two classes a semester should be doable for most people. Not easy, but doable. Good luck!

If you have your own question for Anna Ivey, send her an e-mail.

Anna Ivey is a private admissions counselor who works with people applying to the top business schools and law schools, as well as the author of The Ivey Guide to Law School Admissions: Straight Advice on Essays, Resumes, Interviews and More. Formerly the Dean of Admissions at the University of Chicago Law School, she has also practiced corporate and entertainment law in Los Angeles. She received her B.A. from Columbia and her J.D. from the University of Chicago Law School, where she served as an editor of The University of Chicago Law Review. To learn more about her admissions counseling, visit annaivey.com.

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