Question: I am a graduate of a top-notch liberal arts college, with a bad freshman year GPA (2.7). However, after managing to work hard for the remainder of my years there (3.7 from sophomore to senior years), I graduated with a cumulative 3.41. I gained admission to a master's degree program in international relations at a prestigious university in the United Kingdom, which I have just finished with distinction (summa cum laude). I have worked for two years (hedge fund, research assistant) and plan to work at a financial institution in Germany for two more years before applying to law school. Firstly, do you believe that law schools will be willing to dismiss my bad freshman year given my work experience and outstanding performance at LSE? Secondly, I was able to bring up my GPA with a semester abroad in England, where I received five A's. Will that be dismissed by the law schools as a study abroad, thereby bringing the assessment of my 3.41 down? Your candid comments would be most appreciated. Thank you.
Anna's Answer: Admissions officers look to your undergraduate performance to try to get a sense of how you'll perform as a student in law school. They understand that a single number can't fairly or accurately represent your entire undergraduate academic performance, so they do try to ascertain and assess the nuances. They look at your performance in a couple of different ways:
- What kind of undergraduate institution did you attend? The more competitive the college, and the higher the caliber of student there, the more likely an admissions officer will be impressed by your achievements. You're better off being in the middle of the pack at one of the top schools in the country than a big fish at Podunk College.
- What grading curve does your school use? Does 80 percent of the class graduate "with honors," or does your school give real grades? Harvard, Columbia and Stanford are notorious for grade inflation, for example, while Reed, U. of Chicago, and Swarthmore are known for real grades.
- How difficult was your major? Was that 3.41 in nuclear physics or in sociology?
- Were there any upward trends from year to year? Did you take more difficult classes each year? Did you challenge yourself as much as possible? (Admissions officers will see upward trends on your LSAC Report, which breaks out your GPA for each academic year.)
- Were there any special circumstances that accounted for a slump (major illness, family difficulties, having to work full-time, and so on)?
- Are there any grades to look at since college? Some people can point to graduate programs and others to classes they've taken in their spare time at a local university.
Admissions officers try to interpret transcripts as best they can, but the burden is on you (and it is very much to your benefit) to help admissions officers in the process. Go get a copy of your transcript, not an unofficial print-out, but the real thing that admissions officers will see. You might be surprised at how little information it actually conveys.
Most transcripts don't even list full course names, for example, so admissions officers are just supposed to be able to intuit what "BIOL 505 Tchg Exper" means. "Nutrition and the World We Live In" sounds like a gut class, but maybe it's really a hard-core science class. Who knows? Maybe your 185-page senior thesis shows up merely as "AL300 Spec Proj," or that tough accounting class you took at the graduate business school appears as "IN GSB Fin." Maybe your transcript shows the average grade for each class you've taken (one of the reasons admissions officers love Dartmouth transcripts), but probably not.
You have to be your own advocate here and educate admissions officers about your performance. If you think your transcript doesn't do you justice, you should write an addendum to make your case. Alternatively, if one of your recommenders is eager and willing to take extra steps to lobby on your behalf (most aren't), your recommender can also help admissions officers put your performance into perspective.
In your case, you'll want to point out the upward trend in your college grades (including your study-abroad grades, especially if they aren't reflected on your transcript or calculated in your GPA), and that you've done even better in your master's program. If there's a reason you had such a difficult first year in college, tell them, even if it was just a matter of a difficult transition from high school and needing some time to land on your feet.
Your work experience will be less relevant to an admissions officer's assessment of your undergraduate record (again, the purpose of that part of the application is to assess whether you'll be able to handle the academics in law school), but it will certainly help you as an applicant overall. (More on that in one of my previous columns, Time Off Before Taking the Plunge.)
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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