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by Vault Law Editors | March 10, 2009

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In law school admissions, numbers talk. Nevermind your years of mock trial, internships for senators, and volunteer firefighting: The index score -- a formulaic combination that includes your GPA and LSAT score -- can be enough to get you presumptively rejected or accepted at a range of schools. A less-than-desirable index score can feel like a ball and chain weighing you down from admission to first tier law schools. There isn't much you can do to change that C in organic chemistry leftover from your flirtation with pre-med, and it may seem that once you've received a low LSAT score -- weighted as much as 60% of your application -- it's all but branded on your forehead*.

Given the daunting numbers game of admissions, many students whose low LSAT scores don't fit their dream schools consider a backdoor entrance to top law schools that at first glance seems a bit more forgiving: transfer. Rather than study and re-take the LSAT, they throw their hands up at the numbers game and vow to prove their worthiness for Yale or Stanford by enrolling at a second or third tier law school and finishing at the top of their first year class, then applying to transfer.

On the surface, transferring appears to be a less competitive way to gain entrance to a top law school. For example, this year New York University School of Law received 8,000 applications for 450 first-year slots: an acceptance ratio of only 5.6%. In the transfer pool, however, 50-60 students are typically accepted from 300-400 applicants, a more favorable acceptance rate of 12.5%-20%. Given the smaller pool of applicants and increased likelihood of acceptance, transferring seems like a much easier way to shine. As an NYU admissions officer explained, "It's harder to be extraordinary in the pool of 8,000."

Though most top schools do not have such a dramatic difference between their first-year acceptance rate and transfer acceptance rate, transfer applicants consistently have a slight edge. At the University of Pennsylvania Law School, last year's first-year law acceptance rate was 12.5%, compared to a transfer rate of 16.2%. UCLA accepted 16% of applicants for the class of 2008, but they accept up to 20% of transfer applicants. This small bump in one's chances, says a Duke University School of Law admissions officer, could be advantageous for students whose undergraduate record or LSAT score don't fully reflect their ability to do well in law school.

Yet before jumping on the transfer bandwagon, you should consider the actual criteria law schools use when evaluating transfer applicants. At all law schools surveyed for this article, performance in the first year of a JD program was the number one criterion in assessing a transfer application. As Derek Meeker, Dean of Admissions at University of Pennsylvania, explained, the first-year curriculum is very similar at all ABA-approved law schools and is therefore the best predictor of future performance.

With such importance placed on prior JD performance, transfer applicants must aim for the top of their first-year class in order to be in the running for transfer to a more prestigious law school. Duke draws transfer students from the top quarter of first-year classes, while UCLA only seriously considers those in the top 5-10%. Though Meeker noted that there is no specific cutoff and every file is read, he added that, no matter what the caliber of the school where you began your studies, "if you're in the middle of your class, it will be difficult to be admitted anywhere as a transfer."

What does it take to be in the top of a first-year class? The larger a school's incoming class, the more a student must do to stand out. Letters of recommendation from JD professors are also an important part of the transfer application package, and earning strong letters means asserting oneself in class in order to differentiate oneself from the crowd, a daunting prospect if you're one of, say, 800 students. To be in the top of one's class is very difficult, says a New York University admissions officer. Students in this select group are "obviously people who have gone out of their way."

Beyond grades and letters of recommendation, transfer applicants must still write a personal statement, which ideally reflects upon their experiences as a first-year law student and conveys why they're interested in transferring to a particular institution. Too many transfer applicants, said Meeker, take a cavalier approach to the transfer process. They may have done well in their first year, but they may not put a lot of time into thinking about other pieces of the application. In other words, it is obvious from the application if a student hasn't changed their personal statement and is simply using that "backdoor" approach to law school admissions.

In light of the challenges of successful transfer applications -- killing oneself in the first year to get to the top of the class and distinguishing oneself to professors from the first-year throng, all the while researching other schools and writing a new personal statement -- the slightly increased chances of acceptance don't seem quite so tempting. It may appear that you have a better shot as a transfer applicant, but if you take into account all these factors, an easier and less time consuming approach is to study and increase your LSAT score the first time around, broadening your likelihood of acceptance to the school of your choice.

Simply re-taking the test isn't enough however; on average, those who took the LSAT for a second time in 2004-2005 only increased their scores by about 2.6 points, the standard error of measurement for the LSAT. Add in a prep course, though, and the margin of improvement is much greater. After a 100 hour course at Blueprint Prep, the average student increases her score from first to last LSAT by 10.5 points, putting her dream schools within much closer reach.

Though most schools currently use an average when a student has multiple LSAT scores, in the fall 2007 application season, a new ABA policy change will come into play that will likely prompt schools to use a student's highest LSAT score in admissions decisions. That means your first LSAT score won't be a permanent brand, which in turn will afford you a greater advantage in the numbers game of law school admissions. You could use the back door, but why not use the front?

* See http://www.law.ucla.edu/sander/, "A Systemic Analysis of Affirmative Action in American Law Schools" for a discussion of index scores and how much the LSAT score is weighted in the admissions process.

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