There is no prescribed course of undergraduate study for admission to law school. The best guide is to follow your own personal and academic interests so that you will be motivated to excel. In selecting students, law school admissions committees look for individuals with a well-rounded, liberal arts education.
According to the American Bar Association’s Section on Legal Education, good lawyering requires certain core skills including:
- Analytic and problem solving skills
- Critical reading abilities
- Writing skills
- Oral communication and listening abilities
- General research skills
- Task organization and management skills
- Commitment to the values of serving others and promoting justice
In addition, lawyers need an increasingly broad range of knowledge including:
- A good understanding of history, particularly U.S. history
- A basic understanding of political and legal institutions
- Familiarity with ethics and theories of justice
- A grounding in economics
- Basic mathematical and financial skills
- An appreciation for diversity and cultural interdependence
In law school, you will study the legal principles underlying specific areas of the law; in your undergraduate classes, you need to acquire the core knowledge and skills upon which your legal education will be built. Since law deals with a wide variety of human conflicts, the more you know about the diversity of human experience, the better prepared you will be to study law.
Law school admissions officers will be evaluating your overall academic performance in order to decide whether you have the intellectual ability and motivation to succeed in law school.
Choosing a major
Law schools accept students from a wide variety of majors. There is no specified pre-law major. The only course of study law schools frown on is one that is not rigorous.
If possible, it is a good idea to do a double major, or a major and a minor. This ensures that you will have upper level courses on your transcript from at least two disciplines. Doing well in those courses demonstrates your intellectual breadth.
Students who want to pursue specialty law practices, such as environmental law, international law or patent law, will find they are a stronger candidate on the job market if they have an undergraduate major in a relevant field. Other specialty practices require knowledge of a second language or other cultures.
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The selection of courses that you take as an undergraduate is just as important as how well you do in the courses. Law school admissions committees are looking for students with a broad, liberal arts background. Your General Education requirements will start you off with a good distribution, but it is up to you to continue this diversity as much as you can.
A strong candidate’s record will include:
- upper level courses in the social sciences (environmental studies, law and society, political science, psychology, sociology), humanities (history, literature, philosophy), sciences, scientific methods, and ethics
- an appreciation and understanding of other cultures and languages
- a focus, passion, or strong interest in some area that is evidence of an ability to excel
Not everyone who successfully completes law school will practice law. There are jobs in teaching, public policy, government, and the private sector where lawyers work as well. In these jobs, the breadth of your general education will be an important asset.
A good approach is to choose challenging courses from demanding professors. Follow up your survey level General Education courses with upper level seminars and research courses. Try to get as much practice as you can doing critical thinking and writing.
Strong writing skills are essential for success in law school and as a lawyer. You should make sure that you take at least a few classes in which you will get honest, detailed feedback on your writing. Seek out courses where you will be expected to write several papers. Don’t put this off until your junior or senior year — good writing skills will serve you well regardless of whether you ultimately go to law school, and developing those skills should be a priority during your undergraduate career.
Make it a point to get to know your professors. Go to office hours; take smaller, upper level courses; work independently with someone you respect. If you make a favorable impression on your professors, you will gain important allies when it comes time to apply to law school. A professor who really knows you and your work can write a much stronger recommendation that someone who just looks at a grade book.
Foreign language proficiency is not a requirement for admission to law school. However, it may increase your employment prospects after graduation depending on the type of law you practice.
Good grades in hard courses demonstrate academic excellence. Compiling an impressive record is a critical first step in the process of getting admitted to the law school of your choice.
Avoid using the pass/fail option as it doesn’t give enough information to evaluate your performance in that course. Law schools may assume the worst about a “Pass” grade and calculate it into your grade point average (GPA) as a D.
If you do have a “Pass” grade, ask that professor to write a recommendation describing the course and assessing your performance. If you did not have an option for a grade in a particular course, such as an internship, make that clear in you application materials.
Clear up any Incomplete grades before you apply to law schools since they adversely affect your GPA and the quality of your transcript.
Avoid repeating courses unless absolutely necessary. Although Ramapo calculates your GPA without reference to the first time you took the course, most law schools and the LSAC recalculate your GPA to include both grades. Of course, try to do well in the class the first time out.
Although law school admissions committees look favorably on a high GPA, that alone will not determine either your acceptance or rejection. Supplement your application or use your personal statement to point out your strengths and explain any dips in your academic record due to illness or other extenuating circumstances. Point out a steadily improving trend in your course work. If you have returned to school after an absence, calculate your GPA since you returned (if it’s higher) and include that figure in your application.
Don’t be discouraged if your GPA is lower than the average for schools to which you want to apply. There are other factors which admissions committees consider. When it comes time to fill out applications, the Pre-Law Advising Center can help you identify and highlight your strengths.
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The practice of law is becoming more and more dependent on computer technology. As a law student, you will use personal computers to organize information, conduct legal research, prepare written assignments and manage and keep track of your time. The more comfortable you are using computers when you start law school, the easier it will be for you to learn the specific legal technology.
It is well worth your while to take the time now to learn as much as you can about using computers.
The Potter Library offers training in legal research using LEXIS/NEXIS and in computer research using databases in social sciences, humanities, and science.
Take advantage of these resources before you get to law school.
Law schools are also interested in your extracurricular activities, work history, internships, and community service. Your experience outside the classroom demonstrates the skills you have acquired and what you have learned about yourself that makes you a stronger candidate.
These activities also indicate that you are a well-rounded person who has the social maturity to be part of a demanding law school community, and to then take on the unique responsibilities of practicing law. A strong work history, combined with an impressive academic record, shows your commitment to hard work and perseverance.
However, over-involvement in non-academic activities, no matter how meaningful, will not excuse or compensate for a poor academic record. Law schools are looking for students who can successfully balance competing demands on their time.
Law school applicants who have taken time off since graduating from college will want to highlight their work experience since graduation. The weight given to your work experience versus your education will depend in large part on how many years you have been out of school.