Earning a Spot at a Top Law School: Punching Above Your College's Weight Class


One of the most common questions that law school applicants ask our admissions experts is some variation of the following: "are top law schools going to accord my undergraduate record less respect because it's not a highly-ranked school?"

Most bluntly, the answer is generally yes. For the top law schools, there are typically 20-25 "feeder" schools that produce a very large proportion of admitted students. These are schools whose course offerings and academic landscapes with which the law school admissions offices are quite familiar. Because of the track record of students and alumni from these undergraduate institutions, law schools tend to hold them and their GPAs in higher regard.

So, for instance, a 3.78 from Yale is almost always going to be viewed as more impressive than a 3.9 from Kansas State. This is the simple reality.

For students from schools that are outside of this list of "feeder schools," admissions offices will often turn to other factors in order to corroborate the purported strength of your GPA and other academic accomplishments. The primary validator is the LSAT. In most admissions offices, LSAT scores from non-feeder school applicants are weighted more heavily. This remains the case even if this is not an official policy of the school or the admissions office.

From our extensive interviews with current admissions officers and our team of former admissions officers from top law schools like Harvard, Yale, Stanford, and Columbia, it has become patently clear that this is the case.

Fortunately, there are plenty of things that applicants can do in order to add further support beyond the LSAT score and provide the admissions office with even more validation of their strong academic performance. These things fall into a couple of different categories (in no particular order):

1. Letters of Recommendation - One of the most obvious ways in which students can address issues that might otherwise have been known about other applicants from typical feeder schools is to have a recommender step right out in front of the issue. Comparative statements from recommenders can be tremendously valuable, especially if they have studied at highly respected institutions, are leaders in their field, or have worked at a top school. For instance, a recommender might say:

  • "I have taught at Wichita State for 6 years, prior to which, I was a Visiting Lecturer at the Harvard Kennedy School. Before teaching, I completed my Ph.D at Berkeley. John has worked with me over the course of the past three years as a research assistant and has taken three of my classes. He is among the brightest and most capable students I have encountered in my academic or teaching career to date and I am certain of his ability to thrive at a top law school. John's academic performance at Kansas State was nothing short of amazing. He achieved the highest marks in all but one of his classes, and the faculty in the Political Science department all speak very highly of him. At Wichita State, the modified Political Science and Economics Major that John undertook is considered the most difficult slate of courses at the university. My colleagues are notoriously difficult graders, and in at least two circumstances gave John the only A’s they have given out in the past three years."

2. Summer Experiences - Getting a summer job or internship that is considered very prestigious can often serve as a proxy for coming from a "feeder school" in some cases. Very competitive summer programs, of course, have their own admissions standards; consequently, your success in one of those programs will speak volumes about your ability compared to those of your peers from other schools.

3. Extracurriculars - Extracurricular activities that engage people outside of your school can be another good way to credential yourself. National organizations and competitions can provide you a good outlet for demonstrating your potential vis-a-vis applicants from other schools. Achievements in the community, too, are a terrific barometer of your readiness for law school and beyond.

4. Exchange Programs or Study Abroad - One of the best ways to correct the misperception that you might not be as qualified as an applicant from a traditional "feeder" school is to actually go to such a school for an exchange program over a semester. Another avenue is study abroad programs (not the "Semester at Sea" or "Party in Barcelona" type) or even domestic exchange programs to a non-feeder school that will allow you to increase the sample size of evidence about your academic potential.

5. Publication - Much like summer experiences, publication of work in peer-reviewed journals or other media outside of the confines of your own school can help you really stand out when applying to top law schools.

If you need help applying to top law schools, our law school admissions experts will help you strategize and implement ways to punch above your college’s weight class.

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