Published: Mar 10, 2009

Topics: Education       Grad School       

I understand that with so many otherwise qualified applicants, law schools must differentiate between small incremental differences in LSAT scores to make admissions decisions. What I don't understand, however, is why law schools seem to differentiate so much between 3 or 4 point differences in scores (which, at the upper end of the scale, might represent a 3 or 4 question difference on a 100 question test) even when there is a considerable difference in other areas of the application. Take myself: I have good grades in a difficult major (albeit from a state school), a master's degree from a world-renowned institution, nearly 3 years of international work experience in the pharmaceutical/biotech industry, have been awarded a prestigious International Relations fellowship, speak 2 foreign languages fluently, have published multiple articles in peer-reviewed journals, wrote what most people have told me is an excellent personal statement, and yet, have been denied from every top-20 law school I have applied to this year. And I'm not talking Harvard/Yale, but schools well on down the list. Why?? Because I have a 164 on the LSAT (91.4%tile) and not a 167 or 168 (96/98%). Ridiculous!!!!

I can understand your frustration. You're obviously very accomplished, and I can see how it would seem bizarre that your fate at the various law schools you apply to can seem to hinge on three questions on the LSAT. Having sat on both sides of that fence - as a law school applicant back in the day, and later as an admissions officer - l can tell you that law school admissions officers don't entirely like that regime either.

You are right that the law school admissions process is very numbers-driven, up to a point. (More on the limits below.) Admissions officers don't necessarily want to care that much about a three-point difference either. So why do three questions on the LSAT make such a difference? I can boil this answer down to two reasons: Application volume (which you allude to in the first sentence of your question but haven't fully internalized) and rankings.

Let's take rankings first. Before US News & World Report started ranking law schools (and those rankings are just over a decade old), admissions officers had much more discretion to focus on the non-numbers parts of applications. But because the editors of US News think that things like median LSATs are so important in evaluating the caliber of a law school (as opposed to, say, what law firms, judges, and legal clinics - i.e. the market for law school graduates - think), law schools have to treat them as important too.

Law schools would love to ignore the rankings. But they can't, because applicants are obsessed with them (just check out the applicant boards online) and make big decisions based on a difference of just one or two slots. Bottom line: As long as applicants care so much about the rankings, applicants themselves force admissions officers to care intensely about things like median LSAT scores. And I can tell you as a former admissions officer that a difference of just one point in a median LSAT can have big consequences in the rankings, consequences that become self-sustaining because of that sensitivity so many applicants have to small changes in rankings. A three-point drop in the LSAT median would be considered a disaster.

Application volume matters too. Even if the rankings didn't exist, the top-twenty schools would still reject plenty of people with great backgrounds. You seem certain that you've been rejected in favor of people with less impressive credentials, but you may have been underestimating your competition. (Or you may have failed to highlight your credentials as effectively as you could have -- more on that below). And if they have to decide between you and another person (or four) who have credentials or experiences just as impressive as yours, it's a perfectly rational outcome - and, I would argue, not an outcome you can fault them for - if they use the LSAT to decide who gets the offer. They could just flip a coin, or let a computer assign a spot among them randomly, but I'm guessing that regime wouldn't make you any happier. Admissions officers at the top-twenty schools have to make tough choices all day long among talented and accomplished people who do meet their median targets, so unless someone like you really wows them with the non-numbers parts - and that's a tricky thing to do in the little space an application offers - it is not "ridiculous," as you put it, for them to turn you down.

So is law school admissions entirely about numbers? No. If it were all about numbers, schools wouldn't pay professional salaries and benefits for a job that a computer could do: plug in the numbers, spit out the letters. Unless you are a member of a minority group they are trying to recruit, a school's median numbers will be reasonably predictive for any given applicant's chances. But we're talking about bell curves here, and exceptions do get made every year on either end, meaning that people with great numbers are rejected every year, and people with less than great numbers are admitted every year. What applicants with less than stellar numbers have in common is that they do an exceptional job presenting what they have to offer on the non-numbers side. Sure, the odds are against those applicants with LSATs below the medians; I'm not suggesting great odds, and the greater the disparity, the worse are the odds. But it happens enough times every year that applicants would be silly to squander that opportunity and make the most of the soft parts of the application.

Admissions officers pride themselves on picking the right people for a class, even in a world of rankings constraints. People are selected for those admissions jobs because they have a certain skill set that allows them to evaluate people - to put together a class every year that will benefit from each student's insights inside and outside of the classroom, that the school's professors will enjoy teaching and recommending for clerkships, that legal employers will want to hire, that will serve as excellent ambassadors for the school for the rest of their lives, that will benefit society in one way or another - all based on limited information about any given applicant.

Add to that other objectives and mandates admissions officers have besides the rankings and medians - they have to make sure there are enough minorities in each class, meet legislative quotas for in-state students (if they're public schools), figure out whether they can afford to tick off an applicant's big-donor relative, ensure that they don't end up with an entire class of Poli Sci and Econ majors or Ivy League graduates or people from a particular five-state area (just to give a few examples). Admissions officers make trade-offs against the LSAT numbers all the time for a variety of reasons, but they will be very picky before they make an offer to someone who will drag down the median.

So unless your numbers make you very competitive at a given school, they have to love -- not like, not find adequate, not tolerate -- what they see in the non-numbers parts as well. And based on your LSAT alone, you were not very competitive at most of the top twenty. For example, at Georgetown, ranked 14th in 2005 by US News, your LSAT was three points below their 25th percentile from the previous year. So you would have had to knock their socks off in the rest of the application to get their attention.

You sound very sure that all the top-twenty schools rejected you only because of your LSAT, but that may or may not be the case. This past admissions season, for example, I worked with an applicant, a white male with no donor connections, who had only a 165 LSAT but, unlike you, no graduate degree, international work experience, or publications to his name. He not only received offers from several schools in the 10-20 range of the rankings (and has been waitlisted at more than one top-ten school), but as of early March has also received a generous scholarship offer from one of them. So don't be too quick to blame everything on some undue emphasis on your LSAT.

There are a number of things that may have held you back from the top twenty besides your LSAT score. Here are some possibilities:

- You did not employ a wise Early Decision strategy.

- The recommenders you chose did not serve you well.

- Your essays weren't first-rate. You say that your essays were "excellent," but in my experience, applicants usually have no idea what constitutes a good essay for application purposes, and most of the people they ask don't have any reason to know better either. Also, I note that you used the singular to refer to your essay. If you applied to a good number of the top twenty schools, you most likely should not have been sending the same essay to each of them given their essay prompts.

- You did not figure out the best way to present yourself, how best to highlight the great things you bring to the table and neutralize any weaknesses. An admissions officer might have five minutes to make a decision on your file, so you would have had to squeeze maximum leverage out of every word in your application. If your application as a whole did not show you off to best effect, there is no way admissions officers were going to give one of those sub-median slots to you.

- If you applied late in the season (for top-twenty schools, that means after Thanksgiving), you hurt your chances just with your timing. Classes at the top schools can fill up very, very quickly.

- There is some kind of disciplinary or conduct problem in your background that you didn't defuse satisfactorily.

Keep in mind, too, that ultimately admissions officers also have to like you as a human being (again, unless your numbers are really good, in which case they are more inclined to make allowances). So if you rubbed them the wrong way in your application or in person, say at a law school forum, that would also explain why a top-twenty school didn't want to make an exception for you. I know nothing more about your application than what you've written in your question to me, and we'll never know what your recommenders actually wrote, but if you came off at all as arrogant or boring or unfocused or unexcited about the school (the most common problems of that nature that admissions officers see), that presentation will have hurt you as well. I don't know if any of those things is true in your case, but I do have a suspicion: You demonstrated a strong sense of entitlement in the way you phrased your question, and if any of that bled through in your applications, you didn't stand a chance.


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