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Elle Woods, Reese Witherspoon‘s character from Legally Blonde, studies ferociously for the LSATs on her exercise bike, as sorority sisters and Bruiser the chihuahua cheer her on. Harvard Law School‘s admissions committee watch her stylish video application, dumbfounded, as she makes her case for admission in a bikini poolside at her home in Southern California.

The stunned admissions officers reason that Ms. Woods “did get a 175 LSAT score” (the magic number), and “a 4.0 GPA.” When one disbeliever questions her “A in Polka Dots,” another notes that they’ve never admitted a Fashion Merchandising major before. Shaking his head and shrugging helplessly, the Admissions Director acquiesces: “Well, Ms. Woods… welcome to Harvard.”

Somehow there is this urban legend that law school admissions is only about the numbers, in contrast to, say, graduate business school. The student forums cynically proclaim that it’s only about your LSAT and GPA, as if nothing else matters. This belief sounded a bit too simplistic to me, so I dug into the class profiles of the top twenty U.S. law schools to see what they look for in JD applicants.

These elite institutions’ acceptance rates range from 6 percent to the low 20’s. Their LSAT and GPA 25th-75th percentiles range roughly from 160-175 and 3.6-3.9, respectively. So an aspiring law school applicant cannot simply hope to compensate for lame scores or grades with some colorful work experience. However, applicants with impressive LSAT and GPA numbers are not so rare that they don’t need to do anything else to qualify for a top law school. With so many baby boomlet applicants competing for admission, elite JD programs can “have it all”: the numbers, diverse backgrounds, and water-walker resumes.

Harvard Law states on its Web site: “Quantitative factors, while informative, do not play a decisive role in our selection process. We have no computational methods for making admission decisions, no mechanical shortcuts, no substitutes for careful assessment and good judgment. All completed applications are reviewed in their entirety with the LSAT as one factor in an overall assessment of academic promise, personal achievement, and potential contribution to the vitality of the student body.” I believe this statement is more than a nod to “holistic admissions,” especially when one considers the incredibly fascinating credentials and “circuitous route” experiences matriculants bring to elite JD programs.

Penn Law’s Web site describes its 2013 Class “Beyond the Numbers”: “They hold PhDs in neuroscience, neurobiology, philosophy, and political science… They include teachers at all levels, including former members of the Peace Corps and Teach for America… patent examiners, CPAs, journalists, entrepreneurs, grant writers, and engineers; commissioned officers in the Army and Marine Corps… a science, tech, and weapons analyst for the CIA… a former professional basketball player… players of every instrument you can imagine from the bugle to the pipe organ; members of improvisational comedy troupes and several DJ’s…” You get the picture: it’s not just about 175.

As I analyzed the entering class statistics for individual institutions, I found an average age of 24 or 25, with age ranges between 20 and mid-40’s, so applicants who are accepted to elite law schools are not typically freshly minted college graduates. In fact, only about a third of matriculants come directly from college, and somewhere between 10 and 20 percent of matriculants hold advanced academic degrees.

It is true that entrants to top MBA programs tend to be slightly older with more “real world” experience. If top law students typically matriculate after two years, top MBA students matriculate after four. Applicants to both types of programs, however, are doing something pretty impressive during those intervening years.

Related reading: How to Get into the Top Law Schools, 4th Ed., by Richard Montauk; The Best Law Schools’ Admissions Secrets: The Essential Guide from Harvard’s Former Admissions Dean by Joyce Curil; The Law School Admissions Game: Play Like an Expert by Ann K. Levine. Related posts: Does Your College GPA Matter?

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It depends… on what you ultimately decide to do, either in college or after college. During undergraduate, you may choose to transfer to a more prestigious school, or apply for a cool study abroad program that requires a good GPA. After college, you may aspire to an elite graduate or professional program, or a top tier company entry level position. If whatever goal you end up choosing does not require decent grades, then you’ll be ok if you slack off. But if you slack off, and later decide on a higher aspiration, then you’re screwed. Let’s look at the possible goals after college that could require a strong  GPA.

1. Law School. According to US News & World Report, the 25th-75th percentile GPA scores for all students for the lowest of the top ten law schools is 3.5-3.9. If your GPA is on the low side, that puts more pressure on your LSAT score.

2. Graduate Business School. According to US News & World Report, the average GPA score for the lowest of the top ten graduate B-schools is 3.5. If your GPA is low, that puts more pressure on your GMAT score.

3. Medical School. According to US News & World Report, the  average GPA score for the lowest of the top ten medical schools (primary care)  is 3.7. If you are a serious pre-medicine student, you are probably not reading this post anyway!

4. Graduate Programs. According to About.com, most master’s programs require minimum GPAs of 3.0 or 3.3, and most doctoral programs require GPAs of 3.3 or 3.5. If you are applying for a doctoral degree in a competitive field, seeking a fellowship, and aspiring to attend a top ten graduate school, expect requirements to be higher. Graduate programs would like to see that you were in an undergraduate honors program with a research thesis, and qualifying for that opportunity requires a 3.5 or higher GPA. If you are considering graduate work in your field, you should be doing a thesis anyway, just to get your “feet wet” in the world of research.

5. Entry Level Jobs. 3.0 is the bare minimum. Top tier companies in fiercely competitive fields, such as investment banking, management consulting, and Big Four audit firms, will use GPA to weed out less qualified candidates. Additional opinions about GPA and entry level jobs: “Those Low Grades in College May Haunt Your Job Search” NY Times, “Low GPA in Top Engineering School: What To Do?” College Confidential, “Should I List My College GPA on My Resume?” Quintessential Careers. You may never want to go to graduate school or work at an elite company. Then again, you might. Your best bet is protecting your GPA at all costs: it follows you forever.

Relevant reading: How To Become a Straight-A Student: The Unconventional Strategies Real Students Use to Score High While Studying Less by Cal Newport, The Best Law Schools’ Admissions Secrets: The Essential Guide from Harvard’s Former Admissions Dean by Charles H. Whitebread, The Best Business Schools’ Admissions Secrets: A Former Harvard Business School Admissions Board Member Reveals the Secrets for Getting In by Chioma Isiadinso.

Related posts: Best Websites for Careers in Finance, Take the GMAT While You’re Still Smart, Getting a Job with a Lackluster GPA.

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