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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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You majored in medieval history, but you ended up in retail merchandising. You still love history, but management and marketing in the real world is actually quite fascinating. You’re better at it than you thought you would be, and judging from that recent promotion, your managers must have faith in you.

But your lack of business background may eventually hold you back. You would like to have more practical tools in accounting, statistics, operations and business law. If you want to advance within your organization, switch companies or industries, start your own business, or just make more money, you probably will want an MBA.

But you’ve never taken a business course. Doesn’t getting a Masters degree in a subject require some previous study of that discipline?

An MBA, or Masters of Business Administration, is a unique graduate degree. It is designed to give accomplished professionals, no matter what their previous background, a well-rounded exposure to core business disciplines. Such cross-functional exposure will either help them apply their former skill set to a business environment or enable them to supervise multiple business functions as a general manager.

Any major can be a good background for a business career, especially with the training of an MBA. Were you a theater major? Your ability to communicate dynamically with an audience could make you a powerful leader in sales or marketing. An art history major? Your visual orientation makes you a natural for advertising! Psychology? Market research is calling you. English? Every company needs managers who can write. Foreign language? One word: “global.”

Recently, I researched a sample of Class of 2012 profiles for full-time MBA programs at elite institutions, including Harvard (HBS), Stanford (GSB), U Penn (Wharton), Northwestern (Kellogg), NYU (Stern), U Virginia (Darden), and U Michigan (Ross). The results were generally consistent from school to school.

You quanti-phobes out there will be happy to learn that on average, only a quarter of incoming MBA students had been business majors in college. Undergraduate business majors ranged from a low of  17% at Stanford to a high of 31% at Kellogg. Another quarter of the incoming class had majored in engineering, mathematics or the natural sciences.

About half of the incoming class at these premier business schools had majored in the humanities, arts, social sciences and “other.” For those class profiles that broke out the economics major separately, economics majors represented an average of 20% of the incoming MBA class.

It makes sense, doesn’t it? The goal of MBA programs is to create rich, eclectic, stimulating dialogue among professionals from diverse backgrounds. Diversity does not just mean ethnic or racial heritage or an international upbringing. It also means the perspectives students bring from their previous education and work. All business majors or engineers would make for a boring conversation!

That said, if you are considering going back to school for an MBA, and you have no prior business training, many schools recommend a few courses to help you hit the ground running. Requirements vary, but most schools suggest a course in economics and statistics (which most college grads have taken anyway). A basic accounting course is always a plus, and will probably help you in your current job as well.

Is it intimidating for a “pure liberal arts type” to go back to business school? At first. As a psychology undergraduate from Penn, I found the introductory accounting course at Wharton to be rather frightening. Of course, I was (and will always be) the recovering child of a CPA.

But there was a familial sense of camaraderie among the case groups and project teams. The engineers helped the psych majors with the math, and the psych majors helped the engineers string a few multi-syllable words together to make sentences (only kidding!).

When it came to the Wharton Follies, our school’s annual musical theater revue and defining tradition now widely  (and hilariously) imitated, even accountants and engineers were known to sing and dance. Thank goodness they had us liberal arts types to teach them how!

Recommended reading: The Best Business Schools’ Admissions Secrets: A Former Harvard Business School Admissions Board Member Reveals the Insider Keys to Getting In by Chioma Isiadinso. Related posts: Does Your College GPA Matter? Take the GMAT While You’re Still Smart, Preparing for Business School: GMAT or GRE?, Time to Apply to B-School?,Getting a Job with a Lackluster GPA.

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