When is an Explanatory Essay Necessary for Law School?

When is an Explanatory Essay Necessary for Law School?
Last week, I promised a quick rundown on explanatory essays. This week, I make good on my promise. Because I’m a trustworthy guy.

No one wants to write an explanatory essay. You should have thought about that before you passed out drunk in front of your house at the ripe old age of 17. What, you were just a dumb kid back then? I know; that’s why you passed out drunk, right in front of your house!

As much as it might suck, this essay is another opportunity to show off your writing skills and give the admissions committee a little insight into who you are. Turn this problem into an opportunity with a well-written essay.

Before getting into content, the first issue to resolve is whether or not one is necessary. In order to write an explanatory essay, the following criteria have to be met:

1. There is a problem

No, your 3.4 GPA doesn’t count. No, your 2 point jump on the LSAT doesn’t either. And don’t even come to me with the idea that you have a history of poor standardized testing AND a lower than average GPA.

In short, something that would raise an eyebrow if I wasn’t aware of your history needs an explanation, and nothing else.

So what makes me raise an eyebrow? School transfers. An arrest. A gap in your resume. A significant LSAT increase (5+ points). An upward trend in your GPA; however, it has to be significant. Going from a 3.3 to a 3.5 just lets me know that you finished your math and science requirements (damn you and your easy major, Mr. PoliSci!).

In short, don’t force it if it isn’t there. It’s easy to come across as whiny and paranoid if you start explaining away a single bad grade – just suck it up. Unless, of course, you had a sick family member during that semester.

2. It has an explanation

Your recently developed taste for Scotch or newfound love of keg stands doesn’t count here. A death in the family, an illness, or some other life altering event does. If you had trouble adjusting to college because you were too hung over to go to classes, how do you think you’ll handle law school? There’s more free booze there than at an Irish wedding.

3. The issue will be resolved by law school

Most often, time will allow you to show that the issue will be resolved by the start of your matriculation. A stupid underage drinking charge followed by several years of legal sobriety (i.e. don’t get caught) will help mitigate a school’s worries re: your drinking habits. A strong upward trend in your grades will demonstrate your newfound study habits and academic abilities.

Next week, I’ll provide a quick rundown of what you should cover in a good explanatory essay.

26 Responses

  1. Claudia C says:

    Hi Matt,

    I had a hard time when I first started college, no partying, just spent too much time on extracurriculars (earned a lot of recognition and state/national awards) but did awful in some classes. I also worked a lot of hours.

    I’ve been working on making up for it and have seen a big jump in my GPA but its probably going to be right at 3 mark by graduation this Fall. My basic requirements were the bad grades and anything major related has been great probably at a 3.5 or a little more if calculated based on that.

    I even completed two internships since my bad period and am taking (of course) the Blueprint LSAT prep.

    Is it time to start explaining or is there no hope?

    • Matt Shinners says:

      Hey Claudia,

      Tough call here.

      On the one hand, you want to talk away from the presumption that admissions officers will have for that low GPA at the beginning of your college career. They assume that you were adjusting to college, freedom, and the resulting semester-long hangover that accompanied the change. It seems like that doesn’t apply to you.

      However, you’re not talking away from the presumption with anything particularly compelling, as far as the ECs go. By saying that you didn’t have a focus on your schoolwork, you’re letting the schools know that you were bad at prioritizing.

      What is more promising for an explanatory essay, to me, is your statement that you were working a lot of hours. When you say that, do you mean to support yourself/help pay for school? And how many hours? If it was significant, then you can definitely write an explanatory essay about finding a balance between work and school.

      As far as giving up hope – don’t! Your LSAT score can make up for any number of GPA sins, so focus on doing well on the test.

  2. kristen says:

    Dear Matt,
    I think I might fall into the category of wanting to explain away just two little bad grades. I had a GPA of 3.9, Then I spent a semester abroad. I took a dance class and a drumming class, but I had no dance or music experience and only pulled off B+ in both classes, which dropped me down to a 3.8. I would like to explain that the less than perfect grades were because I was trying something new, not because I was abroad in a country with no drinking age, making stupid decisions. Is it worth it? Or am I going to come off as a whiny over-achiever?

    • Matt Shinners says:

      Whiny overachiever. With a 3.8, you’re only drawing attention to a negative by writing the explanatory essay. No one is going to think twice about that semester abroad and your B+s unless you call attention to it!

  3. Zack says:

    Hi Matt,

    I am an international student, and in my freshman year I really struggled with the language barrier as well as the different system of education. I ended up having a 3.2-3.3 GPA for the first year.

    However, as I got better with that issue, my following four semester has an average GPA of 3.8-3.9, and my degree GPA is 3.9+. My overall is only 3.6-3.7

    Do you think I should write an essay about this?

    Thanks a lot!

    • Matt Shinners says:

      Definitely! It meets all the criteria for an explanatory essay. Focus on making it extremely well-written essay so that you demonstrate your new mastery of the English language instead of just asserting it.

      However, don’t expect it to work miracles. Your GPA will still be your GPA; this will just be an unrelated plus.

  4. Paige says:

    Hey Matt,

    I started off as an engineering major at two community colleges (I transferred to another one after my freshman year). Not only was the course load difficult, but I was literally the only student in two of my physics classes and a computer programming class. I made a D in the physics class and lab and a C in my programming class. I also failed differential equations. I’ve since changed my major, moved to a four year school and seen an increase in my GPA. It still isn’t stellar though and I was even more concerned after seeing the LSAC generated GPA.

    Okay, my question is should I write and explanatory essay on my time as a pre-engineering major? Overall, my GPA is only 3.1 but my major GPA is 3.5. It’s obvious from my transcript where the issue lied. Also, my LSAT score is a point above the average of the law school I am applying to. Is it necessary to explain?

    Thanks so much!

    • Matt Shinners says:

      I wouldn’t recommend an explanatory essay in this case. Your essay would say exactly what I assume based on your transcript – you were in extremely demanding engineering courses, deflating your GPA.

      And congrats on your LSAT being above-average for your target school! That’s more important than GPA.

  5. Ben says:

    Hi Matt!

    My GPA is a 3.4 and would be significantly higher if it weren’t for one finance class. I made a C- in it during my senior fall semester and retook it my final semester and made an F. These two grades were my only below B grades. Should I explain that I missed the final exam the second time around?

    PS: An interesting blog/article could be written about what types of jobs are good for applying to law schools. For example, I have the option of going into a more ‘legal’ job (compliance at a government agency) versus a more widely regarded analyst job at the same agency.


    • Matt Shinners says:

      Hey Ben,

      While it would be better to have an explanation for those grades, it doesn’t sound like you have a good one. Missing the final doesn’t reflect positively on you, so unless it was to attend a funeral for a member of your family or because you were hospitalized, it doesn’t sound like you have an essay.

      As far as the jobs go, it won’t make much of a difference. Law schools aren’t looking for people with legal experience – you’re supposed to get that after law school – so any job that is full-time, supporting-yourself level of employment will suffice! Go with whichever one you find more interesting.

  6. Jake says:

    Hi there,

    My GPA, quite frankly, is terrible due to one bad year. During my second year, everything that could possibly go wrong did – my mom developed colon cancer, I struggled and changed majors, and suffered from significant clinical depression. That being said, there is a strong upwards trend (my 4th year GPA is 3.33). Would it make sense to write an explanatory essay for this?

    • Matt Shinners says:

      It does, but I would focus on your mother’s health issue. The changing of majors is a commonplace occurrence, and the issues with clinical depression can raise red flags in the application process.

  7. Anna says:

    Hi Matt!

    I have a bit of an odd situation. I am a junior at a 4-year college. My transcript is a smorgasbord of schools because of the path I’ve taken academically. about 15 credits are from high school, and about 25 of them are ungraded credit (military/clep tests). I also had one horrific semester, and because of the limited amount of graded credits, it is weighted more heavily. Is it worth an explanation letter?


    • Matt Shinners says:

      If your transcript looks like a patchwork quilt, an explanatory essay to walk the person analyzing it through it can definitely be called for. I probably wouldn’t write an essay attempting to explain away that horrific semester (unless there’s a good reason for it), but you can definitely explain the rest.

  8. Bernard says:

    Hey Matt!,

    My freshman year of college I took calc and calc 2, and since my mind wasn’t set for studying I got an D and an C. My overall GPA freshman year was a 3.28. I got my act together and the past 3 semesters my GPA has been 3.84, 4.0 and 3.93. Additionally I have a job that has a fair amount of responsibility + I participate in EC in my university. My overall GPA now is a 3.64 and should be a 3.7 by the time im applying. Do I call attention to my 2 bad grades to explain why my GPA isn’t “stellar”, or do I let my upward grade trend do the talking?


  9. Jesse says:

    Good Afternoon Matt,

    I went through a lot of schools before I was finally able to find one where I finished my undergrad. The primary reason for this was that I was active duty Air Force and moved from Arizona, to Florida, to Maryland with one or two Iraq deployments in between. Is that something that I would need to use an explanatory essay for or should I rely on my resume to explain that circumstance? Thank you for all the assistance.

  10. Jack says:

    Afternoon Matt,

    My last two semesters of college were really bad. I carried around a 3.4-3.5 until my last year and graduated with a 3.2. My transcript from this period of time is very messy: a couple of D’s and one withdrawal. I had just acquired a *confidential* disease that messed with me mentally, which led to a quasi-depression that reflected through my poor school work. Also, I’ve taken the LSAT twice, scoring a 153 first, and then a 161. Am I in a position for an explanatory essay? My inclination is yes, but I’d like to know for sure. Thanks so much.

    • Yuko Sin says:

      A serious illness is a good reason to write a GPA addendum. You will almost certainly have to write an LSAT addendum since your score went up by a ton (almost 1 standard deviation).

  11. Bobby says:

    Hi Yuko! (Thanks for taking over for Matt!)

    My GPA had a gap in the middle where I went from getting a 1.87 one year to a 3.8 the next. (My final GPA is a 3.0) It isn’t so much an upward trend as opposed to a sudden jump from Ds to As.
    The reality is that I was over-worked and overly stressed about a lot of things, but I really just didn’t care about school at that point in my life. I was just completely burnt out. I took a summer to get myself mentally healthy and finished with 2 years of strong grades.
    Worth writing an addendum for a bad burnout that got fixed? Especially when the change in grades was so sudden and dramatic? Or am I overly concerned and going to come across as paranoid? Its pretty clear looking at my transcript what happened.

    • Greg Nix says:

      Hey Bobby,

      I’d say go back to point 2 in Matt’s post. Unless you can think of a stronger justification for your down year, there’s probably not a lot of point in writing an explanatory essay. Your admissions counselor likely isn’t going to accept that you “didn’t care about school at that point,” because who’s to say it won’t happen again at law school?

      Focus on nailing your personal statement and getting some great letters of recommendation, then hope that your (probably suberb) LSAT scores do the rest.

  12. Crystal Fomba says:

    Hi there ! Currently my GPA is a 3.7 . It would have been a 3.8 but on account of my sophomore year where I had 2 WD and a few b’s my GPA dropped. I plan on applying to a couple of IVY’s this fall with hopefully *finger crossed* an LSAT score in the 170’s . Do you think I should right an explanatory essay for that sophomore year . The two WD on my transcript are making me so nervous . Thanks !

    • Laura Santoski says:


      Most of the time, WDs don’t factor into your LSAC GPA – the only exception is if they’re punitive withdrawals. You can find more information on that here: http://blueprintlsat.com/lsatblog/law-school-admissions/how-lsac-calculates-your-gpa/

      It sounds like it probably won’t make sense for you to write an explanatory essay, especially if your WDs are non-punitive. If the WDs do factor negatively into your LSAC GPA, you could consider writing an explanatory essay, but ONLY if you meet points #2 and #3 in this post (you have a good reason for it and it won’t continue into law school).

  13. Jonathan says:

    Hi Matt,

    I have a situation a bit different than the previous posts. I am an adult re-entry student, 37 years old, in which from my very first year of college out of high school, I failed every single class for an entire year. This equates to twelve F’s, yes, twelve of them… Fast forward to 2013, after suffering a back injury in an accident, I returned to school. Since that time, I have completed 112 units at a community college with a 3.92, and transferred to UC Berkeley to finish my undergraduate work.

    After calculating what the BEST case scenario would be for my LSAC generated GPA, I was shocked to see that even if I complete every class in my college career since returning to school with an “A” (which I can do), my GPA would be 3.53. Without all these F’s obviously I am a virtual 4.0 GPA; with the blunders I appear as a potentially unqualified candidate for the top law schools in the nation.

    How should I handle this situation? Wouldn’t this warrant an explanatory letter? Would top law schools make the obvious deduction, which I am not that student back then?

    Thank you for your time in advance!

    • Laura Santoski says:

      Hey Jonathan,

      Yes, you absolutely should do an explanatory letter. The good news is that you have pretty much the strongest case possible for the argument that you’ve changed as a student — but definitely do not leave law schools to draw that conclusion on their own. Write the essay, be matter-of-fact about what happened during that first year post-high-school (i.e. present the facts without sounding like you’re making excuses), and highlight the huge positive change you’ve made since then.

  14. Erik says:

    Late to the party here! But a pressing question anyway.

    Community college dual enrollment program to earn college credit sounded like a great idea in high school. I knew that as long as I passed I would get college credit, so 15 year old me didn’t worry too much about my pre-calculus final exam. Now I find out that those grades will be taken into account by LSAC.

    I had a 3.91 UG GPA, with honors. I worked hard for it. My 13 credit hours of high school transfer credit bring it down to a 3.82. Respectable, but maybe not to H/Y/S, which are the only schools I would take out $200,000 in loans to attend.

    Should I write an explanatory essay?

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