Random smattering of beliefs I held five years ago: minivans are chick magnets, laundry will take care of itself if you just close your eyes and wish hard enough, water is bad for you, beer is good for you, credit is free money, college GPAs don’t matter, and baseball is a better sport than basketball or football.
Now, maybe I didn’t think I thought those things, but all evidence points to my having thought those things, if you follow. The beginning years of college are a beautiful time of ignorance, when you cast off the lines linking you to the great parental dock and set proudly out to sea. The problem is that some of us quickly catch scurvy and sink the ship. And sadly, to paraphrase Maximus in Gladiator, what we do in college echoes in…law school.
Unfortunately, college GPAs do matter. They matter a whole hell of a lot, actually, ranging anywhere from 30 to 50% of the law school GPA/LSAT computation. Going back to my pig ignorance, when I took the LSAT, I thought my score was enough to get me into plenty of law schools I had no interest in attending. To celebrate, I skipped a couple of finals, and thus, with the kind of hubris only seen in Greek tragedies, I effectively laid waste to what remnants of a GPA I had left.
The law school application gives you ample space to discuss these troubles. Whether you have a terrible GPA or multiple LSATs, you’re often given the option of writing explanatory essays telling your tale of woe. The issue to remember is this: there needs to be a real problem. While I still think my “I didn’t know college GPAs mattered” is an awesome explanation because it is both sadly true and indicative of real problems, it really doesn’t cut it for the explanatory essay. Saying you were lazy, or that you didn’t like school, or that the work wasn’t challenging enough for you and you got bored are all equally terrible explanations because they don’t indicate any kind of real problem beyond typical over-privileged malaise. As my dad would say, the admissions officer feels for you, but he can’t quite reach.
The best GPA explanations are those that people are likely to sympathize with. Taking care of a sick relative? Check. Battling cancer? Check. Battling sobriety via beer bong? Not so much. Another fairly common GPA explanation that can work are those that involve changing of majors at some juncture in college. If you were pre-med your first two years, weren’t really good at it, and then switched to Geography, where you dominated, you can say that you spent two years fulfilling your parents’ dream for you, and then decided it was time to fulfill your own (or whatever). Don’t forget that you not only need to show a real problem, you need to show how you solved that problem and why it isn’t a problem anymore.
LSAT explanations are a bit more cut and dried (and the ideal route to go with these is to not get a bad score in the first place). If you have multiple LSAT scores, and they vary greatly, you’ll probably want to write an explanation. If you have multiple cancelled scores, the same applies. It is true that “bad day” explanations work better for the LSAT than the GPA because the LSAT really is only one day, and GPA is the sum total of something like 700 days. That’s a lot of bad days. But as with the GPA, the better the explanation, the better it’s likely to go over. Claiming a “bad day” might work, but a low score before you knew you had a reading disability and a high one after it was diagnosed and you implemented different reading strategies (accompanied with appropriate documentation) is probably a wee bit more convincing.
Long story longer, the main goal with the explanatory essays is to let admissions officers know about specific issues you had with your academics or the LSAT. If you state the problem, how you solved it, and why it won’t affect you in law school, you’ll have gone a long way toward explaining why you’re a good candidate despite (or perhaps because of if you want to get fancy) your low LSAT score or GPA. But be sure to shop it around – if it sounds whiny to a TA, friend, or professor, chances are it will sound whiny to an admissions officer. And always call the schools if possible to see what they think. Every admissions committee is different and what might fly with one might sink with another.
Dave is an application consultant for Blueprint LSAT Preparation and in his spare time enjoys lumber jack competitions and Norelco products.