Mistake #6: "Help my GPA has fallen and it can't get up"

See previous – Mistake #7: Texts, Typos, and Timezones

I have been following law school discussion forums for a long time. Much has changed over the years, but the next three mistakes have stayed pretty much constant. For #6, we will focus on undergraduate grade point average (uGPA). Invariably, at some point in the admissions cycle, a phenomenon along the lines of the following happens in numerous panicky threads online (and increasingly in my inbox):

Applicant is diligently looking at the median undergraduate GPAs of the law schools s/he is applying to. Things look about right to the happy applicant who, at Prestigious Non-directional University has a 3.75 cumulative GPA. The medians for the 11 schools that make the final application cut range from a 3.6 to a 3.8 — all within target range. Transcripts go to LSAC, LSAT is taken, things are running smoothly and then — as if by nefarious intervention — the 3.75 magically turns into a 3.55. All of a sudden not a single school that our formerly happy applicant has applied to has a median GPA at our below applicant’s. “What in the name of the President of Law School has happened?” the exasperated applicant asks. In painful detail, replete with links so I cannot be misquoted or misrepresentative, here is what happened…

All LSAC member law schools have agreed to a standardized grading scale so as to make transcripts across undergraduate institutions uniform. This grading scale exists on a 0.00 to a 4.33 scale. (FYI, I have never seen either a 0.00 or 4.33 cumulative average in a law school application.) Information from LSAC on this scale and conversions can be found here.

Keep in mind that there are no institutional or class specific weighted values assigned to LSAC’s standardized 0.0 to 4.33 scale. In other words, your LSAC computed GPA does not go up if you went to a school with lower median GPAs (like the military academies, for example) nor does it go up if you take a majority of courses with traditionally lower grades (e.g. organic chemistry). LSAC simply coverts all of your grades to the 4.33 scale and lets each law school assign whatever weight it wants to institutional or course rigor.

Also keep in mind that LSAC requires you to send just about all of your academic transcripts. Per LSAC, this includes:

  • community colleges
  • undergraduate and graduate institutions
  • law/medical/professional institutions
  • institutions attended for summer or evening courses
  • institutions attended even though a degree was never received
  • institutions from which you took college-level courses while in high school even though they were for high school credit
  • institutions that clearly sponsored your overseas study (clear sponsorship means the courses received the sponsoring institution’s academic credit, not transfer credit, and the course codes, titles, credits earned, and grades appear on the sponsoring institution’s transcript. Typically, these grades and credits are included in the sponsoring institution’s cumulative GPA. The courses are often administered and taught by the sponsoring institution’s faculty at an overseas institution)
  • International transcripts

It is in the converting of the transcripts and repeated course where you see some significant changes in what applicants often 'think; their GPA is and what it actually is reported to law schools as. Three macro scenarios exist here so let me cover all three, briefly, and let LSAC provide you with the details.

Scenario #1: Bad-news-bears, your GPA goes down.

This, from my experience, is the most common occurrence for law school applicants. There are two likely reasons for this. The most frequently occurring is that you took a course (or courses) twice and your degree granting school only counts the higher of the two grades, but LSAC averages the grades. For example, your freshman year you get an F in physics and you retake this physics course and get an A. Cool Eastern State sees this as an “A” in your cumulative GPA but LSAC (and thus all LSAC member law schools) still count the 0.0 from the first time around. Ouch, your 4.0 in physics just became a 2.0! The other way this could happen is if you transferred credits from one school to your degree granting school, forgot about those grades, and they happen to be worse than your grades at your degree granting school. Your aggregate uGPA will go down. As we will see in scenario #3, transferring grades can have a positive effect and raise youir uGPA.

Scenario #2: Nothing changes
This means you did not retake any courses, transfer in credits, etc. This is actually rarer than you might think, but obviously happens. I doubt you will ever see a thread on top-law-schools.com where someone is questioning “WHY DID MY GPA STAY THE SAME?”

Scenario #3: Your GPA goes up

Like the “no-change” scenario, this usually doesn’t elicit a call to LSAC, a call to law school admissions office, or an email to me saying “what gives, man?” It is a less common but nice experience. If you took college level courses in High School and excelled, or transferred in strong grades from a prior college enrollment, or made A+ grades (which LSAC counts as 4.33) that your undergrad only counted as 4.0, you can actually see your LSAC computed GPA be higher than your degree granting GPA. So be aware, the range of schools that you are looking at might now be expanded!

This is a very important link. LSAC explains all of the permutations of this conversion in details here, and I would read carefully.

One final and important point, as those who have gone through the law school admissions process will have noticed, I have used uGPA throughout. Your undergraduate grade point average is what gets sent to the ABA and from which US News & World Report derives their median gpas from. It is of acute interest in the law school admissions process. Unfortunately, your graduate school gpa is not. The fact that you have a graduate degree may help – depending on the degree and circumstances. For example, a PhD from MIT would be highly differentiating and likely elevating. But grad school gpas tend to all be on the high side, and thus they do not differentiate (nor are they factored into USWR rankings) and are all but ignored.

So in sum, know this process. Understand how it works and make sure you are aware of what your LSAC computed uGPA is. This will tell you exactly what law schools see and should, along with your LSAT score, give you a nice starting point for the band of law schools to apply to.

Up next – Mistake #5: "Oxymoronic" LSAT Advice