Are My Grades Good Enough for an LL.M.?

Having a stellar GPA isn’t the only factor that will get you into a top LL.M. program. What else are admissions officers really looking for in an application?

When it comes to LL.M. applications, there are plenty of elements that factor into your eligibility—recommendations, motivation letters, work experience. So how much does your grade point average matter in the grand scheme of things? 

A standout GPA will certainly place you in the top ranks of applicants for any LL.M. program—it’s school we’re talking about, after all. 

“The GPA is certainly important for us; we want to make sure the applicant has the intellectual ability to thrive in our programs,” says Scott Schumacher, director of the LL.M. program in taxation at the University of Washington’s School of Law

At McGill University, there’s a minimum GPA cutoff the university imposes (3.0), although on occasion the admissions team can override it if it can justify other aspect of the file, notes Associate Dean of Graduate Studies Richard Gold. “We want to make sure whoever comes to us will succeed and contribute to the student environment,” says Gold. 

Likewise, for many UK-based LL.M. programs, there are often grade cutoffs. For instance, those applicants applying to the LL.M. at LSE must have a class rank of 2:1 or equivalent. For those students who hail from countries where class ranks are not given, there may be some confusion in what this exactly entails.

Indeed, at times, gauging what a good grade is can also be harder than it sounds; with programs that draw many international applicants, it can sometimes be a challenge to navigate international GPA standards. Washington, for instance, became one of the more recent states to allow foreign-trained lawyers to sit for the bar without a US law degree; Schumacher says it’s caused an uptick in the number of non-domestic applicants, and thus spurred greater familiarity with international grading standards. 

“Our Asian law center has been around for more than fifty years, so we have long history of experience with those law schools,” Schumacher says. “When we’re not sure about the school, it’s when work experience is more important.”

Gold points out that German law schools are particularly difficult in terms of grading; it’s nearly impossible to get a B average, making their grading curve fairly different from the rest of the world. 

“German students present a particular problem, where you might have the lowest GPA, but the student’s fantastic in terms of what they’ve done, the recommendation letters, etc.” Gold says. “It happened even this year—one of my favorite candidates just didn’t have a particularly good GPA, but was just strong overall, did really well in state exams, the letters—the rest of the package was just stellar.”

It's worth noting that for LL.M. programs offered by less competitive schools, weaker grades aren't always a problem, especially for well-rounded candidates.

Other admission factors 

Every school will look holistically at the applicant, but different schools have different emphases. At Columbia Law School, strong preference is given to applicants who have had at least one year of work experience after earning their first law degree. 

“Only in exceptional circumstances are applications from candidates who are in their final year of their first law degree accepted,” says the office of graduate legal studies. “Applicants who have not yet graduated must demonstrate in their personal statements that their admission to the program would enable them to realize an immediate and specific career objective that would not otherwise be attainable.”

For the Asian and Comparative Law LL.M.s at Washington, work experience is also crucial—so students can bring different perspectives from varied legal systems into the classroom. “The more experience you have, the more context, and the better learning process,” Schumacher says. 

Other schools are very focused on academics. McGill values only academic references from professors, Gold notes; its admission committee is comprised of professors, so it places a particular emphasis on letters from university deans or teachers. Gold says that one of the biggest mistakes applicants make is submitting recommendation letters from employers or friends, which the school doesn’t really take into consideration in evaluating the merit of the candidate. 

“We realize students can’t control it completely, but it’s helpful that students talk to referees and tell them to talk substantively about their experience with this candidate,” he says. “Give some guidance to your referee. It’s one of the more important aspects of the file.”

This stringent approach extends to the way the admission committee looks at motivation letters and proposals (McGill has both a thesis LL.M. program and a non-thesis LL.M.) 

“If it’s a thesis, they should show us that they can do outside research to come up with proposal—we look at how well-written is it, clear is it, if they understand what a project looks like,” Gold says. 

If it’s non-thesis application, Gold values how well the applicant has presented his or her motivations for coming to McGill, how coming to McGill fits into where they’re going in life, and most importantly why they chose McGill in particular. 

Columbia also takes a keen interest in concrete examples of how the applicant has worked toward his or her career aspirations. The school says it looks at “how and to what extent candidates have forged their values and achieved their goals—how they have actually chosen to commit their time, energies, and talents, and how they have made use of their opportunities.” Applicants are evaluated not just on their potential but by “demonstrated motivation, self-discipline and industry.”

Advice for the applicant

Given that grades are not always the end-all-be-all of an LL.M. application, what can an applicant do with his/her set of existing credentials? 

Really study the law school’s website, Schumacher advises. Look at the faculty—not just full time, but also part-time. Talk to people who have gone to one, and reach out to schools; don’t be shy about sending an email and setting up time to Skype. And when you’re writing the motivation letter, really consider what in your life and experience brought you to this point, to study this specific topic. 

“We have so many students who say, ‘I want to study in the US,’ but nothing in there says ‘tax law,’ or ‘intellectual property law,’” he says. “If you don’t mention McGill—that counts against you. We prefer to take people who rank us highly, understanding of who we are, what we offer, and show us that they’ve done their research, not filled out a form.”

And, if you’re going to write a proposal, Gold reminds us of the golden scholastic rule: cite properly. “We take care that there’s not plagiarism—we’ve encountered that in some of these documents before, so it’s very important to properly cite.”

At the end of the day, a GPA is just that: a grade point average that shows what you were able to do in class. But, most of the time, your grades in and of themselves won’t determine your LL.M. admission prospects. 

“The GPA really tells us whether this student really be able to succeed in an academic setting, especially for those who don’t come from our education system,” says Gold. “Beyond that, it doesn’t really tell us much."

Photo: Michael Pollack/cropped/CC BY 2.0

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