Whether he's looking at an applicant’s class rank or a GPA, Associate Director of Graduate Admissions at Georgetown Law Justin Swinsick has one thing to say about the cold, hard numbers on a transcript.
"Grades matter," Swinsick says. "There's no way to get around that. And when we do have a class rank that comes into play, we like to see top third."
Class rank refers to how well a student did compared to her peers. For example, a student at American University's Washington College of Law who graduated in 2015 with a law school GPA of 3.83 or higher fell into the top five percent of his or her class.
Schools in the United Kingdom use a different system, awarding a classification called first class honors to the highest-achieving students of a graduating class, then second class honors, divided into upper second honors (or "2:1") and lower second class honors (or "2:2"), to the next-best group, then third honors.
Australia uses a system of High Distinction and Distinction, while some schools, such as the University of Melbourne, require that students apply to graduate with honors, which they can accomplish by completing a research project.
These numbers and distinctions help LL.M. programs, as well as employers, assess the meaning of a GPA from a certain law school program.
Many law schools don't release rankings, so some students applying to LL.M. programs don't have a class rank. Deborah Call, Associate Dean of Graduate and International Programs at the University of Southern California's Gould School of Law, says that since USC does not rank its undergraduate law students, class rank is not very important for admission into the school's LL.M. program, which is geared towards international students.
"Absolutely the grades are very important, but with the ranking, sometimes we find that it's hard for us to ascertain what the average GPA might be with the grading system. Oftentimes the class ranking is relative only to that school," Call says.
Although class rank varies in importance depending on the LL.M. program, there's no question that law school grades play an important role in admissions decisions for top LL.M. programs. Fred Brown, an associate professor of law at the University of Baltimore's School of Law and Director of that school’s Graduate Tax Program, counsels Baltimore undergrads who are interested in pursuing an LL.M. at schools such as New York University and Georgetown. NYU has stated that it tends to accept students who graduated in the top 25 percent of their law school class, while Swinsick says Georgetown looks for a minimum B or B+ average, which equates to 3.0 and 3.5 on the four-point GPA scale, respectively.
Many selective LL.M. programs outside of the United States also say that they seek prospective students with top academic credentials. Queen Mary University of London advises that law students achieve a high 2.2 (second second) honors and at least five years of professional experience, while the University of Toronto generally requires students to have a minimum B+ standing.
Is a low GPA or class rank a dealbreaker for LL.M. applications?
These grades might seem difficult for stressed-out law students to achieve. But admissions directors say that students who don't have stellar GPAs can take a number of steps to counteract that lower number. For example, Swinsick says that students applying to Georgetown's Environmental Law LL.M. or Taxation LL.M. will have an advantage if they achieved higher grades in classes specific to their specialization. Brown says he gives his students the same advice.
"I've seen this over the years: some students may not do as well in courses that are more common law or case law based, but might do better in tax or other statutory courses," says Brown.
"The way I see it is, how a student does in a complicated stat law course is a little more important than their overall GPA."
Admissions directors also say they look at a variety of other factors that might have an impact on grades or rankings, including improvement over time, involvement in other activities, and whether students had to work through law school.
"If a student ends up with an average ranking, started poorly but got a lot stronger at the end, that would be in the candidate's favor," Swinsick says, adding that the converse is also true. "If somebody's incredibly active in extracurricular activities, perhaps devoted a little too much time to them, we'll take that into consideration. And sometimes students had to finance law school all on their own, and this also had an effect on grades."
Brown also says that students with a lower GPA or class rank should consider getting involved in specialization-specific extracurricular activities, such as a tax journal or tax clinic for students interested in a tax law LL.M.
If extenuating circumstances aren't clear from resumes or transcripts, admissions directors say students should use the subjective portions of their applications to clarify their situations. Letters of recommendation and personal statements are the ideal forums to explain these kinds of circumstances.
"Sometimes I find that students don't spend as much time, they don't put the care into that personal statement as they really should," Call says. "It makes such a difference to us. We typically have three people read a file and we use a rubric as we read the files, and invariably that personal statement can be the determining factor when we're looking at an applicant's profile."
Call also encourages students to reach out to USC officials to clarify reasons behind low GPAs.
"We encourage them to give supplementary information about themselves, to provide their own self-assessment in terms of what might have stood in their way, and what caused them to perform less well than they feel that their potential might have been," Call says."We have applicants do that, and certainly we pay attention to that, to personal factors, personal circumstances that were going on with their life, that affected their performance."
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