I don’t know nearly as much about law school admissions as I do about undergraduate admissions, so this post is dedicated to discussing what I think I know and soliciting further commentary from readers. (Similar issues apply to admissions for medical and business schools. Graduate school in academic subjects are very different.) Consider some recent comments from CE:

At least for law school admissions, which I know the most about, a .08 difference could mean a fairly substantial drop in the rankings, given the wrong set of circumstances, and likely will result in a noticeable drop in rankings or scholarship money even given otherwise favorable circumstances (see how you do applying to the top 10 law schools with a 3.63/171 vs a 3.71/171).

0.05 difference in GPA will make a noticeable difference in law school admissions.

I like to think that this is a topic that we may iterate to agreement on. Comments welcome.

1) A high GPA matters a great deal to law school admissions. Consider some data for Harvard for the class of 2012

GPA 75th / 25th percentiles: 3.96 / 3.76
LSAT 75th / 25th percentiles: 176 / 171

You can be sure that other elite law schools have similar standards. All else equal, your chances of getting in to Harvard are higher if you have a 4.0 from Williams then if you have a 3.9 and higher with a 3.9 then with a 3.8.

2) Your GPA is considered in the context of Williams and schools like Williams. No one is going to compare your 3.8 with a 3.8 from MCLA. Admissions committees are smart and they know that the student populations at Williams and MCLA are do different that direct comparisons are very hard. Instead, they will compare your 3.8 with the your fellow Williams students and with students “like you” — similar major/background — from other elite undergraduate colleges.

3) Law school admissions officers are experienced, especially among the top schools. They see dozens of applicants from Williams (and peer schools) every year. They accept and enroll plenty of such students. They observe how those students perform in law school. Then they use that information to decide who to accept in the future. They know which majors are serious and which classes are guts. They know which roles on campus are truly prestigious and which are resume fluff. Fooling them is very hard.

4) Law school admissions works. Round numbers, there are probably around 5 to 15 Williams students who apply to places like Harvard/Yale/Stanford and 2 to 5 who are accepted. (Anyone have better estimates?) And, overwhelmingly, the 2-5 accepted are the ones that we all agree should be accepted. They are the ones with higher LSAT scores. They are the ones who wrote better theses, who received better grades from the same Williams professors in the same classes, who their classmates would identify as the smartest and hardest working of the Williams applicants.

5) The key reason that ce is wrong is that all else is never equal, especially in the context of a discussion of a Gaudino option. Does a higher GPA (or LSAT score) help in admissions? Obviously! But we are not discussing the magical flicking of some switch by which Student Eph can change her GPA. Instead, we are considering three specific scenarios:

a) Student Eph takes two easy classes instead of trying something, like Greek 101-102, that would be an intellectual stretch. Her GPA is 3.8.

b) Student Eph takes Greek 101-102 as a graded course. It is hard! She gets lower grades than she would have gotten in the easy classes. Her GPA is 3.75.

c) Student Eph takes Greek 101-102 using the Gaudino Option. It is hard! She gets low grades, so she “Gaudinos” them into a G in her transcript. Her GPA is 3.79. (Note that she still takes a GPA hit compared to case a) because she does not have the benefit of the As in the two easy classes.

So, under which scenario is our Student Eph better off when it comes to law school admissions?

99 times out of 100 it will not matter! If Student Eph is strong enough on other dimensions to get into Harvard, then she will almost certainly get in all three scenarios. If she is not strong enough, she won’t Very few admissions decisions are right on the bubble.

Moreover, it is not clear that scenario b) (with the lower GPA due to tough grades in Greek) is worse than scenario a). Law school admissions committees like students who take intellectual risks, who push themselves, who avoid the easy classes. Taking Ancient Greek, especially as a sophomore or junior with no background in the language, is exactly what admissions officers want to see, even if it results in a below average grade.

Summary: GPA matters in law school admissions in just the way it ought to. Admissions committees want smarter, more academically talented students and college GPA captures that, especially when informal adjustments are made (as they always are) for course difficulty. Given that, having a Gaudino Option will have no impact of the overall success of Williams students in law school admissions. Every law school that sees a “G” on a Williams transcript will just read it as “PASS” because, for all practical purposes, that is what it means. Having lots of PASS/FAIL courses does not provide an advantage to students from Brown. Having the Gaudino Option won’t help Williams students.

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