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Podcast Episode !What's YOUR MAJOR

What’s Your Major?

The Courses That Help You Get In & Succeed In Law School

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For many, the road to law school begins in college.  Early on, you may wonder if there’s a way to focus your undergraduate studies to help your law school application stand out or to prepare you for the rigor of law school. Are there courses that can help boost your LSAT score?  Do certain majors help convince the admissions committee that you’re “law school ready?” Which undergraduate classes might actually help you as a law student?  We talk with top law school admissions deans, a prelaw advisor, and a leading admissions consultant and author to explore how the admissions committee evaluates your coursework and to see how your undergraduate studies might impact your performance as a 1L.

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Welcome to Law School Podcaster, your source for inside information and advice on the law school application process.  I’m Diana Jordan.  If you’re thinking about law school, you no doubt want to do everything possible now to prepare yourself.  If you’re still an undergraduate, you may be wondering: Does what I study in college matter for law school?  Are there classes that will help me stand out with admissions committees? Is there a particular major or a concentration of studies that will help me develop the skills I’ll need once I get to law school?

In this show, What’s Your Major – The Courses That Help You Get In And Succeed in Law School, you’ll learn that there is no perfect path, and that there are many myths about the majors, which can give you confusing and false guidance.  Our guests in this show lay out the stats and bust the rumors.  For example, on those myths is Senior Assistant Dean For Admissions, Sarah Zearfoss, with the University of Michigan, “Oh, I think there are two central myths that I always hear, and they’re both about poli sci, and they’re diametrically opposed.”  Pre-law adviser Debbie Chizewer is the Senior Assistant Dean for Admissions and Director of Chicago Careers in Law, a program at the University of Chicago that supports students and alumni who are deciding whether a career in law is a good fit for them.  She takes Dean Zearfoss’s point one step farther, “There is no one preferred major for preparation for the LSAT or for law school.”  And at the Gould School of Law at the University of Southern California, Associate Dean & Dean of Admissions Chloe Reid weighs in on how she can possibly compare an Egyptologist with a physicist.  “It’s not as though we have this little book though that tells us ‘for X School you need to subtract two one-hundredths of a point from their GPA because there’s grade inflation.’  I mean, there’s nothing like that that occurs.  So it’s a very organic process that takes place with an admissions committee.”  In this show we will also hear from Associate Dean for Admissions at the University of Chicago Law School, Ann Perry, and consultant Richard Montauk, who is the author of How to Get Into the Top Law Schools.

Records are not kept about every law school applicant’s major.  But Dean Sarah Zearfoss with the University of Michigan offers guidance for the most promising launch to a successful law career.  “Apparently, two fifths of law school applicants don’t tell the Law School Admissions Council (LSAC) their major – they just check the ‘other’ box.  But for the remaining three fifths, the LSAC data shows that the most common majors among law school applicants are political science, which dominates by a wide margin, making up almost one fifth of the total; English; and history, psychology and economics, which are, you know, pretty much equal to each other.  So I took a look at some data I have, showing the most competitive law school applicants as assessed by LSAT and GPAs thus far this year.  There are about 4000 names on this list, total, and about 1000 are in the top one percent of LSAT scores.

Of the majors that are the most common, according to LSAC, the poli sci, psychology, and history all perform approximately equivalently, showing up in roughly similar numbers in the top one percent.  But econ., on the other hand, really outperforms by a wide margin – a completely disproportionate number are in the top one percent.  And English majors also appeared to perform a bit better, although not quite as well as econ. majors.  With English it’s just that they are very adept at working with text, which is helpful on the LSAT.  And with econ., you know, maybe the quantitative skills that you often have with an econ. major are helpful.  And I just… there are some other less traditional majors that appear to do incredibly well too.  So there are 22 math majors and 11 physics majors on the list of about a thousand, which sounds like nothing, but because there are so few of these majors in the pool as a whole that’s actually really noteworthy.  So, you have to ask though, is that the major that’s preparing them to do so well, or is it something that people who major in math and physics are, you know, super-smart to begin with, and a little thing like the LSAT is not going to give them any problems?  It’s hard to say.”

Author and consultant Richard Montauk says it’s not about the major – it’s about your brilliance.  “The best performing majors on the LSAT tend to be the science and technology disciplines, the ‘STEM’, i.e., Science, Tech, Engineering and Math disciplines, largely because they tend to attract the smartest, most capable students, on average.  The least performing majors, so to speak, those students who tend to get the lowest scores, tend to be in the softest disciplines, things like, unfortunately, criminology and the like.  So in terms of the best academic preparation to help you prepare for the LSAT, it’s not a matter, really, of the discipline that you follow.”

Associate Dean for Admissions at the University of Chicago Law School, Ann Perry, says there isn’t one major in particular that will help you prepare for the LSAT.  Perry sees and accepts a variety of majors.  “I’ve admitted into the law school here music majors, math majors, political science majors, engineering majors, biology majors, accounting majors, philosophy majors.  So, there’s a lot of majors represented in the law schools across the country.”

Select a major you’ll do well in, and enjoy.  That, from USC Dean of Admissions Chloe Reid.  She agrees with Dean Perry that all majors are welcome.  Most are political science, English, history, communications, journalism, engineer[ing], art and music majors.  “One of the things that we always stress with students is that you want to major in something, or at least take coursework in areas that you know are going to be used in law school.  And so, law school is all about reading and digesting material.  And it’s all about writing, and logical reasoning.  So, taking some logic classes would be great, even if you are the art major.  Certainly taking writing courses that give you an opportunity to engage in expository writing is important.  And then, you know, some reading classes that help you understand, you know, how to compare information.”

Pre-law advisor Debbie Chizewer says there is no preferred major.  “All majors have the potential to prepare students well.  The most important skill for a student to learn is analytical reasoning.  And that can be developed in a wide array of classes.  Really, I have no preference, and I will say that I see students across probably 40 majors.  The students who have experience in writing find that some of the work of the LSAT writing sample and preparing for law school can be easier.  But all students are capable of it.”

Of course, each major comes with its own strengths, Dean Zearfoss says.  “If you’re talking just about grades, it is… basically, it is very rare at Michigan Law School, at least, to see students with science, math or engineering majors who end up at the bottom of the class.  Those students always seem to do pretty well.  But grades are not the entire story.  I also think that people with those majors may have a bit more work to do to get up to speed in terms of learning the historical context behind the evolution of law.  So from that perspective, history and poli sci majors have a huge advantage.  And English majors are very, very well-trained in close reading of huge amounts of text, which is another important skill in law school, and so forth.   I do think that most majors will give you some specialized training or knowledge that will give you an edge in some law school subjects.”

As for the majors viewed as especially valuable in the admissions process, Dean Zearfoss says it often depends on the preference of faculty.  For example, a pair of professors at Michigan Law School want to see classics majors, which, she says, is not typical.  “Our corporate law faculty love to see finance majors.  Our intellectual law faculty love to get science and engineering majors, but also music, film and visual arts majors.  So again, it’s going to just depend on the particular faculty.  Putting those idiosyncrasies aside, the LSAC does have national data showing that history, biology, econ. and math majors do exceptionally well in the application process.  Almost 80% of them get admitted to law school.  But the overall average is only two thirds.”

Now about that poli sci degree – Dean Zearfoss says she hears two rumors about poli sci, and they are diametrically opposed.  “People think you have to be a poli sci major to get into law school.  And people think you absolutely ought not to be a poli sci major to get into law school.  The fact is that poli sci majors fare a smidgen better than average in the admissions process, according to LSAC data, and I think it’s pretty clear that admissions offices are neither selecting for poli sci majors, nor holding them to a higher standard.  So if you want to be a poli sci major, go ahead.  And if you don’t, don’t worry about it; do something else.”

To get into law school, Montauk says, you might want to avoid these classes: “It’s not necessary to do political science or history or literature, for example, in order to go to law school.  And it’s certainly not necessary to do anything labeled ‘pre-law’ or ‘criminology’.  Those are the sorts of courses that tend to get short shrift in this process because they’re ordinarily very, very soft, i.e., not demanding, with easy grading.”

Pre-law advisor Chizewer says there really isn’t a bottom seven list of majors, or a top seven, not at Chicago.  “We tend to see a lot of history and political science majors, and within those majors I’ve seen scores all over the board.  Sometimes math and science majors may perform strongly on the LSAT, but may have a more challenging time with the writing or reading comprehension side of the LSAT.  So I’m not seeing any consistent trends in our population for best performance on the LSAT, or worst performance.”

There is no sense, she says, in choosing a major for any other reason, except this, “I encourage students to follow their passion, and do well in that area.  And law school admissions officers often repeat that same instruction.  It’s best for a student  to do well in whatever they pursue.  And so, chances are they’re going to do well in an area that they really enjoy.”

And Chizewer has several examples: “I’m working with a student right now who is an English major and has an art history minor.  She has a strong interest in art.  And she hopes to use her law degree to work on intellectual property issues.  And so, it may not look at first blush that an art history minor would be interested in law, but she is passionate about using her… both her background in art and her interest in law to combine them.  I also regularly see science students and math students who really enjoy the logical reasoning aspect of a legal argument, and will use their law degree to enhance their impact in their field.”

Michigan’s Dean Zearfoss says admissions officers see curricula that is both broad and deep.  “You should certainly be trying to take challenging courses in whatever is your chosen core field, to show that you can perform at a very high academic level.  And then it’s also important though that you branch out and test yourself in areas outside your comfort zone.  So classes that give you experience [such] as close reading of texts, detailed analysis, logical reasoning, and extensive writing are always helpful.”

In comparing different majors in the admissions process, Dean Perry reviews the entire application, and discerns how the student performs in their major fields.  “So, it’s looking at their transcripts, seeing what courses they took.  Did they challenge themselves within their major, meaning they took upper level classes beyond maybe what was required?  I like to see some writing classes — and even hard science majors sometimes take writing classes — because I think that’s a core skill that it would be nice to come with for law school, even though you take a whole year of legal writing.  So it’s evaluating that, but also here’s where letters of recommendation become helpful, especially when they’re from a professor who the student had, who can really kind of talk about this student’s academic ability.”

Once admissions begins comparing undergraduate GPAs it can become complicated, according to Dean Zearfoss.  “The single best source of information we ever get about grading patterns and the meaning of a particular student’s performance comes from academic recommenders.  Sometimes professors will explicitly tell us the candidate’s GPA may not look impressive, but in fact places him or her in the top, you know 5% of the major’s cohort.  So if you have a major with a particularly demanding curve, that’s incredibly useful information for a committee, an admissions committee, and you’d be very well served to politely request that the recommender give us that kind of background context.”

There are a few combinations that will attract the attention of admissions committees, suggests consultant and author Richard Montauk.  “Somebody who has a strong engineering background and wishes to do intellectual property work, i.e., patent work and the like, will be viewed a bit favorably for that, because frankly, without that kind of a background a patent practice is highly unlikely to work.  Something unusual can be of a bit of assistance… an Egyptology major, for example, might be viewed a bit favorably.  Now this is going to be a more of a feather, probably not a thumb, on the scales, and certainly not a lot more than that.  By the same token, people who are double majors or close to it, in two very disparate subjects, are likely to be viewed favorably.  Somebody who does French literature and statistics, for instance, where the overlap is obviously pretty slim, will be viewed as people who really take on a challenge and are going to be benefited by that.”

Pre-law adviser Chizewer says no majors are given preferential treatment.  “I would say that if a law school is looking at a science major they may be wondering if they’re someone who wants to go into patent law or some combination of health and law, depending on their specialty in science.  But they are looking to create interesting and diverse classes, and so they will pull from all majors.  And as long as they have some indication that they have the potential to succeed in law school, based on their writing samples submitted through the personal statement and the LSAT.”

And the good news is that admissions committees know how to evaluate course names and which are more rigorous.  The pre-law adviser Chizewer says she doesn’t know of any one major that helps you prepare for the rigor of law school.  “I will say that students who had the opportunity to practice their writing skills may find the transition easier, but because law school teaches you to think and write a new way, I think all majors have the ability to perform well.  A strong undergraduate training in analytical thinking, critical thinking, is going to help no matter what the specific major is.”

USC’s Reid thinks back on her undergraduate career, and would have done it differently.  “When I think about all the classes that I wish I had taken, and yet I was so fixated on, you know, being the poli sci major because I was going to go to law school.  And so I always just say, you know, take those courses also that you think are going to be helpful to you as… in terms of supporting your own interests, but also the things that may just be fun and that you think, you know, I’ll probably never ever take a folk art class in life, and maybe this is my time to do it. So certainly, taking courses that will help you grow as a person and as an individual.  But also, you know, just thinking about being practical in terms of what could help me in law school.  And again, taking courses that are going to help me with my reading and writing are useful.  And so taking other courses throughout the university that may not necessarily be in my major, but perhaps will have a paper complement as part of a requirement for the course.  Again, you’re utilizing those writing skills, rather than taking a multiple choice question exam, and regurgitating information.  But you know, expository writing, again, is what we do in law school.  So getting as much opportunity to do essay writing is helpful.”

Something else to consider in choosing classes: Is law school the right next step for you?  Dean Chizewer says chances are good you’ll know if you take law-related classes.  “One of the things that I think is most important for pre-law advisers is to help our students assess whether law school is the right next step for students.  And one way to do that is to take law-related classes so that you are trying to read a case for the first time, seeing if you enjoy that process, thinking about issues that have, you know, opposing arguments, and being able to navigate those and communicate your position, and understand the weaknesses of your position.”

Don’t stick to your favorite classes, says Dean Zearfoss.  “It’s very important to get a good variety of coursework, both to demonstrate to the admissions committee that you have a lively mind and can perform well outside your comfort zone, and to give you the broad training that will help you succeed.  So, if you’re a liberal arts major, make sure not to focus exclusively on your major coursework.  So if you’re an English major try a poli sci course.  If you’re a poli sci major take some poetry.  But if you’re a science or engineering or math major you really need to make sure you take some coursework that has you dealing with texts, both reading and writing.”

What if you’ve been out of school for awhile?  Consultant Montauk has some advice to consider – do a thesis; take demanding classes to impress the admissions committee; and solid work experience can improve your profile.  “Those who are working in a demanding sort of job are going to find that if they do well in the job their applications are greatly bolstered by that.  In fact, people with questionable undergraduate performance will tend to find that the best way to repair that record is not through coursework after college, but instead by having a strong bit of work experience.  The longer, of course, the better.  Beyond that, they can look to improve their profile by having a strong LSAT.  And perhaps lastly, can improve their profile by doing coursework of a demanding nature, post-college.”

But  if you’ve been out of school a long time, you really don’t need to go back to graduate school to look good for law school, Dean Zearfoss says.  “I think it’s a lot of money and time for a very uncertain advantage.  But practically speaking, the problem is also that Master’s Degrees are just very different from law school, and won’t really demonstrate that.  I think the better thing to emphasize is your work experience and your real life experience outside of school.  That’s often very appealing to law schools, and I would work on that.”

Dean Reid suggests taking additional classes for LSAT prep, and before you enter law school – writing classes, reading comprehension, or logical reasoning.  Anything that will get you to critically analyze material will support you in law school.  And sometimes it’s not about the major.  “Read as much as you possibly can the summer before law school.  And read as much as you can, if it’s the trashy novels or if it’s the historical books.  Just read though, because that’s what you’re going to be exposed to in law school, and I think that’s always the biggest surprise for law students, is the amount of reading that’s required, and how it just starts from day one.”

As we’ve heard, law schools would rather you choose a major you love, instead of picking something to impress the admissions committee.  “Some institutions do have pre-law majors.  I don’t think it is necessary.  And I would say that some law schools are turned off even by the pre-law major, because they would rather see students follow their passion and not try to dot the i’s and cross the t’s to get to law school.  So I would encourage students to think critically about picking a pre-law major just because it’s a pre-law major.  If they enjoy the courses offered in that discipline, or they find something else specifically attractive about it, then they should pursue it.  But just for the sake of having a pre-law major I would not recommend it.”

Don’t take just any old course, says Dean Perry.  “I think students should choose a major that they’re interested in, not just because they think it’s going to look good for law school.  Because if you choose something that you’re interested in, you tend to do well in it because you’re enjoying yourself.”

Also from Chicago, Dean Chizewer says admissions committees have their eye on a special kind of law school student.  “Law schools want students who are passionate, who are going to take their law degree and use it to make an impact in the world.”

So, it looks like there’s no need to set your sights on a poli sci degree, if you don’t want it.  What does matter?  Be excellent in a major you enjoy.  If it’s a rigorous course of study, have a recommender point out that your slightly lower GPA in physics ranks better than a numerically high GPA in lit.  Focus on disparate subjects to demonstrate your range.  Take classes in critical writing, robust analysis, and microeconomics to boost your skills.  Best, our deans and consultants say, to play your passions, rather than to try to get into law school by dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s.

For more information, a transcript of this show, or to sign up to receive more law school podcasts, visit www.lawschoolpodcaster.com.  Look for us on Facebook and Twitter to get the latest news and insight into the world of law school.  I’m Diana Jordan with Law School Podcaster.  Thanks for listening.  Stay tuned for more shows as we explore another topic of interest, to help you succeed in the law school application process and beyond.

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