We often talk to young undergrads who want to know our secret formula for success – should they join 15 clubs in college? Major in Philosophy to demonstrate logical thinking and writing skills? Take that prestigious internship on Capitol Hill? Study abroad to learn a second language? The right response to all these questions is: What do you want to do?
Because law schools, unlike medical schools, don’t require any specific undergraduate courses to qualify for entrance, you have a lot of leeway in your undergraduate studies. Many students think they need to major in Political Science, Philosophy or other supposedly law-related areas, and they are wrong. Feel free to major, double major, major and two minors (we know how those interests vary) in whatever you are most interested. The one caveat is that grades do matter for admission. So be careful to challenge yourself while still remaining sensitive to your overall GPA. Should you take “fluff” classes to boost your GPA? Absolutely not. But don’t be completely haphazard in your course selections. Bombing Organic Chemistry three times just because you (the English major) wanted to see if you could figure it out for fun will do you no favors.
The exception to this advice is for those students who plan to specialize in certain areas as lawyers. Patent lawyers, for example, also possess at least an undergraduate degree in a relevant scientific field if not a graduate degree and study to join the patent bar. And of course, many others come to law having already practiced in a different field or obtained advanced degrees in another area, and this influences their choices as a lawyer. A JD/MD typically will have a very different path from a JD who majored in Cultural Anthropology.
Finally, remember to begin cultivating relationships with professors now. You will need two academic recommendations for your law school applications, and having a strong relationship with several professors beginning in your first years will be a great boon when it comes time to apply.
Build a life that matters to you outside the classroom. If you are the type of person who enjoys playing in the school orchestra, running for student government, playing lacrosse AND trying out for the spring drama production, then go for it! But if you are a serious musician focused on honing your musical craft to the exclusion of other activities, then that is just as useful. What schools care about is that you commit yourself to your activities and grow in them.
Leadership – that much-sought-after attribute on school applications– can mean many things in this context. You can show that you rose through the ranks of student government over the course of four years or that after barely making the women’s rugby team as a freshman, you emerged as co-captain your senior year despite your clumsy ways. Just remember that schools see right through resume padding, so do what you like, but go deep more than you go broad.
You want to show a law school admissions committee that you have a strong work ethic and have challenged yourself throughout your college years. This can look very different for different people. One student may have supported herself through school with two part-time jobs during the academic year and more than full-time work during the breaks. Another student may have taken on no paid work but have garnered prestigious internships in the breaks. Both candidates are attractive for different reasons to schools. So if you have the economic means to take on those interesting unpaid internships, then do it! But if you don’t, work hard, earn the money you need, and know that this too is very attractive to schools. Whatever you do, don’t sit idle. If you can’t find an internship or opportunity you want, then create one.
A word on paralegal work, which many students seek out before applying to law school. This can be very good experience for deciding whether you want to be a lawyer. But lots (and lots!) of applicants come to law school with this background. It will not provide you with a better chance for admission in and of itself. Again, take on this work because it is the experience you want, not because it is going to be an advantage in law school admissions.
In sum, the classes you take and experiences you gain in college matter a lot for your personal development. Always choose substance over form and pursue what interests you most. Your passion and engagement will shine through to an admissions committee. Grades matter, scores matter, but your overall package matters most of all. And if you are serious about applying to law school, seek out activities and work that will give you a sense for what working as a lawyer is like. As you get further into your college career, you will seek out the pre-law advisor at your school and start preparing for the LSAT. But in your first years, focus on figuring out who you are and who you want to be.