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Cornell University

Preparing for Law School

There is no "pre-law" major, and unlike medical school, there are no specific pre-requisites for admission to law school -- no majors, no courses, no activities in particular that you need in order to apply.  Law students come from a wide variety of backgrounds and experiences, and law schools conduct a holistic review of materials to estimate how well each will perform in classes and what they will contribute to the program as a whole.

This is not to say that law schools have no expectations for applicants.  Indeed, they will expect that you have pursued a course of study that challenges you, that you've sought out and made good use of opportunities to develop your values and goals, and that you've taken time to hone the skills every lawyer needs: critical analysis, sound judgement, and clear, effective communication.  How you choose to meet these expectations is up to you, and so as a pre-law student, you have considerable latitude to plan your activities inside and outside the classroom. For more information, see the American Bar Association's Preparing for Law School.

Inside the Classroom

Developing Skills

The following disciplines can help develop skills that are necessary in law school and will serve a future lawyer well:

As a pre-law student, you are encouraged to pursue the subjects that you find most compelling, not only because genuine interest leads to greater engagement, but also because doing so can provide a great foundation for future legal work. Remember that the law touches almost every part of our public and private lives, and so nearly any course of study could help you prepare for it.  A student pursuing coursework in business or economics, for example, would arrive at law school with excellent context for corporate law work. A student in the physical or life sciences would be well positioned for the tech and health law fields (indeed, such a background is required for the patent law field). And someone pursuing fine or performing arts would find that to be directly relevant to the field of entertainment law, where they would work closely with artistic professionals and media companies.

At the same time, the choice of a major need not determine your destiny in the law.  Every field of study provides training ans skills that can be applied to law school, and intentional use of elective coursework and extracurricular activities can amount to a very well-rounded education.  Seek opportunities, in particular, to conduct research, to hone your analysis of complex subject matter, and to develop a confident voice in writing.  These skills will be essential, whichever field of law you choose.  See below for some examples:

  • Social sciences offer insight into human behavior, social processes, and institutions. Courses that give you a better understanding of diverse cultures help prepare you for a legal career.
  • English and communication courses help you improve your written and oral expression.
  • Mathematics and philosophy classes provide background in logic and reasoning, as well as problem-solving skills.
  • Physical sciences require systematic analysis of evidence and inductive reasoning.
  • Undergraduate law-related classes may allow you to get a feel for law as a general subject. They usually do not cover the material in the same depth or embody the intensity and rigor of law school courses, so they are not especially accurate indicators of your ability to succeed in the study of law or whether you will like law school. 

Selecting a Major

Choose a major that interests and challenges you. If you are interested in the subject matter and are challenged by it, it's more likely that you'll excel and develop important skills. Law students do not typically "major" in specific areas, but you may develop a specialization in law firms or other legal environments following law school. There are areas of law you may want to prepare for as an undergraduate, for example:

  • If you are considering a career in patent or intellectual property law, you may want to major in engineering or science.
  • Natural resources can provide a good background for environmental law.
  • Learning one or more languages and taking courses in international studies will help lay the groundwork for a career in international law.
  • Courses in economics, business, and accounting are especially useful in the areas of corporate and tax law.

Compiling an Impressive Academic Record

Whichever major you choose, law schools will expect you to demonstrate a strong record of academic achievement.  I high GPA, of course, may reflect that achievement, and your GPA will play a central role in your applications.  But there are many other factors that speak to the strength of your academic record:

  • Variety and Depth: Admissions committees will give serious consideration to the variety and depth of your coursework as evidence of your interests and motivation. Seeking culminating experiences in the areas that interest you most: seminars, capstones, a thesis or even graduate-level coursework.
  • Challenging Coursework. The key to compiling an impressive transcript is to challenge yourself by taking classes at increasingly difficult levels and studying diverse subject areas.
  • Faculty Relationships: It can be difficult at a large universtiy such as Cornell to identify faculty members who can write detailed and substantive letters of recommendation.  Make the effort to delelop relationships with faculty to enhance your academic experience by speaking up in class, visiting office hours, and seeking research opportunities.  Faculity members who know you well will be able to provide more personal and detailed recommendations, and excellent recommendations from faculty members can speak powerfully to your strengths as a student.
  • Improvement: If you struggle at some point in your undergraduate career, establishing a clear record of improvement and ending on a high note can highlight your growth as a student.
  • Study Abroad: While grades earned during study abroad or summer sessions elsewhere may not be calculated into your GPA for law school, admissions committees will see your transcripts for study elsewhere and that experience can lend an important perspective to your other materials.

Outside the Classroom

Law schools will be interested in your extracurricular activities, leadership experience, summer jobs, internships, and public service, since they seek well-rounded candidates for admission. Engaging vigorously in these activities will help differentiate you from other law-school applicants and will contribute to your personal success and happiness. Pursue activities that interest you, not those you think will impress admissions committees.

  • Seek experiences outside the classroom that help you create evidence of strong written communication, research, and analytical skills. Well-developed collaborative and leadership skills are also important. 
  • Be judicious in your commitments.  Sustained involvement in one or two areas is much more important than a long, revolving list of activities.  Seek activities that are meaningful to you, and invest yourself in the over time.