Maximize Your Law School Grades (GPA)

A little arithmetic goes a long way when it comes to law school grades. Calculate your GPA now as grades roll in. Use a GPA calculator to define target grades to motivate yourself for future classes. Keep reading for tips to maximize your law school GPA.

The Most Important Line on Your Résumé?

It is true that success in law school is measured by more than just your grade point average (GPA).  And while law school grades aren’t a good measure of lawyering skills, grades are, for better or worse, the most quantifiable measure of law school success. For many students, grades may be the only concrete feedback received for most classes.

Imagine perusing a résumé. What stands out to you most? The school attended? Summer experience? Or those few digits signifying the average value of three years’ worth of endless academic toil? At least one study indicates that GPA is a better predictor of career success than attending an elite school.

Because grades are so important, a little work on the front end, to maximize your GPA, can pay off big in the end. Start by figuring out your GPA based on every class.

Simple Math = Know Where You Stand

Law students (and lawyers), according to conventional Internet wisdom, are notoriously bad at math. However, a lack of basic math skills is no excuse when it comes to calculating your GPA. Most students know their GPA, but may struggle when end-of-semester grades roll in. Here’s the basic arithmetic needed to calculate your GPA, presuming each hour of academic credit you’ve earned has been assigned a numeric grade, and that classes are weighted based on number of credit hours.

Let’s walk through the equation.

First, some assumptions for the sake of illustration: let’s say you’re in the fall of 2L year, so you’ve got two graded semesters under your belt, and grades posted for the third. Let’s assume your current law school GPA, before this term’s grades, is 3.32, for, let’s say, 26 hours of credit. (Yay, you’re average!)

Now the math:

  1. Take your GPA, and multiply it by the number of graded credit hours: 3.32 x 26 = 86.32. Note this number.
  2. Take each class and multiply the grade (real or anticipated) by the number of credit hours:

    Negotiations: 3.4 x 3 hours = 10.2
    Basic Federal Income Tax: 2.7 x 4 hours = 10.8
    Business Associations: 3.5 x 3 hours = 10.5
    Trademarks: 3.6 x 3 hours = 10.8
    Total for 13 hours: 41.7

  3. Add the total from this semester to the number you figured in step 1. Here: 41.7 + 86.32 = 128.02.
  4. Divide that sum by the total number of graded credits you have to date. This is your current GPA! 128.02 / (26+13) = 3.28.

Good news is, you’re still pretty average. Bad news is, your overall GPA went down, despite doing better in three of your four classes. This shows how one bad grade can drag you down. There are good ways to cope with bad law school grades, but the hit to your GPA is real. (If even this level of arithmetic is tough, you can always use an online GPA calculator to see where you stand.)

Plan to Get Ahead: Excel in the Middle, Work at What You Know

In the realm of the mandated grading curve, mere hundredths of a point will differentiate the top dozen or so students (depending on class size). Knowing how each class you’ve taken affects your GPA means better planning for future grade point maximization. Reflect on your best classes: what did you do right? Could you have done better? Ask your professor. In fact, ask all of your professors about your grades. If the professor can’t spare the time to speak individually about your score, ask if you might be able to review a top-scoring exam (expect to get off your rear end and do this in the secretary’s office—don’t ask the professor to send you exam results!).

Think about the bell curve and realize that most students are bunched in the middle. Edging up at the upper end is tougher than moving a tenth of a point in the middle, so your plan of attack should be to focus on classes where you know you can do at least average and excel a bit more in those. See also Fearfully Optimistic’s series on the law school grading curve.

Finally, besides focusing on creeping up in the middle of the curve, use the simple math above to set target grades for your upcoming classes. How will you know where you can excel? Here are some tips:

  • Ask upperclass students and law school alums about particular professors’ grading habits. Consider choosing classes with a less strict curve, or those in which your previous work or undergraduate experience may give you an edge. For me, a former anthropology student, international law classes with heavy focus on cultural influences helped pad my GPA.
  • Attending smaller intersession classes, which might be graded loosely, or occur at a time when you can devote all of your attention to a single class, can also boost your grade point average.
  • Many schools also allow independent study. If you are passionate about a particular topic, and can connect with a professor who’s willing to shepherd that effort in writing something for credit, the lack of anonymity in grading such an assignment can work in your favor as well.

  • Jennifer Gumbel

    The best advice I got from a professor is to write your answers like your explaining the concept to your grandmother. Most exams are a point grab and if you don’t explain the basics, you’ll leave points on the table. Once that clicked with me, I went from middle of the pack to graduating with honors.

  • http://feeds2.feedburner.com/caveatemptorblog/rss Randall Ryder

    At my alma matter, they published grades from every class from the last year. You can use that information to pick classes that you are more likely to get a higher grade in.

    For example, a seminar that has 8 people and a 3.66 overall GPA will probably result in a high grade. In addition, as you also noted, independent study is another great way to nearly ensure a high grade.

  • An Anonymous Attorney

    There are times, I guess, when you rush too quickly and wrongly use “your” instead of “you’re” as a shortened form of “you are.” Also, the Latin word for mother is “mater” and NOT “matter,” as “alma mater” means nourishing mother.

    Write carefully so that you can enjoy your graduating with honors and you will be read like one who had a high GPA.

  • http://p3nlhclust404.shr.prod.phx3.secureserver.net/SharedContent/redirect_0.html Laura Bergus

    Excellent point, Jennifer: the prof wants to know that you know every step of the analysis; you’re not impressing anyone when you jump to conclusions without leading the reader along bit by bit.

    Randall: Yes, posted grades and even just asking around in the administration’s office can provide helpful indicators of who might grade more liberally.

    Anonymous: Thanks for your attention to detail. I’ve not heard of a professor withholding points for poor grammar or usage on a timed exam, but surely there are some who would. :)

  • Susan Gainen

    It should go without saying, but must be said every year, that you should never, ever round your GPA. It is what it is.

    Each school has its own policies for computing, publishing, and distributing GPA and class rank. Be sure to understand your school’s policy so that you will not deviate from it. Employers know how each school’s rules work, and they don’t look kindly at students or alumni who misrepresent their credentials.

  • http://www.benbjones.com Ben

    You may need to know how to calculate a weighted GPA, also, especially when applying to school. Here is a brief tutorial: http://www.ehow.com/how_5885163_calculate-weighted-gpa.html