What’s the Best Undergraduate Major for a Pre-Law Student?
My son is applying to college this fall and he eventually wants to go to law school. What's the best undergraduate major for a pre-law student?
In the old days, back when "The Dean" was in college, aspiring lawyers were often shunted into the political science or economics majors in the belief that these fields would mesh best with the student's career goals and would suggest to law school admission committees that a legal career was a serious intent and not an 11th-hour "What else can I do with my life?" decision. But today, almost anything goes ... except maybe .... drum roll, please ... pre-law! (More on that in a minute.)
Law school admission committees aim to accept a diverse class, and this means academically diverse as well as racially, ethnically and socioeconomically. Thus, if your son's passion is anthropology or art history, Latin American Studies or Gender Studies, he shouldn't shy away. STEM majors tend to turn up less often in law school applicant pools that many other fields, so if he has an interest in physics, math, computer science, etc., this could be a plus down the road — not only in his bid to be admitted to law school but also afterwards, where his know-how might make him a sought-after expert on certain science-related cases. "The Dean" has read (can't remember where) that STEM majors and linguistics majors tend to score higher on the LSAT (the most common law school entrance exam) than students from other academic realms. But the question this raises for me is, "Did these students score well because of the subjects they studied in college or because the folks who favor those fields tend to be good test-takers to begin with?"
Along with the LSAT scores, the grades your son earns in college will play a prominent role in his law school acceptance odds. His choice of major will not. So his best bet is to choose a major that interests him a lot because this, in turn, will improve the chances that his grades will be good and that he'll engage well with professors who will serve as enthusiastic recommenders.
Also keep in mind that a typical college major is composed of approximately nine to 12 classes. This means that college students usually take the vast majority of their classes (20 or more) outside of their major field. So regardless of the major that your son elects, he should still have plenty of time to sample courses in fields that are likely to be relevant to his law studies or to his legal work. These might include sociology (especially criminology), psychology, history, foreign language, finance, accounting and so on. If he has an inkling already of what type of law he plans to pursue, this can help guide him as he selects his undergrad classes in addition to his major.
Perhaps ironically, the one major that your son might be wise to avoid is "pre-law." For starters, he'll probably have trouble finding it because it's not widely offered. And some law school admission officials — especially at the more sought-after institutions — will confess, albeit reluctantly, that the pre-law major is viewed as "lightweight" when compared to other choices. The pre-law majors often require an amalgam of classes from varied departments such as those named above (sociology, history, foreign language, political science, economics etc.), which "The Dean" has recommended. But students who major in pre-law often don't get a depth of knowledge in one specific subject, which law school officials often prefer.
However, most colleges and universities offer pre-law advisors ... faculty or staff members who help prospective law school applicants chart their journeys through college and to prepare law school applications. So, even as early as the start of freshman year, your son can seek out his college's pre-law advising office and establish a relationship there. He can ask his pre-law counselor not only about classes worth taking but also about extracurricular activities, internships, community volunteer opportunities, etc. that are likely to enhance his law school applications and help to confirm his interest in the field.
Bottom line: Your son can pick whatever major he wishes as he sets his sights on law school. And if you're skeptical that an internet "Dean" is qualified to chart your child's path, here's what the American Bar Association has to say:
"The ABA does not recommend any undergraduate majors or group of courses to prepare for a legal education. Students are admitted to law school from almost every academic discipline. You may choose to major in subjects that are considered to be traditional preparation for law school, such as history, English, philosophy, political science, economics or business, or you may focus your undergraduate studies in areas as diverse as art, music, science and mathematics, computer science, engineering, nursing or education. Whatever major you select, you are encouraged to pursue an area of study that interests and challenges you, while taking advantage of opportunities to develop your research and writing skills. Taking a broad range of difficult courses from demanding instructors is excellent preparation for legal education. A sound legal education will build upon and further refine the skills, values, and knowledge that you already possess."
About the Ask the Dean Column
Sally Rubenstone is a veteran of the college admissions process and is the co-author of three books covering admissions. She worked as a Smith College admission counselor for 15 years and has also served as an independent college counselor, in addition to working as a senior advisor at College Confidential since 2002. If you'd like to submit a question to The Dean please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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