Why the F? Understanding the 1L grading curve [Video]

If you’re planning to enter law school this fall, be prepared for some surprises. First, the teaching methods your law professors employ will be unlike what you experienced in your college classroom. Moreover, when you finally sit for your first semester exams, you’ll see that how you’re tested (and your objectives as an examinee) will be completely foreign. However, what is most unsettling for most students is, for the first time in their academic careers, being surrounded by classmates who possess the brainpower and work ethic that will make it very difficult to earn top grades.

Reality check, you’re no longer the smartest in the room

Look, if you’re like most entering law students, you’ve already proven that you’re a very capable student. You earned great grades in college and probably a high LSAT score that allowed you to get into a competitive law school. Notwithstanding what it was that helped you excel in college – whether you won the genetic lottery and are just “naturally” smart, or if you have an undying work ethic that prevents you from ever being bested by your competition – what may come as a shock is that you won’t be alone; all your classmates will be equally capable. UGH!

Now, if learning that you’ll no longer be the smartest person in the room wasn’t unsettling enough, here’s the really bad news: You will be graded on a curve against these competent (and, let’s face it, competitive) classmates.

The importance of 1L grades

You see, first-year grades serve to vet law students for other academic and professional opportunities. For example, if you want to be invited to participate on Law Review at your school, most schools use grades (e.g., top 5-10% of the class) to determine who’s invited to join. Or, if you need to get the hell out of dodge and transfer to another law school as a 2L, guess what the transferee law school will look at when determining your eligibility: first year grades. Similarly, before the most selective legal employers will send representatives to a law school to interview employment candidates, most will instruct the school that they only want to interview students who fall within a certain class rank (e.g., top 10-20%).

How the 1L grading curve works

To accommodate a system where grades carry so much weight, most law schools impose a strict grading curve – one that allows for only a certain number of A’s and, yes, F’s. Unlike undergrad where your professors had broad discretion when handing out grades, in law school you will not be graded on what your professor feels was “A” effort; instead, your professors must award A’s only to those students who demonstrate a complete mastery of the material in comparison to the rest of their classmates. It is for this very reason, many smart and capable students receive the first C’s of their academic careers during the 1L year.

Now, you’re probably thinking that even if there’s a grading curve it can’t really be strictly imposed because, to some extent, all grading is “subjective” and there are some factors (e.g., classroom performance, the personal relationship you build with your professor, etc.) that can positively influence your academic performance. Well, the smart folks in law school have already corrected for this variable by instituting an anonymous grading system. This means that even if you were the “professor’s pet” and always came to class prepared and ready to engage, your professors will never know this when they are grading your examinations. Your anonymous grading number is only matched to student names after final examination grades have been tallied.

Let the 1L grading curve serve as a source of motivation

Don’t let the 1L grading curve serve as a source of apprehension – rather it should serve as a source of motivation. Knowing how you will be evaluated provides you with an opportunity to develop a study plan and acquire new academic skills that that will allow you work smart and earn the best grades possible. Spend time now on ways to distinguish yourself from your very capable classmates next semester.

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