At a recent law school admissions panel, the deans who spoke seemed to agree unanimously that the most significant factor in evaluating a given candidate's GPA against that of another, was the relative "grade inflation" of a given applicant's undergraduate institution. They indicated that they determine grade inflation by "eyeballing" the mean GPA of each institution, and determining whether it was or was not an institution that inflated its students' grades.
Thus, by this method, a student with a GPA of 3.7 from Michigan State would be evaluated higher than someone with the same GPA from Stanford, assuming the mean GPA was 3.2 and 3.4 at MSU and Stanford respectively. This makes me wonder--for those of us who poured blood, sweat, and tears to get admitted to a highly ranked undergraduate institution, do we derive any benefit from it if our school has a higher mean GPA? (Note--for the record, I didn't go to Stanford, and I have a high degree of respect for MSU.) :)
It's hard for admissions officers (or even bloggers) to discuss undergraduate grades in sound bites, because there are a number of factors that go into evaluating a GPA. What you're describing in your first paragraph is accurate, but the conclusions to be drawn are more complicated than what you write in your second paragraph.
Grades do not have any independent currency. If you tell me you have mostly As, I would ask: so what? Maybe most people at your school get As, and Bs are for losers. And maybe at the school down the street, professors curve around a C, and they reserve As for true rock stars. The currency of a grade has value only when you know what the school's internal grading practices are.
Unfortunately, most transcripts don't give any indication of what their own currency is worth. When law schools have your transcript in front of them, they can't typically tell just from looking at that document whether most people get As, or what the average grade is at your school. With most transcripts, it's anyone's guess, although experienced admissions officers see enough transcripts from feeder schools that they develop a pretty good sense over time, and some schools' grading practices make national news. Transcripts tend to be very opaque documents, and therefore not all that helpful to the end user, whether that's an employer or an admissions officer. An A might have much higher currency at one school than at another, and that's why you often hear people apply the concept of "inflation" to grading practices. An A does not equal an A from institution to institution.
Grade inflation has risen in the last few decades, especially at private colleges, less so at state schools. All the Ivy League schools, most of the "Little Ivies," as well as Ivy peers like Stanford are notorious for their grade inflation. For example, in 2007-08, a majority of undergraduate grades at Brown were As. These schools have publicly waged war on grade inflation, with mixed success. (It made national headlines in 2007 when Princeton restricted its As to a whopping 35% across departments, although that quota didn't seem to stick in practice; it made news again that in 2009 that number had dipped below 40%.) Public universities, in the meantime, tend to apply tougher grading than private schools.
That's one reason admissions officers scrutinize your Academic Summary Report, which shows average GPAs as well as GPA distribution curves for students from your school during the years you attended. (Note that the underlying data set of GPAs against which you're being compared comes only from students from your college who applied to law school and therefore had to run their transcripts through LSAC. The "college mean" on your Report does not refer to your whole class or school.)
That distribution curve gives admissions officers a sense of how much grade inflation there was at your school when you were there. For example, if the Report shows that 36 percent of your school's applicants had GPAs above 3.6, that suggests that your school had an easier grading curve than a school where only 12 percent of its law school applicants had GPAs above 3.6. That information makes it easier for admissions officers to tell who the superstars are within a given school, although that's harder to do at schools with inflation, just because they bunch together so many people in the top bands. Admissions officers then still have to do the hard work of figuring out how to compare superstars from Michigan State to superstars from Stanford, and there's no formula or algorithm that will spit out an easy answer to that question. That's where the art and science of being admissions officer kicks in; a number on a transcript or an Academic Summary Report is only a starting point.
Make no mistake: schools that inflate their grades don't do any favors for their top performers by making As so cheap. That does not necessarily mean you'll be penalized for attending a more selective school, though, because how you stack up internally is only one factor among others that admissions officers consider. They also take into consideration what kind of school you attended (how rigorous, how selective, how tough your competition was there), because that helps put your undergraduate performance into context too. Should people regret going to Brown or Princeton or Stanford because of their cheap grading practices? No, but they need to make sure they get stellar grades there.
Admissions officers understand that your competition at a highly selective college is going to be tougher than it is at a less selective college. And how can they make that distinction? If they didn't already know from experience that Stanford is much more selective than Michigan State, they could easily look up and compare Stanford's 8% acceptance rate to Michigan State's 73% acceptance rate, for example. They can also look to the distribution of LSAT scores for your school (also reflected on your Academic Summary Report). If 90% of law school applicants from your college score in the 95th percentile and above on the LSAT, that gives them a sense that your competition at that school is tougher internally than at a school where only 8% of applicants score in the 95th percentile and above on the LSAT. These are all quick and dirty measures, but there are enough of them out there, combined with experience over time, that help admissions officers understand when you've attended a school with tough competition.
When admissions officers tell you that the selection process isn't as formulaic as you might think, this is a good example of that. Law school admissions is still a very numbers-driven process, but the way admissions officers evaluate the different numbers (especially undergraduate performance) is fairly nuanced. When evaluating your GPA, they do take into consideration where you went to school, they do take into consideration who your competition was, and they do take into consideration how easy or not it is to get good grades there. All of those things go into the mix, and they can sometimes pull in different directions. And here's another big issue: US News doesn't care where you went to college, or put an asterisk next to GPAs from harder colleges; US News takes GPAs at face value, without any context at all, when feeding undergraduate GPAs into their rankings, so law schools still have to be mindful of the raw GPA numbers they report, despite how GPAs work in the real world.
The admissions officers on that panel you mentioned might have been trying to condense all of that analysis into a five-minute discussion (very hard to do), or maybe they were just highlighting one very important factor (the grade inflation issue), or maybe applicants who attended their talk walked away from a more sophisticated discussion conflating a bunch of different things in their minds. It's a tricky subject, and I hope this explanation helps clarify it somewhat. And keep in mind that undergraduate GPA is itself just one factor among others in the selection process.
[Updated to fix links and add more links.]
Former Dean of Admissions at the University of Chicago Law School and a recovering lawyer, Anna Ivey founded Ivey Consulting to help college, law school, and MBA applicants navigate the admissions process. Read more admissions tips in The Ivey Guide to Law School Admissions, recently updated and available as an e-book. Follow Anna on Twitter (@annaivey).