It was about three weeks after I took the LSAT for the fourth time when I got the anticipated email. Before accessing my latest test results, I closed my eyes, took a deep breath, and said a little prayer. This time I had to get a higher score. After all, I’d doubled down on my studying and made substantial progress since the last time I took the exam.
When I clicked on the link to the Law School Admission Council’s page, what I saw caused my heart to sink. My score increased by only two points. Once again, I failed to meet the minimum score required to get me into any of my choice law schools.
A year ago, this scenario would’ve sent me into a serious funk. But now, I had to decide how much further I was willing to go. After some serious self-reflection, I asked myself several questions: Do I want to be a first-year law student at age 54? Do I want to be paying off a student loan into my 70s? If trying to master the LSAT was so hard, could I actually make it through a rigorous J.D. curriculum? When I honestly considered these important factors, I decided that law school wasn’t realistic. That ship had left the pier. Yet I also realized I didn’t have to become a civil rights lawyer to feel like I’d won life’s lottery.
The Journey to Realizing a Dream
I probably should have gone to law school after college. I considered it during my senior year of undergrad, but it was too late to get that ball rolling. Besides, I was chomping at the bit to move to New York City to become a journalist. I figured, I can always go to law school, there’s plenty of time. And even though the thought of becoming a lawyer popped into my mind over the years, I still put it off knowing I could go for it at a later date.
In 2019, with magazine publishing positions becoming more scarce, full-time writing and editing jobs were tough to find. I was fortunate enough to have enough freelance gigs to patch together half of a living but still needed more income to pay all of the bills. I secured a temp position as a legal administrative assistant in a corporate law firm. Spending hours scanning documents, answering phones, and setting up meetings pushed me to seek out a different job where I could utilize my intellectual skills and contribute to society. It finally seemed like the ideal time to chase my dream of becoming a lawyer. I thought, if not now, when?
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With a new sense of purpose, I started studying for the LSAT exam, taking practice tests, and researching law schools with excellent social justice programs. As I delved more deeply into my quest, I realized acing the test wasn’t going to be so easy. I got a lot of questions wrong and didn’t understand why. I’d read difficult passages and had trouble comprehending or making sense of the dense content. Turns out thinking like a lawyer and dissecting arguments wasn’t exactly in my DNA. My confidence waned, but I kept myself afloat with pep talks and the hope that if I worked harder, I’d get better.
The seemingly endless pursuit became a slog, taking up all my free time and most of my brainpower. I neglected other things, such as seeing friends and searching for a better full-time job. The emotional and physical drain was real. But nevertheless, I persisted. I took the exam and got a subpar score. I took it again six months later and got the same score. And the third time? I got the same damn score. I might’ve set a record for showing no improvement on the LSAT.
There came a point, after taking the LSAT for the fourth time and seeing a lousy two-point gain when I had to stop and take stock. I was frustrated by my lack of real progress and my score didn’t meet any school’s minimum requirements. (And by the way, I wasn’t shooting for Ivy League schools here!)
I weighed the pros and cons of trudging on and taking the exam for the fifth time. Finally, I swallowed the hard truth that my score was unlikely to climb high enough for any law school to say “yes” to me—and I had to admit my dream was probably not attainable. In the interest of self-preservation, I decided to give it up and step away for good.
Getting to this place wasn’t easy. But letting go ultimately freed me up to zero in on other more attainable goals that would make me happy.
Now, looking back, I’m able to see the experience of shutting down my dream taught me some valuable life lessons that empowered me to finally move forward.
Life Lesson 1: It’s important to grieve an abandoned dream.
When I decided to change course and forget about law school, it felt like something within me died. Instead of fighting it or brushing it off as no big deal, I needed time to mourn what could have been. I had created an identity for myself as a future lawyer who’d help make the world a better place, and now that vision would never be.
“Grief isn’t just reserved for the death of a person, you can experience it with a loss of something meaningful to you such as a relationship, a job, a dream you had, or a life you expected or wanted,” says Elizabeth Lombardo, Ph.D., a licensed clinical psychologist and life coach in Chicago, IL and author of Get Out of the Red Zone: Transform Your Stress and Optimize True Success.
Nancy Haugen, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist in San Francisco and an associate professor of psychiatry at the University of California San Francisco agrees, adding we shouldn’t feel foolish or overdramatic about mourning a dream. “Grief is grief, it doesn’t distinguish between whether your house burned down, your dog died, or you didn’t get the job you wanted,” she says. The key is allowing yourself to experience the emotions of the loss and not try to brush off your feelings. “If you’re sad, you can’t just switch gears and go back to work,” says Haugen. “Grief doesn’t work that way. We’re not robots or cardboard cutouts.”
Allowing myself to acknowledge my loss and not minimize its impact validated how important the dream of being a lawyer was to me. Once I reached the point of acceptance, my angst softened—and I stopped engaging in “If only I did this or that differently” thinking.
Without going through the various emotions that occur during the stages of grief, I couldn’t look ahead and consider my next steps.
Life Lesson No. 2: If you tried, you didn’t fail.
It’s easy to fall into the trap of believing that quitting something meaningful equals failure. But what I learned firsthand is that despite pursuing something significant, giving it my all and watching it not work out doesn’t mean I failed. I took action instead of keeping my dreams of becoming a lawyer in the fantasy file. In my opinion, failure is not trying at all, which pretty much guarantees nothing will happen. Even though I didn’t go to law school, I made something happen; it just wasn’t enough to take me over the finish line.
“It’s not failure—it’s data,” says Lombardo. “And by that I mean it’s information you can use to learn and grow.” Instead of thinking you’ve failed, can you reframe your mindset to think about what you can glean from the experience and how can you use it to grow even more? Think about how you can take what you learned to make positive changes now or do better next time.
When I assess what I gleaned from the experience, I see how much stronger and resilient I became—not only from dealing with application rejections and LSAT score disappointments but from encountering various naysayers. Since I verbalized my plans to many people, I learned who was in my corner and who couldn’t resist pouncing on my dream. I cultivated an ability to lower the volume on the negative, unsupportive people and stay the course. It made me realize I had to be my own cheerleader and not care about what others thought.
On a practical level, studying for the LSAT forced me to utilize my brain in ways I’d never done before. Over time, I sharpened my reading comprehension, logical reasoning, and analytical thinking skills, which has greatly improved my writing and editing work. It’s also helped me see things from different perspectives and consider both sides of an argument. These days, I’m much better at pinpointing a flimsy argument with faulty logic, and who knows, it might come in handy in life at the appropriate moment.
What I know for sure thanks to my efforts: You’ve got to take time to give yourself kudos for putting yourself out there. There’s no shame in trying and not ultimately succeeding. It takes courage to take a leap of faith, especially as we get older. Be proud you had the guts to take a risk in the first place and appreciate what you accomplished in the process.
Life Lesson No. 3: Your life’s happiness doesn’t hinge on one dream.
At 53, I’ve had more than my share of heartbreaks and life plans that crashed and burned before the plane left the runway. But when one desire fails to materialize, it doesn’t mean you’re sentenced to a meaningless life of misery. Thinking back on other times I didn’t get what I wanted—and how I dealt with it—helped remind me of my resilience. I’d been there before and survived.
When I literally closed the books on the law school idea, it forced me to focus on plans B, C, and D. I thought about other potential fulfilling career choices and ways I could make a difference as a social justice warrior outside of becoming an attorney. Taking a hiatus from journalism to pursue my law school dream reminded me how much I missed writing. I could also now embark on a classic film podcast idea I wanted to co-host with a friend. Maybe I could look into running for local office. You don’t have to be a lawyer to be an elected official.
Choosing to move forward and change gears opened me up to opportunities that wouldn’t have come up otherwise. “Whatever the other dream was all about, it was one era, and the end of that era means time it’s for another one,” says Haugen. “And what you do next may be right in front of you.”
Life Lesson No. 4: Achieving your dream isn’t always possible. (And that’s OK!)
Contrary to what society tells us, all the passion and perseverance you put into something you want doesn’t mean you’re going to succeed. Sometimes, the never-give-up mentality can be downright counterproductive, leading you to do all the “right” things despite merely spinning your wheels. Unfortunately, there are certain dreams and desires that fall outside the realm of plausibility for a variety of reasons, such as a lack of certain resources, the time needed to invest or, here’s a big one: outside factors over which you have no control.
I can relate. While I was studying for the LSAT, I contemplated hiring a tutor to pinpoint why I wasn’t grasping certain concepts, but it would’ve cost me hundreds of dollars an hour. I simply couldn’t afford it. And, even if I had raised my LSAT score on my own, written the most prolific essays, and met each law school’s criteria, there’s little chance I’d have been accepted anyway: It just so happens the pandemic had a big impact on everyone’s law school dreams, and 2021 was a record year for wanna-be lawyers, with more than double the applicants scoring between 175 and 180 (the perfect score). As a result, nearly every law school raised its median score three points. For me, this was moving the goal post even further away. The reality was, that I could spend the next 10 years trying to get my score up and still never get close. At this point, I didn’t want to spend any more precious time running toward that moving target.
Don’t get me wrong: Coming to terms with not getting what you want is a difficult journey. It can be disappointing, depressing, and downright sad. My hard-won advice? Practice self-compassion and celebrate your wins. This too shall pass. And remember, there is something else out there for you, you just may not know it yet.