One of the biggest tasks confronting a law school applicant is the need to mitigate weaknesses or perceived weaknesses in an application. Nearly everyone applying to law school knows they need to perform this necessary step, but the hard part is ascertaining true weaknesses and then actually addressing them. Here is a 5-step process for mitigating the biggest weakness in your application:
1. Identify the biggest weakness in your candidacy. The first step is identification. If you don’t know what your biggest weakness is, how can you possibly mitigate it? For many law school applicants, this is the most difficult task of all. Part of the problem is frame of reference. Most applicants attempt to perform a self-analysis and many are even incredibly critical of themselves, so the problem isn’t one of willingness or effort. Instead, the issue stems from a failure to visualize the competitive landscape. More often than not, candidates will evaluate themselves by comparing their own backgrounds and accomplishments relative to those of the people around them (classmates, friends, family members, co-workers, etc.). This is a rather unhelpful comparison. Instead, a law school applicant should make every effort to analyze their candidacy in relation to other applicants. This is the primary value that admissions consulting companies like Veritas Prep provide, although students can certainly get this perspective from faculty members and friends, if they are lucky enough to have access to such qualified individuals.
2. Understand that the weakness works two levels. Every element of your application that might be a major weakness – GPA, LSAT score, resume, etc. – works on two levels: an obvious surface level and a latent, thematic level. The surface level is easy enough to understand, but is the hardest to compensate for, as the premise here can be summed up as “it is what it is.” A 2.9 GPA is just that – a 2.9 GPA. There is nothing that you can do to change it and there’s no way to convince a school that it doesn’t matter. You have to report it to the law school and the law school has to report it to ranking agencies. Everyone in the process is captive to raw numbers and surface-level determinations. However, the thematic level is something else entirely. This is the aspect of a major weakness that most candidates miss, which is a shame because it is much easier to sway a decision-maker on a thematic level. To take the low GPA example above, the latent implication of a low GPA is a lack of discipline, focus, and maturity. Candidates have a much easier time showcasing those traits in other aspects of their profile than they do of making the low GPA go away.
3. Start with school selection. Once a weakness has been identified and properly understood on two levels, the first step toward mitigation is to be smart about school selection. Again, sticking with low GPA, it behooves a candidate to do some research into programs that seem more forgiving of a low GPA. A quick comparison of two elite law schools – Chicago and Berkeley (tied for 6th in U.S. News & World Report last year) – shows a pretty major disparity in GPA range. Berkeley’s 25th-75th percentile range for GPA in 2009 was 3.64-3.9 while Chicago’s was 3.49-3.76. That may not seem like much, but a .15 difference is massive for such equitable schools. Not surprisingly, Chicago’s LSAT range is much higher than Berkeley’s (169-173 for Chicago compared to 163-170 for Berkeley). You can make a lot of guesses as to why these disparities exist, but the biggest rule of thumb is don’t fight it! If you have an awesome LSAT score and a lower GPA and are debating between Chicago and Berkeley, the choice should be easy. Apply to Chicago and give yourself the best chance to succeed.
4. Take any steps possible toward correction. Once you have a list of schools that makes the most sense, it is practical to take any steps you can toward “fixing” the weakness. This is cheating a little bit, because if something can be fixed, it rises to a level several degrees higher than mitigation. That said, it is startling to see how many candidates settle and accept their fate. If you have a sparkling profile but bomb the LSAT, take it again! If you tanked an accounting class freshman year, take another one. Sure, it won’t erase that bad grade or change your GPA if you already graduated, but it will show the law school that you have grown up and are serious about moving in the right direction. When the weakness is in leadership, teamwork, or other extra-curricular factors, it is even easier to take correctional steps, as it simply requires getting involved.
5. Mitigate through the application. This is the step where every candidate ultimately lands if there is a true weakness in the profile. Once you’ve identified the weakness, worked through the two levels of impact, selected the best schools, and taken correctional steps, you are left with the challenge of positioning your application in such a way that it mitigates the harm of the weakness. Going all the way back to a low GPA and what it means for your candidacy, mitigation will mean using the application to express to the reader that you indeed have the maturity, focus, and discipline to succeed in a law school classroom. The position that such an applicant would take would be to build a “here’s when the light bulb came on for me” narrative. For someone with a low LSAT score, the application becomes about intellectual horsepower. And so on. Most law school applicants mistakenly highlight their strengths at the expense of mitigating weaknesses, or they go too far and overtly apologize and make excuses for those weaknesses. The key is to use the personal statement and other application components as a way to change the reader’s mind on a thematic level about a component from the profile. Ultimately, that is how you mitigate a weakness.
Adam Hoff is the Director of Admissions Consulting and Research at Veritas Prep. He is a graduate of the University of Chicago Law School and Pepperdine University, where he served as the Associate Director of Admissions. Adam oversees Veritas Prep’s law school admissions consulting services to ensure that Veritas Prep clients are successfully poised for admission to their select law schools.
You can hear more from Adam on strategic tips for your law school application in the Law School Podcaster episode, Law School Application Strategy: What You Can Do Now To Help You Get Accepted.