Whether you are just starting to consider applying to law school or if you are just about ready to send off your application, you are probably going to have a lot of questions about the choices you have to make before you pick the right school for you. Where do you start? How does the application process work? What do the admissions committees look for in your application? How can you make your application stand out? In this show, we round up the top authors of the books that address the admissions process to help you tackle the process from start to finish. Hear their tips and get some insight into how their books can help you get into your chosen school.
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- Ann K. Levine, author of The Law School Admission Game: Play Like an Expert
- Anna Ivey, author of The Ivey Guide to Law School Admissions: Straight Advice on Essays, Resumes, Interviews, and More
- Paul Bodine, Senior Editor at Accepted.com and author of Perfect Phrases For Law School Acceptance: Hundreds of Ready-To-Use Phrases to Write A Winning Personal Statement, Ace The Interview, and Impress Admissions Officers and Great Personal Statements For Law School
- Richard Montauk, How To Get Into The Top Law Schools (Revised) 4th edition
- Joyce Putnam Curll, The Best Law Schools’ Admissions Secrets: The Essential Guide From Harvard’s Former Admissions Dean
Welcome to Law School Podcaster, your source for inside information and advice on the law school application process. I’m Diana Jordan.
You’ve decided to go to law school or you’re considering it.Maybe you’re thinking about a new career path or you’ve just been laid off. In any of these cases, law school could be the next best step. But here comes all the questions. Where do you begin? What’s your timeline? What should you include in your personal statement?How do law schools evaluate your application?What about the LSAT? Your undergraduate grades? How do you put everything together? To many, the law school admissions process is a bit of a mystery.
In this show, Law School Admission Guides, we’ve rounded up the authors of the top books that guide you step-by-step through the competitive law school admissions process. These authors are former admissions officers, consultants and experts, and they know from experience what admissions committees really look for in an applicant.They share tips and strategies to help you find the law school that fits you best and to help improve your chances of being accepted.
Law School Admission Consultant, Ann Levine wrote The Law School Admission Game: Play Like an Expert. “There is so much junk out there that law school applicants just cling on to because they don’t know the right information.” Anna Ivey, former Dean of Admissions at the University of Chicago Law School has written the, The Ivey Guide to Law School Admissions: Straight Advice on Essays, Résumés, Interviews, and More.
We’ll hear from Paul Bodine Senior Editor at Accepted.com and author of these two books, Perfect Phrases For Law School Acceptance: Hundreds of Ready-To-Use Phrases to Write A Winning Personal Statement, Ace The Interview, and Impress Admissions Officers and Great Personal Statements For Law School. “If there is sort of a program or a key that’s going to unlock the door that’s really this idea of authenticity, which of course the schools talk about as well.So that’s the book’s strategy.”
We’ll hear from Richard Montauk, out with his fourth edition of How To Get Into The Top Law Schools, and the former Dean of Admissions at Harvard Law School, Joyce Putnam Curll, is author of The Best Law Schools’ Admissions Secrets: The Essential Guide, from Harvard’s former admissions dean. “Their lives, their applications and their education are in their hands and they have only themselves to answer.”
Our guest authors have worked with thousands of law school applicants and several are former deans of admission who have seen first-hand what works for applicants and what does not work. We focus in on what the books are about.
First, Joyce Putnam Curll’s book, The Best Law Schools’ Admissions Secrets. She retired from her position as Dean of Admissions at Harvard Law School after 34 years. During her time as Dean, Curll talked to more than 200,000 applicants.Her book is based on this experience.“I had found that even the most sophisticated applicants weren’t sure even of how to decide the basic questions of whether to go to law school or what they should or could do to prepare a good application and the like. So I decided that beginning with those fundamentals of whether, when, and how to go to law school, I would be able to help to show who they were and what they had to offer.More importantly, I could help the less sophisticated applicants by helping to level the playing field between them and those who had a lot of guidance and support from parents and pre-law advisors and those who had never even met a lawyer or a pre-law advisor.”
Law School Admission Consultant, Ann Levine, says the focus of her book, The Law School Admissions Game, is not just for people aspiring to attend top law schools.“The Law School Admission Game:Play Like an Expert is a law school guide geared toward giving specific insider advice to all law school applicants no matter their backgrounds or goals. So whether someone is applying to Harvard or Hamline or anywhere in between, the information in my book will absolutely apply to their case.”
Anna Ivey, Founder of Ivey Guide Consulting says the focus of her book, The Ivey Guide to Law School Admissions, is to give applicants a 360-degree perspective. Ivey says she has applied to and gone to law school, she has been a lawyer, Dean of Admissions at a top law school, and an admissions coach.Ivey says her approach is conversational with candor to reveal how it really works behind the scenes. “I try to position every admissions issue in the book in the larger context of questions like, why are you going to law school?What do you want to get out of your law school experience?What do you want to get out of your legal career or your non-legal career? So I try to get people to ask themselves questions that really are kind of holistic and not just restricted to getting in the door.”
Richard Montauk’s book, How To Get Into The Top Law Schools, is literally the biggest book represented here. “It is such a comprehensive book that looks, in a mere 600 pages, at not just the process of trying to get into the best law school possible but also considers such major issues as, should you go to law school, how do you assess that, how do you figure out what your alternatives are and so on.”
Joyce Putnam Curll, formerly Dean of Admissions at Harvard, shares additional secrets in her book. She found that the law school application process is troubling for many, and her approach is to offer some transparency and reveal more inside information in her book. “Well, one of the most startling things is how many people that I expected felt very comfortable in the process did not feel comfortable. I talk to a lot of applicants that I had known as students and they were therefore very successful applicants and how much they said they wish they had access to more information that would – that actually came from the people who were making the decision.”
While that element remains the same of over time, Curll says the biggest difference she perceived in her 34 years as Dean of Admissions is, easily, technology.She used Xerox machines and automatic typewriters in her early years. Now, there is active communication with emails, blogs, electronic submissions, and the ability to check your application online.“So technology is the biggest thing from a purely administrative standpoint. From the standpoint of what applicants think and why they think they’re going to law school, that is kind of a window on the world at the time and the window of young people. Sometimes it is that young people are working to try to make changes in the world. Sometimes it has worked so that they can make changes in their own economic and financial situation, and it somewhat has reflected what the background world has been all about.So it’s ebbed and flowed in that connection. There are two different things that are happening now. One is that there are people who are looking to be active in the public service because that has, on some level, seemed to become more important.The other thing that has happened is the economy.And there are many people who think that being a lawyer is a more stable occupation than many other things that they might have thought to undertake. And even though it’s difficult now for some graduating law students to find their first employment, I think that it still seems more secure to many people.”
Richard Montauk registers many changes in his book, How To Get Into The Top Law Schools, which is now in its fourth edition, including the addition of material on advanced law degrees. “I have tried to interweave more and more of a careers perspective throughout the book because it became clear to me, partly in reaction to the book, readers contacting me and such, but also even more in dealing with my own clients, and this book is very much an outgrowth of that work with individual clients, that people were not paying as much attention to the career implications of what they were doing or failing to do. They weren’t paying as much attention as they should, so the book tries to have more of a career focus throughout. So that has been the reason for some of this reworking of the book.”
Curll agrees, saying it’s vital to know if law school is the right path for you.“The first chapter of my book is, Is Law School For You? And I think that too many people leap into the decision to apply to law school without actually exploring the question of whether it’s the right thing for them to do.And I think that’s partly why we have so many disappointed lawyers because they never really went to a law school, to a law office, or they never visited a law school, and they never understood how a legal education would actually be. So they get there and they’re not happy with it.I actually devote three chapters of my book to a discussion of law schools.”
Montauk says one law school applicant turned away from that plan after talking to him.“He was leaning toward doing law school.He had been a New Jersey State Trooper with expertise in polygraphs, lie detectors, and the like.He had been injured and, as a result, was forced to resign from the police. He was looking for another career. At heart, what he really wanted to do was write crime novels.So he was thinking about whether or not to go to law school, leaning toward it as I say. But in helping him through this, it became clear that what he really needed to do was get a writing credential and some experience writing.So, law school wouldn’t really provide that.And he already had the knowledge he needed of the legal system for his purposes to write crime novels, if you will.So, he ended up going off to Columbia to do a Masters in Journalism and with a bit of help from me, I suppose, he ended up getting a massive scholarship and then another massive scholarship to stay on for an extra year.So at the end of this, he has a couple of degrees from Columbia, which combined with his extremely good police career before this, will make him attractive to a literary agent or publisher.”
Ivey advises you to remember that law school is a professional school training you for a specific career. It’s not just more college. “In some ways, I guess it could be interpreted as sort of the anti-admissions book, because I’m telling people to just slow down and really think this through and maybe not go at all. So, that might be sort of an unorthodox approach, but it’s what I feel very strongly about. There are a lot of unhappy lawyers out there.I really hate to think that I’m sort of contributing to those numbers.”
The authors vary in their strategy recommendations. Ann Levine, who wrote The Law School Admission Game, says as Director of Admissions for two law schools, and she worked at a third, everything in the book comes first-hand from her own experience.Levine says her book is chockfull of strategies and she’ll share four with us. “One is, apply early. Two, apply carefully. Put thought into each piece of the process.Don’t assume what law schools want to know about you.You have to strategize.Three, pick your schools carefully.Four, take price and prestige into consideration, but the most important thing is location, and I talk a lot about that in the book.”And location, Levine says, is key.“Law school is professional school.So in order to become a professional you need to start networking with the community in which you hope to practice law.And the best way to do that, to get job opportunities in the community where you hope to work later on after graduation, is by being in that location during law school.”
Curll recommends considering your law school application holistically.“You really need to know that everything in your application fits together including your own statements about yourself and what others are likely to say about you. So, it’s important as a strategy to assess yourself and assess what it is that your application will appear as a whole.Then look at the schools to which you are applying and make some judgments about how you fit into that pattern. Your whole application should be greater than the sum or your parts.”
And Montauk says strategies will vary. “So, a 21-year-old who is a political science major at Cornell, for instance, is probably going to be poorly served by the kind of strategy that a practicing psychologist, age 35, should be employing.And the first case, there is a great need to stand out because being a Poli Sci major at a good college is hardly sufficient to distinguish you in this process. Somebody who is a 35-year-old practicing psychology, on the other hand, is likely to be standing out and needs instead to be focusing on the value of what she has done to date, how that’s going to help her in her future career and how it’s going to bring useful things to the classroom, if you will.So, strategy is very situation dependent.”
Ivey says the meat of her book, The Ivey Guide to Law School Admissions, focuses on your essay, how you present yourself in writing, how you present your accomplishment and goals, those things over which you still have total control.“Figuring out what you should be leaving out is just as important as figuring out what you want to put in.So, a good application is the result of ruthless cutting and editing and then making sure that what does go in really shines.So, that’s really kind of what ties the various strategies throughout the book together is figuring out, okay, every person is different but when you sit down and take inventory of what you have to offer, how do we go about doing that kind of hard decision making about what goes into this very limited space. And then how do you get through the most bang for your buck in terms of how it’s going to be perceived on the other end.”
Two more books in our show dig deeper into the writing portion of your applications.Senior Editor at Accepted.com, Paul Bodine, has written Perfect Phrases For Law School Acceptance and Great Personal Statements For Law School. The key, Bodine says, is to be authentic. He breaks that down in these books. “I do offer specific strategies, and you know, strategies for good writing which would include knowing your audience, devising sort of a theme that kind of captures your profile, a three- or four-element theme that kind of captures who you are, how to identify the right material for the stories that you write about that are going to illustrate those themes, using an outline, understanding what the schools are asking. So, the strategies are on that sort of specific level.And then, as I mentioned, there are – the Great Personal Statements book is divided into sections on letters of recommendation, on addenda, on waitlist letters, on the personal statement, and then on the secondary – I call them secondary essays. So, the strategies are all very much specific to those sections.”
With the numbers, LSATs and GPAs, being roughly equivalent among the top applicants, how can you stand out? Curll says the applicant should communicate who he or she is as a person, as a student, and as a potential colleague. To see if there is a good fit, research and know what the law schools offer and what you offer. Curll says she had her eye out for resilient people who have mastered many subjects and have integrity. “We look for people that we might describe as bootstrappers, who have overcome some obstacles and made it into the next level without apparent help from others.Well, they probably have had help but without the apparent help that many people whose parents will give them support all the way along. I think it’s valuable to be immersed at least in one discipline and know it well.I think it’s important to be able to integrate it with other disciplines as well, and then take the combination to a new level and that will show mastery and creativity that are very important in terms of being able to move the law along or to work well in a Socratic Method environment. An application that demonstrates this and then also demonstrates good teamwork skills, respect and concern for others, evidence of a strong moral compass, a sense of good ethics, those kinds of applications will stand out.If it rings true — and it has to ring true — so there has to be the fundamental there.”
Bodine, who wrote Perfect Phrases for Law School Acceptance and Great Personal Statements for Law School, says there are five qualities that will help you stand out from other candidates who may have similar LSATs and GPAs. “The first is authenticity and this is being true to who you are and what you’ve done.And a really important part of this is don’t try to project some kind of idealized self image of who you’d like to be or try to outsmart the admissions committee in terms of what they want to hear.It’s really a question of authenticity.And I think – where does that come from?Well, it comes from self-awareness.It comes from drilling down and kind of introspecting about what matters to you, what experiences have shaped you, what your passions are, what your goals are, and that may sound like sort of a tough marching orders. But really there are – and I get into them in the book.There are strategies, tactics you can use to help yourself get to that self-awareness, for example, journaling, and you can also get the help of friends and family in terms of their perspective on who they think you are or what they think of the kinds of stories or themes you’re coming up with.”
“So the self-awareness, that’s also a process and that’s got to be a key part of the process early on. Then I think there’s vivid writing. Lawyers are supposed to be good writers. So, you can demonstrate that kind of ability through the way you write the essay, not only grammatically good writing but also a tightly-structured essay, well argued, or a story that’s well told. The use of vivid language, being concise, those are aspects of good writing.I’d say number four is just hard work. You’ve got to put the time into the essay. And there are probably going to be some people who can reel these things off very quickly. But most people and even very professional writers, they need to edit what they work on and they need to set it aside and come back to it and really give it some time.And I think at a minimum you’re talking – I would say six weeks to two months. I mean, from the moment that you start thinking about it to when it’s done, I think you’ve really got to give yourself a lot of time.
And then finally, I’d say creativity. And by this I don’t mean using iambic pentameter or putting the essay in the form of a legal brief — those kinds of gimmicky things. I mean, just sort of try to find some sort of special metaphor or angle that might give your material a little bit more distinctiveness, like maybe there is some kind of passion or activity that you enjoy that could be framed in terms of a metaphor that you could use to structure the essay. So creativity can be helpful. It’s not a must but it can be helpful. So I would say those five things – if you do those five things, you’re going to have an essay that’s going to be distinctive, it’s going to be true to who you are, and therefore you will stand out from other applicants.“
Too often, applicants worry about their competition or try to figure out what the school will want. Bodine says that does not work when you want to stand out. “The most effective way to stand out, to be unique, is to stay true to your own story because that’s going to be the only part of your application that really is unique because it’s your life. Everything else like grades and stuff like that and LSAT scores, it’s going to be hard to compete on those levels, in those areas at some level.So you need to stay to your own story and hopefully find the stories that are, let’s say, two or three stories, for the personal statement or one story that’s a very powerful one.And then make sure that those stories are the right ones that are going to help you stand out and they’re going to capture who you are.”
Ann Levine, who wrote The Law School Admission Game:Play Like an Expert, says law schools are simply seeking mature, focused individuals who are capable of becoming attorneys in three years’ time. As for standing out, Levine says, you can achieve this.“An application stands out when it presents a story that makes the applicant impressive and likable when qualities such as life experience and understanding of how the real world works, et cetera, a sincere dedication in academics, these things come through and bring the paper to life.”
These books offer advice on how to distinguish your application and one question is whether you should brand yourself. Bodine says it’s not about being a product but about being authentic.The admissions committee will read through anything less. “If personal branding means staying true to your own story, identifying let’s say two or three themes that capture who you are. And what do I mean by that? Well, it could be you spent an extensive amount of time overseas as a child or you have had an unusual major in college or you’ve had an unusual professional career or you overcame some tremendous obstacle when you were a teenager or something like that. Those are going to be the kinds of things that I would say you want to stick your – that your personal brand wants to – should derive from those kinds of things because anything else is going to start to sound sort of generic.So personal branding, I would just come back to the idea of authenticity and identifying the right stories.”
Former Harvard Dean of Admissions, Joyce Putnam Curll, says branding is another way of saying who you are and what you have to offer. She says be honest, straightforward and realize that the client, the law school, is a very savvy client. “Even in that huge number of people that I’ve looked at over a lifetime of working in law school admissions, you find people who stand out as individuals because they have managed to be what they seem and to help us know what they’re going to offer to the class because you understand what the law school class is all about. It is people interacting with each other and changing the facts ever so slightly and working toward what would become the truth in that. And being able to do that may call on your background.Well, it often calls on your own personal background and experience.”
The author of How To Get Into The Top Law Schools, Richard Montauk, says he is often asked by law school hopefuls to review their rejected applications, and he finds lots of mistakes. “I’m struck by the inconsistency of message. What a recommender was probably talking about, and we may have a copy of one of the recommendations for instance, is inconsistent with how this applicant portrayed herself. The résumé is usually not consistent with that portrayal, and it’s usually pretty awful, by the way. It’s stunning to me how few people turn in a résumé that is error free, appropriate for this process, meaning focused on the right sorts of things and formatted professionally, if you will. So, something as simple as that, which is used by the admissions folks to get a quick understanding of a candidacy, tends to let people down.So, it’s partly a combination of inconsistent message. It’s also a matter of being dull, i.e. writing about things that are trivial in essence, predictable, not valuable because they fail to really deepen an understanding of a candidacy or show a side that wasn’t apparent and so on.So there are just tons of mistakes made by a typical applicant, if you will. So often and consulting to them in the future, what I’m doing is repair work to some extent, trying to re-launch them, if you will, which is a little bit difficult if they have really followed up because law schools will tend to remember a complete mess of a candidacy from the past. So, sometimes we have to have them applying to different schools in the future where they have not mucked things up for themselves.”
Bodine addresses writing mistakes in his Great Personal Statements for Law School.“On the level of writing, I’d say sort of vague superficial kind of mushy writing. It lacks examples and vivid detail. That’s going to be one mistake that a lot of applicants make, and I have material in the book that helps the applicant stay away from those kinds of mistakes.I’d say an even bigger problem or mistake that applicants make, and I deal with this pretty extensively in the book, is this idea of starting the essay from the standpoint of what the applicant thinks the law school wants to hear rather than what the applicant actually wants to say. And this again gets back to that idea of authenticity I started with.”
Bodine has lots of writing examples in his books. So does Anna Ivey. As a former Dean, Ivey says she too has seen what works and what doesn’t.And each of the sections in her book has specific recommendations, secrets if you will.“I also included a bunch of examples of good essays, good recommendations, but perhaps even more importantly, I include examples of essays and recommendations that are not effective.So, I try to give examples of the kinds of things that a lot of applicants seem to think look good or are good and then I try to explain, yeah, no, here’s why that’s actually not so effective.”
But applicants should heed this important advice offered from our authors.Don’t copy their sample essays.It won’t ring true with the admissions committee and it’s a lost opportunity for them to hear your authentic voice.Curll says with the personal statement, “To thine own self be true.”
That value continues as you choose those who will write your letters of recommendation.She says, when you select your recommenders, avoid politicians, the big, famous professor who only knows you peripherally, and family friends. There are other mistakes. “Applicants sometimes overstate their accomplishments.Sometimes we might find two or three different people who claim to be president of the same organization in the same year for example. Sometimes people suggest that they have done more than they’ve done and their recommender will actually bring that back down to Earth. So, that’s why I recommend getting consistency.Another big mistake that people can make if they’re obsessed with the kinds of things that they might have done wrong is, a litany of excuses for a bad grade or poor score in the LSAT.Those kinds of things can be mistakes.The other kinds of things have been to try to pad your academic record by taking relatively easy courses at some point because what happens is, for the most part, these same law school admissions people who can recognize when your application – when the statements your making in your application are overblown, they can also recognize when the courses that you’ve taken are really not very difficult.”
Another type of mistake may stem from applying to extra schools just to be sure you get in somewhere. Curll cautions you to not go there. She says it’s not a good idea to apply to a lot of safety schools. “It’s more important to choose wisely to which schools you want to apply rather than to choose more. Give it a thought. And I spent quite a bit of time in my book talking about how to give it that thought.”
In her book, Ivey guides you with similar advice — to be choosy about your law school.“Grad school is just one of many, many wonderful things out there that one could do.And so I think if you have taken that inventory and you have taken stock of what it is that you want to do career-wise and have done that heavy lifting in that homework to figure out what is it that I want and which schools are a good match for me and which ones are going to open those doors for me that I want and need opened down the road after I spend all this time and all this money on this thing. If you have a good sense of what that list looks like, I would say don’t slap on other schools just for the heck of it.”
Ivey addresses your confidence level on a related topic.She says just because you were rock star and undergrad, that may not necessarily carry over to law school.“It is very different from college and be open-minded to the fact that you’re going to have to approach in a distinctive way and in a way that you might not be used to from your prior academic experiences.”
All the authors reveal first-hand information that they either couldn’t disclose when they were Deans or these secrets were garnered from conversations with deans of admission from dozens of schools. In Montauk’s 600-page book, you will find secrets behind going to law school for less money. “I take a look at which schools will consider you independent of your parents for financial aid purposes and under what circumstances.And the answer varies hugely from school to school.With some, there is essentially no opportunity until you’re at least 29, if then. With others, it’s straightforward and they automatically consider you independent, at Northwestern, for example. If your parents are rich and you’re poor, that might save you a fortune because you might get a lot of financial aid that you would not be entitled to at a school that considered your parents’ resources as relevant here.Similarly let’s say that you’re going to go abroad from one year during law school, a lot of American law schools would charge you their tuition, the American law school’s tuition for that year.Others, a minority, would have you pay the foreign school’s tuition. Given that foreign schools charge a small fraction, generally, of what American schools charge, this can be a difference of $30,000 or more and so on.So I take a look at a dozen of these sorts of examples that can be critically important in terms of getting a great education for a lot less than you would otherwise.”
Bodine focuses on writing in his two books. And some of his secrets also touch on your economic picture.Bodine says, if you’re jobless and applying to law school, don’t be defensive in interviews with admissions committees.He advises you to talk in large terms of what law school will give you and why you’re going to law school instead of, say, to business school or graduate school. And when you write, be positive about your life experience.“One other lesson is just that you need to focus even more time on these essays, on the application process.So anything you would have normally done in a good economic period, I think you’ve got to bear down a little bit more and make sure you’ve got absolutely the best application you have before you submit it.”
Levine wants law school applicants to feel more control of their fate.“I want to remove the paranoia that law school discussions forums produce. Instead of the blind meeting the blind, I want readers to feel they have a new and well-informed understanding of how to maximize their chances of admission and how to increase their opportunities.”
Former Harvard Dean of Admissions, Joyce Putnam Curll, has seen more than 200,000 applicants in her career. She says your life is in your own hands. That means your pre-law school education is in your own hands.Your law school application is in your own hands and your legal education is in your own hands.“At any point in your life you can have made mistakes up until that point but you can take charge of it at really any point.And ultimately your career is in your own hands as well.So you might as well start with your undergraduate education. So, my book is actually focused toward people who are thinking about law school even before they go to college. But it’s also for people who have finished college and everything they’ve done has been wrong up until that point. And what can they do at that point? But it’s still in their own hands. It’s never too late to recover. I actually have found that late bloomers are sometimes the most spectacular applicants — then students.”
Law school is a serious time commitment and a hefty investment in your future.These six books, based on the considerable inside experience of these authors, are definitely worth the read as you consider whether law school is right for you and as you navigate your way through the law school application process.
For more information, a transcript of this show, or to sign up to receive more law school podcasts, visit www.lawschoolpodcaster.com. Look for us on Facebook and Twitter to get the latest news and insight into the world of law school. I’m Diana Jordan with Law School Podcaster. Thanks for listening. Stay tuned for more shows as we explore another topic of interest to help you succeed in the law school application process and beyond.