This is your one-stop primer — by the numbers — where admissions deans debunk popular admissions myths, share tips for making you stand out among other applicants and caution against some of the common mistakes made.
The law school applications process can seem like a maze at times, filled with false passages and mythical obstacles. But it need not be such a heart-wrenching experience. Even though you have never been through the process, others have. And by following their guidance and experience, you can avoid the mistakes and instead make your application stand out.
Here we identify the three best ways to stand out, how to avoid the six most-common mistakes, and we debunk the four biggest myths.
3 ways to stand out (besides your GPA and LSAT score)
Everyone knows that an applicant’s LSAT score and grade point average are the two top indicators of how one will fare in the admissions process. Still, understand that admissions counselors don’t just look at the numbers.
(1) A well-written, effective personal statement
“Often, candidates underestimate the power of the personal statement,” said Chloe Reid, associate dean and dean of admissions at the University of Southern California Gould School of Law. “This is your story. Your story is different from the person standing next to you.”
Use the personal statement as a chance to tell admissions officers what is important to you, what has influenced your life, and what your values are. Remember that admissions officers don’t have a lot of time to spend on each application. Make your personal statement concise, Reid said.
“If you had 10 minutes of my time, what would you want me to know about you?”
It also helps when an applicant includes information about why they chose to apply to the particular law school, said Nicole Vilches, assistant dean for admissions at Chicago Kent College of Law. For example, by listing a particular program that interests you.
(2) Letters of recommendation that impress
Sometimes applicants worry more about the title of the person writing the letter of recommendation than what the person can tell us about the applicant, said Michael Boylen, assistant dean for admissions at Roger Williams University School of Law.
Ask people who know you well, and don’t just ask them to write you a letter, ask them to write you a good letter, Boylen said. And always have an academic letter of recommendation.
Opt for professors who know you well enough to write about you specifically rather than send a form letter. Avoid recommenders who will be viewed as having a bias, such as family and close friends. Also consider giving your potential recommenders an “out” if they are too busy or don’t feel comfortable writing the letter.
(3) Provide an honest and clear picture of who you are, what is important to you, and how law school fits into the “big picture” of your life when listing your activities.
“It’s important to be authentic in your communications,” said Richard Matasar, dean of New York Law School. A common theme in winning applications is explaining the “who” and the “why” behind the applicant’s story — whether you grew up in poverty and want to give back to your community through your law school education or grew up helping with the family business and want to use your law degree for corporate work. On your personal statement, don’t simply regurgitate your resume and restate your activities. Explain them in context. For example, how a particular internship has helped mold you into who you are.
6 Big Mistakes
Applicants make mistakes, but some of those mistakes are easy to avoid. Here are some common pitfalls from which you should stay away.
Mistake: Not doing your research or applying to the wrong schools.
Applying to law schools that are beyond your reach or simply outside of your realm (whether geographically, in terms of your goals, costs and expected returns, or simply in terms of fit) may be a big mistake.
“Understand that many law schools are looking for a good fit, just like the student is,” Reid said.
Matasar said pre-law applicants should be realistic in their choices and genuine in their applications.
How to fix: Carefully research law schools before you begin the application process to determine which ones you should apply to. First, turn to the Law School Admissions Council Web site for general information about the law school admissions process and what you can expect, Reid said. Then, research particular schools that are a good fit for you, and for which you may also be a good fit.
“Make time to meet and talk to people,” said William Perez, assistant dean for admissions and financial aid at New York Law School. Preferably, travel to the law schools that you apply to, or at least the ones that have extended admissions to you. “At the very least, you should look at the school’s schedule of where we’re going to be.”
Spending a couple of hours to travel to a campus close to you can help you do research about a school that is recruiting.
Mistake: Being unprofessional during the admissions process.
A surefire way to make sure you won’t be admitted to a law school? Be rude to the people at the school — whether it’s admissions staff, alumni reps or support staff. Another mistake? Act (or even dressing) inappropriately when you meet with admissions staff. Also a big no-no — sending inappropriate emails from an inappropriate email address.
How to fix: First off, remember that law school is a fairly conservative place, Boylen said. Not creating a professional email address when you begin the applications process shows a lack of maturity, he said.
Remember that schools look at all of the written materials you submit, not just those that are formal parts of the application. In other words, every letter and even email you send will end up in your file and may be reviewed along with your education.
“We’re looking for the most unvarnished writing,” Boylen said.
Write everything in a formal and professional manner, and proofread carefully. Also, be courteous and understanding of the process, Reid said.
“The fact is, people in admissions are working very hard,” she said. “Every law school’s process is different.”
While you may have received a decision from one school, another school’s admissions office may have a different process with different systems in place. So, be patient and polite when you correspond or converse with people at each law school.
Mistake: Lying, omitting information or submitting an incomplete application.
Some applicants “forget to answer some of the questions or provide incomplete information,” Vilches said. “This ends up delaying the process, [plus] we may wonder why they didn’t provide it in the first place.”
One prime example is questions dealing with an applicant’s character and fitness, such as questions about prior arrests, convictions, academic discipline and the like.
Matasar said omitting information or providing false information on those questions is a huge mistake.
Vilches points out that different law schools phrase application questions differently (often modeling them after their state bar exam application questions). So, be sure you read questions carefully and understand what you are being asked. If you need clarification, call the law school rather than guessing on your own.
How to fix: Be honest throughout the process and make sure you answer all of the questions asked precisely and completely. If the application asks you to explain an answer in more detail, provide those explanations.
Mistake: Trying too hard to be different—causing you to stand out the wrong way!
Some applicants are “trying to be too different or unique and trying to put together a package that sets themselves apart, but instead causes their judgment to be in question,” Reid said. Cutesy
jingles, poems or plays in your personal statement? Probably not a good bet.
How to fix: Stick to telling your story, and be genuine. Remember that admissions officers are judging you by the content of your written materials. Don’t use an inappropriate format just to try to stand out.
Mistake: Becoming disorganized.
Losing applications, submitting the wrong information, submitting the wrong draft or even submitting the only copy of a supporting document are just some examples of disorganization among applicants. You’re probably applying to more than one law school. Each school has a different application with different questions, deadlines, requirements and supporting materials. Don’t let disorganization keep you from getting in.
How to fix: “Once you get started in the process, make sure you stay organized and keep a good record,” Reid said, adding that applicants should view and treat the process as they would treat a job.
Perez recommends creating a spreadsheet to keep track of things. For each school, track what’s required to complete your application, the deadlines by which you must submit, the materials you have submitted, the dates on which you submitted those materials, any correspondence or conversations you have with the admissions staff and any responses you receive from the school. And be sure you meet all deadlines.
Mistake: Not asking the right questions.
Don’t call the admissions office to ask questions about median LSAT scores or GPA, or the law school’s address. This is public information, and you can look it up on your own, rather than wasting the admissions staff’s time.
How to fix: “Questions that probe a little bit farther” get Perez’s attention. For example, when an applicant asks what makes the law school unique, or examples of what graduates have gone on to do in their careers, or how the school can help facilitate the goals and opportunities in which the applicant is interested.
4 Common Admissions Myths
Some applicants just don’t know the real deal when it comes to the admissions process. The following are four common admissions myths — debunked.
Myth No. 1: The process is just a numbers game, and nothing matters besides the GPA and LSAT score.
Truth: “This is not an automated process,” Vilches said. “There are real people reading these applications.”
Everything in your file will be reviewed. Also, the two big numbers aren’t always the be-all, end-all in law school applications.
“There are real candidates who have a low LSAT score who get into multiple law schools every year,” Boylen said.
Myth No. 2: To get into law school, you have to follow a typical road map. For example, an applicant had better have lots of impressive activities that he or she may list on the application — even if the applicant is only doing them to get into law school.
Truth: “I can smell nonsense, but if someone is genuine…they stand out,” Perez said.
Each different aspect of your application should present that “big picture” of your qualifications as an applicant. Admissions officers like to see that something is genuinely important to you, not that you’re signing up for a particular activity just because you think it will help your chances. The bottom line? “Never do anything just to get into law school,” Perez adds.
Myth No. 3: There is a magic formula or format to personal statements and applications, which must be followed.
Truth: If you’re spending all your time scouring sample personal statements, you’ve already lost, Perez said. Rather than trying to duplicate something you are not, write something that represents who you are.
Content beats format every time, Vilches said.
“It’s important for the applicants to write in their own voice,” she said. You don’t have to quote “To Kill a Mockingbird” or begin with the sentence, “I’ve always wanted to be a lawyer,” to conform to what you think is some “winning formula.” You simply have to present who you are and how this particular school fits into that.
Myth No. 4: You should go to the law school that your mom, dad, boyfriend, girlfriend, best friend, teacher or personal trainer chose for you.
Truth: As I wrote in my book, “Law School Revealed,” just like your decision to go to law school, your decision about which school to attend has to be based on factors that are important to you personally. Some of those factors may include a school’s reputation with employers and within the legal community, location, cost, faculty, specializations offered, employment rates and alumni career satisfaction, rankings, admission requirements, diversity and more. In other words, you must make sure that the school you choose is the right fit for you.
This article is authored by Ursula Furi-Perry, Esq. author of Law School Revealed: Secrets, Opportunities and Success! and was published originally in the 2010 Back to School issue of preLaw Magazine. You can click here for the digital edition of the magazine or visit the preLaw Magazine website for more great content about law school.
Hear more on this topic in our podcast Avoiding Application Pitfalls: What Not to Do On Your Law School Application.
You can also listen to these great podcasts for more information about preparing your best law school application:
•Law School Application Strategy: What You Can Do Now to Get Accepted Next Year
•Creating the Killer Law School Application: A Step-by-Step Guide to Creating the Best Application.