Planning and getting through the law school application process can be a daunting task. Where should you start? How should you map out the next year so that everything gets done and gets done well? When should you take the LSAT? When should you make your list of schools? When should you actually fill out the application. Prelaw advisors, a top admissions consultant and a student give you solid advice on when to start your law school application process, addressing issues like research, how and when to tackle the application, the LSAT, managing recommenders and school visits. And they will help you plan your candidacy before you apply and throughout the proces
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- Sunitha Ramaiah, Co-founder and Executive Vice President, jdMission
- Hilary Mantis, Prelaw Advisor & Career Consultant, Fordham University
- Rebecca Gill, Assistant Professor of Political Science and Prelaw Advisor at University of Nevada, Las Vegas
- Aminta Kilawan, 2L, Fordham University School of Law
Welcome to Law School Podcaster, your source for inside information and advice on the law school application process. I’m Althea Legaspi.
Preparing and getting through the law school application process can be pretty daunting. There are many tasks you need to take on and complete, from taking the LSAT to choosing schools, and several details to address in between. So, how far in advance should you plan? And when should each piece be completed in order to get your application in successfully? We speak with prelaw advisers, a top admission consultant, and a student to give you a timeline that sets deadlines that keep you on the right track.
Rebecca Gill, is the Assistant Professor of Political Science and the Prelaw Advisor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Hillary Mantis serves as Prelaw Adviser at Fordham University and is a career consultant. Sunitha Ramaiah is the Co-founder and Executive Vice President of jdMission, an elite law school admission consulting firm, and Aminta Kilawan is going into her second year at Fordham University School of Law. Together, they break down the proper timing to tackle each element of a law school application to keep the process manageable and on time for submission.
Our guests advised that all law school applications be turned in at no later than Thanksgiving, the year before you plan to go to law school, with some saying Halloween is the best target date. With that in mind, jdMission’s Sunitha Ramaiah says, you should work backwards from that target submission date to start your timeline. “Ideally, you should go back 18 months prior to enrollment. Schools offer visits beginning in January, and you want to as much as possible before the June LSAT of the year before enrollment, so that you can focus on applications. It’s all about time management.”
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(Timeline courtesy of UNLV prelaw)
UNLV’s Rebecca Gill runs us through a typical timeline for those in undergrad. Should you have taken time off to work before law school, you’d follow the same timeline, but work backwards, scheduling the LSAT two Junes before you want to begin law school. “Well, in the first and second year, your main job is to get good grades, to get to know your professors, and to learn how to learn. You want to learn skills. You’ll also be learning some course content, but what’s critical here is that you begin to learn how to read, learn how to succeed in school. You’re really going to start the application process in your junior year. That’s when you’re going to register for that LSAC’s Credential Assembly Service (CAS). You’re going to prepare for the LSAT, and then register for the June LSAT; and then the summer before your senior year, you’re going to take that LSAT. You’re going to get your score and hopefully, you’ll be making a list of schools. If you’re score isn’t what you’d like, then you would make plans to retake it. Also during the summer, you will start your personal statement, and hopefully visit some of the schools that are on your list. Then, the beginning of the senior year is when you start actually assembling your application materials. So, right at the beginning of the semester, that’s a great time to request your letters or evaluation. Send in your transcripts and finish up your personal statement and any optional essays and your resume. And then in October, you’re going to spend some time proofreading, getting your financial aid applications done, and I usually recommend a Halloween submission.”
There are few good reasons why you should you aim to submit all applications by Halloween and no later than Thanksgiving. It allows applicants to take advantage of the rolling admissions process, Ramaiah explains. “We at jdMission are strong advocates of taking advantage of the rolling admission process that’s used by most schools, Yale Law being an exception out of the top 15. The period from September to November is your greatest window of opportunity to secure a seat at the law school of your choice. Many law schools start accepting applications from September 1st. We believe that ideally you should submit your completed applications by mid October or earlier of course and encourage you to do so. It’s really important to apply as early in the application season as possible, because early on, the admissions committee has more time to read your files and a candidate looks a lot less special after reading thousands of applications. Also, you’re showing the admissions committee that you’re on the ball and that you’re really interested in their school. And also, if financial aid is of importance to you, financial aid is on a first come first serve basis, so rolling admissions is really important.”
If you’re applying early decision or early notification, it basically means you’re making a commitment to a particular school, should you be accepted. This could affect an aspect of your timeline, as Fordham University’s Hillary Mantis (email firstname.lastname@example.org ) details. You should check with schools as application deadlines and policies vary from school to school. It may affect when you need to take your LSAT. “Well, you have to check with the schools carefully because at some schools that decision will be binding and at other schools you will still be able to wait and see where else you got into law school. It also potentially will affect when you take the LSAT since it will probably be too late to take a December or February LSAT, if you’re doing that.”
So, just when is the best time to take the LSAT and why? Once you’ve determined a law degree is important to you, all of our experts recommend taking the LSAT in June of junior year or two Junes before you plan to attend the law school, if you’ve already graduated. Fordham University law student, Aminta Kilawan, took the June LSAT her junior year and she did benefit from heeding that advice. “I took the June exam because it was firstly recommended by my prelaw adviser at Fordham to do that, and I took the exam because I knew, had I not done as well as I would’ve liked, I would have the opportunity to retake that exam in the fall of my senior year, with those scores still being able to be sent to the school’s I applied to. So, that was the logic behind taking the June exam and it did work in my favor again as I did take both exams, one in June and the other in September.”
While all of our guests say it’s best to take the LSAT only once, there are times it can be beneficial to take it twice. Just remember as Ramaiah says, schools view multiple scores in different ways. “Before signing up to retake the LSAT, first you should ask yourself whether you can improve your LSAT score. For example, if your ability to concentrate was diminished during the exam or you could’ve studied more effectively, you may be a candidate to retake the test. But, different schools look at the multiple LSAT scores differently. Law schools that consider average scores, and I’m just talking about the top 15 law schools, otherwise, I’d be on the phone forever, or schools that consider the average scores, are Harvard, Columbia, NYU, the University of California-Berkeley, and Georgetown University. Law schools that consider the highest scores are University of Chicago, University of Michigan, University of Pennsylvania, UVA, Duke University, and Northwestern. Law schools that consider multiple scores are Yale and University of Texas-Austin, and the law school that doesn’t comment on their admission policies is Stanford. But, I think that they probably follow the lines of Yale and look at it holistically.”
LSAT scores are good for five years, but our experts recommend calling schools, as each has a different policy. Once you’ve received your LSAT scores, typically within a month after taking it, that and your GPA can help you narrow the schools to which you apply, as Mantis explains. “I think you can start with a big list, and then you can really whittle down your list after you get your LSAT score because, like it or not, that is one of the biggest factors of admission, so once you have a final GPA and your LSAT score, you’ll be able to make a really good realistic list. I usually tell people to pick at least two safeties, two reach schools, and two or three schools in their middle range. So, on average I would say most of my students, they apply to between 6 and 10 schools.”
Gill recommends registering for the LSAC’s Credential Assembly Service (CAS) when you’ve registered for the June LSAT. The deadline is typically in late April or early May. “There are electronic applications now for almost all the law schools and they require it, and a lot of the law schools are requiring not just that the evaluations come through the Credential Assembly Service, but now they have a whole new set of evaluations, which are basically a letter of recommendation plus a bunch of answers to questions that your evaluator or recommender will be filling out. And so all of that has to go through the credential assembly service, so it’s $124 bucks, but you pretty much have to just pay it because it’s something that you need in order to apply to law school.”
All of our guests also suggest visiting schools you’re considering attending. If you can afford to go twice, visit the schools you’re considering in the spring before your June exam, and then visit the ones that you’ve been accepted to, if possible. Ramaiah says, it’s a must to visit schools at least once. “You want the time between June and when the applications are due, hopefully in October, to be the time that you’re focusing on your applications, so if you can do school visits in the spring before the June exam that would be ideal. But whenever you can do it, it really is a must because it’s a completely different experience reading about a school and visiting the school, sitting in on classes, talking to alumni and students — a very, very important part of the process because that will – where you’re the happiest is where you’ll do the best and that in turn will lead to a better job for you.
While you don’t have to ask for letters of recommendation for school right when you start as an undergraduate, Gill says establish good relationships with your professors from the onset, so when you ask at the beginning of senior year, they’ll know you. “Certainly, as a freshman, you don’t need to walk in to your professor’s office and say, ‘I’d like a recommendation for me,’ but certainly you should be talking to your professors at that time. You should be meeting them, getting to know them – getting so that they know you in a good way, right, or that they’ll remember you in a good way. And so, once you have established these relationships with your professors, first of all, it’s going to help you get better grades, but second of all, it’s going to make requesting a letter or an evaluation a lot easier when the time comes. On my timeline, I suggest that you talk to your professors at the very beginning of the senior year. I say either the week school starts or perhaps the week before school starts. As you know, some professors, just like students, the beginning of the semester seems rosy and there’s time and all of this stuff, and as the semester continues, duties get piled up on us and it gets more and more difficult for us to be able to turn around letters of recommendation quickly. So, it’s best to get your professors at the beginning of that semester. I also recommend against just sending an email to a professor, requesting a letter of recommendation. If you send an email, you can’t see the look on your professor’s face. And, you really want to know if you – you want to be confident that the professor you’re talking to really is going to write you a positive letter or give you a positive evaluation. So, what I recommend is that students send an email a couple of weeks before school or perhaps even at the end of the last semester of the junior year and on it say, ‘I like to meet with you early next semester about the possibility of you writing a letter for me.’ But, you certainly want to ask that question in person. And then when you show up, it’s a very good to have a really quick memo to the professor, here’s what classes I had with you, here is what I did in your class, and here are the skills and characteristics that I hope you’ll be able to emphasize in your evaluation, then you’ll want to include an unofficial copy of your transcript. If you have a copy of your personal statement, which you should have a draft by this time, you’ll want to include that and if you can, it’s always a good idea to attach a copy of whatever paper you turned in for that class, especially if you can turn in the copy that your professor wrote comments on that, [that’s a] particularly good thing to do. All of these things help your professor to write really good, really targeted and personal evaluations of you.”
Although every element of your application is pertinent, your resume and your personal statement are the best ways to show your personality and tell your story. Mantis says your personal statement should not be undervalued. You should begin no later than early summer after junior year. “I think the personal statement is a really important part of your application. One admissions director told me, he reads them first before he even looks at the numbers. The reason why it’s important is because it’s really one of the only things they have that’s not just a number, statistic. In most cases, it replaces your interviews since most law schools do not grant personal interviews for law school. The topics vary widely, but it really has to be from the heart and it has to be very well written. So, I recommend you to work on it perhaps early in the summer of the year that you’re planning to apply, so that you have the summer to do a couple of drafts, show it to couple of people and ask for help. I definitely wouldn’t undervalue the importance of the personal statement in your application.”
Kilawan stresses the importance of not procrastinating on your personal statement, as it took her extra time to settle on the appropriate theme. She says it’s never too early to begin brainstorming topic ideas. “I was one of those people who struggled with my personal statement. I jumped from topic to topic to topic. I started writing my personal statement in the summer, shortly after I took the exam in June, and I told myself that I would be done with the personal statement by August, by the end of the summer; however, I ended up scrapping it several times and then I ended up with a solid piece in October of my senior year. And, I went through this with several people. It’s very important to have different people in different roles in your life read the statement and really gauge what kind of impact it would have. Some say that the statement should not be trying to explain why you would make the perfect law student or why you would want to go to law school, because those things are understood. You are applying to the school so clearly you believe that you should be in law school. But, it’s your chance to really stand out and have the committee remember you, and so in choosing a topic, I had to decide what would really reflect upon my character as an individual and have the committee remember me as an individual; and ultimately, again with the help of my adviser, we went through line by line and where choices are very important, you only have two pages to really put everything out there. And so, every line counts, and I gave my statement to several of my friends to read and ultimately came up with a solid piece right in time for my applications to be sent out.”
Gill says resumes for law school applications are different than when you’re applying for a job. It should emphasize the skills needed in law school, like writing analytical and critical thinking skills, as well as your interests. It’s good practice to update a resume throughout your college career, but you should begin tailoring your resume in the spring of junior year and revise it up until you send in your applications in the fall. “But, if you wait until then to think about, then you’re going to have a pretty empty resume. So, on my timeline, I recommend, during the first and second year, one of things I recommend is to be interesting. Do interesting things. Now, a lot of students assume that if they want to go to law school, they’re going to need to be political science majors and their extracurricular would be volunteering for a political party or being in student government or something like this. All of those things are fine, but that’s not the only kind of activity that you can do that will help. Certainly, if you have a job while in your school, that’s important, especially if that job emphasizes some of the skills, abilities, and qualities that law schools are looking for. But, being an athlete can help, being involved in arts, music, and dance, all of these things help you to become more interesting to have a broader world view, and schools are looking for that. I mean the people who are deciding whether or not you’ll get admitted to the law school in large part are law professors. And so, they’re looking for the kinds of people they would like to have in their classes, and they don’t want a whole classroom full of people with the exact same major, who have the exact same extracurricular activities and all of this, right? So, what you want to do is you want to do something that interests you, but be involved, and that should start right away at the beginning of you college career. It will help you learn how to balance responsibilities. And, it also helps to tie your personal statement into your resume. One thing I see – unfortunately, I see this kind often in a personal statement that will talk about this student’s passion for helping people and building community, and all these kinds of things. But then, you look at the resume, and there’s no evidence that this person has ever actually volunteered for anything or anything like that. So certainly – the things that interest you, you want to participate in them and show that you don’t just like the idea of helping people, but that you’ve actually dedicated time and resources to helping people.”
If you’ve already graduated, Gill says this can provide a competitive edge for your law school application. As we’ve mentioned, begin your timeline 18 months prior to when you plan to attend law school. “This is becoming more and more the norm for students to take time off; and oftentimes to pursue an entire career before returning back to law school. So, this isn’t in and of itself a problem, and in some cases it can be a distinct advantage. One thing that you want to do, if you know that you’re planning to do this and you know that you’re planning to go to law school within the next three or four years, you would want to contact your professors before you leave campus and talk to them about what your plans are and that you might update them periodically about how you’re doing and that you might request an evaluation from them. But, if you’ve been out of school for quite some time, you probably will need to get recommendations or evaluations from people that you work with. And, in terms of the timeline, I don’t know that really affects the timeline, but certainly you want to have your resume focused on – not a resume that you would use to apply to another similar job, but this resume has a particular purpose and that is to communicate to the admissions officials that the things that you’ve been doing will prepare you for what law schools are looking for. So you would certainly want to emphasize the kinds of duties that require a lot of reading and critical thinking, persistence, dedication leadership, those sorts of things. And, you would want to communicate to your supervisor or whoever your recommender or evaluator will be, exactly what kinds of things you would like them to focus on, because professors – we’re used to writing these kinds of letters, and we know kind of what law schools are looking for. We know what sorts of things we can focus on; but oftentimes, supervisors in other jobs might not realize exactly what they should focus on and what sorts of things will make for a persuasive letter. So, it’s very important that you provide your recommender with some guidelines about these sorts of skills that you’d hope they could focus on in their recommendation.”
The costs for applying to law school can add up. Kilawan has a couple of tips that could help you save money when applying. Some [law schools] offer fee waivers based on impressive LSAT scores. So, you should ask once you’ve received your score within a month after the June administration. “Sometimes, there are fee waivers. So, what you could do is ask your prelaw adviser who would have more information about this, whether or not the school offers fee waiver. I received a few of these based on my LSAT score. Some schools sent me fee waivers, which meant that I did not have to pay the application fee. They just wanted me to apply, and so oftentimes that’s the case. Other times, you can request that from the school if you are really in a bind and need to save money — that you can ask the school if they would be willing to waive the application fee which is not cheap. It’s $70 generally per school which adds up, ultimately. And, if you can find a way to get out of the application fee that would be helpful to buffer the cost, so it would be helpful to reach out to the school and find out if they offer fee waivers, what their requirements are. Maybe, sometimes, there are salary requirements or things like that, but oftentimes, they would be willing if you reach out them. So, a simple question can never hurt.”
Once you’ve sent your applications out before Thanksgiving, it’ll be time to play the waiting game, but there are steps you can take to keep you fresh in school’s minds. If you can afford to, visit schools again, after you’ve received acceptances. There, you can check in with admissions. Ramaiah also adds. “You want to evaluate you progress. Maybe, you’ll get some acceptances, maybe some rejections, and then you want to consider new target schools, and you want to visit as many target schools as possible. Talk to alumni, talk to students, that’s what you should be doing.”
You may end up waitlisted. Depending on when you submitted your application and to what school, this can happen as late as June or even later – and this can be stressful. Kilawan was in that position. She’d already submitted the seat deposit when she was accepted to a school for which she was waitlisted. Seat deposit deadlines and policies vary from school to school. It’s smart to check out the rules for them with the schools you apply. She imparts this advice. “I lost this deposit, but that was understood. I knew from the onset that if I had gotten into the school that I attend now, I attend Fordham University, if I had gotten into that school, I would probably lose that seat deposit that I had submitted already and I knew that, but to really secure a seat at a school which I was still interested in at that moment, I had to send a deposit knowing that I could lose that money. Ultimately, I thought to myself, what did I want out of this school and, I attended Fordham University undergraduate college prior to and I did so because I was very interested in their law school for several reasons, for the clinical programs that they offer, for the faculty, for the general feel of the school. And, I thought to myself, while the scholarship money that I would have been receiving would have definitely helped buffer the cost in the long term, I believe that I should attend the school that I could most likely get a job that I wanted at the end of my law school career as opposed to attending another school and while that money would be buffered, I would not or maybe not end up with such job, so I looked at factors like job placements, post-graduation. I looked at location. I looked at the different programs that were offered at school and things of that nature to really, really hinge upon my decision.”
Kilawan adds to check into financial aid and scholarships in January of senior year. “Better law schools give fewer scholarships and what that it means is you have to take out bigger loans, and the best way to about this, of course, is the standard way, which is to fill out the FAFSA, just as you fill it out for college. It’s the same process, where for law school, you have to apply for aid on a year-by-year basis. So, in the spring of my senior year in college, in fact the spring semester, which is misleading, the spring semester which would be in January of my senior year, I applied for aid and you indicate the schools that you would like your FAFSA to be submitted to. At that point, you may not have as strong of an idea of the school that you’ll be accepted to, but I would recommend sending it to all schools that you’ve applied to, so that they can have that information on hand for when the time comes for them to decide whether or not they’ll give you aid and if so, how much. So, that’s something that’s very important in terms of the law school process because just as the applicant pool for admissions is the largest but it’s very competitive. Similarly, financial aid is also a pool and there’s only enough money to go around for a select few in terms of grants and the rest end up being loans. So, I would really suggest that you get out your application for financial aid as soon as the application is released this FAFSA website.”
Gill also advises to keep a check on your credit. “I have listed first and second year, protect your credit and continue to this until the end. Also, in your senior year, you need to make sure that you get a copy of your credit report and look at it, because a lot of the financial aid that you’ll probably need in order to go to law school is dependent on you having no outstanding black marks on your credit, and you’d really don’t want to sign a lease somewhere, move all of your stuff somewhere, and then have your loans not go through at the last minute because of a problem. Maybe you forgot to pay that last payment on your department store credit card, and now you can’t get loan money and you can’t go to law school.”
Sometimes, the hardest part of the law school application process is deciding where you want to land for law school if you’ve been accepted to a few schools. Gill says ultimately you have to decide for yourself. “Most of the time, what I end up sensing is that the students have a choice already made in their minds and they just kind of want permission from me, and I say you have my permission to go to the school of your choice. So, you do definitely want to try to visit if you can. You can get such a sense of which school is right for you by just being on campus and seeing how you feel. If you go on campus and you feel your stress level go up, if it makes you feel nervous, so the thing is, it might not be the school for you, even if it looks like it’s right for you on paper. So really, even when you get all good news, this can still be a really stressful time. So, I recommend I guess just following your heart and realizing that you can only make the decision based on the information you have now and you kind of have to make the decision and then just go with it.”
In the world of law school rolling admissions, there are some general guideposts to follow for submitting your application in a way that is both timely and will launch your candidacy in the best possible light. We’ve laid them out here to get you started. But remember, each law school has its own due dates for different things. It’s up to you to really be on top of the various deadlines for each school you apply to.
For more information, a transcript of this show or to register to receive more law school podcasts, visit lawschoolpodcaster.com. Look for us on Facebook and Twitter to get the latest news and insight into the world of law school. This is Law School Podcaster. I’m Althea Legaspi. Thanks for listening and stay tuned next time when we explore another topic of interest to help you succeed in the law school application process and beyond.