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Getting Into a Top Law School

What It Takes To Join the Elite

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To get into a top law school, you need sky-high LSAT scores, a perfect GPA from an Ivy League school, fluency in five languages, a Nobel prize, and have public interest experience in a 3d world country. Well, not exactly.  Though it may seem that way, the top schools are not full of super heroes. They want to know who you are as a person, how you have overcome obstacles, and why you want that top-tier degree. Getting that prized acceptance letter from one of the best law schools can seem daunting, but with some great application advice, it is more attainable than you may think. After all, someone has to fill those classroom chairs. Why not you?

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Welcome to Law School Podcaster, your source for inside information and advice on the law school application process.  I’m Diana Jordan.

Applying to law school is a challenge… the LSAT and GPA, the personal statement, the letters of recommendation.  But targeting the most selective schools can be particularly grueling.  You may not need a Nobel Prize to gain admission to these top-tier schools, but the competition is stiff.  So, along with listening to our podcast, Getting Into a Top Law School: What it Takes to Join the Elite, what can you do to make your application stand out?

The answers may surprise you. Top LSAT scores and a super-strong GPA are vital parts of the mix.  But they’re not the only factors.  And if your numbers aren’t at the red hot end of the spectrum, you are by no means out of the running.  There are ways to show you have what it takes.  As the University of Michigan Law School’s Senior Assistant Dean for Admissions, Financial Aid, and Career Planning, Sarah Zearfoss explains, “Applicants get overly fixated on the rankings, and therefore assign too much weight to small differences. Much the way they quite rightly complain of admissions officers assigning excessive weight to one- or two-point differences on the LSAT.”

On this edition of Law School Podcaster, admissions committee members from four top law schools give their advice on successful applications, and we hear from an author and consultant who has helped hundreds of students get into elite programs.  Along with Dean Zearfoss, we also hear from Renee Post, Associate Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid at the University of Pennsylvania Law School; Dean for Admissions at the University of Chicago Law School, Ann Perry; Associate Dean and Dean of Admissions at USC’s Gould School of Law, Chloe Reid; and law school admissions consultant and author of How to Get Into the Top law Schools, Richard Montauk.

Our guests all say to first make sure you know what a top-tier law school is all about, and that it’s what you truly want.  Michigan’s Dean Sarah Zearfoss says elite law schools will position you better for certain jobs in the legal field.  “There are some jobs, like legal academia or certain kinds of clerkships that you simply aren’t going to be able to get to if you haven’t gone to an elite school.  There are other jobs that you can break into from a number of schools, but your chances are much higher.  And of course, beyond that very practical consideration, there’s the quality of your education.  You are going to be training alongside some of the best minds in your generation at the best schools, and we think that’s going to make you a better lawyer.”

You can get a fine legal education at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, explains Dean Renee Post, but it is critical that you have a clear sense of your intellectual interests and career goals.  To make sure that a top school fits these goals you should visit the law schools to which you want to apply.  “Academic reputation and career prospects are two vital elements when selecting a law school.  But too often, applicants overlook the school’s fit.  It is important for applicants to think about the size of the school, the size of the student body, and school culture, as well as where the school is geographically located.”

So, what does it take to be accepted into an elite law school?  Dean Chloe Reid at USC’s Gould School of Law says many students make the mistake of thinking that law school admissions is just about the numbers.  Keep the numbers in mind as a barometer, but she says that’s not the entire story.  You won’t be admitted or rejected based on just the numbers, according to Dean Reid.  “Typically, you know, if within the top twenty, usually the bottom median of the top twenty is about a 166, and so, you know, a student who’s probably in the low 150s is going to have a hard time getting into one of the top twenty.  But again, you know, it’s an individual assessment, and for students who say, ‘You know what?  This is my dream, and I want to pursue my dream’ — certainly I never ever discourage people from applying to their dream schools, because they never know what’s going to happen.  I know that every year I’m sure that some of our students probably feel like they’ve won the lottery because I’ve taken them off of a wait list, and they never in a million years would have dreamed that they would have been admitted to the law school.  So, at any given time, you know, what we’re looking for in a candidate… it may differ, depending on the time of the year.”

Dean Reid says law schools are looking for a group whose individuals will play well with each other.  They’re looking holistically at the applicant’s file.  So, ask yourself a few questions: “What are those unique and interesting things about me?  What has been my background?  How might that impact my perception or my views or my biases of the law?  And what voice will I lend to a law school classroom?  And so, those are some of the things that we’re looking at when we’re trying to review a file.  If a student just takes their personal statement and regurgitates, basically, their resume, that really doesn’t tell us a whole lot about the individual.  So, certainly the resume, in addition to, you know, you’re doing that assessment in terms of who you are and why you’re coming to the law.  Those additional factors help us figure out ‘how do we round out our classes?’”

Chicago’s Dean Ann Perry agrees it’s not all about the numbers.  She says they have no cutoff for the class of 2014.  Dean Perry says the median LSAT was 171, but they took 154 to 180, and the median GPA was 3.87, but they accepted 3.19 to 4.13.  At Penn Law Dean Post says they don’t employ an index or a cutoff in their admissions process either.  And they read the entire application, based on the date they are completed in the admissions office.  It takes more than just good numbers, agrees Dean Post.  “Beyond the obvious qualities, such as a superb academic record, we look for curiosity, self-awareness, professionalism, determination, intellectual engagement both inside and outside of the classroom.  We look also for students who will be active members of the Penn Law community, and candidates who are drawn to our community of collaboration and collegiality.  Now, how all of that comes together in a single application is going to vary widely from application to application.  So there’s really no prototype that I can provide for you about the candidates that we seek.  That would make admissions work very boring, I’m afraid.  But instead, we’re trying to create a well-rounded class of individuals who share the common traits that I listed, but also bring different perspectives to the classroom and the law school environment.”

Too often, prospective students just look at the median, instead of also at the 25 percentile.  Dean Post advises you to allow for more than just the numbers.  Don’t assume that if your numbers are great you’ll get in, or if they’re terribly low, you won’t.  And Michigan’s Dean Zearfoss agrees that the top law schools are less fixated on the numbers than you might expect.  “Because of the size of their pool and the success with which they recruit people, you have a little more freedom to look beyond the numbers at the top schools.  So once you’re convinced that someone can do the work, you’re trying to decide what they’re going to contribute to the classroom dialogue, and what kind of future they’re going to have as a professional.  So, it’s likely to boil down to, you know, an assessment of those factors.  So, you know, we look for work experience, or an indication of leadership ability, or a commitment to a particular field or cause, or in some cases, just simply looking for smarts that aren’t reflected in the scores.  So, for that you might look at the impressions you get from the quality of someone’s writing, or the tenor of recommendation letters.  Last year, the person I admitted who had the lowest combination of LSAT and GPA struck me – for a reason I can’t really describe because it’s too personal – as someone who’ll be extraordinary.  And I thought, Well, I’ll surely get him because his numbers are so low, and I’m going to be so happy to have him in the entering class.  But as it turned out, I lost him to Harvard.  So, I don’t think numbers alone should make you throw in the towel.”

Let’s peel back the curtains on the LSAT scores and GPAs these schools will consider.  Law school admissions consultant and author Richard Montauk shares this: “The top schools are very aware of numbers.  For all that they might suggest to the contrary, most of their seats are filled by people with impressive numbers.  There are exceptions, of course.  When you take a look at the data as it’s ordinarily presented you see 25th percentile GPAs, 25th percentile LSATs.  And so, you’ll know that 25%, a quarter of people, approximately, are below those numbers.  Keep in mind that the people who are below those, let’s say, LSAT 25th percentiles tend to be people who are either in a category that’s much sought after – African American applicants, perhaps, or American Indians, or people who have really accomplished a great deal – the person who ran her own business and sold it for 20 million dollars recently.  And as a result, it’s inappropriate to think that an average type of an applicant with relatively little to offer beyond numbers is going to be looked upon favorably with numbers below those 25th percentiles.”

There are a few exceptions, explains Montauk.  “If they know that accepting somebody is not going to affect their numbers because their numbers, their 25th and 75th percentiles, are already locked in, and thus what they’re going to report eventually to US News is already locked in, and their ranking is not going to be affected by taking someone, then if they fall in love with an applicant’s profile, that applicant can certainly be admitted.  This is to say that different schools from year to year will have the opportunity to accept a few people freely, without regard to rankings and numbers.  But those are relatively uncommon, i.e., most seats are filled by people either with gorgeous numbers or substantial accomplishments.”

If your numbers are not the best, and you do decide to aim for a top law school, Dean Zearfoss advises you to really take your application seriously and go for it.  “Sometimes people will apply when they have low numbers, and they are very self-defeating in their thinking.  So they apply, but they’re also simultaneously thinking, I can’t possibly get in. And therefore they don’t put the effort into it because they, you know, they have some sort of psychology afoot.  And if you’re going to apply to a top school, make it hard for them to turn you down.  Do a great job on your essays.  Take all the opportunities they have to follow up, or to write an optional essay, or to assure them of your interest.  You know, put the effort in if you’re going to apply.”

And if your numbers are good but not stellar, Dean Reid reminds us that the picture of every class differs.  So if you want a certain school, apply.  And you can talk to the schools about your current assessment.  “A couple of years ago I had an issue whereby I didn’t have enough women who were accepting my offer.  And so we immediately started, you know, looking very closely, more closely, at women in the class.  At certain times we may look and say, ‘You know what? We want a diverse class that includes students that are from the Northeast.’  And we may see that we don’t have a lot of students from the Northeast, and so we will perhaps look closer at candidates who are from that part of the country at that given snapshot in time in our admission cycle.  And so, it can vary.  It could be that, you know, my median LSAT is not where I’d like it to be, or it’s…I might bolster it.  And so, right now, again, my snapshot in time, I may be looking closer at grade point averages than I am at LSAT scores.  And so, from a candidate’s perspective you have absolutely no idea where you are – when you’re read, particularly – what that school might be looking for or more interested in or trying to bolster.  And so, from a candidate’s perspective you’ve just got to make sure that your entire package is very tight, that everything is picture-perfect, that you’ve done your job in terms of presenting yourself in the most favorable light.  But also being honest and open in terms of what your shortcomings are, because we realize that everybody’s not perfect.”

Don’t make the mistake of selling yourself short, or shortening your answers, advises Dean Post.  “Sometimes applicants do not look at their application holistically.  For example, a candidate may leave a question for the admissions committee unanswered, such as a poor academic performance during one semester, or a poor academic performance during one year of their undergraduate career, and assume that the committee knows what was happening during that year.  And to not answer that question is very detrimental in the review process because it very likely could be a life event that happened, a very reasonable explanation that would help the committee understand what was going on.  Similarly, an applicant can submit a resume and have a list of 10 activities that they were involved in, either in their undergraduate career or in their professional career, and not provide any detail.  And the committee is left thinking, What was your role within this organization?  Or what was your commitment to, or leadership in, this student group? And so that can be, again, it’s very important that candidates provide us with a lot of information, and not assume that we know.  You know, all of this said, you have to exercise judgment.  You want to provide complete answers to all of the questions that are asked on the application, as well as a thorough resume and essays.”

Watch out for typos and grammatical errors, too.  Dean Ann Perry says to do the best you can with your LSAT and your GPA.  “They also have to look at the non-numerical items like their resume, and what type of work experience they have.  What their major was, because obviously some majors’ GPAs, especially in the hard sciences, there’re mandatory curves sometimes at schools.  So, a 3.5 with that major might be very strong.  And their letters of recommendation might be very strong.  So I think they need to put together the application the best they can, meaning they spend time finding recommenders who will write good letters for them.  Then put together an excellent personal statement.”

This will make for a strong application, Dean Perry says.  Another piece of the puzzle is your undergraduate school.  What else do you have, to bring to the table?  Work experience?  Volunteering with a nonprofit?  Or, if you are a minority.  All that can help with the numbers.  Those who have excelled against strong competition will be favored, in general, over those who have excelled over weak competition.  Consultant Richard Montauk explains, “So somebody with a good GPA from Contra Costa Community College will be a lot less impressive than somebody who excelled at MIT, for instance.  On the other hand, schools want some diversity.  They don’t want everybody coming from an MIT or a Michigan or a Stanford or what have you.  So they’re keen to the fact that talent should be allowed to rise, from wherever.  In addition they’re aware that some of the elite institutions, undergraduate institutions, tend to grade very easily.  And so they may not be terribly impressed by somebody with a 3.5 GPA in a major at a school where other people in that major tend to average, let’s say, 3.5.  So, as with many of these things, there’s a bit of a holistic look at applicants, and quality of undergraduate institution is one of the factors.  So too, of course, is the extent to which someone has challenged him- or herself, i.e., taking on a very demanding curriculum at whatever institution.  And the circumstances in which the grades were earned, i.e., is this somebody who did nothing but go to class?  Or was this somebody who had to work 40 hours a week on the side?  Or captain a sports team or three, et cetera?”

Put your best foot forward, explaining only what must be explained.  There is a way to put those weak grades in a better light.  “Somebody with a weak GPA is ordinarily best-advised to get substantial work experience.  By ‘substantial’, I mean both lasting some years and being demanding, i.e., not flipping burgers or being a barista at Starbucks, but rather taking on a role of real responsibility, and showing great success in that role.  That sort of career success, plus a strong LSAT, will be the most important thing in overcoming a weak GPA.  In addition, it’s useful to do some coursework on the side at some point, to indicate that one has matured and is not disdainful of academics, as the record might suggest at the undergraduate level.”

The personal statement, recommendations, transcripts all carry weight.  Chicago’s Dean Perry suggests you make sure you make no mistakes in your application.  Poor grammar and spelling do not bode well for future attorneys who should be paying attention to detail.  However, if your application has a particular weakness, there are ways to compensate, according to Dean Perry.  “You would be surprised, even little typos or misspellings just show a little lack of attention to detail.  And I think we all want to have lawyers out there…one of the things is they have to have attention to detail.  So they need to take the application process seriously, and realize that everything is going to be reviewed.  And it’s their first impression that they’re making on the admissions committee, and they want it to be the best impression.”

If you have an inconsistency in your application, for example, a dramatic grade drop or a low LSAT, write an addendum so that the admissions committee doesn’t have to guess.  Use your judgment in how many addenda to write.  Hence, Dean Post says recommendations can seal the deal for you.  “If an applicant has an inconsistency in the file, it can oftentimes be addressed and corroborated by a recommender.  And that can be very, very helpful in building the case, as you said, in terms of addressing that inconsistency.  All of that said, recommendations are very important in the admissions process and in the review process.  Again, we employ a holistic approach – no GPA cutoff, no LSAT cutoff, no index.  So we are going to look for, and at, very, very closely, the other pieces of the application, whether it’s the personal statement, the resume, and those letters of recommendation.  Letters can be very, very helpful, again, to corroborate what we see elsewhere in the application.  It can help us, as I said, assist in explaining a weakness or a problem.  And also, recommenders will very often shed additional light on something, or on the candidate, that the candidate does not elsewhere in their application, because they’re coming from a different perspective.”

For most, Dean Zearfoss says, letters of recommendation don’t really move the ball for a candidate.  “But then there’ll be the 10% of applicants for whom the recommendation letters are just, you know, taking you by the throat and shaking you and saying, ‘Admit this person!’  And that really makes a difference.  And by the same token, you’ll have probably 10% where the recommendations are so weak, so surprisingly weak, as to indicate some real reservations by the recommender.  So it can be important, but it’s not for the majority of applicants, as it turns out.”

Here are a few examples of those extremes: “I just got a recommendation letter from someone whose work recommender said, ‘The fact that this candidate asked me to write a recommendation letter two weeks after I put him on probation at work illustrates his judgment perfectly.’  That was not explicitly damning him, but it told me a lot.  More frequently, you’ll just have, you know, very, usually three, say, very general letters that are really lacking in detail.  And if it’s someone who has performed well in school or in the field, the lack of detail makes you really assume a lack of enthusiasm.  But it definitely can cut the other way.  I really remember some of my admitted in my very first season; so that was at least… well, more than a decade ago.  And his LSAT, you know, I can sort of remember his LSAT and GPA, and they were well below our medians and well below our 25th percentile, in fact.  And he had five letters of recommendation from people who he worked for, all of them lawyers, all of them multiple pages, all of them saying he was an amazing individual that we should give a chance to.  And I did.  And he went on to do very well.  And it really taught me a lot.  It’s rare to see people going to bat that way for someone, and you should pay attention when they do.”

Committee members remember the negative letters more than the positive letters, says USC’s Dean Reid, and they often look for a certain kind of positive letter.  “The letter that is more comparative, comparing you with other candidates that the faculty member has assisted in applying to law school, is much more helpful to us than, you know, the letter, the run-of-the-mill form letter that says, you know, ‘Joe was in my Communications 101 class and made a B in the class, and attended and participated, and therefore Joe’s going to make a great law student.’  That’s that form letter that we get, probably, 90% of the time.  It’s the other letters that, you know, go into a little more detail, that will talk about, you know, the relationship that perhaps the faculty member had with the student.  Or the fact that the paper or the thesis…how well it was written, and perhaps how it compared to other theses that they had worked with students on.  So, you know, giving a little more in-depth information.  You know, also, another way in which a letter can help a student is perhaps, you know, sometimes if there’s perceived negative information that the student wants to communicate, but isn’t quite sure if he or she should communicate it, sometimes, you know, it coming from that third person, that faculty member or that mentor or that advisor who knew what you were going through at the time, can help your situation in terms of they can say, ‘You know what? X was involved in, you know, some…’ perhaps some issue that occurred on campus, and that they’ve grown from that experience, and what have you.  It’s another way of getting negative information into your file, but putting it in a positive light so that it supports the candidate’s candidacy, versus, you know, just telling the story.”

When you apply to a law school, Dean Reid says, review your career goals so the committee doesn’t think you’re just hiding out, or that law school is a default decision on your part.  Show readiness to do the work, and thoughtfulness about the steps you’re taking, though you don’t have to know exactly what you want to do.  No application is perfect.  Consider what academic achievements you’ll bring.  “They’re going to need to think about what else are they bringing? As a committee, we’re going to look for curiosity, determination, intellectual engagement — both inside and outside of the classroom.  And applicants who can show a clarity of thought and expression.  Applicants should communicate to us their potential, how they will grow, what they are capable of, moving forward.  Now to be clear, that is not necessarily, ‘This is what I want to do with my JD degree’, but rather, again, the curiosity about the value, you know, ‘This is the value of receiving the JD for me, and this is what I think I will do with the degree.’”

Watch out for deadlines.  It’s best to get your finished application in sooner, rather than later.  Dean Perry says the admissions committees have tough decisions to make.  “There’s a lot of competition for these seats.  But they have to give it a try!  And, you know, some people then wait and reapply after they’ve been not successful that first year.  And so, I think it’s fine to reapply, as well.  Don’t feel that it would be seen as a negative if you’re reapplying.  We get a lot of re-applicants.”

Finally, let’s consider the concept of the so-called ‘perfect candidate’.  Here’s Dean Post:  “The perfect candidate is someone who can present their application in a way that is professional, that is engaging, that demonstrates that they will bring to the Penn Law School community intellectual curiosity, as well as a level of, again, engagement that will make their learning better, as well as the learning of their peers.  You know, the non-perfect application, or applicant, is the person, quite honestly, who is not genuine in putting forth their application.  It is the person who writes what they believe the committee member wants to read.  It is the person who quite clearly has not been thoughtful about applying to law school, and maybe is just applying to… because they don’t necessarily have another plan of action.  And that, again, that is readily apparent when reviewing applications.  And I could tell… I mean, there are stories and stories about people drawing pictures and sending songs and poems and obituaries, you know, the ‘top ten reasons why someone should be admitted to Penn Law School’.  I mean, I could go on and on with little anecdotes that would call into question an applicant’s judgment when applying for a professional school, or applying to a professional school.  But I think, again, it comes back to just using good judgment and putting your best foot forward.”

So, assess what your career goals are, and your reasons for aiming for a top school.  If that’s what you truly want, get your numbers where they need to be.  And work hard on an authentic personal statement that shows your passion, your drive, and your unique qualities.  Make sure your letters of recommendation are both positive and memorable.  Even if all your numbers aren’t exactly stellar, apply anyway — there may just be a seat for you at an elite school.

For more information, a transcript of the 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.

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