After creating pro-and-con lists,counselors, and engaging in some serious soul-searching, you’ve finally decided that legal academe is the next step on your career path. You know that a education teaches students how to acquire and analyze information, solve problems, and effectively articulate ideas. But did you know that in this time of economic uncertainty, traditional career paths such as law are becoming quite popular-and the playing field is getting even more competitive? Follow these steps to successfully navigate the law school admissions process and be counted among the chosen ones.
Do Your Research
The best way to begin the process is to contact your college’s prelaw advisor. These gurus have the inside scoop on what schools are looking for in a candidate — and the information you need to increase your chances of getting in. They can help you assess your candidacy with a critical eye, provide you with the resources you need, and assist you in making an educated decision about where to apply.
While it may be tempting to select schools by throwing darts at a rankings list, we suggest you take a more calculated approach and consider several factors before making your choice:
Selectivity. Check out the schools’ Web sites, and compare your GPA and LSAT scores to those of students enrolled at the schools you are thinking about. James Bowers, a former admissions officer at Duke University School of Law, encourages students to apply to a range of schools: “schools you’re pretty darn certain you’ll get into, schools where your scores are at the median, and of course the reaches.”
Find out what individual programs are looking for in a candidate and identify ways not only to meet those standards but also to differentiate yourself from your peers. Some schools are seeing applications numbers go up as much as 15 to 30 percent from last year. Bill Hoye, dean of admissions at the University of Southern California Law School, says that with the school’s pool of applicants up 18 percent this year, the admissions process has become that much more difficult because of the equally substantial increase in competitive candidates with excellent credentials. “We found ourselves denying applicants this year that in previous years may have been more competitive,” he says. With application rates soaring, it’s critical that you stand out from the pack.
Geography. “Students do their best work where they are happiest,” says Hoye. Whether you yearn to take a bite out of the Big Apple or to spend your study breaks in Malibu, there is a law school out there for you. While you don’t have to attend school in the area where you intend to practice, admissions officers do encourage students to take full advantage of the opportunity to network locally. Many regional law firms don’t go too far to recruit-they get all the associates they need at local schools, so you may be at a disadvantage if you’re too far away.
For example, if-like George Mason’s assistant dean and director of admissions (and alumna) Anne Richard-you’re thinking about a few years of practice at a prestigious Virginia law firm, a subsequent appointment to the Department of Justice, and then a coveted admissions position with a top law school, you may want to consider one of Virginia or DC’s institutions.
Areas of concentration. What type of law would you like to specialize in? Many schools have distinct strengths in certain curriculum areas. Find out who does what best. Check out our sidebar, Law School Specialties, to find out which law schools are renowned in each of eight major practice areas. (Not sure which practice areas interest you? See our practice area guides.) We also recommend cruising through schools’ Web sites to see what they emphasize about their curricula, cultures, and student demographics.
Tip: Even if you’re several years out of college, you can still use your alma mater’s advising and career services offices (though some may charge a fee).
Assemble Your Application
Now that you know where you are applying, it’s time for the tough part. While the opinions of admissions officers are usually as numerous as the applications they review, they all agree on one thing: Apply early! There are countless others vying for a spot in next year’s 1L class, so you want yours to be the ninth personal statement they read on the virtues of a semesterin Oaxaca, not the 900th. Admissions are rolling, but the latest date to get your materials in is usually around mid-March.
Virtually all law schools’ applications have four parts: Law School Admissions Test (LSAT) scores, undergraduate and any graduate transcripts, three letters of recommendation, and a personal statement or writing sample. Most American Bar Association-accredited law schools require applicants to subscribe to the Law School Data Assembly Service (LSDAS), administered by the Law School Admission Council (LSAC). The service prepares and provides schools with a report that includes all of your application materials and a summary of your undergraduate academic record. You can register online at www.lsac.org. The cost is $95 for 12 months and one report, plus $9 to $11 for each additional report.
If you are applying exclusively to law schools in Canada, you are not required to subscribe to the LSDAS. Some foreign-educated applicants may not be eligible for the LSDAS; check its Web site for details.
Tip: While you may feel that what you express on paper is but a glimpse of the depth of your character, don’t wait for an interview to wow the admissions committee. Unlike other graduate programs, law schools rarely conduct interviews-so your application is your one chance to prove you belong there.
Score on the LSAT
While opinions differ on the LSAT’s accuracy in predicting how well a student will perform in law school, the test still carries a lot of weight. Law schools may accept a range of scores, but to remain competitive, your score should probably be at or above the median at your chosen school. Many students choose to take prep courses that offer helpful tips and sample tests. If you don’t score as well as you wanted to on the LSAT, take it again only if you feel you can substantially improve your score. According to one Brooklyn law grad, with all the preparation the LSAT requires, “the stress just isn’t worth it!” Law schools will generally consider the average of your scores, not just the higher one.
Make Your Transcript Shine
Generally speaking, all law schools require an undergraduate degree for admission. Asked what advice she would give undergrads considering law school, Richard doesn’t hesitate. “Excel in academics,” she exhorts. “Although it is important to become involved in activities and be well-rounded, college students should keep in mind that their schoolwork must come first. Use good judgment-don’t take on too many activities at the expense of your studies.”
Your undergraduate record is a reliable indicator of your ability to excel in a law program, and it can affect not only your chances of admission but also your financial aid package. Schools nationwide are reporting more and more merit-based scholarship dollars. Translation: The higher your grades, the better your chances of getting the money you may need to finance your education.
Law schools are looking for students with a capacity to think critically and to analyze and synthesize a great deal of information. Traditionally, social science graduates-especially political science, history, and philosophy majors-populated law school halls. Today, any rigorous academic preparation that includes logical reasoning, effective communication, and analysis can get you there.
“You’re not going to learn to be a lawyer in undergrad, so do things you enjoy. [Even] biology is a great preparation for law school. It’s rigorous and analytical. Just be sure to complement your studies with solid writing and liberal arts courses,” says Craig Berry, a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania Law School.
With the advent of new technology and cyberlaw programs, law schools are finding more science and engineering students in their applicant pools. Challenge yourself and work hard to keep your GPA competitive.
Tip: If you already have your undergrad sheepskin in hand but your transcript reflects more partying than intellectual pursuit, all is not lost. Do your best to ace the LSAT. These scores are even more important without a strong GPA to fall back on.
Solicit Meaningful Recommendations
Your three letters of recommendation are integral parts of your application, so find people who know you and your work style well. Most schools prefer that you use the LSDAS recommendation form, and at least one of the three must come from a professor, preferably from a rigorous upper-level course.
Give them ample time to complete the recommendations, and ask to review them before they are sealed and submitted. A professor may think she is predicting a bright future by expounding on your great unrealized potential but to an admissions officer, that comes across as laziness. Your recommendations shouldn’t make generic comments that don’t speak to your academic strengths or to the particular qualities a school may be looking for (your research on schools should give you some clues as to what’s important).
Provide your recommenders with your personal statement, to ensure a unifying thread throughout your application. For instance, if your writing sample speaks to your lifelong goal of becoming a freedom fighter and your belief in the human family, the last thing you want your professor to do is write about the way you overcame your initial inability to work in a group.
Don’t hesitate to remind them of the brilliant work you did while in their classes. Even if you’re applying to law school several years after college, you still have to contact at least one professor. Just e-mail your request, along with yourand any recent writing you’ve done. If you have papers you wrote for that professor, even better!
Tip: Most schools have a credentials service that will keep recommendations on file for students indefinitely after graduation. Take advantage of it.
Personalize Your Personal Statement
There is no formula for crafting the perfect personal statement. Hoye calls the essay a “test of the applicant’s advocacy skills, the ability to articulate his or her ideas in a compelling way.” But whatever you do, don’t follow a preprogrammed approach outlined in a book or on a Web site. “It’s not hard to pick out personal statements written by formula. Formulaic approaches fall flat and don’t ring true. Find your own voice,” he advises.
Bowers cautions students to steer clear of software or Internet services that generate essay ideas or boilerplate paragraphs. At worst, they can result in plagiarism, and at best, they’re just plain unoriginal. He does, however, encourage all applicants to turn in an error-free writing sample. Whatever you do, he says, “have several people proofread your essay.” Be careful not to submit a piece with spelling or grammatical mistakes; after all, you’re considering a career where details and technicalities can make or break a case.
Make sure your writing is clear and concise and is a strong statement of your ability to communicate your unique perspective. This is your opportunity to set yourself apart from the masses as an applicant, so make it count.
Tip: Check closely for silly goofs: The last thing you want to do is send the brilliant essay on why you’re perfect for George Mason’s new cyberlaw program to the University of Florida by mistake.
After you’ve assembled and submitted your killer apps, there’s nothing to do but sit back and wait for the results. If you’re wait-listed, the best thing to do is just that: wait. Calling the school or attempting to submit other materials won’t usually help unless it is solicited. Once you have your acceptance letters in hand, however, you have some work to do: It’s time to decide which school to attend.
Experts agree that visiting a law school is the best way to size it up and determine whether you would thrive there. “Get a sense of the mood among the student population,” says Richard. “It may help you overcome rankings pressure.” While you may be tempted to blindly attend the highest ranking school, being on campus will help you make the right decision.
Hoye offers similar advice. “Contact the faculty and meet with current law students. The way a law school treats you as an applicant suggests the way you will be treated as a student.” If you feel welcomed and comfortable, chances are that three years in the company of these people wouldn’t be half bad.
And while he lauds the efforts of law schools to improve their marketing efforts, Hoye concedes that it’s “hard to convey the personality of a school through the brochure.” So, go to a class, hang out at a social event, check out the school’s resources, and most of all, talk to people. After the visit, you’ll know where you’ll be spending the next three years.