First and foremost, focus on your coursework and aim for academic enrichment while achieving a great GPA. Your undergraduate academic record is one of the two most important aspects of your law school application (along with your LSAT score), and having a 4.0 (or even higher with A+ grades!) will put you at a significant advantage in terms of admissions. Keep in mind that the quality of coursework and your academic institution play a role in this as well. Take courses that you are interested in, and you will tend to thrive; don’t take courses just because you think will look good on your transcript. An important aspect of success in law school admissions is being able to differentiate yourself from the thousands of other applicants who are vying for a spot at the law school YOU want to attend. An empirical way to differentiate is with a good undergraduate GPA and a passion for what you studied.
Second, become involved on- and off-campus. Don’t necessarily just do what you think admissions officers want to see — become involved in what interests you. Sustained participation or having leadership positions and/or other tangible involvement (e.g. organizing a fundraising event) is better than just joining a club in your junior year for one semester. On- and off-campus involvement, however, should never be a higher priority than focusing on your academics.
Third, explore the legal profession and decide whether or not you really want to go to law school. Speak with law students and new attorneys. Consider a legal internship if possible. The legal field is in a period of unprecedented change, and your experience will likely be quite different from those of older family members or acquaintances who became lawyers many years ago. Make sure that you are aware of employment statistics and the reality of the legal profession for new law school graduates. Remember that you don’t have to practice law or have a traditional law firm career after law school, but you should be entering law school well-informed about your options.
Fourth, cultivate good relationships with several professors. Go to office hours, participate in class, etc. You should get academic letters of recommendation to fulfill the requirements of every school. The best recommendations come from those who know you well and can speak to your academic abilities with specific examples, anecdotes, and comparisons. If a TA or a graduate student knows you best for these purposes, that is far superior to choosing a high-ranking or famous professor who does not know you as well. Feel free to ask professors for letters of recommendation right after taking their classes, as opposed to later on in the process. They will have a clearer memory of your work in class, and it will also give them more time to complete the letter. Professors can send in their letters of recommendation online, but you must register for the Credential Assembly Service (CAS) on the LSAC website first, which entails a fee. Try to ask in person if at all possible, and if not, a phone call is often better than an email (though of course, keep professors’ personal preferences in mind). If the potential recommender shows hesitation about being able to write you a positive letter, choose someone else. A bad or lukewarm letter is much more likely to hurt you than a good one is to help you.
Last, stay out of trouble. For example, if during a momentary lapse of good judgment, you discharged a fire extinguisher on your freshman dorm, it is unlikely to affect the decision on your application, just admit to it, take responsibility for your actions and move on. If you have done it twelve times, all the while chasing freshmen down the hallways as you attempt to spray them, you are also running towards more trouble with law schools. Schools look for systemic trends in things –both good and bad. If you have made a mistake make sure you have learned from it! Know that you will have to report all academic and criminal misconduct on your law school applications.
One Year Before You Plan to Apply
Depending on your particular timeline, this may be your junior year of undergrad or after ten years in the workforce. While there are some advantages to applying directly out of college (most of which depend on personal goals and situations), in general, for law school admissions and especially legal hiring, some post-grad work experience is not only a positive element of your application, it can also make you a better law student, so you should consider taking this route if you have not already.
Take a diagnostic LSAT practice test and begin preparing for the LSAT. You can find a free practice test to print out on the LSAC website. Try to plan a study schedule based on your diagnostic test — if you start out with a 99th percentile score, you probably don’t need much time. If you start out with a much lower score, you might need 6 months or even more. Everyone’s situation is different. However, for most people, preparing for the LSAT requires at least three months of hard work and diligent preparation. Your preparation plan might include self-study, a class, private tutoring, or a combination of the three. Many students who score very highly on the LSAT do not pay for expensive classes or tutoring, so do not feel that it is necessary in order to achieve your goals.
There are lots of preparatory materials out there, but some are much better than others. In general, you should look for prep books and classes that use actual, real LSAT questions. Many of the major test prep companies use questions that they have written themselves, and these sources are invariably much worse than their counterparts who use real questions. Do research on the best materials and those that might be best for you — some reputable sources are PowerScore, Manhattan, The LSAT Trainer, 7Sage, and Velocity. Your LSAT preparation should include learning methods, drilling those methods on sets of questions, and eventually taking fully-timed LSAT practice tests under as close to test day conditions as you can replicate.
3-6 Months Before You Plan to Apply
Once you know how your LSAT preparation is going, register for the test on the LSAC website. The June before you plan to apply (or even earlier!) is the best time to take the test, because it will allow you to retake if needed and still apply early. You can retake the LSAT up to three times in any given two-year period, and if you do not hit your goals on the first or second try, you should absolutely take advantage this, as schools will only report your highest score.
While you’re at it, you might want to register with the Credential Assembly Service (CAS) if you have not already. After you do this, you can begin to request letters of recommendation and send in your transcripts. If you are out of undergrad, you should begin the transcript process as soon as possible — it can sometimes take longer than you think, and you want to have everything ready to go when you have completed your applications. Even if you are thinking about taking some time off, your CAS registration is good for 5 years, so there is no harm in registering if you plan to apply within the next 5 years.
1-3 Months Before You Plan to Apply
Take the LSAT. Don’t let yourself get too stressed out by it — you can always retake if you need to.
Begin to brainstorm and write your personal statement. There are three key features to a personal statement: it should be compelling, it should be professional, and it should leave the reader with a positive impression about you. Don’t restate your resume in paragraph form, don’t talk about someone else more than yourself, and don’t think that the essay needs to be all about “Why Law.”
Begin to write a Diversity Statement — but only if one is appropriate for you. This is a truly optional essay on every application, so it won’t be a negative if you don’t write one. The topic should be fairly obvious to you; if you can’t think of something that makes sense right away, it’s probably a sign that you shouldn’t write one. Race and ethnicity, socioeconomic disadvantage, religion, sexual orientation, and unique upbringing are some of the most common topics of diversity statements, but this is not an exhaustive list.
Put together your law school resume. Unlike a professional resume, it does not need to be limited to one page. Feel free to use the space you need, and include your skills as well as an “Interests” section.
Attend your local Law School Recruitment Forum if possible. Not only can you save some money by getting application fee waivers at these events, but you can give yourself a chance to make a great first impression with representatives from your target schools. Be sure to dress like a professional. Wait for representatives to get some down time (when tons of prospective applicants aren’t crowding around the table), then approach with confidence, smile, and be friendly! If you shake hands, make sure it is a firm handshake (some representatives prefer not to shake hands as recruiting season coincides with the cold/flu season!) Make eye contact while introducing yourself, ask questions about particular program areas or faculty members etc. (they will love you for digging deeper after they’ve answered endless repetitive questions about LSAT medians and scholarships), and take notes and/or be an active listener. Finally, ask for a card, and make sure you follow up — most applicants fail to do this, and it’s what will most likely end up in your file.
Since law schools utilize rolling admissions, you should plan to apply as early as possible (most schools begin accepting applications sometime between August and October). However, you shouldn’t sacrifice a better application for an earlier one.
Proofread your application thoroughly. Then proofread it by reading the whole thing out loud. Have a friend proofread it. Have your mom proofread it. Proofread it again. It might seem like overkill, but typos are common in law school applications, despite the fact that attention to detail, professionalism, and thoroughness are key skills in the legal profession. Every year, someone will be denied admission to a law school because of an egregious typo. For example, and this happens all the time, in a personal statement to Eastern Law School an applicant will write, “All my life I have wanted to attend Princeton Law School.” Don’t let that applicant be you.
The hardest part of the admissions cycle is the wait, especially when others start hearing from your dream school and you are, well, waiting. There are, however, ways of being proactive while in this stage of the game. Points of contact matter. However, you have to be careful — don’t just call or email an admissions office because you are anxious about the wait. You need a legitimate reason, such as having a question for admissions; updating them with a new job, updated GPA, new LSAT score, award you were given, etc.; or wanting to plan a visit (see below). As long as you have one of these legitimate reasons to contact the admissions office, feel free to piggyback your email with a, “just wanted to express my continued interest in Princeton Law.” These sorts of updates can be helpful, but don’t go overboard with them.
Visit law schools if possible. This shows that you have a real interest in the school, which translates to better yield if they admit you. It also does not slam the admissions people with extra work on their end (like endless application updates will). Just make sure to check with the school on their visitation policies, and be sure to stop by the admissions office, thank them for their hard work, and send a follow-up email afterward.
If you get waitlisted, don’t give up hope. The majority of law school applicants will get waitlisted somewhere, and many schools’ eventual entering classes will be 50% (or more!) made up of applicants who were originally waitlisted. Being waitlisted is often just a small speed bump to getting admitted, and there are things you can do to increase your chances of that being the case. First, send in a letter of continued interest. This is key because it tells schools that you will attend if they admit you. You should also visit if possible, for the reasons listed above. It is a fine needle to thread, but you want to be professionally persistent without being a pest.
Finally, once you have your options on the table, negotiate scholarships. The biggest challenge admitted students face is the simple fact that most prospective students have no experience at all in this area, while the admissions professionals often have a considerable background doing just that. You are likely far out of your comfort zone and they are likely far in theirs. The outcome of this discrepancy often results in a prospective student never asking for an increase in scholarship money, or asking once and never moving past the initial “no, we wish we could, but we have awarded all the funds we have available this year.” Don’t let this dissuade you. When you were admitted, the power equation shifted 180 degrees. Now that you’re in, they need you. However, this should not give you reason to act entitled. This is one of the biggest mistakes applicants make when attempting to negotiate scholarships, and you will get much further being polite and respectful. In general, be patient, stay in the game, and be persistent. Call regularly (approximately every 1.5 months), and you will stay at the top of admissions officers’ minds when more money becomes available as other applicants withdraw.
This article was written by Mike Spivey and Karen Buttenbaum of The Spivey Consulting Group, a leading law school admissions consulting firm founded by former law school admissions officers. More about Spivey Consulting can be found at www.spiveyconsulting.com