Applying to Law School
Law schools base their admission decisions on the following factors:
- LSAT Score
- Academic Record
- Personal Statement
- Letters of Recommendation
That being said, in most cases the applicant's LSAT score and academic record are the most important factors, and the former counts for more than the latter. A weakness in one or both of these areas must be overcome with strengths in other areas if the applicant is to gain admission to law school.
The sections below provide more detailed information on the main parts of the application.
Law School Admission Test
The Law School Admission Test (LSAT) is a half-day standardized test required for admission to all law schools approved by the American Bar Association. The LSAT does not cover a certain set of subjects or disciplines (e.g., history, political science). Rather, it measures skills that are considered essential for success in law school. The multiple-choice sections of the test--reading comprehension, analytical reasoning, and logical reasoning--reflect this emphasis. The test also includes a non-scored 30-minute writing sample, which is sent to law schools along with your test score. Detailed information on the LSAT is available at the Law School Admission Council web site and from the LSAT/LSDAS Registration and Information Book, a free publication of the LSAC.
If you are to do your best on the LSAT, it is essential that you prepare in advance. A good approach is to begin studying on your own 3-4 months prior to the test. This self-preparation will familiarize you with the test and help you to identify your strengths and weaknesses. After a few weeks of self-preparation, you will be in a better position to explore the various test-preparation services. For a list of these providers, see the links at the Additional Resources page of the Pre-Law Advising web site.
Undergraduate performance is generally an important indicator of how someone is likely to do in law school. Accordingly, most law schools look closely at college grades when considering individual applications. In addition to the GPA itself, many schools consider undergraduate performance trends. Thus, admission committees may discount an undergraduate's slow start, if the student has a good finish. If you have done better in your courses over time, make sure you note the increase in your personal statement or an addendum.
Avoid taking too many pass/fail courses. An A, B, or C will say more about your academic performance than the P in a Pass/Fail course. In addition, pass grades are not computed in the GPA (see LSDAS paragraph below). Because they must select from among a group of highly qualified people, law schools gather as much information as they can about your abilities. Grades matter.
Be aware that the Law School Data Assembly Service (LSDAS), a nationwide clearinghouse, evaluates your academic record and reports your GPA along with your transcripts and LSAT score to the law schools. In an attempt to make GPAs uniform (between schools who have a 4.0 scale and 5.0 scale, for example), LSDAS recomputes your GPA. Thus, the GPA LSDAS reports to law schools might not be the exact GPA that appears on your transcript. For a description of how LSDAS converts a GPA, consult The Official Guide to U.S. Law Schools or the registration booklet for the LSAT.
This is the part of the admissions packet where you are not just a number. Take advantage of this opportunity to state your case for admission to law school. See this guide for advice on how to proceed.
You should think of the personal statement as your opportunity to present that side of yourself that would come through in an interview. Although you should not gush uncontrollably about yourself, you should emphasize the events in your life that influenced you as a person and drew you to the study of law. Examples of topics most often addressed in statements include: selection of major, work or internship experience, obstacles overcome, educational background, motivation for the study of law, effect of disadvantage, family background, outstanding academic accomplishments, or significant extracurricular experiences. Remember to emphasize those things that will distinguish you from other candidates (e.g., significant employment, travel abroad, research projects, publications). Sell yourself.
Never emphasize defects in your record in the personal statement. If you want to explain a lower GPA or a low LSAT score, do so in a separate addendum. Be brief, factual, and honest.
Write in a direct, concrete fashion about real experiences, events, people and how they impacted you. Do not overuse adjectives and adverbs and do not use an abstract style. For example, if you mean "ball" say so; do not use the word "sphere" instead. Include anecdotal information to emphasize the point and make your statement more interesting to read. Do not, however, be cute. Essays that begin with a cliche -- such as, "If you were to look at my life, you would say it was an onion, each layer revealing my progressive individual development..." (this is an actual example) -- will turn the reader off.
How you write is as important as what you say. Do not turn in an essay that has not been proofread carefully. It is often helpful to read each sentence out loud to see if it sounds right. You should also carefully examine each paragraph to ensure that you are speaking to one particular topic or theme in each paragraph. Do not make the reader have to figure things out on their own or infer anything. Paragraphs in which critical information is not easily found are given very little if any further attention during the sometimes rapid reading accorded applications. Be sure to use separate paragraphs in order to signify transition from one topic to the next. Be clear, organized and reader friendly.
Limit yourself to around two double-spaced pages. A little over or under does not matter so long as you are being concise. Have a pre-law advisor or another trusted advisor review your personal statement.
Remember, the LSAT and undergraduate grade point average form the foundation or skeleton of the admission evaluation process. A well-written personal statement might make an otherwise unimpressed admissions committee take another look.
For a few of examples of effective personal statements, take a look at these sample essays.
Tips for the Personal Statement
- Keep it simple and direct.
- Keep it brief...the typical statement should be two pages, double spaced.
- Write about actual accomplishments. The most effective statement is a thoughtful, impressionistic explanation of the crucial events that have shaped you into the person you are.
- Write a statement that focuses on one or two experiences that have related to your preparation for law study.
- Explain how you've overcome weaknesses and obstacles in your life and how that has prepared you for law school.
- Develop the personal statement in a structured form. Begin with an introduction that sets out your theme and the sub-points you will develop in the subsequent paragraphs. Devote one paragraph to each sub-point. Make sure you use transitions between paragraphs. Make sure that each paragraph relates to the one before and after so that the essay hangs together as an integrated story. End with a concluding paragraph in which you explain briefly why you want to attend this particular law school.
- WRITE, REWRITE AND TRY AGAIN. After reading the statement, you should ask yourself: "Have I told the reader who I am? Is the reader convinced that I am capable of doing well in law school?"
- Play up the experiences that have shaped your life -- foreign study, producing a book or play, responsible employment. Explain your intellectual development, noting how your academic interests have grown and changed.
- ASK SEVERAL PEOPLE TO READ OVER YOUR PERSONAL STATEMENT BEFORE SUBMITTING IT.
The format of a résumé used for professional purposes is appropriate for law school applications. Because many law schools do not grant interviews for applicants, it is important to provide detailed information relevant to your academic and personal qualifications for the study and practice of law. You should note and describe briefly your academic record, honors and awards, work and volunteer experiences, foreign language competencies, and study abroad and research opportunities that you have undertaken. Be sure to review each school's application material to see if there are any specifications to which your résumé must conform (e.g., page limits).
Letters of Recommendation
As noted above, your LSAT score and GPA form the foundation of the admission evaluation process. Although other factors--such as the personal statement and letters of recommendation--cannot totally override the primary predictors, they can provide valuable information about a candidate's qualifications.
Who Should Write
The Admissions Committee is considering you as a potential student. Letters from non-academic people are not as impressive because they do not typically address themselves to the applicant's intellectual prowess or aptitude for law school. If the writer of the letter is not a professor, his/her comments will probably be limited to the applicant's personality and industry (not the most important information sought by the admission committee). Accordingly, try to get letters from professors who know your work and can speak to your academic aptitude and achievement. Do not submit letters from congressmen, politicians or other power brokers unless you have done significant work directly for them upon which they may base evaluative comments. The casual letter from a "name" can seriously turn off a reader. Employer recommendations are acceptable if the student has been out of school for some time.
Ease the Writer's Burden
To make the most out of your letter of recommendation, prepare your writer. If possible, select professors who both know you personally and who have been able to examine a great deal of your work. The professor's rank or scholarly reputation is not as important as the content of the letter. In the letter (which should be written on official school stationary and list your full legal name), the writer should emphasize your general academic capabilities, writing skills, analytical and logical reasoning skills and anything else that helps the committee compare you to other applicants. Law schools want specific information about the applicant's breadth and depth of knowledge, ability to analyze, writing acumen, problem-solving ability, and scholastic aptitude. Thus, you should share as much specific information as possible about yourself with the writer. Make the writer aware of both your objective status (LSAT and GPA) and subjective abilities. Make sure your writer knows enough about you to write a detailed recommendation. Remind the writer of specific research or projects you completed for him/her. Bring copies of your work and a resume for the writer to review.
What a Good Recommendation Says
The following is a list of specific topics your writer might want to incorporate in his/her letter:
- outstanding projects or papers, unique academic experiences or accomplishments,
- overview of the class that you attended, its specific requirements, its level of difficulty, and your performance compared to others in the class,
- special interests and motivation; personal qualities or background information that distinguishes you from others,
- observations about your character and integrity,
- observations on academic promise in a rigorous professional program,
- contributions to college or community in non-academic endeavors,
- intellectual capacity, motivation, emotional maturity, and seriousness of purpose,
- if you have a weakness in your file, the writer might want to help you explain it (e.g., Although x's GPA is low...; Grading in this department is low, however...; X's choice of classes and performance demonstrate an ability to take on challenges and ...).
Make sure the writer has a chance to decline your offer to write a letter if he/she cannot be glowing in good conscience. Provide the writer with an envelope (and stamp) and the completed LSDAS form. Without being pushy, set a reasonable deadline for completion of the letter. Give your recommender several weeks to complete the task.
Waive Your Rights
While you are not required to waive your right of access to letters of recommendation, most applicants do because they have confidence in those who are writing on their behalf. Law schools also take more seriously letters that are confidential. Remember, if you are unsure that someone is actually going to write a favorable letter, you may want to rethink asking this person in the first place.