Applying to Law School Can Be Frustrating; You Can Change That
By Michelle Rahman, Associate Dean for Admissions
Applying to law school can often be a frustrating experience! There's so much information, so much "wrong" information and so little control over your situation. There seems to be a mystique about this process that adds to the frustration. Perhaps I can help ...
While recruiting "on the road" I hear so many potential applicants tell me with great anguish that they're "late" in the process. It's October or November and they're already in a panic. They've been told that they must apply early and if they haven't already sent that application in by early October they're fatally late. Most of the admission "decision makers" are recruiting in September, October and most of November and are rarely in their offices reading files. Applicants believe that by applying very early they are more apt to be offered a seat that they might not qualify for if they were to apply later. Let me assure you that each law school knows how many applicants they normally accept each year and what the range of credentials are for those they admit. So, it's not likely we'll admit someone early who doesn't fit the profile we already have. I'm particularly concerned about those who are not strong applicants for a particular school applying before they are the strongest applicant they can be. Improving your position as an applicant certainly trumps presenting a "weak" application simply to be "early". Trust me ... strong applications to nearly any law school are welcome ... even at the deadline. All the seats won't be gone for those applying to law school armed with credentials which place the applicant in a competitive position. So, go ahead and apply to the schools of your choice as early as you like but make certain to indicate if you want the decision held until you retake the LSAT.
How important is the LSAT? Unfortunately, while we hate to reduce you to a "number," and wish we could overlook it in some cases, we accept the fact that it is the best predictor of success in law school and beyond. Certainly many people test badly but the test "levels the playing field" in that everyone is judged against the same standard. With students relying so heavily on a popular magazine's ranking of law schools in which the LSAT plays a large part in that rank, law schools are being forced to place even more weight on this standardized test. Sad but true. To my great regret potential applicants don't always get (or listen to) advice from those who really know about not taking this important test without adequate preparation. If you are not well on the day of the test don't be a hero and take it anyway unless you plan to cancel the score which then places you in the dilemma of "should I or shouldn't I." Digging a hole and then attempting to dig yourself out isn't a strategy I recommend. Far better to wait and take the test when you are confident of your preparation and can take your very best shot! What is the best preparation for this test? I like to think of this as preparing to run a marathon. It's important to run the course many times to see where the rough spots are, eat right, sleep right...and practice, practice, practice. You will notice when you take the LSAT that the question of how you prepared to take the test is asked. We are informed, as a result of that survey question, that the very best way to prepare for the LSAT is to take as many tests as possible under timed conditions. I strongly suggest an applicant obtain as many actual old tests as possible from the Law School Admissions Council (LSAC) - see the LSAT Registration booklet or order on line by visiting LSAC.ORG and take these tests timing themselves religiously and then scoring the tests to see where their own difficulties lie. The same survey question tells us the second best way to prepare is a commercial prep course. Give yourself the very best "shot" at law school you can...practice, practice, practice.
Often applicants tell me how strong they are in extracurriculars, community service, and letters of recommendation ... and refuse to hear that these things, while very important, do not supersede or overcome, in most cases, credentials which are not competitive in a particular school's applicant pool. They just don't want to hear that their LSAT and GPA are first and foremost essential to the process. Being president of a fraternity or sorority just won't overcome poor credentials!I always get questioned about that pesky personal or narrative statement. If the LSAT is so darned important, does it really matter what I say in that statement? You bet! That statement should be considered in the light of "what would I tell the admissions committee about me if I had the opportunity to present my case." Not a regurgitation of what is already on the resume you've supplied with your application, or what is already in that application! Here is your golden opportunity to tell the admissions committee about yourself...who you are, perhaps what brought you to the decision to attend law school...something to bring you to life and have you stand out as someone we want to admit. Remember, human beings are reading your application - catch our attention. My personal least favorite narrative is one in the third person from the perspective of their own obituary. Believe it - I get several of those a year.
One of the things that puzzles me is getting "bad" letters of recommendation. I always wonder why the applicant didn't think to add one word to his/her request for that letter. That word is - GOOD. As in, "would you feel comfortable in writing me a good letter of recommendation?" For me, discovering a less than favorable letter of recommendation in a file, brings my consideration of an applicant to a screeching halt. I consider the judgment, or lack of, on the part of the applicant in choosing this particular recommender and, of course, the damning words I'm reading. While a letter of recommendation won't override poor credentials it could be the one thing that differentiates you from another most similar applicant when we're prepared to admit one of the applicants but not both. Such letters should be from people who know you well enough to speak to your abilities in areas important to law schools. We want to know more about you and your abilities that are essential to your success in law school. Letters that simply tell us how nice you are don't help. We expect that!
Common sense should play an important part in your application process. Admissions professionals like me usually have, in their title, something that pertains to admissions - director of admissions, dean of admissions, etc. You will note that we are not directors or deans of rejection. We WANT to find some reason in your application to advocate for your admission. We are reading your application with the view of finding reasons to admit not to reject. Give us ammunition to advocate for you!
It fascinates me, by the way, to constantly discover that applicants are hugely concerned about application deadlines but pay little attention to financial aid deadlines. Most students are responsible for their own expenses but give little thought as to how they're going to pay for school. For schools who consider need in awarding aid financial aid deadlines are critical. Miss the deadline to file the Free Application for Federal Student Aid or a school's own application and the money might well be gone! Every student who wants to be considered for need based aid (federal student loans) must file this form and many schools use the analysis of need to allocate need/merit based grants (free money). Law students are considered to be independent for financial aid purposes and one should contact the schools to which they're applying to ask whether or not their parents' tax returns are required. Some schools (like mine) do not require a parental tax return and consider everyone to be independent for financial aid purposes. It's critically important that you understand how financial aid works! ASK the schools to which you are applying to explain how financial aid works before you make a mistake which might prevent you from attending the school of your choice!
In short, view this process as one that you can affect by presenting the strongest application you can, to a range of schools that you'd consider attending should you be admitted in a timely, organized manner. Pay attention to deadlines both application and financial. Visit law schools online but preferably in person in a time frame which will allow you to make a deposit at that school you truly might attend rather than make multiple deposits because you've not timed your visits well. Make yourself known to the admissions office if you find yourself on a waiting list - and continue through the summer letting us know you are truly interested in our school.
I suspect, if you're an applicant who is organized and thoughtful about your application, next year at this time will find you occupying a seat in the law school of your choice. Best of luck on the journey ... and don't be a stranger ... Let us hear from you!
Originally published in Phi Alpha Delta's The Reporter