How to Get Into a Top Law School
Everything you need to know about applying and getting accepted to the top law schools – from preparing your law school application and selecting the right schools to writing your personal statement and securing letters of recommendations.
To paraphrase Charles Dickens: for law school applicants, it is the best of times, and it is the worst of times.
The past several years have seen a steady decrease in the number of law school applicants, causing almost all top law schools to lower their qualifications in their competition for the strongest applicants in each year’s application pool. On the other hand, the legal profession continues to evolve after the recession of 2007 and 2008, and jobs across the profession are becoming more and more competitive. Now, more than ever, gaining admission to a top law school is an important first step on the path toward a successful career as a lawyer.
At Stratus, we have been helping our clients gain admission to the best law schools in the country for over ten years, and we want to help you do the same. The information that follows will guide you through the entire law school application process, from strategy development to steps to take after submitting your application, and everything in between.
The Law School Admissions Process: An Overview
What are law schools looking for?
Admissions committees are looking for three basic qualities in their candidates:
• The ability to become a successful law student and lawyer
• A reason to go to law school, and, ideally, a reason to go to their law school
• Numbers that will improve their school’s US News and World Report ranking
Keep these three qualities in mind as you prepare your application, especially in the brainstorming and strategizing stages, which we will discuss in greater detail below. A powerful application will present these qualities by highlighting elements of the applicant’s profile that speak to strength in each of those qualities.
With a few variations, the law school application process is uniform for every law school. For every school you apply to, you should expect to submit:
• An LSAT score from a test administered in the past five years
• Transcripts from all schools you have attended since you began college (including graduate schools)
o Personal statement
o Diversity statement (optional, depending on your circumstances)
o Addenda (optional, depending on your circumstances)
o School-specific essays (as applicable)
• Letters of recommendation
It is through the examination of these components that admissions committees determine your academic and professional potential, why you want to go to law school, and how admitting you would affect their schools’ US News rankings. We will explore each of these components in greater detail below.
The Application Cycle: Dates and Deadlines
Unlike most other admissions processes, the law school admissions process is conducted on a rolling basis. For admissions processes that are not conducted on a rolling basis, schools have hard submission deadlines and evaluate all applicants on a level playing field after the deadline has passed.
The rolling admissions process in law school, on the other hand, allows applicants to submit their applications within a certain window, which usually opens in September and closes between February and May (each school’s application dates are different). Admissions committees evaluate applications as they receive them, which means that there is an advantage to submitting your application on the early end of the cycle when fewer admissions spots have been taken up by other candidates.
While it is definitely to one’s advantage to apply earlier in the admissions cycle, it is also important to note that this advantage has significantly declined over the past several years. We advise that you submit your application as early as is practicable, but also make sure that you are giving yourself enough time to put together the strongest possible application.
Before You Start Your Law School Application: Brainstorming, Strategy, and School Selection
There are important preliminary steps to creating a strong law school application that many applicants overlook. Most people spend some time thinking about which schools they should apply to, but most overlook the key steps of brainstorming and creating an overall application strategy.
These steps are essential to creating a cohesive application that presents a complete picture of who you are, as opposed to a set of loosely related application components that don’t leave the admissions committee with a strong impression of all aspects of who you are and what you would contribute as a student at their school.
At Stratus, we work extensively with our clients on these important preliminary stages of the application process. Our focus on brainstorming and strategy makes the rest of the application process easier to execute, and it creates a stronger finished product.
Brainstorming and Introspection
Before you begin to think concretely about putting together the components of your application, it’s important to think broadly about who you are as a person. More specifically, what experiences, achievements, difficulties, and characteristics of you have led you to apply to law school? Exploring not just your academic life, but also your professional and personal lives, will help you answer that question. Our comprehensive admissions consulting begins with a brainstorming and introspection questionnaire that leads our clients through this process and serves as the basis for the first conversations between client and admissions consultant.
The brainstorming and introspection process should lead you to a few key themes that you want to convey in your application. These themes could be a passion for a certain social issue or area of law, an ability to work hard and be successful during adversity, an intellectual interest, or a drive to explore topics deeply. Working with an expert law school admissions consultant will help you identify these themes and how they have manifested themselves in all aspects of your life.
Crafting an Application Strategy
After you’ve completed a brainstorming and introspection process, it’s time to turn to strategy. In a nutshell, putting together a strategy for your application is the process of using each component of the application to advance your key themes and address any weaknesses or holes in your profile. Identify how each theme and weakness could be best addressed in each application component, and how you can weave these themes together across all parts of the application.
Ultimately, you want your application to be a cohesive set of components that advance a few key ideas, leaving the admissions committee with a clear sense of who you are and what you bring to the table as a future law student and lawyer.
At Stratus, we generally recommend that our clients apply to 10-15 law schools. Once you have completed the main components of your application, tailoring your application to each school usually doesn’t take more than a couple of hours of work, so it is worth the time to apply to a broad range of schools to ensure that you have several options as your admissions results come in.
There are three main criteria to consider when selecting which schools you should apply to:
• US News Ranking. For most applicants, the rankings are the biggest factor in where to apply. A higher ranking means greater and more varied professional opportunities after law school, as well as higher earning potential.
• Geography. With the exception of the top 14 law schools, almost all schools are “regional” schools, meaning that their alumni are heavily concentrated in the geographic/metropolitan areas near the school. If you are committed to practicing law in New York City, for example, you would likely have better employment chances in New York as a Fordham graduate than as an Emory graduate, even though Emory Law has a higher ranking than Fordham Law.
• Practice Area. Many schools have strong programs in specific areas of law or for specific professional trajectories. For example, NYU Law has a great international law program, and Yale Law School has an unparalleled record in placing its graduates in legal academia. If you are certain about your career path, apply to schools that can best help you get there.
Once you have your LSAT score and undergraduate GPA (as calculated by the LSAC’s Credential Assembly Service), you will have a clear sense of which schools are “target” schools (your numbers make you a strong candidate), which are “reach” schools (your numbers make you a viable but not a strong candidate), and which are “safety” schools (your numbers make admission a near certainty). We recommend at least two or three safety schools, and four or five target and reach schools each.
Preparing the Application, Piece by Piece
LSAT Score and Undergraduate GPA
These two numerical aspects of your application are extremely powerful. Schools care about LSAT scores and undergraduate GPAs for two reasons: first, because the LSAT and GPA data for matriculated students significantly affect each school’s US News ranking (almost 25% of the entire ranking is determined by these two numbers); second, because they believe that these two numbers are an accurate predictor of academic performance in law school, particularly during the crucial first year.
All law school applicants have at least completed their junior year of college, so there is much less opportunity to significantly change one’s undergraduate GPA than there is one’s LSAT score. If you haven’t taken the LSAT yet, make sure to devote a significant amount of time to studying. We recommend that our clients devote 10-15 hours per week to studying for at least three months.
We are happy to recommend Manhattan Prep to those who are preparing for the LSAT. Manhattan Prep offers a comprehensive suite of preparation tools and services, including live, virtual, and on-demand LSAT courses, and live and virtual one-on-one tutoring. Click here [link] to learn more about Manhattan Prep’s top-notch LSAT preparation offerings.
Although law schools care a lot about your undergraduate GPA, they will look much closely into your academic record to get a better sense of your academic background. Schools will scour your transcript to determine:
• The level of difficulty of the courses you took
• Whether you found and pursued an academic interest by taking multiple classes (of increasing levels of difficulty/sophistication) on the same subject
• How much writing and critical thinking you did in an academic setting
• Whether you took on a major project such as a senior thesis or other major piece of research and/or writing
Admissions committees will focus on your undergraduate record, but will also take into account post-graduate coursework and degrees, especially if you graduated from college several years (or more) before you apply to law school.
Highlighting positive elements of your academic record in essays and letters of recommendation is an important strategy for most applicants, especially those who are still in college or who graduated within a few years of applying. This advice is even more important for applicants whose undergraduate GPAs are below the medians of most of the schools they are applying to.
The personal statement is the largest and most important written component of a law school application. When writing the personal statement, you should strive to create a two- to three-page essay that presents one or two key aspects of who you are, why you have pursued the things you have pursued to this point, and what makes law school the next logical step in your development.
In addition to presenting these more resume-oriented aspects of your profile, a personal statement should leave the reader with a sense of who you are as a person, what motivates you, and what you’re passionate about.
Finally, make sure your personal statement is the strongest piece of writing you can muster. Make sure you are satisfied with not just its content, but also its stylistic and typographical elements.
Since the personal statement is the cornerstone of the application, it is important to carefully consider not only the themes you want to convey and how you convey them, but also the essay’s relationship to the other components of the application and to the overall application strategy.
In a diversity statement, applicants are asked to describe what makes them uncommon or unique, and how those characteristics will enable them to contribute uniquely to the law school community they are about to enter. Although each law school’s diversity statement prompt is different, diversity statement prompts tend to fall into one of two categories:
• A narrow diversity statement prompt seeks more traditional indicia of diversity, such as race, ethnicity, religious affiliation, socioeconomic status and sexual orientation
• A broad diversity statement prompt enables applicants to write about uncommon experiences and other traits that don’t satisfy the narrower definition of diversity articulated above
Although not all applicants write diversity statements, most of our clients do. Most people have some characteristic or life experience that allows them to show admissions committees how they would contribute to the diversity of perspective, experience, and strengths of the law school community.
In general, applicants write addenda to address parts of their profile that may be disadvantageous or may require further clarification. The three most common addendum topics are:
• Academic Addendum. If you underperformed during any part of your undergraduate career, you should write an addendum addressing this
• LSAT Addendum. If you have taken the LSAT more than once, or have any other significant irregularities on your LSAT score report (e.g.,
• Character and Fitness. In their applications, law schools require applicants to disclose
Addenda should be brief and matter-of-fact, and should address not just the issue itself, but also what you have learned from it.
Some schools, but not all, invite applicants to submit essays in addition to the personal and diversity statements. These essays are generally shorter than the personal statement and the prompts are more specific, often asking candidates to discuss instances of success or failure, describe academic subjects or projects that were most meaningful to them, or explain why they wish to attend this law school in particular.
When given several prompts to choose from, make sure that you choose a prompt that allows you to present an aspect of yourself that you haven’t already covered in other parts of the application. Working with an admissions consultant is particularly helpful in determining which prompts would be best to choose and how to tailor your responses to best complement the rest of your application.
Letters of Recommendation
Letters of recommendation are a unique part of the application in that they are the only opportunity for others to speak about you, instead of you speaking about yourself. Applicants should use this opportunity to find recommenders who can speak glowingly both about the applicant’s academic/professional qualities and about their character, work ethic, and personality.
The ideal recommender is someone who has direct experience with the applicant’s academic or professional work product. Note that this direct experience is more important than the recommender’s title or level of prestige. If you are working as a legal assistant before attending law school, for example, it would usually be better to get a letter of recommendation from a junior associate who directly supervised you than it would be a senior partner who only experienced your work indirectly.
In almost all cases, applicants should submit at least one letter of recommendation from a professor (ideally an undergraduate professor).
Preparing a resume for law school applications is similar to preparing a resume for other purposes. Make sure to limit your resume to one page (unless you have many years of post-undergraduate work experience), and make sure that the descriptions of your roles, responsibilities, and achievements highlight any research, writing, and critical thinking skills you used or developed in the positions you have held.
After You Submit Your Law School Application
Interviewing is a relatively small component of the law school application process. Not many schools offer interviews, and those that do primarily offer them on an invitation-only basis.
If you have the opportunity to interview at a school, though, be sure to take it. Be prepared to discuss in detail any aspect of your application (including resume, academic record, work experience, and the contents of your essays), and to answer the common question, “Why do you want to go to our school specifically?”
After you submit your application but before you receive a decision, you may want to update schools on any significant changes in your profile. Such changes include:
• Fall semester grades
• An additional letter of recommendation
• Job change or promotion
• Completion of a significant academic or professional project
• Any awards or honors
Be sure to check each school’s admissions website so that you know whom you should send any updates.
Wait List Strategy
If you are placed on the wait list at any school, you should strongly consider submitting a letter of continued interest to each school for which you would like to stay on the wait list. In a letter of continued interest, you should express your strong interest in attending the school, and offer any substantive updates to your profile.
Staying engaged in the process by providing letters of continued interest and appropriate updates to your profile makes it clear to schools that you remain strongly interested in attending their school.
Almost all law schools budget a lot of money to merit-based scholarships, which they use to lure the strongest applicants every admissions cycle. These merit-based scholarships don’t require a separate application or any additional work on your part: by applying, you’re eligible to receive merit-based aid. Applicants who receive merit-based scholarships can often negotiate with other schools to help receive or increase scholarship offers from those schools as well.
Although LSAT score and undergraduate GPA are important in each school’s decision about whom to offer merit-based aid, having a strong application will often make the difference in both whether an applicant receives merit-based aid and how much aid is offered. At Stratus, not only do we work with clients to position them to receive merit-based scholarships, we also help our clients increase their scholarship amounts by guiding them through the delicate process of negotiating increases in scholarship awards.
Work with a Law School Admissions Consultant
Almost all law school applicants seek outside help when putting together their law school applications. Unfortunately, most applicants ask friends or family members who are lawyers themselves to review their completed application essays.
This approach falls short in two important ways. First, by engaging outside help at the end of the process, applicants give those who advise them much less opportunity to make meaningful changes to their applications: when handed a final draft of an essay, it is much harder to suggest a different topic or even to suggest rewriting a portion of the essay. Second, by engaging help from people who have only gone through the process once, applicants are relying on the advice of people whose application profiles and experiences with the process are likely not relevant to their own applications.
Stratus Admissions Counseling is a full service admissions counseling firm distinguished by its team based, multi-step process ensuring each application is crafted for optimum impact. Each law admissions team member has graduated from a top-14 law school and our collaborative team provides the depth and breadth of legal experience to maximize your chances of admission to your top choice law school.
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