Way back in the Dark Period, when many application files remained to be read and admitted student weekends had yet to take place and sleep was sparse for law school admissions deans, a news magazine asked a bunch of us to answer 10 or so pretty standard admissions questions. And a bunch of us collectively moaned—answering such questions, no matter how standard, no matter how seemingly straightforward, is always time- and energy-consuming. At the time, we had no time and energy to give. So together, we moaners cooked up a time-saving and procrastinating alternative: we would answer the questions as a group (or in some instances, a version of the question that we thought improved upon the endeavor), in essence guest-blogging on a few different law school admissions sites. And voilà—the results, at least in part, are below. For more snappy repartee and the remainder of the Q&A, visit the Yale Law School blog, Stanford Law School blog, and Columbia Law School blog. And for information about the bloggers, visit the biographies of Asha Rangappa of Yale Law School; Faye Deal of Stanford Law School; Ken Kleinrock of NYU School of Law; Nkonye Iwerebon of Columbia Law School; and Ann Perry of Chicago Law School. (I’m very equity-conscious, so I have listed the law schools in reverse alpha-order; that’s just how I roll.)
On a personal note, let me just say how much I enjoyed this exercise. And I think we all learned a lot; I learned which of my colleagues routinely starts emails with the greeting “sup,” for example; Dean Rangappa learned that Michigander was a word; and so on. I hope you find the results both edifying and enjoyable, too!
What are some of the common mistakes that applicants make that hurt their chances of being accepted?
Michigan: By far the most common mistake I see is failing to put effort into one’s essays and résumé. Those are the aspects of the application process fundamentally completely under the applicant’s control, and yet a large portion of the pool fails to take advantage of that opportunity. Why would people drop the ball this way? My theory is that a lot of applicants have a conviction that the admissions process is deeply impersonal—that their applications get reduced to two numbers and nothing more, so why bother putting effort into the other parts of it? I suppose they think that the requirement of an essay and an expressed interest in extracurricular and work activities is all smoke and mirrors, and that admissions officers don’t really care. That’s so misguided; those are in fact the parts of the application that capture most admissions officers’ attention and imagination. And I see the dropped-ball application across the spectrum of “numbers”: candidates whose lack of effort takes them right out of serious consideration despite very high LSATs and UGPAs, as well as candidates who have more modest scores but who might very well have something very interesting to add to a classroom—but who fail to put the effort in that would be necessary to persuade us that that is the case. Once you’ve decided to apply to a given school, give it your all. Don’t let a mistaken sense of futility do you a disservice.
Chicago: I completely agree with Dean Zearfoss, but another common mistake is that applicants wait to apply to law school and submit their application on the deadline. This puts their application at a disadvantage, as most schools have a rolling admissions process, so the sooner your file is complete the better. We have more offers of admissions at the beginning of the cycle than at the end. So this requires some planning on the part of the applicants. It is great if you start thinking about law school about a year or so before you want to start, so you can get all the necessary application components together, including the LSAT and letters of recommendation. I recommend getting your applications in prior to the winter holidays.
Yale: I agree with Dean Zearfoss that we get a surprising number of applicants with great numerical profiles, but who don’t even make it through the gate because of poor writing, a lack of explication of why they want to go to law school, or something else. I think for every one of us, every spot counts. I have even fewer offers to make than many law schools, so the “soft” factors are super important. In the big picture, one-point differences in LSAT scores or one-hundredth point differences in GPAs are meaningless compared to the actual experiences, interests, and critical thinking skills that students are going to bring to the first year class. Focus on these things. If I had to point to one not-so-obvious mistake that many applicants make, it’s not providing at least two academic references, which are absolutely critical to our admissions process since it is primarily faculty driven. (Oh, and I’ll highlight that because of our idiosyncratic process, we don’t have a timing issue, so it’s not disadvantageous to apply near or at the deadline.)
Stanford: I have very little patience with the application that doesn’t have a common thread running through it. Think of each piece as part of the puzzle (You’re rolling your eyes about now and thinking to yourself there she goes again with the puzzle analogy) and connect things. Don’t let me read your application at 4:00 am in the morning— which I do—and ask me to make to make those connections. That is your responsibility. Step back from the process and really think about how you want to present yourself. For example, if you say you are interested in the bioscience and law field, make sure your recommender does not go on and on about his wish that you’d go on and do the Ph.D. in English Literature. No consistency, right? A more appropriate letter would talk about your strengths in this field or of any evidence the recommender has seen that you have the requisite skills to undertake something like this. Also, what kind of evidence will you present as part of your application acknowledging that you have a solid grasp of the field itself or that you have any experience in the area? How have you come to this point in your life where you are sitting at your desk putting this application together? Surely, you did not just wake up one morning thinking bioscience was the way to go, right? So, connect things for us. I would much rather read—and look favorably upon—an application where all the pieces fall into place over one where it’s all about the numbers and not much else.
NYU: This one’s easy—and a mistake like the one I will describe happens with alarming frequency. We see an application from a candidate who writes a very detailed statement that makes references to why a particular law school is a perfect fit for them, how they will contribute to the student body, and that the law school is the candidate’s absolute first choice. The problem is that the name of the school cited in the essay is not the one to which the candidate submitted the application. Precision and care in writing as well as a candidate’s sincerity are important factors. If I am looking for a reason to set aside an application, this is a very good one.
Columbia: Many of the all too common mistakes we see appear to have been discussed. The most important comment that I can make is not to overlook any part of your application. You simply do not know which aspect the reviewer will focus on the most—it often is not the numbers. For example, the importance of recommendation letters is sometimes underestimated, especially if you are a current student or recent graduate. If you belong in either category, you should definitely include a recommendation letter from an instructor who has been in a position to evaluate your work—not your hockey coach (unless that is supplemental), not a family friend who also happens to be a lawyer—but an instructor. Another component that is often neglected is the transcripts. Transcripts should be as complete as possible, meaning that if you have studied abroad, for example, and those grades are not included in your current institution’s transcripts, you should request them from the foreign school or risk delaying a decision.
What can applicants do to set themselves apart from their peers?
Michigan: Applicants should approach the admissions process as an opportunity to answer the question, “Who ARE you?” Not to sound like a one-note song, but my answer to the “common mistake” question is closely related to my advice here: put the effort into your application materials to present yourself as a coherent, consistent rhetorical whole. Think in advance what it is you are trying to convey; what picture of yourself as an applicant do you want to create? Your essays, your résumé, and even your recommendation letters all offer a chance to underscore your message. It doesn’t matter what your message is, exactly; admissions officers seek a wide variety of people for their student bodies. But an applicant who presents a very clear picture of him- or herself is very persuasive and appealing.
Chicago: In order to set themselves apart, I really think applicants need to put a lot of effort into all parts of their application. This is especially true when deciding who to have write your letters of recommendation. Make sure you ask those professors or supervisors who know you best and can give detailed information concerning your performance and capabilities. It is important to give them as much information as possible. I always like to recommend that you give a copy of your résumé and explain to them, if necessary, your extracurricular activities or work experiences. It is helpful for them to put everything in perspective with your classroom work.
Yale: I really think the idea of “setting yourself apart” really misses the point. While admissions by nature is comparative, I really don’t approach each application thinking, “How does this person compare with X, Y, or Z?” I’m rather looking at the totality of that individual application, as it stands on its own. In this respect, Deans Zearfoss and Perry are right to point out that an applicant should be more concerned with the internal consistency and strength of his or her application, and less on how s/he measures up to outside standards (like median LSATs/GPAs, which usually matter less than people think, or having the “right” topic for the essays, etc.). You want to stand out in the sense that the reader of your file is impressed when s/he sees it, but you probably don’t want to be the one that an admissions officer remembers for weeks or years afterward (think American Idol auditions). These are usually the people who stood out in a not-so-good way…like the person who included a self-addressed rejection letter with his application this year. Yikes.
Stanford: I think to approach your application with this task in mind is an impossible burden. So, here’s my advice. Don’t spend a whole lot of time pondering this. Instead, think about putting together a thoughtful and well-crafted application. Pay attention to your writing. Think strategically about your choice of recommenders. Think about what impression you want to make on us. It’s about you—not about how you compare to the next application I read or the one I’ve just read prior to yours. When I’m reading your materials, chances are I’ve already let go of the file I just read, and when I open the file after yours I will have set you aside. And, it’s not because my memory is bad, but it’s because whatever file I’m reading gets my full attention.
NYU: I don’t recommend applicants adopt an approach where their objective is to set themselves apart from their peers. What’s the point? We are assembling a law school class of a few hundred wonderful students. If you do a self-assessment and a careful job of assembling the best possible application that showcases your strengths and potential through your letters of recommendation, résumé and personal statement, you’ve done your best and leave it at that. Don’t use gimmicks, make outrageous statements, etc., to try to attract the kind of attention where the person reading your application questions your judgment.
Columbia: As the others have made clear, the goal of an application is not to set oneself apart. Besides, with thousands of people applying to law school, that would be a huge challenge. Instead, the goal should be to convey who you are as an individual, the contributions you have made in the past and expect to make in the future, and how or why these factors have led you to this point . . . applying to law school. You have to view the various components of the application as chapters in a book. Taken together, they will tell a full and relatively complete story of the things that motivate, challenge, and inspire you, as well as give us a glimpse into how you would engage in our community.