Nearly all law schools make their admission decisions solely on the basis of written applications and supporting documents. The supporting documents include:
- The personal statement of the applicant.
- Letters of recommendation.
- Undergraduate transcripts.
- The Law School Admission Test (LSAT) score.
Applications consist of those items of personal information necessary to give evaluators a comprehensive picture of the applicant. The instructions that accompany the application should be adhered to exactly, and, as with all applications, responses should be clearly and concisely written. All students applying to accredited institutions within the U.S. are required to use the Credential Assembly Service (CAS) through the Law School Admissions Council (LSAC) to apply for law school.
Most law schools have an admissions committee that makes all admission decisions after a careful review of each application. In selecting the entering class, the admissions committee is forced to make difficult choices among a large number of qualified applicants. These choices are made by balancing a number of factors, including LSAT score, GPA and type, breadth and depth of college or graduate courses completed.
Other factors also play an important role in the committee's decision-making process:
- Academic honors and awards.
- Writing ability.
- Letters of recommendation from persons who know the applicant well (academic letters of recommendation are the most helpful for fairly recent graduates).
- Work record, including military service, Peace Corps and VISTA.
- College and community activities.
- Character and motivation.
Although performance on the LSAT and in college or graduate school is important, selection is made after a careful review of the entire admission file. Check with each school for their specific admission criteria. In addition to a regular application process, each law school has instructions for any special programs and special admission policies.
Virtually every law school requires a personal statement from the applicant. You will be able to attach your personal statement to each individual schools application on LSAC. The following are suggestions to help in creating a strong personal statement:
- Adhere to guidelines contained in the application instructions regarding length, matters addressed and format.
- Type the personal statement and proofread carefully — the statement should be error free.
- Give the very best grammatical and communicative effort, since this essay will be judged on both form and substance.
- Revise the statement at least three times, and have it critiqued by someone other than a friend or family member.
- Be personal and candid in the statement while setting qualities forth in the best possible light. The personal essay must demonstrate the traits and abilities that only the applicant can offer. This is the forum to showcase strengths and show individuality.
- Be specific about what sets the applicant apart, whether it is memories of a trip abroad or a lifelong passion for fly-fishing. A good essay is one only the applicant could have written. Applicants should write about what interests them.
Law school admissions personnel already have an example of the kind of writing done in a test situation, since the writing sample portion of the LSAT is provided to them. The personal statement allows applicants to address what they wish to say on their own behalf and to develop it carefully with regard to organization, spelling and grammar. The personal statement is to be thought of as an "interview on paper." Information that is already in the application or transcript should not be repeated. Remember that the admissions committee will be reading hundreds of essays. Hence, an essay should be engaging enough to spark their interest.
Letters of Recommendation
Applications will usually indicate whether letters of recommendation are required, recommended or not desired. If no mention is made of letters, it can be assumed that they are acceptable but not very important to the school. An applicant should follow the law school's policy on recommendation letters. Adding material that has not been solicited may be viewed in a negative light. Many law schools ask that letters be sent directly to the Law School Admission Council (LSAC).
In general, letters should comment on the applicant's academic progress and should be specific; therefore, they should come from instructors who have had significant personal contact with the student — generally, professors in the applicant's major field — and those in whose classes the applicant's work was most noteworthy. It is much better to have a detailed recommendation from an assistant professor or even a graduate student instructor who knows the applicant well than a letter from a distinguished professor of national prominence who can speak of the applicant only in general terms.
Situations under which the applicant might solicit a letter of recommendation from a non-academic person include the following:
- From a long-time employer who can state that the applicant was employed full-time (half-time, etc.) during his/her college career. This would verify that the applicant's GPA was achieved under challenging circumstances in addition to commenting on work ethic.
- From an athletic coach who can state that the applicant was a (three-year, four-year) member of the team and indicate the amount of time devoted to practice, road trips, etc. This would verify that the applicant's GPA was achieved despite the time demands of varsity athletics.
Law schools are generally not impressed with letters of recommendation obtained from political office-holders and other persons of "influence," including judges and attorneys, unless those persons also meet one of the criteria listed above. Indeed, letters that give the impression that the school is being "leaned on" by a person of presumed influence to accept a particular candidate may have a negative effect on that candidate's chances of admission.
In order to expedite the process, the applicant should provide the person writing the recommendation with the following:
- A brief resume containing all essential data, not necessarily the finished form one would send to a prospective employer.
- An unofficial set of transcripts, perhaps highlighting courses taken with the recommender.
- All applicable forms provided by the law schools. Candidates should indicate that they waive the right to see the recommendations. Nonconfidential letters are of little or no value. If a candidate can't depend on their recommender to write a supportive letter, they should not be making the request of that person.
- A stamped envelope addressed as directed by the law school.
Several weeks before providing the above materials, recommenders should be asked if they are willing and able to write a strong, positive letter of reference. If they agree, candidates should be sure to give them at least three weeks to complete and mail the letters after you have given them the materials. Giving a recommender too little time to finish a letter shows a lack of organization and can turn a good recommendation into a poor one.
Tips on Networking with Professors
The key to a good letter of recommendation is a good relationship with the professor writing the letter, and these mentoring relationships do not develop overnight. There are many ways to get to know professors outside the classroom. The first, and best, strategy is to meet with the professors during their office hours. It is recommended to make an appointment or just visit to discuss the reading or yesterday's lecture. Asking for tips on improving written communication or ideas for future research may be beneficial. Candidates should get to know them.
Another good way to get to know professors is by working as an undergraduate research assistant or collaborating on a project. Most professors welcome the opportunity to share their passion with an interested student, and students can often earn academic credit for their research work. Candidates should find out what types of opportunities are available in their department by asking their current professors or consulting with their academic advisor. Visiting Barrett, The Honors College for research opportunities may also be helpful.
Students can also get to know a professor by taking seminar classes that focus on discussion and have small enrollment caps. Candidates may consult their advisor or other students about which classes emphasize discussion and writing. These courses are generally academically challenging (the type of educational experience candidates should be seeking if they are planning on law school) and offer an opportunity for interaction between professors and students.
A good mentor relationship can enrich an undergraduate education immeasurably and sustain intellectual life far beyond college and law school years. A student who pursues special projects and demonstrates true intellectual curiosity and initiative is certainly the kind of student any good law school wants to admit. A great letter of recommendation is simply a happy by-product of a student's hard work.
Letters reflecting on the good character of the applicant, such as those normally obtained from pastors, dormitory supervisors, etc. are generally inappropriate unless they somehow meet the special status category set forth above. An exception to this is a dean's letter, which is required by a number of law schools in order to verify a student's class rank and that no disciplinary action was taken against the applicant by the undergraduate institution. Students should contact their college dean's office or the dean of student life (SSV B-228) to request a dean's letter.