Ask a Law School Admissions Expert: Cliff Sarkin

Varsity Tutors brings you insider tips and advice straight from nationally recognized admissions experts. Cliff Sarkin is a graduate of Harvard Law School and has been an application advisor for hundreds of students. Having been a Summer Associate at two top-tier law firms in Washington D.C. and a frequent participant of many law school admisisons panels and events, Cliff has used his knowledge to help many aspiring law students get into some of the most prestigious law schools in the country. He provides consulting services through his successful firm, Law School Advising.

VT: How much time should be set aside to adequately prepare for and complete a Law School application?

Cliff: There's no easy answer to this one. When I applied, I spent weeks and weeks on my application, and many of the applicants I help spend much longer than that. Basically, you know you're done when there's absolutely nothing in your application on which you could do any better. For instance, you're not done until you've gone through your resume 10 times with a magnifying glass and confirmed that there are no typos, that your punctuation is perfect, and that your spacing is uniform. Similarly, on your Personal Statement, you've confirmed that every sentence (in fact, every word!) is serving a purpose, and of course that your grammar, syntax, diction, and punctuation is flawless. The time spent on your application should absolutely be a priority. Remember, law school admissions is a highly competitive process, and you're competing for a very limited number of spots with 70,000+ applicants each year who are trying their hardest to get in. If you're not giving it 100%, you're putting yourself -- and your odds of admission -- at an unnecessary disadvantage.

VT: What is the single most important thing applicants should focus on with this application?

Cliff: The Personal Statement, hands down, is the most important of the written components of the law school admissions application. In fact, I've heard from plenty of Deans of Admissions that the Personal Statement is worth more than all the other written parts (resume, letters of rec, optional essays, and addenda) combined. I have found that many applicants neglect to do the necessary brainstorming, and instead they rush to begin writing.  Usually this ends with either writer's block or, quite honestly, a poorly executed Personal Statement. When applicants put in the work before writing (brainstorming, outlining, and deciding exactly what they want to say and how to execute it), the end result is usually superior.

VT: What are the biggest mistakes one can make on a Law School application?

Cliff: Here are a few of the biggest mistakes I've seen... (1) Spelling or grammar errors (you don't want your reader checking your work; you want them engaged with it); (2) Trying too hard (you don't need to stand out just for the sake of standing out; you want to be yourself and have your best voice shine through); (3) Not providing an answer to the prompt of the Personal Statement or other essay (following directions and responding to the questioner are important traits of any pre-lawyer); (4) Being negative, judgmental or revealing a personal insecurity (you have a blank slate to tell the reader anything you want; stay positive, engaging and uplifting): and (5) Talking down to the readers or watering-down your essay because you think they won't "get it" (the Admissions Committees are comprised of either professional admissions officers or professors at the law school; it's safe to assume they are all smarter than you are and that they will understand depth, metaphor, or complex essay structure).

VT: What do Law School admissions officers look for most in an applicant’s essays/personal statement?

Cliff: Admissions officers read your personal statement as if it was the best piece of writing you've ever written. It should be well thought-out and structured. It should grip the reader from the beginning and keep their attention the whole time. It should be a joy and a pleasure to read. Above all else, it should answer both questions of the Personal Statement prompt (who am I and why do I want to go to law school?).

VT: Is there anything on a student’s application that would automatically disqualify them from being considered for the program?

Cliff: Plagiarism (using someone else's work or copying closely the structure of a sample Personal Statement) or a telling a blatant lie on your resume or in your Personal Statement (something that can be verified with relative ease or a simple Google search) are sure-fire ways to disqualify an applicant. What's more, such violations of truth and ethics might not just mean you get rejected from one law school; it may prevent someone from being allowed into the Bar and ever practice law. Please don't fabricate or copy anything as part of your application. There's no need, and the risks aren't worth it.

VT: What about the Law School admissions process differs the most from undergraduate admissions?

Cliff: It's a lot more casual. That is, unlike undergrad apps, you're welcome to send the law schools anything you want. For instance, I included a copy of my senior thesis as part of my application to each school. You can also send updates to your application via email (say you get a new job since you applied, that's a perfect time to send a revised resume) or go visit the Admissions Offices of some of the schools that are still considering you. One bit of warning... always put thought into things (additional materials, email updates, etc.) before you send them to law schools, and it's always best to err on the side of professionalism.

VT: What kinds of things (experience, grades, etc.) might a student lack that would lead you to advise them not to apply?

Cliff: Law schools, unlike medical schools or business schools, aren't looking for one or two prerequisites in an applicant's background. In fact, law schools will take pre-meds, veterinarians, former game show hosts, etc. They want a diverse student body. You don't even need a legal-type job or internship before you apply. What law schools are looking for, however, is someone who can prove they are good critical thinkers, can analyze deeply and quickly, likes to read/write, is a strategic thinker and is a natural advocate. If you enjoy those things and highlight experiences in your past during which you used those skills, you'll be in safe waters. If you don't, you might not do well in the law school application process -- and, in fact, you might not want to be a lawyer.

VT: Is there anything you might see on a student’s application that would quickly put them ahead in the running?

Cliff: A really high LSAT score!  I know, I know... that's easy to say and a lot less easy to do. However, the more I help applicants get into law school, the more I see just how much a good LSAT score helps with their chances. It is, after all, the one factor across which law schools can compare all applicants. On a similar note, law schools admissions committees will favor applicants with one score (rather than those that take the exam twice or more).

VT: What advice do you have regarding LSAT test prep?

Cliff: Study, study, study!  To do well on the LSAT, there is no silver bullet, no easy way through, and no one prep course that can guarantee a great result. For me, someone to whom the LSAT didn't come naturally, the only way I did well was because I dedicated so much time to studying for the darn thing.  If you want to master the LSAT, you’ve got to be ready to put in some long hours behind the books!

VT: What do law school admissions officers look for in recommendation letters?

Cliff: Most applicants put more attention on Letters of Rec than they're actually worth. Admissions officers read these letters to make sure that someone in a position of authority (preferably, an academic professor, but a professional supervisor is fine) says that you're smart, analytical and a hard worker. It's a box that gets checked. However, while a Letter of Rec can't "make" you, it certainly can "break" you. When Admissions Officers read a letter that raises a red or yellow flag about an applicant, it's bad news. Be sure your recommenders are only going to say good things about you.

Visit for further information on Cliff’s admissions consulting services.

The views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Varsity Tutors.