Ask a Law School Admissions Expert: Derek Meeker

Varsity Tutors brings you insider tips and advice straight from nationally recognized admissions experts. Derek Meeker is the Founder and President of Dean Meeker Consulting, a law school admissions consulting company. Derek previously held the role of Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid for the University of Pennsylvania Law School. He has also served as the Recruiting Manager for the global law firm, Paul Hastings, and as an admissions reader for The University of Chicago Law School.

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

Derek: The amount of time it takes to adequately prepare for and complete a law school application is anywhere from six to ten months. Applicants must give themselves several months to study for the LSAT, and preparing for and taking the exam should (ideally) be done before the application season opens (i.e. prior to the fall). That way, applicants can focus solely on the other components of the application during the late summer and fall months, as they likely will also be juggling school and/or work obligations. Applicants also need to arrange for letters of recommendation, and they should give their references at least two to three months’ advance notice. Professors will be much busier in the fall and may be difficult to reach during the summer, so, again, planning several months in advance and well before the admissions season opens is ideal. Finally, the personal statement is a crucial component of the admissions process, and most applicants find writing a personal statement to be extremely challenging; thus, allowing a couple of months to brainstorm topics, write several drafts, get feedback, and tailor the essay for various schools is essential. There are several other administrative steps (e.g., requesting and submitting transcripts) and written components (application forms, resume, and possibly supplemental essays or addenda) that will also add to the timeline.

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

Derek: Aside from LSAT preparation, the single most important thing applicants should focus on is superior writing in all components of the application (i.e. the application form, personal statement, supplemental essays, resume, and any addenda). Writing is the single most important skill for success in law school and for success as a lawyer; everything you submit as part of your application will be a measure of your ability to write effectively—i.e. in a way that is descriptive, informative, and compelling, yet also cohesive, concise, and genuine (and, of course, grammatically impeccable!).

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

Derek: Aside from the obvious mistakes—grammatical errors, typos, failing to follow instructions, or failing to respond to required questions—one of the biggest mistakes one can make is writing the personal statement as a mini biography, or taking the admissions committee on a “resume tour,” as I like to call it. I always advise applicants to complete the resume before writing their essays. (And note, a two-page resume for the application is perfectly acceptable, unless the instructions specifically state otherwise.) Writing a detailed resume will paint a broad picture of your academic, work, community, and extra-curricular experiences; use the personal statement and supplemental essays to delve more deeply into specific experiences or to present valuable information that may not be apparent from other parts of the application. Another big mistake that applicants make is submitting the same exact personal statement to every school to which he or she is applying. Simply changing the name of the school in every essay (or worse, forgetting to change the name of the school!) is not advisable, particularly for highly selective or reach schools. What often separates similarly competitive applicants from one another is the extra effort or personal touch that one puts into his or her application. Show through your essays the unique perspective you would bring and contribution you would make to that particular law school. Show that you have done your research on the school by discussing why it is a good fit for you personally, academically, and professionally given your values, interests, and career goals. (Note, some schools provide this opportunity through optional supplemental essays; do the supplemental essays.) Putting in that additional effort will make your application stand out because it will convey that you are genuinely interested in the school, focused and goal-oriented, and, thus, more prepared for law school and legal practice.

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

Derek: My advice for the personal statement is: be who you are and share who you are. As the Dean of Admissions for Penn Law School, I always asked when reading applications, “What voice will this person bring to the classroom? How will he or she contribute to the law school community and to the legal profession?” Two of the most common questions I hear from applicants are: “But there’s nothing unique about me; I grew up in a middle-class suburb, went to fine schools, didn’t have to overcome significant challenges, etc. What could I write about that would be interesting?” Or, at the other end of the spectrum, “But don’t a lot of people write about their challenges as a first-generation American (or being raised by a single-parent, or spending time abroad to study or work)?” The personal statement is about youyour experiences, your achievements, your challenges, your goals. It matters less what the topic is (e.g., whether it is common) and more how you write about it. What did a particular experience or challenge mean to you? How did it affect, influence, inspire, or teach you? What decisions have you made or what actions have you taken as a result? How will you affect, influence, inspire, or teach others as a result? It is a personal statement, so make it personal—take the reader into your experiences through clear, vivid, and descriptive prose. As long as you write about something that is meaningful to you, about which you genuinely feel passionate, and that has somehow shaped you or defined your goals, it will be compelling.

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

Derek: Providing information that is dishonest or failing to write an addendum that adequately explains a criminal record or academic misconduct could lead to automatic disqualification.

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

Derek: Because you will be applying for a professional degree, it is important for the law school admissions committee to understand why you are interested in attending law school and what your career goals are (at least, generally). In this regard, the information you submit needs to be more specific. Law schools expect their applicants to be more mature and focused, to have a deeper awareness of themselves, and a broader awareness of the world in which they live. Also, very few law schools offer the opportunity to interview, something that is much more common in the college admissions process.

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

Derek: Maturity, focus, and a keen understanding of what law school entails and what it will cost them, as well as an understanding of what lawyers do and earn. Law school is expensive and the current legal market is extremely competitive. It is absolutely imperative that students understand what career opportunities are likely to be available to them from the schools at which they will be competitive (i.e. what the return on investment will be). Also, having spent the last four years as the Recruiting Manager for a large law firm, I highly encourage students to get some full-time work experience before enrolling in law school. While it is not required, substantive work experience will make them more compelling as candidates for attorney positions and more prepared for the rigorous work ahead of them.

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

Derek: The admissions committee’s goal is to put together a class of students that will engage, challenge, and teach one another through their diverse backgrounds and perspectives. Thus, anything that is distinct or unusual relative to the overall applicant pool (e.g. a particular course of study, job, or accomplishment, geographic background, cultural upbringing, a personal hardship or significant challenge, etc.) will immediately stand out. One of my favorite stories from my time at Penn is when I called an applicant to tell him that he had been admitted. Apparently in shock, he replied, “Why did you admit me?” And I said, “Because you grew up working on a ranch in Montana.” Now, I distinctly remember that that applicant did not have as high a numeric profile as the majority of applicants admitted to Penn. But what put him “ahead of the running” is that he brought a perspective—one that he effectively articulated in his application—that was not represented in the student body.

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

Derek: How much time it takes to sufficiently prepare for the LSAT varies greatly from applicant to applicant. What is important to note is that you will not know how much time you need to adequately prepare until you start taking practice exams. You also may not know what the most effective method of preparation will be for you until you are in it. Some applicants will find that studying on their own by using resources that are available through LSAC is sufficient; others may feel a classroom environment would be more effective and will want to take a prep course. Still others may learn best by working one-on-one with an LSAT tutor. The cost of each of these methods also varies greatly. Thus, my advice is to begin preparing and taking practice exams many months before you plan to take the LSAT so that you have adequate time to determine the method of preparation that works best for you, and to save additional money or make scheduling adjustments, if necessary.

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

Derek: Admissions officers expect the letter writers to know the applicant extremely well from an academic setting, employment setting, or, perhaps, through substantive community service or extra-curricular activities. The letters should include specific and detailed examples that illustrate the applicant has the skills or characteristics that are necessary for success in law school (and as a lawyer), such as outstanding writing, oral communication, advocacy, analytical, and critical reading and reasoning skills, discipline, perseverance, confidence, maturity, focus, adaptability, judgment, and attention to detail. A diverse portfolio of letters (i.e. letters that provide unique perspectives on the applicant) is ideal.

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