Varsity Tutors brings you insider tips and advice straight from nationally recognized admissions experts. Jean Webb works as a Law School Expert at InGenius Prep, an expert admissions consulting service that helps students get into the college, law school, medical school, or business school of their choice. Jean previously served for 17 years as the Director of Admissions at Yale Law School, where her duties included management, planning, strategy, file-reading, and pre- and post-admissions recruitment.
How much time should be set aside to adequately prepare for and complete a law school application?
Jean: Assuming you are starting senior year and that this does not include LSAT study time, I would recommend spending three hours a week from mid-September until you submit your application. Activities included in these three hours are researching and visiting schools, speaking with your pre-law advisor, creating and editing your resume, brainstorming and writing your essay, and strategizing your letters of recommendations. It’s important to carve out time in your schedule during which you can completely focus on the application for hours at a time, instead of time here and there.
What is the single most important thing applicants should focus on with this application?
Jean: Applicants should focus on the question: Do I really want to go to law school? Ask yourself, and keep asking yourself, this question. You don’t have to know the answer for sure, but the question has to be in the back of your mind. The answer, or the quest for the answer, will wrest your strengths from within and make for a compelling application.
What are the biggest mistakes a student can make on a law school application?
Jean: It’s a big mistake to spend too much time saying how much you love the schools to which you are applying. Admissions officers at top law schools already know that you want to go there and statements like this do not add any value to your candidacy.
Instead of simply stating that you want to go Yale Law School, for example, you should mention the undergraduate research you did at Yale with a law school faculty member. Talking about a research project will trigger a better result than just saying you want to go to the school.
Remember: show, don’t tell.
What do law school admissions officers look for most in an applicant’s essays/personal statements?
Jean: Admissions officers look for evidence of strong writing, thinking, reasoning, and editing. Applicants must demonstrate the strengths they will contribute to law schools. It’s not always about the topic; rather, it’s that you write about the topic well. As an admissions officer, you don’t know what kind of law an applicant is going to study. Everything can change once a student gets to school. What makes a student succeed as a student and eventual lawyer is good writing, thinking, reasoning, and editing.
Is there anything on a student’s application that would automatically disqualify him or her from being considered for the program?
Jean: Misconduct without remorse—in the past or on the application.
I’ll add that being too far below the LSAT and GPA median will also disqualify applicants. People tend to think that the LSAT and GPA are just numbers. In reality, the GPA represents four years of academic work; the LSAT reflects skills gained over a lifetime. There is an intense focus on these scores because they are distillations of a person’s academic ability. While there are no formal cut-offs, admissions officers rarely seriously consider someone whose numbers are way below the median.
What about the law school admissions process differs the most from undergraduate admissions?
Jean: Law schools are not necessarily looking for well-rounded people or students who will contribute well to the social life of the law school. As the Director of Admissions at Yale Law School, I looked and advised my staff to look for people who would be strong contributions to class and who wanted to be involved in the law.
While schools do have personalities—like Northwestern, which has strong ties to the business world—admissions officers are not necessarily looking for a diversity of interests.
At the undergraduate level, admissions officers are looking to fill all types of slots—the cellist, the athlete, the debater; this is not the case at law school.
What kinds of things (experience, grades, etc.) might a student lack that would lead you to advise him or her not to apply?
Jean: If there is no evidence that a student is a good fit for the law, I would advise him or her not to apply. This evidence can take many forms. On the academic side, if there is no academic experience related to legal work—history, political science, economics, international relations, philosophy, government classes or majors—I would ask myself, “Why does this person want to go to law school?” On the extracurricular side, if there is no evidence of skills or experiences showing you are a good fit for the law—debate, summer internships, mock trial, community service—I would ask myself the same question.
That being said, I’ve seen math majors make excellent law school applicants. Some faculty members at Yale Law School even told me that math is the best preparation for law school because of the precision it requires to succeed. In cases like this, students will need to focus on weaving their unique background and skills into a story that shows they are a good fit for the law.
Is there anything you might see on a student’s application that would quickly put him or her ahead in the running?
Jean: When I was at Yale Law School, all else being equal, excellent writing and insightful letters of recommendation quickly put students ahead in the running. If a distinguished faculty member with a lot to do raves about a student in a way that is not boilerplate, I would pay special attention. More on recommendations below!
What advice do you have regarding LSAT test prep?
Jean: I advise students to take LSAT practice tests under timed conditions. Use officially released tests and study books. If you aren’t getting the scores you want, consider a LSAT tutor or test prep course.
What do law school admissions officers look for in recommendation letters?
Jean: Admissions officers look for corroboration of a grade well-deserved. A professor or TA can give you an “A”, but as Director of Admissions, I wanted to see more. I wanted to see the reasoning behind the A and statements like, “this was the best paper I’ve read in 10 years.”
Letters should also contextualize excellent performance. In order to fully understand the student’s academic success, admissions officers need context. Letters should tell readers about the school, the cohort, the strength and competitiveness of major, etc. Was this student the top-performer in class? Was this class competitive? Do students have to apply to even get into this class? This is the type of context that helps set the scene.
Letters should also speak to what kind of student this person would be in the classroom.
Letters should include evidence that an applicant would be a good lawyer. These are letters that typically come from the field—internship supervisors, mentors, or coaches.
My InGenius Prep students often ask me who should write letters of recommendation. The answer is: someone who knows you and your work should write your letters. Your letters need to be intimate. When I tell students that it might be better to receive a letter from a teaching assistant over a professor, they look at me like I’m crazy. In reality, if a professor has no idea who you are and cannot speak to your work, ability, and potential, your letter will not have the impact you are looking for.
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The views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Varsity Tutors.