Varsity Tutors brings you insider tips and advice straight from nationally recognized admissions experts. Founder of the prestigious Law School admissions consulting firm, jdMission, Jeremy Shinewald has led countless students to acceptance into the most selective law schools. Also the founder of mbaMission, an elite MBA admissions consulting firm, and a past member of the Board of Directors of the Association of International Graduate Admissions Consultants, Jeremy is truly one of the most notable experts in the admissions field. He graduated from the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business, where he also served as an admissions interviewer, and has been quoted in major media outlets including the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post.
VT: How much time should one expect to devote to adequately preparing for and completing a law school application?
Jeremy: If you include taking the LSAT—and prep courses alone for the LSAT can take two and a half to three and a half months—then the entire process of putting together a rock solid law school application should take about six months or so. The application process for law school is actually pretty straightforward and is fairly consistent from school to school, but gathering recommendations, preparing essays (personal statements, diversity essays and addenda) and completing the other required portions of the application still take time.
VT: What would you say is the single most important thing applicants should focus on with this kind of application?
Jeremy: Law school applications are evaluated in a fairly scientific manner. Schools publish a lot of data about their students’ average GPA and LSAT scores, and they also publish information about the range of these scores (i.e., “the middle 50% of the class has X LSAT score to Y LSAT score”). This is not to suggest that the LSAT is everything—because it certainly is not—but it is often the most important piece of the law school admissions puzzle that is still within a candidate’s control. Oftentimes when clients contact us at jdMission, their GPA, which is also quite important, is already “set.” They are contemplating law school but of course cannot go back in time and alter their GPA, so the LSAT score becomes the most significant variable that applicants can still actively influence.
VT: What is the biggest mistake one can make on a law school application?
Jeremy: The biggest mistake that an applicant can make is being over-reliant on his or her scores and believing that this element alone will be enough to guarantee an acceptance letter. Even if your GPA and LSAT scores are comfortably above the published ranges for your target program, you should definitely not assume that you are a shoo-in. Schools reject many candidates with competitive scores every application season—Yale Law School’s admissions director cautions applicants about this frequently on her blog. Candidates often buy into the idea that the LSAT is the only thing that matters and so do not put enough thought and effort into telling their stories in their essays and other portions of their application. The ones who do are typically in for a real rude awakening.
VT: What do law school admissions officers look for most in an applicant’s essays/personal statements?
Jeremy: Excellent personal statements are impossible to categorize. I wish I could offer something concrete, but it is very much a “know it when you see it” phenomenon. Great essays are experientially based and are sincere—the writer is not trying too hard to sound intelligent. Instead, the writer relies on the core experiences related in the essay to make him or her stand out. We have seen candidates write about their life, career and studies with a profound sense of purpose, touching on the expanse of experiences that have ultimately led them to law school, and we have seen others reflect on a single, brief moment in time that may only loosely be connected to the law school experience—if at all—but that still serves to effectively define their character for the admissions committee. The only commonality among the strongest personal statements is that the reader is left knowing that the writer bared his or her soul in a way that was not cloying, but genuine and meaningful. In short, be true to yourself and your story, and write what you want to write, not what you think the admissions committees want to hear.
VT: Can anything in a person’s application automatically disqualify him or her from being considered for a JD program?
Jeremy: Candidates do need to be mindful of their target programs’ LSAT score and GPA averages, as we discussed earlier. If yours are below a school’s average, this simply means that you are like half of the program’s most recent class and so should not worry—after all, the nature of an average is such that some people are above and some people are below. However, if your statistics are way below a school’s averages, then you may need to honestly consider whether applying to law school at this time is truly reasonable for you. Yale Law School’s median LSAT for its most recent incoming class was 173, or approximately 98th/99th percentile, but the school also accepted a candidate at the bottom of this range with a 157 LSAT, which is about a 65th/70th percentile. I can assure you that the individual with this 157 score was not your average candidate, though—he or she could obviously claim some remarkable achievements that led the school to choose this applicant over other candidates with far better LSAT scores. So, a very low LSAT score can make gaining acceptance at your target programs more challenging, but there is no clear cutoff that would definitively disqualify you.
VT: In what ways does the law school admissions process differ the most from the undergraduate admissions process?
Jeremy: The law school application is the fraternal twin of the undergrad application—they are from the same family but look a little different. So, for both, you must complete a standardized test, but for law school, this is the LSAT rather than the SAT; for both, you must submit recommendations that are academic in nature, but the law school applicant would ask a college-level professor, rather than a high school teacher. Although your test scores and GPA are important, once you are in the mix, you need to make an impression on the admissions committee through your personal statement/essay. So, the two kinds of applications exhibit a lot of similarities overall, which means the recent college graduate who experienced a rigorous undergraduate application process should find the law school application process pretty familiar.
VT: What kinds of things (experience, grades, etc.) might a candidate lack that would lead you to advise him or her not to apply?
Jeremy: With law school, we just want to see that a candidate really knows what he or she is getting into. A lot of recent graduates decide to enter law school by default, but simply not having a better option in mind is a terrible reason to commit three years of your life and several hundred thousand dollars in tuition, living expenses and opportunity cost to a specific path. We ask clients all the time, “Do you want to know what being a practicing lawyer really means?” We regularly find that many applicants actually do not know what working day-to-day at a law firm entails or understand exactly what lawyers do. Many have an impression built from TV depictions of freewheeling lawyers who cleverly force confessions from guilty people on the stand. However, such scenarios really only exist on TV—the vast majority of cases never even go to trial! (They settle.) We never want to advise someone to pursue a path that may not be the right choice, so we often send candidates out to do some more research on their options. I actually did this with a client who came to us earlier today, after prepping for the LSAT for three months! No one had yet asked her, “Why law school?” and when we did, she had no good answer.
VT: Is there anything you might see on a candidate’s application that would quickly put him or her ahead in the running?
Jeremy: The qualitative factors involved in a law school application should never be underestimated. I go back to my earlier comments about applicants who take for granted that they will get into their target programs simply because they have high LSAT scores and/or GPAs but are ultimately rejected, while candidates with less impressive statistics are accepted. If the admissions process were purely scientific, Yale Law School would not have let in that candidate with the 157 LSAT. That 157 applicant was accepted because of an exceptional professional and academic track record—and I mean exceptional. I wish I could say, “do this” and offer our readers something very specific that would be guaranteed to help. Instead, I can only say that candidates need to own their experiences and present them honestly and in a compelling manner. They cannot manufacture good stories where none truly exist, but they can put themselves in positions and take advantage of opportunities that will allow them to have standout experiences. For many people, this means being active in their extracurricular and community lives, so that they maximize their chances of having an impact on others.
VT: What advice do you have regarding LSAT test prep?
Jeremy: We encourage the use of such services and strongly recommend Manhattan LSAT. We know the leadership team very well, and we likewise know the instructors very well. Over the past few years, Manhattan LSAT has established itself as the most rigorous LSAT prep firm on the market. The firm invests so heavily in its staff and curriculum that it is not yet making a marketing splash, but it is only a matter of time until word of mouth takes over. We are confident that a tipping point will come soon, and Manhattan LSAT will become the brand of choice. The company’s curriculum is just that much better than that of its competitors. I am not here to shill for the firm, though—check out the online reviews for yourself!
VT: What do law school admissions officers look for in recommendation letters?
Jeremy: Recommendations are best when they are anecdotally driven, because anecdotes lend weight to what the writer is expressing. Too many letters are filled with empty praise and offer no useful details: “Jeremy is the best student I have ever had. He is so awesomely spectacular, I can’t believe it!” Okay, that may be an exaggerated example, but it is not a wild exaggeration. To be effective and truly helpful to the candidates they are supporting, recommenders need to skip the superlatives and show the admissions committees how the applicant stands out from others by relating relevant stories of his or her actions and accomplishments, with detail, thereby revealing exactly what the individual has done to earn praise. If your recommender can achieve that, you are on your way to having a strong and credible recommendation that the admissions committees will appreciate.
Visit jdMission.com to get a thorough look at all the services Jeremy and his team have to offer.
The views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Varsity Tutors.