Ask a Law School Admissions Expert: Joyce Curll

Varsity Tutors brings you insider tips and advice straight form nationally recognized admissions experts. Joyce Curll served for 18 years as the Admissions and Financial Aid Dean at Harvard Law School. Prior to that, she was the Director of Admissions and Admissions Dean for 16 years at NYU Law School. Joyce is the author of The Best Law Schools’ Admissions Secrets, a best-selling guide designed to help prospective law students successfully navigate the admissions process. She earned her Bachelor of Arts cum laude at Harvard University as well as a Master’s degree in Urban Planning from New York University.

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

Joyce: To maximize the possibility of acceptance to your top choice school, plan ahead and start early, no later than the summer or early fall of the year before you want to attend, and even earlier to allow time to adequately prepare for the LSAT. The amount of time to actually complete your applications will vary according to what you have done in the course of your educational and work experiences. If you have laid good groundwork, you will save time in the long run, and your application will be more coherent. You will know whom you want as recommenders and may already have requested that recommendations be placed on file in your college pre-law advisor’s or Career Services office. You may also have planned ahead by giving careful thought to why you want to be a lawyer, and engaging in coursework and work/extracurricular activities that will inform that decision and provide fodder for both recommenders and your own personal statement. If you have not done these preparations, you will likely spend more time on these time consuming parts of your application.  

The most time consuming aspects of completing an application include the time to prepare to take the LSAT, to prepare information and allow lead time for recommenders, and to write and edit your personal statement. Getting your application in early will put you ahead of comparable candidates who procrastinate or start the process late.

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

Joyce: Coherence and consistency. Your application should present a coherent and consistent picture of you as a potential student. Your recommendations, your personal statement, and your own explanation of your background, accomplishments, and goals should give the admissions committee a clear sense of what you will bring to the class and how you will take advantage of the opportunities that their school offers.

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

Joyce: Shading the truth. Outright dishonesty is an obvious disqualifier for someone who hopes to enter the legal profession, but even shading the truth or engaging in puffery in any aspect of your application will, if identified, cast doubt on even your genuine accomplishments. Law school admissions officers and their committees see many applications even in the course of one year, and they know exaggeration when they see it.

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

Joyce: Your essays and personal statements are your opportunity to paint a picture of yourself that will in many cases substitute for an interview. Even schools that offer evaluative interviews will not offer them to every candidate. In the “virtual interview” offered by these essays, you should answer those questions that you hope would be asked during an actual interview. You want the admissions officers to see that you know what the school has to offer and that you are equipped to take advantage of it. Since much of the learning in law school comes from interaction (in class and out) with your peers, you will want to share with the admissions committee what you will bring to the class.

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

Joyce: Although there is nothing that will automatically disqualify an applicant from being considered, any form of dishonesty will be tantamount to disqualification. If you have a criminal record or any academic or other manifestation of dishonesty in your record, you should deal with that issue forthrightly in a separate statement. Your experience after any such incident should demonstrate that you have accepted responsibility for your actions and learned from the experience. There should be evidence that demonstrates that such incidents will not recur. Multiple instances of dishonesty make that job more difficult, but also more important.

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

Joyce: At the undergraduate admissions level, potential for success may be a key factor, whereas at the law school level, accomplishments are more salient. This is an obvious difference related to the broader experience of college graduates as compared to high school seniors, and it is reflected in all aspects of what you need to present, from your choice of activities and work experience, to your academic record and what your recommenders are able to assess. It is manifested by less focus on such factors as interviews and by most law schools devoting less manpower to the selection process than their undergraduate counterparts.

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

Joyce: This is more a question of whether this is the right time or whether the student has done the necessary groundwork to maximize his or her chances of admission to the best school for him or her. If the student has done the research to truly understand why to go law school at all, and particularly why this law school, there is no reason not to apply. There may be some rehab work to do before applying. Anything in the applicant’s record, from academic issues to LSAT scores, to disciplinary action or criminal charges, should be resolved before applying. What the resolution is can dictate whether or not it is advisable to apply.

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

Joyce: I like to see how a person takes advantage of opportunities, and how they deal with setbacks. A person who has maximized what opportunities have been made available or, even better, has created his or her own opportunities, is one who will take advantage of what my school has to offer, and take new opportunities as far as possible.

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

Joyce: It is very important to prepare for the test, but only necessary to take a prep course if the discipline of having spent the money and having a teacher/tutor in front of you will assure that you will actually do the prep work. At Harvard Law School, we once asked our students how they had prepared for the test. Less than half had taken the prep course. Most had prepared for the test on their own, by sitting down with previously disclosed tests and working through them in a disciplined, self-timed way. Before taking the actual test, they “owned” the understanding of the test question types, and their own strengths and weaknesses. And it showed up in their results.

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

Joyce: I look for a clear understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of a candidate, with substantive examples of their accomplishments. A thoughtful critique, even with the description of a weakness, can actually enhance credibility on the positive side. I suggest that applicants give their recommenders enough lead time to write a thoughtful recommendation. I also recommend giving the recommenders a copy of your resume and a copy of your transcript(s) to help remind them of your accomplishments and interests. A well-written letter by you, requesting the recommendation, describing why you want to go to law school and what your activities have been since you studied with them can also be helpful. In that same context, a description of your activities outside their experience with you, but within their knowledge of the campus or other common ground, can help produce a more substantive, personalized recommendation. Giving them a copy of your personal statement is more problematic, in that a lazy or overburdened recommender might just repeat your wording, and make it appear that you wrote the recommendation for them.

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