Ask a Law School Admissions Expert (reprinted from Varsity Tutors)
Varsity Tutors brings you insider tips and advice straight from nationally recognized admissions experts. Christina Taber-Kewene attended Stanford University and Columbia Law School, in addition to working for 10 years in New York City and Europe as a commercial litigator. She has been published extensively on the topics of extra-territorial jurisdiction, discovery of evidence outside the United States, and product liability. She has run educational mentoring programs in California, New York City, and New Jersey, as her greatest passion is mentoring underserved teens. Christina has taken on the role of Director of Law Admissions with Admit Advantage, an admissions consulting company that advises undergraduate, business school, and law school applicants.
VT: How much time should be set aside to adequately prepare for and complete a Law School application?
Christina: The first step in preparing to apply to law school is to study for the LSAT. Ideally, preparation begins several months ahead of the test, whether through personal study or through a professional LSAT tutor. In terms of the actual application, students can begin working on their personal statements ahead of when the applications themselves are available. This is the most time-intensive and challenging aspect of the application, and a wise applicant will give him- or herself at least two months to brainstorm, write, and revise his or her personal statement. If the applicant can afford it, admissions consultants are an excellent resource for guidance, but if not, the applicant should always have trusted friends, relatives, and other advisers review his or her statement for their outside perspective.
VT: What is the single most important thing applicants should focus on with this application?
Christina: The applicant should tell a compelling story, and he or she will need the story to be coherent. So, when we advise our clients, we help them see what story they are trying to tell, and then we ensure that the application materials all point toward that story. This is true for the personal statement, as well as other essays, and the addenda and the resume.
VT: What are the biggest mistakes one can make on a Law School application?
Christina: There are many potential mistakes applicants can make when applying to law school. They include not preparing sufficiently for the LSAT or not re-taking the LSAT if scores are too low, missing the opportunity to tell a unique and compelling story through the personal statement and letters of recommendation, not following instructions carefully, or having spelling or grammatical errors in the application materials.
VT: What do Law School admissions officers look for most in an applicant’s essays/personal statements?
Christina: These essays are the primary opportunity for the student to differentiate him- or herself from other students. They can demonstrate the personal qualities he or she wishes to highlight—leadership, innovation, creativity, entrepreneurship, service—in a way that goes beyond a bullet point on the resume. The statement is not a place to brag, list achievements, or show off. Rather, it is for an applicant to show what motivates him or her and why it compels him or her to seek admission to law school and pursue law as a career.
VT: Is there anything on a student’s application that would automatically disqualify them from being considered for the program?
Christina: There is nothing that will automatically disqualify an applicant from consideration for law school. Clearly, schools have academic standards, so students will need to adjust their expectations for admission based on their past academic performance and test scores. Past serious infractions that could prevent a student from gaining admission to the bar must be disclosed fully. They will not necessarily prevent admission, but they must be dealt with honestly.
VT: What about the Law School admissions process differs the most from undergraduate admissions?
Christina: Law school applicants are older and more experienced than undergraduate applicants. As such, admissions committees are interested to see who they are, not just who they will become. They ask themselves, “What has the student achieved?” rather than “What will the student achieve?”
VT: What kinds of things (experience, grades, etc.) might a student lack that would lead you to advise them not to apply?
Christina: If a student does not know why he or she plans to apply to law school, I might advise him or her to gain more experience. Typically, the issue is more that a student is not articulating his or her interest well enough, and our team helps students understand and then express their motivation in their applications. But if a student clearly is not engaged in the process, it would be hard to help him or her effectively.
VT: Is there anything you might see on a student’s application that would quickly put them ahead in the running?
Christina: There is no one factor that will ensure a student is admitted to his or her law school of choice. An impressive GPA (typically, but not always) from a well-ranked undergraduate institution and high LSAT scores are requirements for admission to top law programs. But beyond that, students must differentiate themselves from the competition, because the competition is fierce at that level. I find the most compelling applicants know who they are and where they are going. They can express that in an engaging way in their application through their personal statement, as well as through the activities they have undertaken in school and in their personal lives.
VT: What advice do you have regarding LSAT test prep?
Christina: Prepare early; prepare often. The LSAT is a test of how well you know how to take the test. It takes time for a person to understand and acclimate to the psychology and pace of the test. A student who spends an hour each day studying for several months will be much more effective at taking the test than someone who crams for it in one month.
VT: What do law school admissions officers look for in recommendation letters?
Christina: Admissions officers seek letters of recommendation to get a fuller picture of the applicant, particularly from an intellectual and academic standpoint. Applicants should seek letters from those professors who know them well and who will give them a positive and substantive recommendation. A generic letter from a university president or department chair is much less helpful than a recommendation from a junior faculty member who can rave about the student’s intellectual curiosity and strong work ethic.