Pre-Law: Getting In—Your Part

Pre-Law Handbook
Getting into Law School: Your Part

Applying to law schools can be very time consuming and complicated. Begin in your junior year. if possible applications should be submitted by early in the fall semester of your senior year. In this way, you will avoid the rush of exams, papers and the holidays. Beginning early allows time for mistakes, and with so many people handling your application, mistakes are made.

Don’t underestimate the time it will take to complete applications. Personal statements must be written, and you must sometimes badger professors or employers for recommendations. Starting early also allows time to visit various law schools and compare facilities and staff. Try to have all required information sent before January 1 of your senior year and Thanksgiving if possible. Many schools have “rolling admissions”, meaning they admit attractive candidates beginning as early as September. Maybe the deadline is not until March 15, but by then, much of their class might be filled! Law schools will vary. Be sure to check individual deadlines and enrolling admissions policies.

Where to Apply

With approximately 180 ABA approved law schools, the choice of where to apply can be overwhelming. Typically, students consider factors such as location, cost, specialties, and likelihood of admission. Here’s some general advice:

  • Dream a little. Apply to one or two schools which you would really like to attend, but which may be long-shots. Most schools release raw data on past admits, or at least speculative statements regarding the likelihood of a favorable admit decision.  You can search by region, by LSAT by GPA, by keyword, and alphabetically. So, you can search for schools where people with your profile have a 25% chance of getting in: it could be you.   
  • Be realistic. Everyone cannot attend the top ten law schools in the country. Or the top 20.  And not everyone should want to. Many quality schools don’t appear on that list. Visit the official guide, above, and measure your chances.  
  • Be safe. Apply to several schools with a broad range of admissions policies. Choose a few that you consider long-shots (you never know). Choose several more where your chances are good and finally, choose 1 or 2 safety schools to which you might be assured of admission.  Keep in mind, many Truman students before you have decided to attend a less prestigious school than they anticipated, because someone else made them a very attractive financial offer.  
  • Consider Costs — not only the cost of tuition, but also the cost of living of the area in which you will live if accepted. Chances are, you can find the loans to pay for your education and living expenses. But those darned banks will want their money back eventually. Will you have to take a job that pays well, but otherwise stinks, on account of the debt you’ll have to service?  Again, shooting lower than you initially intended might induce the law school to help finance your education. 
  • Special Programs. Check into special or joint degree programs; most schools have formal arrangements to allow you to receive a JD and an MA in four years, which saves a year off the 3 + 2 they would take individually. Now, Schools will allow you to create special programs, even if they do not have many other students pursuing them.  But make sure you have a good reason to want one: some employers will pass you by, thinking you will not be happy with them, given your special interest.  Also, consider whether you want a program with a legal clinic, which allow third year students to have clients. Maybe you want to be in moot court. Do the schools you are considering have such programs?
  • Comfort. Part of succeeding in law school is feeling comfortable. Largely here we mean lifestyle. Are people like me appreciated? This especially applies to minority applicants; try to visit the school, and ask direct questions of students presently enrolled.

Application Forms

The wave of the future will be on-line applications. And the future is here. Today, you can at least do most, if not all, of the process through LSAC. Students who are applying to several different law schools may find it worthwhile to use the — online. “The LSACD…is a Windows-compatible, interactive multimedia CD-ROM that will allow you to prepare official law school applications quickly and easily on your PC. Save time using the LSACD’s common information form and flow-as-you-go technology—answer common questions only once, select the schools to which you want to apply, and let the program place the answers in the proper fields. Once your applications are complete, you can print them out and mail them to the law schools yourself, or you can send them electronically to LSAC’s electronic application clearinghouse for daily transmission to the law schools. All 183 ABA-approved law schools welcome applications prepared by the LSACD.”

Virtually all schools now use the internet; you should be able to request an application form via email, or download one via Adobe Acrobat/PDF. You will have to complete an application form and pay the application fee for each school. It can be expensive. Some schools will waive the fee in cases of financial hardship. And some schools will invite you to apply, waiving their fee, because you have scored well or indicated you are from a group they would like to see better represented at their school. Contact the admissions offices if you are eligible for the waiver.

Application Pointers:

  1. Photocopy the forms as practice sheets. You don’t want any mistakes on the forms.
  2. Photocopy the form after it is completed to keep for your own records. It is possible to add to or amend an application by writing the admissions office.
  3. Type the forms when possible to insure legibility. If you run out of space, refer to a continuation sheet.
  4. Don’t overlook the “any other relevant information” space. You are given a chance to explain any special circumstances that the admissions office should know. Don’t fabricate excuses, but relate honestly explanations for uneven academic work, performance affected by outside commitments, physical handicaps or widely varying LSAT scores.

Personal Statements

Unfortunately, you cannot write a general statement and photocopy it for all applications. Admissions officers advise that you tailor your statement, within the bounds of honesty, for each school. In this way, you can indicate not only why you should be accepted into the study of law, but also why you will be an asset to a particular school.

Many schools require a “Why I want to study law” essay while others specifically do not, but want you to choose a topic. In either case, the statement allows schools to judge your motivations as well as to judge your writing ability. Be concise and pay close attention to grammar and syntax. Have someone proofread.

As with all writing, keep your audience in mind. Remember that the admissions officers do not know you personally. Through your statement, you have the opportunity to represent the best of yourself. Be cautious about trying too hard to stand out: goofy themes, bad jokes, overly dramatic stories are all too far common in admissions offices, and they tell me they do not work. So, be yourself, “connect the dots”– why is law school a next logical step for you?

Another decent web-source regarding personal statements is on the website of Accepted.com. Several of the websites from the our initial links also talk about personal statements, such as top law schools.com.  Look at books, I recommend students try two or three statements, and go with one they feel comfortable with.

Recommendations

  1. The Value of Recommendations: Letters of recommendation are required by some schools, and simply “optional” for other schools. Our recommendation is to get them for all schools — they provide another piece of information that helps schools to know who you are and what you can do.

Choose carefully those who will recommend you. Those you choose should know you best in terms of academic performance, motivation and maturity.

Letters from professors are usually the only ones that are effective. One exception, however, would be a letter from an employer if you have worked several years after graduation. Choose professors who know you personally and academically. Note to underclass people: Begin developing relationships with potential recommenders! The most useful come from professors who can (and will) write about your talents and skills. Letters written in generalities will be useless; letters from judges or elected officials are more impressive to you than to the schools. The problem is that these people probably have not directly supervised your work, and as a general rule, its their job to be nice. So if they say nice things, ho-hum. And if they don’t, …

You can make it easier for a professor to effectively recommend you. Sometimes the application form itself will list characteristics on which the school would like comments. Communicate these to your recommender. You may wish to provide the writer with a resume, transcript, a list of schools to which you will apply, or a copy of your personal statement.

Law schools do not differentiate between recommender’s rank. They are more interested in hearing from an assistant professor who knows you well than from a dean who barely recognizes your name. Consider your relationship with professors carefully and choose those who can write honestly and specifically about your qualifications.

Some law schools require that one recommendation come from a dean or university official. This is basically a routine certification that you are in good standing — no disciplinary problems, etc. If you are not personally acquainted with an official, contact your pre-law advisor.  

  1. Submitting Letters of Recommendation: Historically, many schools have had students gather the recommendations and send them in with the rest of their application. While it has the advantage of applications not languishing incomplete — you need to be sure to get the letters — recognize that many professors think this is crazy. For other types of recommendations, the letters go directly to the potential school or employer. You may need to persuade professors that this is the method that is preferred by your school;

Since 1998, LSDAS has offered a clearing house service. Much like your transcripts, letters can be sent by the recommender to LSDAS, which then sends them on to the schools. Increasingly this is being required by schools (until recently, schools allowed letters to be received either directly from the applicant or recommender, or through LSDAS). NOTE: LSDAS is now offering you the opportunity to link specific professors with specific schools.  To do so, you need to register the professor’s name online with the LSDAS.  Then you get a bar-coded form, that is matched up to the schools you want.  Otherwise, only generic letters can be processed by LSDAS.

You can request a professor send a second letter directly to a school if there is some reason to do so — especially if that professor has recommended students before you, who have excelled at that school, and against whom you measure favorably. 

Interviews

For the most part, law schools do not require, and may actively discourage, an interview. Exceptions are top students being asked to interview at top schools, often with attractive financial aid packages on the line. 

You are still able to call on a school, to talk with an admission counselor and tour the school. With the decline of applicants throughout the 1990s, schools needed to be a bit more solicitous of inquiring students. Now in the early 2000s, applications are at record levels. Admission counselors are usually effective at communicating honestly the chances of “someone like you” be admitted, while at the same time letting you know there are no promises. Further, arranging visits to a couple schools can give insight into the environment and may aid you in decision-making.

The LSAT

The Law School Admission Test (LSAT) is a standardized test designed to assist law schools in measuring a student’s aptitude. The test consists of two parts — the first involves multiple choice questions in logical reasoning, analytical reasoning, and reading comprehension, the second requires a twenty to thirty minute writing sample. The writing sample is not scored, but a copy of it will be sent to each law school to which you apply.

There is no need to pretend that the LSAT is a pleasant experience for everyone. Feel free to find it disagreeable, but it will do no good to worry about it. The key to doing well on the exam is preparation.

Information about the LSAT, registration requirements, and score interpretations are found in the LSAT/LSDAS registration materials, available on campus from the Assessment and Testing Center (VH 1130), or Dr. Paul Parker. Or, go to the source:

Law School Admissions Services Box 2000 Newtown, PA 18940

The test is given four times a year — June, September/October, December, and February. The test is given at Columbia in June, October, and December. It is also given in St. Louis, Kansas City, Springfield, and Cape Girardeau. It is given at Truman in October and December. Testing locations and dates can be found in the registration packet.

When to take the LSAT?

It is advisable to take the June test so that you will have your scores when you decide where to apply. The June date will also allow plenty of time to retake the test if you are dissatisfied. But, plan to do well the first time.

Retaking the Test

You are allowed to take the LSAT as many as three times in any two year period. Several factors might influence whether you want to. First, schools vary in how they treat a second (or third) LSAT score, so you need to consult the catalog or admissions office of each school. Some consider the first, while some average the two (taking an average is the suggested approach of the LSAC). Many schools expect a point increase on the second test due to familiarity with the format. Therefore, many schools look for a more dramatic increase. Remember that all scores will be reported to the schools, so consider the possibility that the score may be lower. The best evidence show that those who choose to retake the test score 2.7 points higher on average than they did the first time, but keep in mind that its usually people with disappointing scores who retake it: First Time takers average 151, while second time takers average 146 — which is still 2.7 points higher than they averaged the first instance.

So we encourage you to plan to take the test only once. But maybe you are not average: if you have good reason to believe that the score is significantly below your potential, consider retaking it. Some factors that may merit a retaking are emotional problems, physical illness, uncomfortable setting or an unusually severe anxiety attack. If you honestly believe that the absence of one of these factors will increase your score, go for it. You are also allowed to cancel your score, either on site, or within days. We caution against decisions in the heat of the moment however; one former student nearly canceled a score that turned out to be the 97th percentile.

Preparing for the LSAT

The Law School Admission Council does not recommend commercial review courses. However, the courses have helped some students merely because they may reduce the anxiety level.

Some students can successfully prepare on their own with the LSAT sample test included in the registration materials. The most important element of preparation is to familiarize yourself with the format of the test and the instructions for the different sections.

The LSAC has sel- study through computer programs or other short courses from Kaplan or The Princeton Review are also alternatives.

LSDAS

LSDAS (Law School Data Assembly Service) is a nationwide service that brings together the information required by each school into one report. All students applying to law school are required to use the services of LSDAS. LSDAS receives all transcripts and prepares a standardized summary. The transcripts, the summary, LSAT scores, letters of recommendations, and biographical data comprise the report that is sent to each school.

Registration forms for the service are contained in the same registration packet referred to in the LSAT section, and now you can register with LSAC online. For a complete explanation of the transcript summarization, read the LSAS General Information Booklet included in the LSAT registration packet.

Once you have registered for the service, it is your responsibility to have an official copy of your transcript sent to LSDAS from the Registrar’s Office, MC 104. If you have attended other colleges or universities, contact them for transcripts also. Even for that three hour English course through your local community college or for dual enrollment credit in high school

You will pay a fee to register with the LSDAS and an additional fee for each report you request to have sent out. Again, register early in the academic year in order to meet deadlines; however, be aware that your registration will be effective for one calendar year. If you want law schools to know your fall semester grades, you must send to each school an official updated transcript. This information will not be in the LSDAS report but will be added to your file. 

*** Law schools want to know as much about you relevant to your past academic performance as possible. Consider an “addendum” if you have something else you want them to know. That could be your 40 hour work schedule in college, how you supported two children, why you were expelled from college, whatever. Be honest, direct, matter of fact. If regret is in order show it, but usually a matter-of-fact statement showing maturity is what is needed