Often, students assume that the weight of their law school candidacies rest squarely on the shoulders of their LSAT score and undergraduate GPA. While it’s certainly true that these numerical indicators are a bigger part of the equation than they may have been when you applied to college, the most selective law schools still take a holistic approach to the application process. So, presenting your background, interests, and accomplishments in a compelling, coherent, credible, and creative way still has the ability to tip the balance of your admissions decision in either direction.
One of the biggest challenges in the law school application process is to credibly convince an admissions office that you want to go to law school, have thought carefully about it, and have a good plan for how to use your degree. This might sound obvious, but the number of applicants each year who apply to law school as a “default” or “safe” next step in life without much forethought or who defer tough questions about the utility of a law degree is staggering. It’s really easy for an admissions officer to get a sense of this from your application, and almost a default presumption that you do not have a compelling reason to attend law school.
It’s difficult—and takes a lot of thought—to craft your unique ‘origin’ story in terms of your interest in law school and a legal career thereafter. “I’ve wanted to be a lawyer since the time I first started speaking… I love arguing, and people have told me I’m great at it my entire life … my father/mother is a lawyer, and I would to follow in his/her footsteps.”
It’s easy to tell yourself that you’d never write something that is as much of a cliché, but I’ve seen far too many bright applicants center their candidacies around pillars like this. Granted, they do so with more polish and flair than the above simplifications, but it reads all the same to an admissions officer who flips through dozens of applications per day.
Your job on the application is to demonstrate how and why you’ve developed characteristics and skills that will make you a great law student and lawyer. Ideally, you will be able to do this by example and anecdotes, such that your application writing can focus on painting a picture for admissions officers that will erase any doubts about you.
As far as there is an “archetype” of a successful top law school admit (bear in mind, there isn’t really such an archetype), that person would have the following qualities, characteristics, or accomplishments:
1. A 3.8 GPA or higher (unweighted on a 4.0 scale) from a university with a track record of several admits year-after-year at your target law school
2. 75th percentile or above LSAT score (as compared to the previous year’s admitted students at a particular target law school)
3. At least one year of work experience in an area that somehow relates your academic focus in college to the law in a way that doesn’t follow a highly traditional path (i.e. paralegal work, or other non-specialized work in a legal setting) - for the past several years, the percentage of the incoming students at the most selective law schools that have gone K-JD without taking any kind of gap year has been steadily declining.
4. An excellent application that frames the narrative of your candidacy and connects the dots between college, #3 above, and your interest in that law school— a one-size-fits-all application is unlikely to be successful across the board. For example, your applications to Yale Law School and Harvard Law School might highlight very different aspects of your candidacy.
Obviously, points #1 and #2 are things you know the importance of already. Often times, if you are reading advice like this, you’ll be looking for ways to shore up a relative weakness in one or both of those areas. And, you’re certainly right to focus on those important factors. Nevertheless, the most common mistake I see students in this situation (or students resting on the laurels of great grades and test scores) make is to fail to differentiate themselves in other areas, which is what makes points #3 and #4 above so important.
Making your interest in law integral to your work experience and story in a unique way gives admissions officers a strong basis to advocate for you, because doing so in the first place will set you apart from the vast majority of applicants. You should think about your personal interests and how they related to the law.
Don’t think of the law as a “monolith” that you can only demonstrate interest in by doing pre-law journals and societies, paralegal work, and other traditional and frankly uninteresting paths. Fortunately, any subject or interest can relate to the law. It’s how you think about that relationship, how your experience explores it, and how you present it in your application that will help you to stand out among a pile of similarly situated applicants.