"I'm a non-traditional applicant -- HELP!"


    Every once in a while, I'll get an email that goes a little something like this:

    Anne,

    I had some questions about applying to law school. I'm not a "normal" candidate--I'm older (in my late 30s), I have been in the working world for a while, I didn't do so well during college. I haven't been in touch with my college professors, so I can't ask them for recommendations--I don't think they would remember me, even if I could find them. It seems that a lot of what law schools want in the application is more suited to people just graduating from college. I don't know where I fit into the process.
    Any guidance would be appreciated.

    Your standard law school applicant is 22 years old, male, and straight out of college. What happens when you're older, have been in the working world for a while, and don't really have connections to your alma mater anymore? Well, at that point, you're what I call a non-traditional applicant. You don't fit the mold, and so you need to approach your application differently.

    Many non-traditional applicants are often late bloomers: They partied hard during college, didn't take it seriously, didn't do so well, and are only now, after many years in the workforce, getting back on the path they wanted to follow after college. They are often unduly hard on themselves, and believe that their age and their college indiscretions essentially kill any chance they have of getting into law school--any law school, let alone a reputable one. And, even if they don't have college indiscretions, they still believe that their age puts them at a disadvantage: "Why would a law school pick me when they could have their choice of any 21- or 22-year-old they want?"

    Indecision plagues non-traditional applicants: How do I get recommendation letters? How do I explain how law school makes sense now? Does my GPA even matter, if it was five or more years ago? How important is the LSAT for me? Do I even have a shot?

    Well, non-trads, it's time to turn that frown upside-down. The upshot is this: Being older and having more life under your belt is actually a good thing. Here's why:

    You're older...and wiser.

    The fact that you're older is a plus. You've been in the "real world," you've worked a 9-to-5 (or 6, or 7, or 8...). Also, and most importantly, you have legitimate reasons for wanting to attend law school. Now, this is not to say that those who want to attend law school right out of college do not; however, older students typically have very concrete, founded reasons for attending law school, and they typically revolve around the work they are already doing. This actually makes you more attractive to law schools--they love seeing students that not only know exactly why they want to attend law school, but that are also much more likely to actually practice law once they graduate (something which is often not quite as concrete with applicants with no real-world working experience). The foundation for a non-trad's desire to attend law school is a lot less pie-in-the-sky and a lot more this-makes-sense-as-the-next-step-in-my-career. This makes you a very attractive candidate.

    College indiscretions aren't quite so bad anymore.

    If you're 22 years old, you can't really play the "I was young and foolish" card for your college indiscretions. Most of them probably happened within the last two years, which makes them a fairly recent indicator of character (it is still advisable, though, to address these indiscretions with addenda). However, when you've been out of college for 5+ years, then the dumb things you did in college start looking at lot less like personal flaws and lot more like growing pains that are no longer really relevant. You've lived a whole life since college--it's that life that defines you, much more than how you did in freshman English. This doesn't mean that everything is forgiven, but it does mean that you can make a really strong argument in the "I was young and foolish" department. Because in your case, you really were young and foolish--and chances are pretty good that you've grown up quite a bit since then.

    Your GPA matters...but not quite as much.

    Another awesome thing about being an older non-trad is that your GPA, although still important, isn't quite as all-encompassing as it is for freshly-minted college grads. For the latter, it's all they have to hang their hat on, besides their LSAT score. With older applicants, though, there are professional accomplishments, long-time personal hobbies, lengthy involvement in causes (and more) in addition to that. Also, your GPA is many more years in the past. It no longer defines you in the way that it does for those new BAs and BSs.

    Your LSAT score really matters.

    On the flip side, though, your LSAT score really, really matters (perhaps even more than for younger applicants). Your LSAT score becomes the one indicator of your current academic potential and performance. This is both good and bad. GOOD: A high LSAT really can make a low undergrad GPA a whole lot better in your case. BAD: If you have a poor LSAT score, and you also have a low GPA, things are not going to look good. And even if you have high undergrad GPA, if you have a low LSAT, it will won't look great, because your LSAT score is going to be taken as proof of your current academic potential. Moral of the story: Focus on the LSAT, and rock it.

    Your professional success takes center stage.

    Whereas many straight-out-of-college applicants often struggle to find accomplishments outside of school to point to, that's something you have in spades. Many non-trads bemoan the fact that they don't have recent academic achievements, when they should instead be focusing on what they do have: Work, hobbies, personal accomplishments, causes. And, in many cases, they are all legitimate, long-term endeavors. Use these as the anchor for your application, rather than apologizing for not having a recent college class to talk about.

    Your LORs can be from other professionals.

    Another aspect that non-trads often fret about is their inability to obtain letters of recommendation (LORs) from professors and other academics. What they forget is that there are others in their life that can address the same things that law schools want to hear about: Ability to learn, adaptability, work ethic, potential for growth, leadership skills, a strong desire to succeed, integrity, and honesty. Take a look, for example, at what LSAC's Evaluation Service asks recommenders to rank applicants on. Those are things that can be addressed by your work supervisor or your volunteer leader, among others. Although law schools prefer that recommendations come from academic sources, they do not require them to be from academic sources--and they would much rather have a lengthy, detailed, glowing letter from someone that can actually speak knowledgeably about you, than a vague letter filled with generalities from a college professor you had ten years ago and struggled to remember your name. And here are some tips on what you can do to make that LOR shine..

    The name of the game for non-traditional applicants is thinking outside the box. Law schools want you--in fact, applicants in their 30s, 40s, and beyond are accepted into even the most elite law schools every year. It's just a matter of thinking yourself not as "someone who is old and graduated college a long time ago" and instead as "someone who has an extensive professional background and knows exactly why law school is the next logical step." Instead of seeing your age as a detractor, harness it as a positive: It can--and will, if used correctly--enhance your application and your overall admissions chances.

    __________________________

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