The University of Southern California's annual Law Fair was held last Monday, November 7th, and I was fortunate enough to be in attendance. Over the course of the day I was able to speak to dozens of prospective law students about their LSAT plans, a number of other test prep companies about their various offerings, and, most central to this blog, an incredibly gracious admissions officer from UC Hastings College of Law.*
Our conversation was largely free-wheeling and unstructured, as spontaneous chats tend to be, but from it I've distilled three key admissions points that you should keep in mind as you complete your applications.
1. Personal Statement Preferences Vary by School. Interestingly, while the principles of how to write are universal (the elements that make up compelling prose), what schools would like to see you emphasize in your PS is much less consistent. That is, you'll always want to use proper grammar and varied sentence structures, you should ensure that your spelling and punctuation are error-free, and you need to tell a "story" that's both dynamic and personal.
However the desired theme, the objective, of your story is far from singular.
We've given a lot of advice on personal statements over the years right here on this blog (here is a great compilation of posts) and on our Forum (see Dave Killoran's correspondence in this thread, for instance), and most of it boils down to this: you want to write something that's unique and interesting and that demonstrates implicitly why you'd be an asset to a law school, without it sounding like a resume or an overt plea for admission. And that's as true as ever!
But what I found intriguing about my conversation with the rep from UC Hastings was his/their desire to read exactly what put you, the applicant, on the path to law school. To quote, "I want to know why someone wants to get a law degree, and what factors are likely to motivate them past the finish line. Tell me in very specific terms what brought you this far and what your goals are going forward."
Granted that's not a complete departure from our "paint a unique, personal picture of yourself" recommendation...but it is much more direct and to-the-point than the majority of schools' requests I've encountered previously, where the whole "I want a law degree so that I can..." narrative is more trite than transfixing.
Clearly there's more variety in what schools want than most applicants realize, and this opens the door to exploring alternate avenues and amended, customized presentations as you craft your essay.
How can you know what to focus on then? Keep reading...
2. Numbers Aren't Everything. At least not everywhere. Sure, your LSAT and GPA are the two largest contributors to acceptance or denial, but how schools treat the "soft" factors in your application--letters of recommendation, personal statement, resume, addenda, even the Writing Sample (LSAC provides a more comprehensive list here)--is wholly school-dependent and often extremely divergent from one to the next.
For instance, about half the schools I spoke to last week said they pay fairly close attention to the unscored Writing Sample that accompanies your LSAT score (UC Hastings among them), particularly for non-native English applicants to gauge facility with the language under time pressure and without outside assistance.
The other half? Largely indifferent. The question of "How much weight do you give the Writing Sample?" was met with a shrug and something roughly like, "We're much more concerned with LSAT and GPA, and rarely even read Writing Samples."
Now granted the Writing Sample is generally considered the softest of the softs, its influence well beneath your application essays and letters of rec, but even the weight of these is much more school-specific than generally acknowledged. Some schools, particularly those ranked outside the notorious top 14, will be more open-minded to outlier numbers if your other factors are especially flattering (and significant variation exists even then), whereas other schools are incredibly number-centric and care little about anything beyond your LSAT and GPA.
How will your target school(s) treat your application's component parts? Keep reading (almost there)...
3. Call Schools Directly and Ask! I'd like to believe this is now obvious given the amount of inconsistency I've just described, but the sad fact is that most applicants either (1) presume all schools are the same and thus assemble a single, generic, potentially-misguided application, or (2) recognize school differences but feel they'll be a bother and so keep their questions to themselves.
These are both mistakes!
To the first, you should clearly strive to build an application--from your essays to the recommenders you choose and beyond--best suited to the school or schools you hope to attend, rather than a cookie-cutter app that may be more applicable to other programs than to yours. A school like UC Hastings is going to prefer your personal statement speak directly to your legal motivations and ambitions, whereas other schools will prefer a less-legal essay that describes perhaps a seminal event in your life or outlines who you are as a person irrespective of your future student self.
Similarly, if you're applying to schools where you know the LSAT is weighted with extreme prejudice, and your highest score is still well beneath their medians, then you'll likely need to retake and improve if you want in. Elsewhere, that sub-median score might be remediable by emphasizing your other qualities, perhaps with glowing letters of rec or a powerful addendum. UCH, for example, is more inclined than some to forgive a lower LSAT or GPA if you can demonstrate your worth elsewhere; other, similarly-ranked schools will undoubtedly be less flexible.
To the second about self-censorship, as well as to the questions I've concluded points 1 and 2 with up top, the solution is simple: contact schools directly and ask them!
Because here's the thing: law schools want to accept you. Truly! If they could justify a "yes" to every single applicant--if they could admit everyone and still feel confident that each would graduate and pass the bar and find employment--most would immediately unlock the doors and roll out the red carpet. Admit letters would rain down like confetti.
So why don't they? Reputation. Prestige. Rankings matter and those are based on hard metrics: accepted LSAT and GPA numbers, graduation rates, bar passage statistics, and post-grad hiring data. Letting in everyone would torpedo each of those categories and doom the school to "degree factory" status. Some exclusivity is needed to better guarantee attendees' success and to maintain an air of, well, exclusivity. The pickier you are the more elite you can claim yourself to be, and elite is often synonymous with desirable.
Still, if there's a reasonable means by which you could get in, they want to help make that a reality. So I suppose I could rephrase "schools want to accept you" as "schools want you to be acceptable"...but really they come to the same thing. If there's a way to take a borderline case and tip the scales to "yes" then it's in the school's interest to do so. "No" doesn't pay the bills, after all.
The takeaway is that you're far from a burden to an admissions department when you call and ask them pointed questions about how they treat the hard factors, and what they're looking for in the soft factors, and how to best present yourself start-to-finish so as to most closely conform to their ideals.
But you won't know until you reach out and inquire. Make that your first step.
Image "Inner Compulsion" courtesy of Peter Randall-Page.
*This post is in no way meant to be an endorsement for (or against) UC Hastings College of Law. They're not affiliated with it or us in any way. I just happened to have the longest, most revealing conversation with UCH's rep, so that's served as my go-to point of reference above.