The essay told an epic tale about a student who struggled to achieve passing grades – moving on and off of academic probation, and through a myriad of stops, shifts, and re-starts, from one college to another – for the better part of a decade following his graduation from high school. For a time, it appeared that he was destined to be a college drop-out. To make matters worse, as the student floundered academically, he bounced around from one retail job to another. Then, one day, he took a position as a grassroots worker on a local political campaign. He quickly realized that he had found something that he loved to do, but just as importantly, he was very good at it. His life soon changed in dramatic ways. He almost immediately became a star local operative for a major political party, and in a very short time period worked his way up and into state-wide and national campaigns. His confidence ultimately inspired his academic career. He transferred any grades that he could (i.e., not the bad ones) to a new university, changed his major to political science, and revamped his study habits. For his final two years of college credit (which were required to attain a degree from the institution to which he had transferred), he aced nearly every course that he took and set his sights on a career in law.
As compelling as the above storyline is, it is important to always keep in mind that an outstanding story counts for little without an effective organizational structure and proper literary execution. Toward that end, the applicant in this case sought to engage the reader by presenting a scene in the opening paragraph which depicted one of the happiest moments of his life – his triumphant college graduation. It was as he moved toward the end of the first paragraph and into the second that he added the engaging twist which showed that his academic success story was far from the norm: it had been ten years (and many failures) in the making. Most importantly, the applicant did not harp on the lengthy, negative period in his life that I described above. Rather, he took a straightforward and succinct approach in recounting the great challenges that had stymied him for so many years. From there, it was off to the heart of the essay – how the applicant overcame his struggle and succeeded, ultimately setting a clear and direct course for law school along the way.
Finally, in the concluding paragraph of the essay, the applicant brought the reader full circle – back to the opening story. There he was, still standing at graduation, but instead of thinking simply about his past and how he had made it to this point, he was now looking toward the future and thinking about how he was fully prepared to conquer the challenges that lay ahead in law school and beyond.
I will never forget the excitement that this applicant felt when he received three acceptance letters from top law schools over three consecutive days. One of these letters came with a handwritten note from a law school dean who praised him for doing such an outstanding job on the personal statement. I should mention that this applicant ultimately ended up declining each of those three offers in favor of an offer from one of the most renowned and oldest law schools in the United States. While these successful results certainly help to keep this applicant’s memory in my mind, it is the personal statement that he wrote which most stirs my recollection.
Like many of my colleagues, I’ve advised on thousands of application essays over the years and been a part of success stories that are far too numerous to mention, but this was one of my most special cases because it showed not only how an applicant can overcome years of struggle, but also how in two double-spaced pages, he can demonstrate his success in a powerful way.
Every once in a while, somewhere out there, a law school applicant does something in the application process that can be described as a real game changer. The personal statement that this particular applicant wrote would probably best be described as a life changer.
LAW SCHOOL ADMISSIONS
THE APPLICATION PROCESS
Law Schools generally require the following for the admissions process:
1. Competitive GPA
2. Competitive LSAT
3. Admissions essay
4. Letters of recommendation
6. Interview (very few in Canada, and not for all candidates)
7. Additional information
The application process is primarily a numbers game. Your LSAT score and your GPA have the most weight in your application process. If they are very high, i.e., far above the median for that school, you are very likely to be admitted, unless your other part of your file is very weak. Conversely, if your GPA and LSAT score are far below the median, it is very unlikely for you to gain admissions, unless there are truly exceptional factors in the rest of your file.
So, the best way to prepare for Law School is to start working hard from day one of your University studies. You need to do a very good job in all your courses. This will not only result in a very good GPA, but also in the possibility of having strong academic recommenders.
For most of you, who have GPA and LSAT scores around the median of the Law Schools you are applying to, you need to work very hard in the rest of your file.
You should make sure that you are conveying a message about why you will be an asset for the particular school you are applying to. This message should be very clear, and it should be evident from all or most of your application documents. Choose this message carefully.
The most compelling messages are those that show you have the intellectual capacity to shine in Law School and that you will add diversity to the class. Your message has to be carefully constructed, it has to be consistent, and it has to be supported by strong evidence –GPA, LSAT score, essay, letters of recommendation, resume, etc.
You really need to have a very high GPA. Generally, your average should be 80% or above. There are a few schools where the GPA average of entering students is a bit lower –77 to 79%. These are very high averages.
If you are seriously consider going to Law School, you need to work hard in order to get high grades in all your courses. Some schools also recalculate your GPA by including courses you retook or courses where you have a W. This is common practice in the US, but Canadian Law Schools are increasingly following this practice.
Unfortunately, many Law Schools do not take into account your graduate work for your GPA. This is a huge mistake, which also comes from US practice. For these schools, a student that graduated from a Bachelors program with 82% has an advantage over a student who graduated with a 70% from her B.A., but who also has a Master's degree where she graduated with an 85%.
The best advice is work hard to learn rather than become obsessive with grades. If you focus on learning, your grades will be very high. The reverse is not always true. And, please, please, don't be a grade grubber. Don't nitpick for every point. Yes, you may get a few extra points in some courses if you grub for grades, but if this comes up in your letters of recommendation –and it will, even if not explicit, it may come up in a weak letter- you will have ruined your chances for admission into Law School, and any other competitive graduate or professional program.
The LSAT has no correlation whatsoever with doing well in Law School or with practicing law. In my opinion, it is simply a way to make sure that you will not challenge the legal system, that you will not really question the way the system works. But you need to play the game and score high in the LSAT. Otherwise, you will not be admitted.
The best way to achieve a very high score is to prepare. The LSAT is coachable, and you can learn how to do well.
You can either practice by yourself or pay a commercial company to train you. If you have the money, taking a commercial course is the best way to prepare for the LSAT.
(from the LSAT website)
The Law School Admission Test (LSAT) is a half-day standardized test required for admission to all ABA–approved law schools, most Canadian law schools, and many non–ABA–approved law schools. It provides a standard measure of acquired reading and verbal reasoning skills that law schools can use as one of several factors in assessing applicants. The test is administered four times a year at hundreds of locations around the world.
Many law schools require that the LSAT be taken by December for admission the following fall. However, taking the test earlier—in June or October—is often advised.
Some schools place greater weight than others on the LSAT; most law schools do evaluate your full range of credentials.
The test consists of five 35-minute sections of multiple-choice questions, in three different item types. Four of the five sections contribute to the test taker’s score. The unscored section, commonly referred to as the variable section, typically is used to pretest new test questions or to preequate new test forms. The placement of this section will vary. A 35-minute writing sample is administered at the end of the test. LSAC does not score the writing sample, but copies of the writing sample are sent to all law schools to which you apply.
The LSAT is designed to measure skills that are considered essential for success in law school: the reading and comprehension of complex texts with accuracy and insight; the organization and management of information and the ability to draw reasonable inferences from it; the ability to think critically; and the analysis and evaluation of the reasoning and arguments of others.
The three multiple-choice question types in the LSAT are:
1. Reading Comprehension Questions
2. Analytical Reasoning Questions
3. Logical Reasoning Questions
Letters of recommendation
Most Law Schools require letters of recommendation. The purpose of a letter of recommendation is to have someone –generally an authority- that tells the Admissions Committee that you have what it takes to succeed in Law School.
Some Law Schools have rules about the letters of recommendations. In general, they require letters, or at least one letter, from a University professor.
Your letters of recommendation have to be very strong. They have to come from professors that know you very well, and who know how to write a good letter of recommendation. Ideally, you should work collaboratively with your professor. Here are some tips to get outstanding letters.
Letters of recommendation tips
1. Choose University professors rather than employment or internship supervisors, unless the Law School also requires non academic letters.
2. Choose full time (tenured or tenure-track professors) rather than part timers, T.A., or adjuncts. If you don't know the status of your professors, check them in the school's website. If in doubt, ask.
3. Choose professors that know you very well, preferably those whom you took several courses with. Here is an article about how to choose an academic recommender.
4. Make sure that your recommender will write a very strong letter. Ask them if they will. If you are not sure that the letter will be very strong, choose another professor. A weak letter may ruin your admission.
5. Try to work collaboratively with your recommender. Find someone that is willing to work with you and understand why you are applying to Law School. Your recommenders need to know what message you are trying to communicate in your application. Provide them with enough information about your background. For example, here is a list of what I require. You can use it to provide your recommenders with similar information.
6. Make sure your professors know how to write a very strong letter for Law School. If they do not know, educate them.
7. In general, your letters should talk about your academic performance, your intellectual skills, quality of class participation, maturity, work ethics, communication –both written and oral- skills, and potential for Law School study. They should be very specific, with concrete examples about your work. They should provide the context of your assessment, e.g., you are among the top 5% of 500 graduating B.A. students in the last five years. They should explain how they know you, and also who they are. The letters should also explain any weak aspects that your application may have. For example, your recommender could explain that your grades were very low during the first semester of your first year because you are an international student and your English was not very good at that time.
8. Your letters should support your case. They should reinforce the main message you want to convey in application. For example, if you are showing yourself as a social activist and leader in your community, the letters should mention this, and should not focus solely on your sports achievements.
Your essay has to show that you are passionate about law school, that you are mature, that you have outstanding academic and intellectual skills, and, in general, that you will succeed in law school. A personal statement is an open essay about any aspect of your life that will help the Admissions Committee see these characteristics.
A statement of purpose asks you why you want to go to Law School, and particularly, why you want to attend the Law School you are applying to.
There are hybrid essays where you have to combine aspects of a statement of purpose and a personal statement. In many cases, you have to answer specific questions. These questions generally ask you to tell the Admissions Committee why you are interested in that law school or what aspect of your background will be an asset for the legal profession or the Law School.
Most Law Schools call their essay a personal statement. However, in most of these cases, the actual nature of the personal statement is a statement of purpose.
Here are some tips for you to write the admission essay. The tips focus on the statement of purpose, which is the most widely required type of essays in Canadian Law Schools. If you are applying to US Law Schools, you may be required to write a true personal statement, i.e., an open essay about any aspect of your life.
Statement of purpose essay
1. Read the instructions very carefully, and follow those instructions. If they are specific questions or suggestions for your answers, address them.
2. Your essay must put forward your main reason why you should be admitted. This should be consistent with the rest of your application. For example, you have a record of working with victims in criminal justice and you want to change the way victims are treated.
3. You have to show that given your background and experiences, the next logical step for you is Law School.
4. Describe your skills that make you suited for a legal career.
5. Back up your claims with examples and anecdotes from your academic and work experience.
6. Make sure that you show that you have the academic skills to succeed in Law School. Many candidates emphasize their volunteer experiences and show nothing about their academic skills. Law School is, after all, a rigorous academic program.
7. Show that you have an interest in law, such as classes, volunteer or work experiences, etc. But don't simply mention that you took x number of law related courses. Mention something unique that you took out of these classes. Support this with concrete examples.
8. Please note that Law School professors are skeptical about University law studies. They don't think that this has anything to do with law as taught in law school. So, you have to show that you learned something unique and relevant from your University Law courses.
9. The same applies to legal work you did. The Admissions Committee will not like to read that you have experience in drafting sophisticated international contracts, even if you really do.
10. Do a lot of research about the Law School you are applying to. Find out something unique about it and tie it to your reason why you want to apply to that Law School. In a perfect world, this should not be necessary. There are only 16 common law Law Schools in Canada, and they all have a very competitive admissions policy. It should be enough to say this. But Law School is not a perfect world, and Law Professors are very self-centered. They want to be told that they are special and that their Law School is unique. So, find something unique that will make them feel special. Read their websites very carefully, contact current students, and alumni. Read some of the articles the professors wrote. You will impress them if you say something original that does not repeat what is on the Law School website.
While traditionally not part of the Law School admissions process, some Law Schools, such as Dalhousie, are now requiring interviews. So, here are some tips if you are asked to interview.
Research about the Law School and if you know who will interview you, do research about your interviewer’s background, too.
It will be very helpful to read, at least, one article written by your interviewer. You can search articles from Quicklaw database available at most libraries. The best way to impress the interviewer is to casually mention an idea or too from his or her article.
The interviewer will ask you general questions, which somehow arise from your file. So, if you read again your application from a third person's perspective, you can probably figure out what questions the interviewer will ask you.
Anyway, you should be prepared for questions about: your college education, extracurricular activities, motivation to go to Law School, career goals, etc. Also be prepared for general questions about current events and items of interest in popular culture. Other questions that I know some interviewers ask are:
1. How do you see yourself in 5 years from now?
2. Do you read regularly outside of school? What did you last read?
3. What guest speaker would you like to have come in and talk? What questions would you ask?
The interviewer will be evaluating how well prepared you are to succeed in Law School, more specifically, the interviewer will want to see your maturity, analytical skills, motivation, and communication skills.
A mistake I have often seen is that students expand too much on extracurricular activities and do not stress their academic achievements. Law School is above all a rigorous academic program. So, even if you are asked about your summer internship or a travel to another country, try to focus on how that prepared you for Law School. But be brief, and try to turn the conversation to an academic issue. The most impressive answers are when you can tell that you got something unique from your university studies, which reflects that you have strong and well-rounded intellectual skills. For example, you could say that you took several courses in the area of Criminology and Criminal Justice, and International Justice and that you feel frustrated because the Canadian Criminal Justice system neglects victims and that when you compare the situation between Europe and North America, victims have a larger role in Europe than here. And what is even more frustrating is that the US is exporting its Criminal Justice solutions regarding victims to European democracies in transition as if their solutions were better than those in central Europe.
A response like this is more impressive than when a candidate says that after an internship in a victims' centre, he or she came to realize that the Canadian Criminal Justice system neglects victims. Again, Law School is an academic program.
The interviewer will also want to know how motivated you are about getting into Law School, so he or she will be looking at your energy level and communication skills. Try to be passionate about what you are talking about. The interviewer will conclude that you will be bringing that same passion to Law School.
Don't talk about insecurities or any weaknesses in your background or application.
You may be asked a question that may be upsetting. If so, this is to test how you will react to pressure and how you will handle conflict. Don't get defensive. Remember the motivation behind this question, and try to answer it in an analytical way.
Listen very carefully to the interviewer. Too many candidates ask questions at the end of their interviews on topics that we've already covered.
This is probably the most important aspect of the interview. You will be given time at the end of the interview to ask questions. But you may ask some questions before the interview begins or if you feel it appropriate, during the interview.
From the questions you ask, the interviewer will assess your interest in the Law School and your intellectual abilities. The best questions are those that show that you know about the Law School beyond what is obvious from looking at its catalogue or the website. For example, Dalhousie Law School offers a 1st year course on Criminal Law and Criminal Justice, which is unusual in North America. If you took Criminal Justice, you could say something like “I am enthusiastic about your Criminal Law and Criminal Justice course. All other Law Schools offer only Criminal Law. I took Criminal Justice so I know that learning about parole, Restorative Justice, and corrections is very important. How do you approach the teaching of Criminal Justice, do you delve into Restorative Justice? Do you focus on the laws related to Criminal Justice or do you focus on the big picture and teach your students theoretical models of Criminal Justice as well, such as Due Process and Crime Control?
Resume and additional information
Your resume should not be an afterthought. You have to carefully design it. It should have the following sections:
Consider including additional information if it will help advance your main message. If you published a book or an article, you can send an excerpt. But don't bombard the Admissions Committee with documents they will not want to read.
For example, if your grades were weak in your first years of college, don't include any explanation here. Ask your recommenders to do so.
Comparison of admission requirements