The Extraordinary Law School Application

  • Five things you need to know when applying to law school.

By Karen Dybis

For Elle Woods, the bombshell in “Legally Blonde,” her videotaped law-school application was all but approved when the selection committee saw her tiny red bikini.

Reality check: You’re not Elle Woods. And the real application process is not that easy. Admissions officers and recruiting experts agree: A thoughtful, well-executed and timely application will receive the best response. Forget the bikini; try spell check instead.

“The application is a professional marketing tool,” said Michele A. Hayes, director of students recruiting for the University of Maryland Law School. “It’s like applying for a job. You’ve got to sell yourself and you want to give a good first impression to the person reading your file.”

All applications are carefully reviewed and considered, admissions officers say, even those on pink, scented paper. But the ones that get the acceptance letter are those that arrive long before the application deadline, have no glaring errors and jazzy personal statements.

What is new is that more law schools are now asking applicants to include a resume, so that document must be impeccable as well. Application committees want to see your education and work experiences as well as examples of community volunteerism, language skills and other qualities that make you stand out in an ever-growing crowd. 

Send in vague essays or recommendation letters, and you’ll be scuttled first. 

“Make it personal,” said Claude Reeves Arrington, associate dean for admissions at The University of Alabama School of Law. “The application process is not all about numbers.”

Traditionally, getting in is tough. The nation’s top law schools are overwhelmed with responses in any given year. Take our advice on how to get into law school from the people who will ultimately decide your fate.

1. Get a move on, already

Sending your application in as quickly as possible will pay off. Those applicants who are the first in may receive an acceptance letter when they otherwise might sit on the fence, said Jason Wu Trijillo, senior assistant for admissions and financial aid at the University of Virginia School of Law.

If you apply late, it increases the competition for fewer slots, Hayes said. That is one reason pre-law students need to manage their time carefully, Hayes said. She recommends students take the summer to write, review and rewrite their personal statements. It also is smart to have multiple editors look at the document to be sure it is up to snuff.

Those who wait too long are the people who tend to make easy mistakes. There are few things as annoying as finding another law school’s name on an application, said Lewis L. Hutchison, assistant dean for admissions at the Norman Adrian Wiggins School of Law at Campbell University.

Another common mistake students make when they feel like they are running out of time is to reuse their personal essays for multiple law schools. As a result, their essay might talk about how much they want to study environmental law – yet the school that is reading it does not offer that program, Hutchison said.

2. Actually read the directions

There is an old teachers’ trick that reminds students to read directions fully. They tell students to read the whole test before starting – which few of them do – only to find instructions at the end of the page telling them to put their pencils down and leave all the answers blank.

While you’ll want to make sure you don’t leave anything unanswered, admissions experts like Ann Killian Perry, assistant dean for admissions for the University of Chicago Law School, say they quickly grow frustrated by students who obviously ignored the instructions on their particular application. 

For example, it is hard enough to read thousands of personal statements at the recommended length of two pages, Hutchison said. That is why statements that go beyond four or five pages become burdensome. And few students have had a life interesting enough to merit that much space.

Make sure all of the requested documents are there, especially a resume. Some law schools like resumes because it serves as a guide for the rest of the application’s paperwork. Lawyers need to be detail oriented, Perry said. Forget a piece of the application and your abilities are now shadowed in doubt.

And remember what your mother told you: appearance counts.

“Typos absolutely kill me,” said Adam Childers, a partner and director of recruiting for Crowe & Dunlevy, a law firm in Oklahoma City. “It sounds like a small thing, but we work in a very precise profession. If you don’t take the time to fix errors, I don’t know whether you’ll pay attention to detail when you work for me.”

And it may seem obvious, but don’t exaggerate, showboat or try fancy paper. They will make the admissions staff wonder if you are trying to hide something with these divisive techniques.

3. Work the personal statement

Hayes and other admissions officers understand it is frustrating to apply to multiple law schools. That is because it seems like everyone is looking for something different when it comes to the personal statement.

Yet it is essential to winning the attention of the admissions committee, experts agreed. For example, there is no interview at the University of Virginia’s law school, so this document serves as the human face of potential students, Wu Trijillo said. “There is no area of the application more important than the personal statement.”

The statement should reveal something about the applicant’s life, Hayes said. For example, her favorite statement came from a journalist. This wordsmith wove a story for the applications committee, she said.

He started by explaining how his experiences led to his decision to apply to law school. He then outlined how this decision was a pivotal shift in his life. Finally, he gave details on why he selected the University of Maryland, noting that it was the right fit for him. 

The admissions committee is not looking for cookie-cutter statements, Hayes said. Nor do reviewers want poetry, creative writing or sob stories worthy of their own segment on The Oprah Winfrey Show.

“We want to know why you chose Maryland,” Hayes added. “We know they have choices in the region, so you need to demonstrate that you’ve done some homework about our school and how it will help you reach your goals.”

Campbell loves statements that show how a student has grown, Hutchison said. Take a potential student interested in human rights. The statement could outline how they joined a human-rights organization. Next, he or she attended a march on a political issue and became the club’s president. Perhaps the next year that candidate worked in a human-rights organization. 

This demonstrated a clear interest in the topic, Hutchison said. A great statement then connects this growth pattern to the desire to focus on human rights and the law. The piece de resistance is adding how a Campbell Law degree could further the student’s career and life’s work.

“It’s a matter of how they pursue their passions,” Hutchison said. “We want to see vigor, depth and persistence. One clear way to stand out is to answer a simple question – why do you want to be here, not why do you want to be a lawyer. That personal statement could take a person slated for denial and put them in the admit pile.”

Reeves Arrington agrees.

“Applicants submit essays often that are regressions of their resumes. Inspire interest,” she said. “The admissions committee looks for an applicant's uniqueness, which can be disguised or diluted by an essay that summarizes an applicant's life from kindergarten through college.”

Reeves Arrington also recommends students use the essay to explain anything in their past that may hinder their acceptance. 

“If an applicant has some form of misconduct to report on the application, affirmatively discuss that incident. Do not try to avoid it or blame it on others,” Reeves Arrington said. “Similarly, applicants who experienced academic difficulties should explain why they did not perform to their potential.”

4. Select recommendations carefully

Make sure they are academic recommendations – that is why the admissions committee really wants to see them. Those from former employers or personal friends may not impress them like the ones outlining your growth as a student.

Admissions staff said people would be surprised at how often applicants submit recommendation letters that are “lukewarm” or worse about the candidate. Unless they are stellar, letters tend to blend together after a while, officials admit.

“Ask your professor if they’ll be your strongest advocate,” Wu Trijillo said. “You don’t want there to be any question in the mind of the reviewer.”

Think about who can talk about your intellectual and academic abilities, Hayes said. If you’ve been out of school for a time, contact your former professors and take a meeting with them. That way, you can refresh their memory of your time in their class as well as update them on what you’re doing now.

“Get people who really know you,” Perry said. “The more detailed they are the better they are.”

5. Hone your resume

Admissions officers all want you to know one thing about your resume. Be concise. Keep it short. Get to the point.

"Two or three-page resumes scream out, ‘I’m trying too hard,’” Childers said.

Hutchison recommends students instead try to find ways to finesse their skills and experience. For example, saying you studied abroad no longer makes you stand out. But explaining how you were in the Peace Corps and had an epiphany to study law while overseas will make the committee’s eyes light up.

Just like in a work-related resume, experts agree you should try to explain gaps in employment or time between educational endeavors. Even if you just worked in a fast-food restaurant, find a way to take the skills you learned on that job and how they relate to the skills you will need as a lawyer.

And do not forget to add a line or two of your additional interests. This little blurb is often left off a professional resume, but it should be included in this instance, especially if the law school doesn’t necessarily require this document.

Let your interests tell a story about you. Law schools want a diverse student body, so use this as an opportunity. Tell the applications committee about what makes you unique. They just might decide you are the right person to round out their next student body.

Perhaps you play guitar. Maybe it is your love of ancient history. Or it could be that championship body surfing ability. Whatever it is, it is one more tie between you and the members of the admissions committee.

“It gives them a point of reference and makes you seem more real,” Childers said. “I’d rather learn about someone who was an Eagle Scout than hear about another Honor Society.