LAW SCHOOL ADMISSIONS INFORMATION: The Admissions Process 
We wish to acknowledge that this information was adapted from the University of Illinois.
  • Avoiding Mistakes in the Application Process
CONTENTS
  1. Assessing Your Credentials Unrealistically
  2. Applying Too Late
  3. Not Applying to a Back-Up School
  4. Not Following LSAT/LSDAS Instructions
  5. Pursuing an Inadequate Undergraduate Curriculum
  6. Getting Weak or Meaningless Recommendations
  7. Not Demonstrating Special or Unique Qualifications in the Application's Personal Statement
  8. Not Completing Your Application
  9. Not Keeping Your Options Open
  10. Generalizing About Admissions Requirements
  11. Going to "Just Any Law School"
  12. Going to Law School at any Cost
Although predicting admissions patterns is never a guaranteed proposition, for the most part, students who apply realistically, that is, with an application strategy, generally can be fairly certain they will receive acceptances, as long as they minimize the "risk factors". For the most part, I would suggest that a grade point average below a 3.0 (on a 4.0 scale) or that an LSAT score below the 50th percentile (roughly 151) would constitute a "risk factor." If an individual has no "risk factors" and if that person has been realistic in identifying and applying to "safety schools" as well as "target schools" and "longshot schools", that applicant stands an extremely high likelihood of gaining admission to law school.

However, every year, there are individuals who "strike out" in the application process. Usually, the problems have more to do with the severity of the "risk factors", but occasionally, a student who should have been able to gain admission will come away from his or her first attempt at admission "empty handed." In assessing these situations, invariably, the problem can be attributed to avoidable admissions mistakes; the following listing identifies these errors that can undercut a talented applicant's efforts.

All of these "mistakes" can be avoided. If you have questions about any of them, see the Pre Law Advisor.

  1. Assessing Your Credentials Unrealistically

    The Law School Admissions Service points out that "unquestionably, the number one strategic error in law school admissions is the failure to evaluate realistically one's own credentials." When considering schools, always keep in mind how your qualifications stack up against the admissions pattern of the law schools to which you aspire. You will want to apply to schools where literally everyone with your qualifications was admitted the previous year and where your scores are higher than the medians published; schools where almost everyone with your qualifications was admitted or where your qualifications roughly match up with the medians at that school; and schools where only one in four or more applicants with your credentials were admitted (i.e. schools where your scores are lower than the medians the school projects). These categories are in order "safeties", "targets", and "longshots."

    Remember that most law schools provide detailed statistics on how many applicants with a certain LSAT score and GPA are accepted; much of that information (including medians, LSAT/GPA data grids and charts, and other statistics) are available in the Official Guide to U.S. Law Schools. (Copies also should be available in the Library). In addition, data on how University of New Mexico students have done in applying to law schools is available from the Pre-Law Advisor.

    Other sources of information to make these determinations include the following:

    • The particular school's admissions office.
    • School representatives who visit campus at the Law Day each Fall or during separate visits throughout the year.
    • Talks with students and faculty members at a particular school. (In fact, many schools have formal programs in which students can take a tour of the campus and ask questions. Inquire at a school's admissions office).
    • And, of course, the Pre-Law Advisor.


  2. Applying Too Late

    As Law Services notes, "If there is one cardinal rule in the . . . admissions process, it is: Apply early, not late." Remember that law schools will not make decisions until a file is complete; in this sense, "complete" means that the school not only has received your application, but also your LSAT score, your LSDAS Report, your letters of recommendation, and your application fee. Your application meets the deadline if, and only if, all components meet the deadline.


  3. Not Applying to a Back-Up School

    Law Services advises students that "even if you have top qualifications, you should apply to at least one safe, back-up school where you are almost certain of being admitted; this is your insurance policy." Remember, also, that your best chance of merit based financial aid will come from schools likely to be your "Safety Schools." The Pre Law Advisor can assist you in determining which schools likely would constitute a legitimate "safety."


  4. Not Following LSAT/LSDAS Instructions

    Applicants often needlessly create problems for themselves by filling out their forms incorrectly because they haven't followed all the directions; this can delay unnecessarily the processing of applications. You can make the registration process much smoother if you simply take the time to read and understand all of the information in the LSAT/LSDAS Information Book. If you have questions, you always can talk with the Pre Law Advisor or simply phone the numbers at Law Services listed in the booklet.


  5. Pursuing an Inadequate Undergraduate Curriculum

    As explained elsewhere, law schools are usually impressed by students who can demonstrate convincingly that they have challenged themselves with a rigorous curriculum of classes that exercised their thinking and reasoning abilities. Law Services encourages students to

    study in a focused, intensive way in your major field, but also [to] expose yourself to several other disciplines. . . .Law schools want students who are intelligent, who have well-developed academic ability, and who are of high character. It's not so much a matter of what you study as it is a matter of selecting courses in your major field that interest you, challenge you, are at a level that is advanced well beyond the mere introductory, require research, and require you to express your ideas in writing.

    Obviously, to the extent that a student fails to accomplish this goal, his application will look weaker to an Admissions Committee.


  6. Getting Weak or Meaningless Recommendations

    The problem with Letters of Recommendation is that they can sometimes undercut their own credibility. As one publication puts it, "there's the potential for them to contain too much puffery and too little substantive information"; that is, a weak set of letters or letters coming from people who don't know you that well may prove at best of negligible value and at worst, actually can damage your chances of admission. For instance,

    Unrealistic letters that gild the lily are responsible for doubts about all personal reference letters.

    The letter that says you're terrific and nothing more doesn't carry much weight on the admissions end.

    It's necessary to have someone comment on your specific skills and abilities, problems or obstacles you've overcome.

    Reliable recommendations come from people whose judgment and dedication the law school respects.

    In actual practice, the recommendation that will carry the most weight will come from a faculty member who knows you and your academic potential extremely well; who has in the past written letters for former students admitted to law school; who, in [the letter] compares you as a potential law student with [other] former students; and who provides credible documentation for everything [said] about you.

    At the same time, a "perversity" factor among admissions people can prove counterproductive if a letter writer endeavors to "apply too much pressure of a questionable nature"; that is, most committee members "are not impressed by the name at the bottom of a letter, per se", so, for instance, "letters from politicians may well be a negative factor" unless you worked for that individual.


  7. Not Demonstrating Special or Unique Qualifications in the Application's Personal Statement

    As one veteran Admissions Officer was quoted as saying,

    "[Since] Admissions Committees have their choice, . . . why shouldn't they choose interesting people?" In that regard, Law Services reminds students that they should "always remember that there is something special --- something interesting --- about you . . . [whether it's] some experience, some training, or some dream that sets you apart. Everyone has." Law schools acknowledge that they want to recruit individuals who are qualified for reasons beyond just grade point average and LSAT score, but they can't know those qualities unless you tell them. Without being boastful, "your application . . . is the place to tell the admissions committee about why you are special; your application is definitely not the place to be falsely modest."

    For instance, various sources cite the following among the items that might be (and probably should be) brought to the attention of the Admissions Committee:

    1. Background, life experience, or other significant accomplishment that has prepared you for the study of law.

      Practically any personal experience or achievement can be worth noting if it is made meaningful and interesting. For instance, Law Service notes that one law school lists in its catalogue some of the experiences of its first year class and includes such unusual accomplishments as a brown belt in karate, work as a psychiatric attendant, and individuals who have been varsity athletes.

    2. Overcoming serious obstacles in your life to get where you are today, especially if you can argue that you have "worked your way up from the bottom."

      Never be shy about letting the committee know about how you have triumphed over adversity, if that adversity is real and identifiable. Law Services observes that a remarkable number of upwardly mobile people don't like to dwell on the difficulties they have gone through in their struggle to achieve their goals, and some are not even fully aware of the proportions of what they have accomplished . . . If you have had a mentor . . . who has inspired [you] . . . be sure to get some advice from him or her about your life to date and how you might best portray yourself to the admissions committee. In any case, do not neglect to write your experiences in your personal statement. You'll almost certainly discover that the committee will be very interested and will respect you all the more.

    3. Special interests.

      If you have developed a specialized knowledge or ability, a law school admissions committee may find you more attractive as a candidate.

    4. Honors and Awards.

      Neglecting to mention, for instance, that you have been named a James Scholar obviously would be a mistake, since such a distinction confers automatically a recognition of significant accomplishment in your undergraduate work.

    5. Extracurricular activities.

      Among those activities that Law Services indicate an admissions committee would regard as significant are: competitive efforts such as debate, sports, speech or writing competitions; political organizations; honorary organizations (Phi Beta Kappa, Phi Kappa Phi, etc.); government or business internships; and service activities.

    6. Extracurricular activities where you held a leadership position.

      If you held student government offices or had a position of responsibility, let the law school know this fact, and tell what you accomplished.

    7. Military or government training or service.

      If you have been involved in R.O.T.C. or if you have participated in military service, Law School Admissions Committees may regard that quality as significant as a sign of maturity and responsibility.

    8. Ethnic Diversity.

      Law Services advises students specifically that "if you are a member of a minority group, be sure to note that fact on your application". Virtually all law schools have recruitment programs and are actively seeking candidates from various minority groups (Hispanic, Native American, African-American, Asian American) or individuals from disadvantaged backgrounds. Many of these opportunities go unclaimed each year, so make sure each law school to which you apply is aware of your status with regard to this factor. (See the section on Minority Admissions elsewhere)

    9. Work or Community Volunteer Experience.

      With the assumption that a law student must have considerable reserves of energy, the fact that an individual has worked while an undergraduate can be a definite positive in the eyes of an Admissions Committee, particularly if the work can be related in any way to the skills or abilities the person would need in law school. Similarly, since lawyers must be involved in pro bono work, community service is often viewed as a sign that an individual has a commitment to society.

    10. Problems or inconsistencies in your records.

      Leaving unexplained a blemish of some kind on your record is a MAJOR mistake. While one should not dwell on a problem, it should be explained at least. If a special circumstance, such as significant, nearly full-time employment interfered with your ability to perform, and if this fact is not noted elsewhere, you must bring it to the attention of the Admissions Committee.

    11. Graduate Work or Additional Study.

      While a law school will be most interested in your undergraduate work, obviously if you did added academic work, a school should be informed of your performance, or they may believe you are trying to hide something.

    12. Goals.

      Unless you tell an Admissions Committee of your enthusiasm and interest in studying for a career in the law, obviously, they will have no way of knowing just how serious you are. Explain to them your reasons for applying to law school. You also might indicate how you heard about the particular law school to which you are applying and indicate what made you decide to apply there.

      Not informing a school of some or all of these factors that make you a unique person when they are relevant clearly would deprive a school of knowing about how special you might be. These items can be discussed in your personal statement (see the section on the personal statement), but you should not feel that you have to mention each and every one. As you go through school, however, you may want to keep these elements in mind. Then when you are writing your personal statement, for instance, you can elaborate on something noted but not fully explained on your application. You also can cover an entirely different facet of yourself or your experience, as you try to relate your topic on your statement to your desire to study and perhaps ultimately practice law.


    13. Not Completing Your Application

      Law Schools usually make it fairly clear that you are responsible for making certain that your application file is complete. It is best to assume nothing about the status of your application. Indeed, one estimate is that as many as thirty percent of applicants at law schools have not submitted data complete enough for the admissions committee to consider at the time of the deadline. Since schools often do not have enough time or staff to review continuously pending applications, it is up to you to check on the following:

      • Has your registrar sent your transcripts to the LSDAS?
      • Have you reviewed the status of your application six weeks after sending it?
      • Does the Letter of Recommendation service have all of your letters and have you designated which ones you want sent? Have you sent them?


    14. Not Keeping Your Options Open

      As Law Services notes, "Flexibility is a key word in the law school admissions process." For instance, "don't set your sights on only one law school and one plan of action." You should constantly reevaluate your prospects and have prepared alternatives.


    15. Generalizing About Admissions Requirements

      Sometimes students fail to complete properly applications because they use one school's format and application structure to apply to other schools. Don't apply to a set of schools using the same prepared packet of materials. Study each law school's application and comply with its special questions and idiosyncratic format. There is a movement to try to make more uniform applications to law schools, but until some day when this is made a reality, students must make certain that their applications are addressing the unique requests of different admissions committees.


    16. Going to "Just Any Law School"

      Make certain that the law school at which you enroll is the "Right Law School for You." If a school at which you are admitted is not satisfactory to you after you have investigated, visited, and learned everything you can about it (quality of faculty, strength of library, placement possibilities, etc.), don't feel that you must attend that school. There always is another application season.


    17. Going to Law School at any Cost

    Be sure to do a "cost-benefit" analysis. The expense of law school is at such a high level that you need to make sure that you are selecting a program of study that you will not regret. With the average debt of law school graduates in 1995 (just short of $41,000) exceeding for the first time in history the average starting salary (just over $40,000), this concern is especially important and must be addressed. Obviously, potential applicants must explore all options to keep costs low, but they should be realistic about what their debt will be and how to expect to eliminate it.