Helping Prevent The Most Common Law School Application Errors

richards_smallA week ago, we played host to Anne Richard, Senior Dean of Admissions for University of Virginia, School of Law on our monthly talk show The 180 Live!  We asked her what the biggest law school application mistakes are, and she actually brought real samples from actual applications to share with us.  We also asked our student audience  our question of the night on Facebook and Twitter: to identify what they thought the most common/biggest mistake admissions offices see on law school applications!  We heard suggestions about personal statement topics and non-disclosure of legal issues, but Dean Richard indicated that the single biggest mistake she sees on law school applications is arrogance; prospective students who, instead of coming across as strong and confident applicants that can back up that attitude with great accomplishments and self-awareness (the hallmarks of a great application), take their admission or superior status to other applicants for granted, overstate their achievements, or refuse to take responsibility for errors or mistakes.

That does not mean that there are not a lot of more minor mistakes your advisees can arm themselves against, so let’s take a look, piece-by-piece, at how to prevent the most common (and glaring) application errors.  We also want to invite you to register for

this month’s special 180 live episode, on which we will release Above The Law‘s law school rankings.  Until then, if you or your advisees have any questions or comments, sound off in the comments or get in touch with Dean Richard, who graciously offered her email contact information to our audience for any follow-up.  Here’s a list of the worst offenders, and how to fix them:

The LSAT:

  • Planning for Multiple Test Scores: Taking a real, LSAC-proctored, recorded LSAT with the intent of taking the test again is at best a strange decision, considering the availability of free proctored practice real LSATs out there, and Dean Richard points out that it points to a certain lack of maturity and planning when students admit to taking it the first time “to see how I would do” or because “I heard you didn’t have to prepare for it.”  Ideally, a student should take the test once; by planning ahead and preparing for the test in advance, the goal should be to take it once, and be done.
  • Don’t Bother Taking It Again: Although we stand by Dean Richard’s advice above, she also indicated that since the vast majority of law schools take the highest LSAT score on file as the primary score, students who decide not to retake the test if they did poorly is also not viewed favorably by admissions offices.  Because the test is so prepare-able, there really is no excuse not to re-prep and re-take if there is trouble the first time.  Otherwise it can appear the applicant just decided it wasn’t really worth the effort, which speaks to the real extent of that person’s drive and desire to go to law school.

Personal Statement:

  • Mandatory Hardship: A lot of students think the most effective personal statement has to include some kind of “tough times”; some hardship the student has had to endure, survive, or learn from to get to where they are today.  While getting through a rough life situation can definitely be a great place from which to pull material for a personal statement, it is not even close to the only way to write a stellar piece, especially if it means overstating reality or making up emotional lessons that weren’t really present.  The biggest key to the personal statement is to be honest; a student should tell a story about how she’s gotten where she is today, and it doesn’t have to be exciting or on a grand scale or heartbreaking, it just needs to show something important about that individual student’s experience.
  • Putting Everything On The Table: One of the most common mistakes everyone involved in admissions has seen is the “everything but the kitchen sink” personal statement; as someone who works with students on a regular basis, I know that this error usually springs from a kind of low-boil panic.  Students start wondering if their personal statement topic is “big enough”, or if there are additional items on the resume that could use some highlighting; the “all in!” personal statement is a function of the competitiveness of the admissions process.  Unfortunately, it also almost always leads to a weaker personal statement.  First of all, assure your advisees that law school admissions offices will be looking at every single aspect of an application, including the resume; the personal statement has a different function, and does not need to re-state something already included elsewhere in the application.  That’s the appropriate area to show off versatility; the personal statement is all about going deep and getting specific!
  • What They Want to Hear: The other direction the “competition panic” can push applicants on the personal statement is toward blandness… or B.S.  In other words, students start to write what they think a law school admissions office will want to hear; either a personality-free, “why I want to go to law school”-themed essay, or a manufactured set of passions or opinions that are not necessarily their own.  In the first case, remember the old maxim from creative writing class: “show, don’t tell.”  A story illustrating the reasons your advisee wants to go to law school is always going to be more effective than a generic essay that anyone could have written; remind students that the point of the personal statement is to show a law school something unique about themselves.  In the second instance, it is not necessary for your advisees to mention specifics about a school or faculty to make their case– although if it really is their dream school, go for it!  They also don’t need to make up big goals or interests that they don’t actually have because they seem in line with the school’s; it really is all about being themselves.

Letters of Recommendation:

  • Recommenders always remember: Even if an advisee has a specific professor mentor in school, the student should not assume that, a year or five down the line, or even a semester later, that mentor will be able to speak in a very specific way about the student’s individual accomplishments.  Encourage your advisees to stay in touch with professors they are considering for letters of recommendation.  Have them gather together the papers they wrote for those professors; post-graduation, they should be willing to provide their transcript.  Law schools want a letter of recommendation to be as specific and detailed as possible, and almost everyone could use some tangible reminders before embarking on writing a great recommendation.
  • Clout Trumps Connection: Many law school applicants have professional or personal connections with “big names”: senators, governors, famous attorneys, judges, prominent businesspeople, etc.  Too often, those applicants think that a letter of recommendation from one of these high face value folks is a sure ticket to the acceptance pile, but most of the time those people do not actually have the kind of knowledge about an applicant that law school admissions offices are looking for; the connection is either too personal (my uncle, a family friend) or too impersonal (someone a student had an internship with, but only personally interacted with minimally).  The best letters of recommendation are not necessarily from big names, but from really strong connections: people that know your advisee well academically or professionally and can speak specifically about her qualifications for law school.  That doesn’t mean law schools want totally personal recommendations; a student’s mom or uncle-the-lawyer are equally ineffective recommenders, because they can’t speak to the skills that student will bring to law school.

Optional Writing:

    • Submit Every Single Possible Piece of Writing: The optional pieces of writing?  They actually are optional; your advisees should only submit them if they actually have something of substance to add to their application.  They are not necessary, and law school admissions officers are not impressed by adding a bunch of unnecessary thickness to an application package; concision also has its merits, and is appreciated.  Rule of thumb: if it adds something, include it.  If not, leave it on the cutting room floor.
    • Diversity Only Refers to Ethnicity/Culture: The diversity statement is probably the single most misunderstood document in the application, because people think it refers only to ethnic diversity.  It actually refers to a much more open concept: any special experiences or traits a student will contribute to law school and the legal profession.