Highlights from David Busis and Selene Steelman's Law School Admissions Office Hours.
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J.Y.: Hello and welcome to the 7Sage podcast. My name is J.Y. Ping and on today's episode, we've put together a collection of highlights from the weekly Admissions Office Hours that David Busis and Selene Steelman have been running. David and Selene are part of the 7Sage Admissions Consulting team. During the weekly office hour sessions, they answer your questions about the law school application process. The office hours are ongoing, free, and you're welcome to join. Hop on to our discussion forums at 7Sage to find out more. A link will be provided in the show notes.
As you'll hear, the questions run the gamut from highly specific to very general. If you're in the process of applying to law schools or soon will be, I think you'll find that at least some of these questions resonate with you.
The first excerpt is from a student asking if she can write a personal statement about being a horse trainer.
Sager: For the last 20-plus years, I've actually owned my own business in a very nontraditional field. My partner and I are horse trainers. We train horses and riders at the very highest level of the sport. It's kind of at the elite level, like ice skating, and it's kind of the same thing. I've had nine full-time employees, blah, blah. So I've had that whole entire other life, and I put law school on hold when I got out of undergrad in order to have this other life. However, it's a huge life. I don't really know if I can find a way to target a personal statement in a narrow enough range to say anything other than, "Hey, cool, check it out. I had this totally other life." You know what I mean?
David: First of all, let me assure you that you can.
Sager: How can I do that and write my personal statement about something else? Or if I should try to somehow tie the two things together. People have told me all different things.
David: Well, to me, I think it sounds crazy not to talk about that. It sounds like what you're saying is, "I have so much rich material that I can't choose, or should I just throw that whole project away and look somewhere else?" That's kind of what I'm hearing. I think you could totally write about that career. It's really interesting and it's also relevant.
One thing that you want to do when you apply is to get ahead of an admissions officer's questions. If I were an admissions officer, I would want to know, not in a skeptical way, really just a curious way, "Why is this person who is a successful horse trader at an elite level now applying to law school?" So I think a personal statement should answer that question.
Sager: All right. That's an awesome advice.
David: And I'll give you a little more. You can think in terms of a narrow model in which you just pick one really important anecdote from your career, and then tell it maybe two or three paragraphs and reflect on it for another two paragraphs, something like that. And then, explain how it either pushed you towards law school or how it taught you something that you'll use in law school. That's option one—a narrow focus on a single anecdote.
Option two, which people don't avail themselves of enough, is a bigger story that pulls the camera back and just walks us through this whole arc. Paragraph one is maybe how you got into the trade after college. Paragraph two is like how you built the business. Paragraph three–four is what led you to law school. And paragraph five is a reflection on it and maybe a statement of what you want to do going forward—how you want to use your JD.
Sager: Okay, cool. Thanks.
David: I hope that helps.
Sager: Yeah, very helpful. I really appreciate it.
David: You're welcome. Good luck.
J.Y.: Next, we'll hear from Jay who wants to know what to put on his resume.
David: Hi, Jay.
Jay: Hi, David. Can you hear me?
David: I can. How's it going?
Jay: Oh, great. Thank you. I recently used your service for the editing. I just wanted to tell you, amazing service. I have some questions, just beyond the personal statement, so I thought I'd just come in. Thanks for holding this for us. I was looking at your advice about the resume and including the extracurriculars and the volunteer service, but not including it if you've been out of undergrad for a while.
My situation is like a slight variance of that. I have been out of undergrad for about a decade, but then I went back to grad school because my last career path didn't work out exactly. I'm now working in the legal field and I'm planning on going back to law school part-time while working. Therefore, kind of like I'm a recent graduate of grad school, but yet, not a recent undergraduate graduate. Should I include a lot of those extracurriculars and stuff from back in the day still, or do you think that might not be necessary, given the slight variation?
David: I would just reframe the question. I don't think you should ask: Should I include such and such as an extracurricular activity? I think you should be asking: What are the most important things that I want to include on a one-page or two-page resume? If in that two pages or that one page, depending on the school, you have room for those extracurriculars, absolutely, put them on. I would imagine that after a decade of being in and out of school, and of the workforce, you probably do have enough to at least fill a page. So fill this and just see how much room you have. And if there's room, put the meaningful extracurriculars on.
Jay: Okay, now, I've included mainly just education, honors and work, and I'm already about borderline two pages.
David: It sounds like you might not have room for it.
Jay: All right. So in that case, I might include just like one major that I was more involved in perhaps, but not too many, if I have spaces. Does that sound like a possible compromise in your opinion?
David: I do. I would say that you should prioritize any volunteering or, so to speak, extracurricular activities after you graduated. I say so to speak because there is no curriculum anymore. But if you do anything outside of your job with some organization, whatever it is or something—you're an interpreter in your church or you do bingo club, whatever—that probably does deserve a place on your resume because it's more recent.
Jay: Okay, so try to keep it recent.
David: Don't really try to keep it recent. Just again, if there's a question of what you can fit in this last inch of space, I would probably choose the more recent thing.
Jay: Okay, that makes sense. I'll keep that in mind and I'll see. Thank you. And also I have one other question, please.
David: Sure. I just want to point out one thing before you ask it. There's a lesson in resumes called What to Cut. You should check that out because it might help you make room.
J.Y.: Next, we'll hear from a student who wants to know if she should write a diversity statement.
Sager: If my personal statement covers my 20-plus year career, do I need to write a diversity statement for being 48? Most people say write one, but if it's already covered in my personal statement, I don't want to beat everybody over the head like, "Hello, I'm old. Let me in because I'm old."
David: You don't need to write one.
Sager: Okay, good.
David: Diversity statements are optional essays that are really, actually optional. I was at a conference where this question came up. It was a conference of pre-law professionals, and a pre-law advisor was like, "Yeah, you should always write a diversity statement, no matter what, because you just want to show them as much stuff as possible." And the admissions officer that was there just made a face like she just had sucked on some potpourri or something. Something that's like, "Aaah, I don't know about that." Which is what I always tell people. You do not just want to blast them with unnecessary information. If they know you're 48 and if you don't have anything else to say that you haven't said in your personal statement, don't write one.
Sager: Okay, perfect. Thank you.
David: You're welcome.
J.Y.: Next, we'll hear from Alyssa who is wondering if new letters of recommendations are required when reapplying.
Alyssa: Just a quick background, I previously applied back in 2016. I didn't get into any of the law schools that I wanted to, so I retook the LSAT this June, and I'm planning on taking it again in November to get a higher score. My question is whether or not I should look into getting new letters of recommendation for this new cycle in applying for law school.
David: You applied in 2016?
Alyssa: I did, in February of 2016.
David: I feel like it wouldn't be a big deal to ask your old recommenders for new letters, because I don't think that it requires much of them. They probably have the old letter on file. They might just stamp it with a new date and maybe update it if there's anything to update.
Alyssa: Gotcha. Okay, that's perfect. Thank you so much. That's honestly the only thing I had today.
David: Sure. Selene, how long do you think a letter stay valid? I mean, when do you want to see a new one?
Selene: I personally feel like letters should not be any more than a year and a half old. If someone is applying in 2018 and they have letters dated from 2015 or 2016, I asked myself: Why haven't they tried to get updated letters? What have they done in the last two years since they last applied to law school? What have they done and why haven't they made enough of an impression on whoever they worked with or working for that they couldn't get new updated letters?
So, I think your suggestion of having the old recommenders maybe just put a new date on the old letter is good. If you have, since the last time you applied to law school, maybe worked at a job or have done research or whatever else you've done to update your resume and get more experience, I would strongly encourage you to try to find one letter of recommendation that is more current that discusses what you've done since the last time you applied to law school.
Alyssa: Perfect. Thank you so much.
David: If you're in the admissions office, do you think twice about a letter that's a year old?
Selene: A year old—not so much.
David: Okay, cool. All right. Good luck, Alyssa.
Alyssa: Thank you.
J.Y.: Next, a student is wondering if the prestige of an undergraduate institution and the difficulty of the major are taken into account when adcoms consider a GPA.
Constantine: I went to MIT for undergrad and I double majored in engineering and economics. I had a 3.0, and my GPA is just so below the median. I was just wondering, how do you think they'll factor in? I know at the end of the day, it's going to hurt their numbers for rankings, but how much will going to a school like that—also double majoring and the fact that I've been out of school for about a decade. How much do you think they'll be considered in terms of applying with a lower GPA?
David: Can I ask what your LSAT score is?
Constantine: Right now, it's a 166, and I'm retaking it next week.
David: Selene, can I toss this one over to you?
Selene: Sure. What I would say is, you are correct that every time a law school admits an application they are keeping their medians in mind—their median LSAT, their median GPA—what they hope to maintain. So if a school's median is like a 3.5 and they're considering admitting someone with a 3.0, they're thinking to themselves, "Okay, we're going to have to find another applicant who has a really high GPA to counterbalance this."
That said, I think the fact that you went to MIT, the fact that you have a very solid LSAT score and the fact that you double majored in two very, very difficult majors will all be taken into consideration. It's not going to help them with their numbers or statistics for the rankings and for the ABA, but the school would want to have someone with those credentials, I think, in their incoming class so that they would somehow make it work. Just those credentials on paper. They like to have that variety because you have a sea of English, history, and polisci majors. At least for us at Cardozo, whenever we got a hard science application that came through, everybody got very excited.
Constantine: Haha. That's good to hear. Sorry, just a follow-up question, and I know you're at Cardozo, so if I'm, let's say, applying to a T14 school, am I effectively shut out? Do I have to go above the LSAT median and then that puts me—? For me, I'm a 3.0 double major MIT, I feel pretty proud of it, but I guess I want to know what that rules out and what that kind of keeps open, given maybe if I score a few points higher.
Selene: I think that those are really great accomplishments and that you should feel proud of them. And I think that they are impressive to any admissions committee. They're just having to do some calculations: If we admit this really interesting candidate who has strong double majors and he's been out of school for 10 years (and I don't know what you've been doing), but wow, he put together a compelling application where he's been doing really interesting stuff. Already, they're not going to treat your 3.0 the same way that they would treat someone who just graduated with a 3.0. They're also going to factor in all the professional accomplishments that you've accrued over the last 10 years.
Numbers aside, I think that there are ways for you to sort of distinguish yourself from the rest of the applicant pool. They're not just going to look at your file just on the numbers. They're going to look at other factors in your application.
That said, when it comes to dealing with their statistics, I think, definitely, if you're able to secure a higher score, it would help you. Let's just say, hypothetically speaking, you were able to get a 170, they'll say, "Wow, this file is a 170 / 3.0. We want to have a high LSAT—that helps us maintain our median." I personally think that it's easier to find higher GPAs out there than to find high LSAT scores. So, I think that a school might make the calculation that, "Hey, we want to have someone with an MIT degree, some science background and all this professional experience. Let's see if we can try to find a higher GPA to help us with whatever way this file would put on our statistics with a 3.0."
Constantine: So basically, get a higher LSAT in like Chicago, maybe not Chicago, but NYU and those kind of schools. They're kind of on the table now.
Selene: I don't have their medians in front of me. But if you can get into their 50th or 75th, they're not going to toss your file aside.
Constantine: Awesome. Okay, cool. Thank you for that. I appreciate that.
David: Constantine, I'm going to chime in. You can see on your own academic summary in LSAC that schools can see a distribution of GPAs at your school. It's not for everybody at your school. It's for LSAT takers at your school. So they have contextual information and they'll know that a 3.0 at MIT is maybe not the same as a 3.0 from any another school. You might also be able to give them more contextual information in a GPA addendum, if you can get any data on the average GPA in your major. Selene, do you think that might help admissions committees know how to interpret his academic record?
Selene: A 3.0 from MIT. Any reader would look at that and say, "Well, a 3.0 from there is not the same as the 3.0 from some other school." It's not uncommon for candidates to fluff up their cumulative GPA by taking a lot of courses at community colleges. The reader will see all of this. They'll see, "Oh, this is a super high GPA, but they got it by taking lots of summer classes at this school and this other school. And these schools are not at the same level as a place like MIT." So I would say it's not really necessary to even put it in writing. I mean, you could if you wanted to. But it's just very clear that they know the value of a 3.0 from a place like your undergraduate institution.
For ranking purposes, it doesn't matter. A 3.0 is still a 3.0. But with the calculations they make to put together a class, they don't want to just get a whole bunch of 3.8 and 172. It's not that simple. They want to put together a diverse, full, robust and interesting class, and that's going to include people who might have lower GPA. It's because they pursued really difficult majors. I think that they will be understanding.
Constantine: Okay, cool.
David: Constantine, you'd want to get that LSAT score up. We just don't see that many people get into T14 schools if both of their numbers are below the median, unless they bring major diversity factors.
Constantine: I'm trying, David. I'm going to retake next week. My average score has kind of gone up much higher. I actually think I underperformed with the 166, so I think I should be able to do next week. But with that, I ran through the numbers, and of course, there's so much contextual information that's missing. I put in a 3.0, even with a 170, and a place like NYU is like 5%. I just wanted to make sure that I wasn't overinflating what I thought was a tough degree and what I think it should do for me versus maybe like, "Who cares? You don't have the numbers, so tough luck."
David: No, it's definitely worth applying. As you know, this admissions predictor is a pretty crude tool. It doesn't know that you went to MIT.
Constantine: Right. At the same time, I also don't want to be a jerk and be like, "I went to MIT, you know, so..." Thank you for giving me some context. And yeah, I'll try hard next week.
David: Good luck next week.
Constantine: Thanks a lot, David. I forgot the other name, but thank you too, so much.
Constantine: Thank you, Selene.
Selene: Sure, no problem.
J.Y.: Next, we'll hear from a student wondering if taking the January LSAT is too late.
Sager: November is my first time taking the LSAT, and I'm going to apply this cycle. My preptest score is kind of around 165 and my goal is getting to a T14, of course. It's kind of like below their median though, but my GPA is like 4.04. So, I want to know my chance to get into a T14. And if not, how latest like January LSAT?
David: Where did you go to college?
Sager: University of Michigan.
David: Cool. I have definitely worked with people who got into lower T14 schools with 166–167 and high 3.9 GPA, so it's definitely possible depending on how the LSAT goes for you.
Sager: What about if I get a score of a lower 160? I kind of want to know if I take the January LSAT, am I too late for the application? Because my pre-law advisors can really anti-January LSAT.
David: I'm going to throw this one to Selene in a second. My opinion is that by the time the January LSAT score comes out, it is pretty late in the application cycle. At the same time, I think a big jump in the LSAT score would outweigh that. Selene, do you want to add your thoughts?
Selene: Taking the January test means that your score is going to be available in early February, and that is considered fairly late in the cycle. If you're aiming for a T14 school where they’re awash in applications and can pretty much craft whatever type of class that they want, it's probably better for you to submit an application sooner rather than later.
If you decide to go ahead and take that January LSAT after you've submitted completed applications to your schools, and there is a big jump, then you should definitely let those schools know if you haven't received notification from them by the time you received your scores. The other thing to remember is that (hopefully you're applying to a broad spectrum of law schools) there are schools outside the T14 but within the top tier that will continue to receive applications all through this spring, because the applicant pool is constantly moving and in flux. At this point, admissions committees don't really know what's going to happen.
I know people who were still moving applications around in August, and receiving offers of admissions in August, like in the middle of orientation. People are still trying to put together their class, and the August melt is where, "Oh, we lost one of our high LSAT scores. We've got to get somebody else and offer admission to this person." You have to respect the deadlines, but also know that if a really good application shows up at the admissions office, they're probably going to look at it.
Try to get a completed application ready sooner rather than later—the best application you possibly can and submit it as soon as you can. And then if you feel like your current LSAT score is really not indicative of what you're capable of, take that January test and then if the scores are that much better, you just alert everybody and say, "Look at this higher score." If they haven't made the final decision, they will look at and take the higher score.
Sager: Okay, I understand. Thank you so much.
David: Good luck on the test.
J.Y.: Next, a student asks about how to prepare for law school interviews.
Sager: Thank you for doing this. You guys have mentioned in passing, in the last couple of questions, interviewing. Can you speak to that a little bit more? I've been invited by a law school to do so. And I just have the natural anxieties that go with that—what to expect and how to best prepare. They mentioned it doesn't negatively impact their decision if you choose not to. Would you guys definitely recommend doing so? Thank you.
David: I would definitely recommend doing so. I would say that you should do some internet sleuthing to see if you can find anything out about how these interviews usually go.
But in general, you always want to prepare for a couple of questions if you're going to do an interview. They're kind of obvious. You want to prepare an answer for why you want to be a lawyer and why you want to go to law school, and all of the attendant questions like what you might do with your career, short term and long term, what city you hope to practice in, etc. You also always want to talk about or be prepared to talk about why your law school. You always want to be prepared to talk about your resume. And you always want to have a question or two for them up your sleeve, because the interviews often end with "Do you have any questions for us?"
Selene, do you have anything to add to that?
Selene: Yeah. I think the questions that you just listed here on what to expect are spot on. You should prepare, I would say, two or three questions for the law school. It's good if you do some research about the law school's programs. If you have a particular area of law that you think you might be interested and if there's any sort of overlap with the programs at the law school, that would be good to show that you've done your research and that you really want to be there.
If a law school invites you to come for an interview, you should do it. You should wear a suit, and treat it like it's a job interview. You should be super polite and know that whatever impression you're making on the admissions counselor, they're going to write it up in your file. They're going to remember. So, you want your interaction to be a really pleasant and respectful one.
And if you haven't been invited for an interview, I would go visit the law school admissions office anyway, if you can. They say that they don't evaluative interviews, but every time a person comes in, if they have an application on file for you, they're going to sort of write some notes. Because, heaven forbid, if someone comes in for an interview and they make a negative impression, that's definitely going into the file.
I think the last point I would make is, one question you never want to ask is, "This is my LSAT. This is my GPA. What are my chances of getting in?" Just don't go there. You can find that information out on your own. There's a lot of resources here at 7Sage. If there are certain things about your background that you want to raise, to sort of highlight and say, "Would this be helpful? I have this in my past, how would you suggest that I incorporate this into my application so it would make me seem like a more attractive candidate?" Something like that. But just don't say, "This is my GPA. Here's my LSAT, can I get in?" because the interview is not the right time to asked that question.
Sager: Thank you so much. I appreciate it.
Selene: Okay, good luck.
J.Y.: Next, a student asks if they should write their personal statement about graduating college early.
Sager: Hi, thank you so much.
Sager: Okay, so I just have lots of questions but I'll be very quick. I'm confused because I finished my undergrad at 19, and I was thinking about writing that as my personal statement. At the same time, I'm not sure if that would be better for a diversity statement about how I graduated early, and this is something I've always wanted to do and this is all the experience I have. I'm worried that if I make that into my personal statement, it would sound a lot like my resume. Does that make sense?
David: My personal feeling is that you don't want to play three-dimensional chess with your personal statement and diversity statement. Or what I really mean is that, you don't want to make them a logic game where you say, "If I say this in one essay, I can't say this in the other essay, and blah, blah, blah." My advice is to make the problem more manageable by considering only the personal statement first because that's the main essay, that's the required essay and that is your best chance to say what you have to say.
When you're thinking about your personal statement, you're not considering this constellation of other questions about what your other essays are going to concern. You're just asking, "What do I have to tell the admissions committee? What's my most important story? Is there a central fact of my life?" If there is and if the central fact of your life is that you went to college early—it was a struggle for you and you came out more mature, better and you learned something—that sounds like a great personal statement to me.
I don't think that, in any universe, it should and necessarily has to have anything to do with your resume. You might be covering events that are also on your resume, but the difference between a personal statement and a resume is that a personal statement fills in your motivation. It doesn't just say that you did a thing, it tells us why you did that thing. And it tells us what you learned from it and how you changed afterwards. A resume just can't accommodate that kind of story.
So to boil it down, my main advice is that you just consider the question of what you should write about in your personal statement in isolation. Tell the best story you can. If that story is about going to college early, great, but that itself is only a topic. That's not the whole thing, so you'll still have a little bit more work to do to figure out how this narrative is going to take us from a beginning to an end and what changes.
J.Y.: Next, a student wants to know what's up with the obsession over the Top 14 law schools.
Sager: One more question: I see like, especially in our discussions, a lot of people are focusing towards the Top 14. Of course there will be great opportunities, but why exactly do people do that? Does that make sense?
David: Not only does that make sense, but we wrote a blog post about it. It's called "Do you have to go to the Top 14" or something like that.
Sager: It sounds like you don't have to, at the same time. But there will be like, I think it was Washington University that I saw for St. Louis, and then so many people were saying that they wouldn't go to that but would have preferred a Top 14 instead. That was very surprising to me considering, I think, they were being offered full ride scholarships at St. Louis, rather than a Top 14 school.
David: I bet Selene has some interesting words of wisdom about this question of why everyone wants to and if it makes sense to get crazy about it. Selene, do you have anything to say about that or do you want to talk about it?
Selene: I have feelings. When I was working in admissions, every year there'd be an annual conference where all the law schools' admissions officers would gather. Every year, everyone would gripe about the rankings and US News, and how much power they have over everything. While it affects so much of how a law school is run, I've got here in front of me all the different factors that go into a school's ranking. It's not only the LSAT scores and the GPA but also academic reputation of a law school, nonacademic reputation of a law school, the average expenditures per student for instruction library and supporting services, a student faculty ratio, how many volumes and titles there are in the library...
So whatever calculation US News and World Report uses to determine the rank, it really is not about the quality of education that you're going to get there. People who graduate from a school ranked 25, 37, 50 or 60, they graduate and they still find jobs and have a very fulfilling career. You should also, when you're looking at law schools and researching, think about the type of job that you want when you come out. Depending on the type of job that you want, you might not want to go to a T14 school.
The number one ranked school for government and public interest jobs, according to the National Law Journal, is the City University of New York. If somebody is very interested in government and public interest work, then maybe Yale is not the place for them. The number one ranked school, again according to National Law Journal, for state and local clerkship is Seton Hall University. The second ranked school is Rutgers University. These are out of all the national schools.
I really think that, granted if you can get into a T14 school, then that's great. There is a chance that you'd probably get a big law job if you're in the top 40% of a T14 school, and that puts you in a better standing than a school that's ranked 45 and you're in the top 10% like maybe. But you should really think about what you want to get out of your law school education.
If a school that is ranked in the 30s offers you 75% tuition reduction versus going to a T14 school and you're going into a debt of $160,000, these are really valid issues that you should mull over and question depending on what you want to do with your law career. Are you really going to go into that much debt? Because then, you're going to have to get a big law job that you're going to have to stick with for a number of years to pay off your law school loans. You might find that you don't like big law and that the bubbles are off the line after the first year, and all the wining and dining and the benefits of working in a big law firm. And then you realize you only get three hours of sleep every night and you never see your friends and family.
Sager: So would you say that big law is strictly only for Top 14, or even like Top 30 is fine? Does that make sense?
Selene: I think, big law, depending on which big law firm you want to work at is, if you think that you want to be at a big law firm in New York City, I would say either go to a T14 or a school in New York City, because law firms have partners who recruit from their law schools. I know people who graduated from a school outside the Top 50, who graduated in the top third of their class, and they got a job in big law—making top salaries.
The type of employment that you get depends on how well you sell yourself as a law student: How good were your grades? How well do you interview? Do they really like you? Are you a fun person? Do they want to hang out with you? Because you're going to be in a closing room at three o'clock in the morning with these people, and if they think you're weird, they're not going to want to hire you.
There are a lot of different factors that go into whether you get a job or not. I think that you should consider: How much financial commitment can I make to go into a school? Where do I want to practice? Where would I mind going to law school? And what sort of practical training opportunities are available for me at this law school? I think that you shouldn't just think T14 or bust—that you're never going to get a job and never going to be happy. There are plenty of people who go to law school right now and they graduate and they find fulfilling careers.
Sager: Thank you so much.
Selene: All right. Good luck.
J.Y.: Next, we'll hear from Nick who's asking if he has to rewrite his personal statement because he's reapplying.
Nick: Hello, thanks for doing this tonight. I appreciate your time. I have a more specific question. I am a reapplicant this year. Something that I had been told from other admissions officers is that I should resubmit or I guess redo a personal statement. I had worked on that, except I had used the stuff on the admission course last year and created this personal statement that was more of, like, a narrative. That narrative is still the reason why I want to go to law school and there's not really much to update on that. Do you guys think it's okay to use the old one? Or should I use a newer one?
David: Selene, can you fill this one first?
Selene: Sure. I would say you absolutely should do a new personal statement. That doesn't mean that you need to scrap the old one, which I'm sure you worked really hard on. I just think that they have now been able to look at the old one. You want there to be enough of a difference when an admissions reader looks at it—that they see that you made an effort.
I would say, if you worked on a specific narrative, you could probably keep the same basic structure. But since you're obviously not the same person that you were a year ago, that it should in some ways, I think you should try to insert possibly new information about what you've been doing the last year—how your life has changed or continued to evolve since the last time you tried to create a personal statement. I think that you don't have to redo the whole thing. But I think you have to show that you took the time and you made the effort to do a new personal statement or a new form of it.
David: So it's about telegraphing the effort?
Selene: Yes. I think that that is a lot of it. I've heard people say, "Oh, it's a reapplicant, they applied last year and they didn't come or they didn't get admitted, or whatever. Is there anything new? Did they update their resume? Did they at least include a new personal statement?" No, and there is a little bit of judgment, I think. They want to know that you thought it through carefully and that you made an effort to put together something that they should read.
David: I think this becomes really tough when people have an experience that is the central fact of their life. For example, we're working with another applicant who underwent a really harrowing medical procedure that went wrong. There's nothing else that that applicant could write about, and he did an amazing job of telling the story in the right way. I would worry that if he tried to polish it up, he would almost inevitably make it worse.
Selene: I hear what you're saying. If that is the case then perhaps I would revise my earlier statement and say, if you're going to break the personal statement by messing with it, then at least include an addendum, if possible, saying, "This is what has been going on with me since the last time I applied." Make sure that you update your resume so that you include current information. If you've done anything that's like professionally significant or would be of interest to law school admissions committee, possibly get a new letter of recommendation, if you've been doing something new.
Nick: Okay, yeah, so to go off that I had kind of been doing something new. What I had done, in the form of an addendum I guess, is I wrote a diversity statement that relates to something I had done, and I had not submitted a diversity statement last year.
Selene: I think that that would be a good alternative. Because it's hard to write something, so you're giving them something else to evaluate this time around.
Nick: Okay, great. I think that answers my question. Thank you, guys.
David: But Nick, I don't want to let you off the hook. Just because there are some cases where somebody might have a really compelling reason not to write a new personal statement or not to change it very much, that doesn't mean that you're one of those people. What I'm taking from Selene and what I gather from my own conversations with admissions officers is that if you can write a new one, write a new one; if you can update it, update it. Maybe especially at the beginning.
I don't know if Selene agrees with this. But if you update the beginning or just change the first sentence or the first paragraph, then the admissions officer can tell at a glance that you've looked at it again, that something is different. And the other easy place to update a personal statement might be the last paragraph which usually expands into your ambition and might be able to tie in something that you've been doing recently. So you might be able to change that without breaking the whole thing. I think the only time you really want to leave it alone is when you "have to." You have no choice but to write this story because it is THE story.
Nick: That's good criticism, so thank you, David. I think I will go down that route where I kind of tweak it a little bit, mainly focus on the beginning and ending and keeping that in mind.
David: All right. Good luck.
Nick: Thank you.
J.Y.: Next, a student wonders if an application "going complete" quickly is significant in any way.
Sager: I have some quick questions. I was wondering when once you submit an application, I think, usually from what I read, there's like a couple of days delay between you submitting it and the application going complete. But if the application went complete, say, within the day of you submitting it or maybe within half a day of you submitting it, does that mean that it's possible they're interested in you? Or is that just me trying to read tea leaves? I don't know. I was wondering if that's a sign.
David: Selene, I'll hand this one over to you.
Selene: Sure. Yeah, that means that their administrative staff is working quickly to process applications. The way the system works is that when you submit to LSAC, they will put together your application. They put it into a report that's in two parts: One has your application plus your resume, personal statement and addendum, and that first part is called the e-app—the electronic application. And then there's the second part called the CAS report—the Credential Assembly Service report—that's your transcripts and your letters of recommendation. Your application is not considered complete until a law school receives both of those.
The system (not all law schools use this system but most of them do) will sweep in all the new applications, all application materials, into the schools' database every 20 minutes, like it's frequent. And so their database is getting updated on a continuous basis. Then the back office will get this information and usually they have an online status checker that you can log into. It's at that point where your application is marked complete or reviewed, or complete and reviewed. It's more sort of administrative process than someone having looked at your information and think, "Wow, this is a good one. We want to be the first."
Sager: Okay, because I talked to them and they guessed for me, "You should probably waiting about two or three days." I just submitted that evening and I checked like next day around ten or eleven, "Oh, I was complete there, yay." But, okay, I guess that's kind of reading tea leaves, so I'll just leave it there.
J.Y.: Next, David addresses a question about why international applicants' odds are worse than their domestic counterparts.
David: I want to take a question from an anonymous attendee: "Can you talk about students with foreign degrees? I noticed the data shows that international applicants tend to fare worse. What are some ways to use this background to my advantage? And how can I best assess my chances without a GPA?"
I'm going to tell you what I know and then I'm going to hand it to Selene, who knows more than me because she dealt with international applicants for 14 years. The first thing I want to say is we really did notice a negative correlation between not being an American citizen and getting into law school. Another simpler way of saying that is: all else being equal, especially LSAT and GPA score, international students tended to fare a little bit worse than domestic students in the admissions process. But, all of you are studying for the LSAT and so you know that correlation is not causation.
Our finding does not mean that being international causes you to do worse in the admissions process. It is possible that there's a third cause. It's possible that international students, on the whole, are more likely to speak English as a second language, and therefore are more likely to write less strong personal statements and other application materials. And so therefore, all else really isn't equal. The numbers are equal, but the essays are not equal. That's one possibility. There are other possibilities. It is also totally possible that being international might drag your application down a little bit.
I would guess, though, that if you're writing is strong, if you show that you have command of English and that you're a good writer, and maybe more importantly a good thinker, there's going to be no effect at all on your application. You'll be just fine. As for how you can best calculate your chances, if you need to thin slice it, if you need just sort of one like very crude way, I would just guess that if your LSAT score is above the median of a school, you have a decent chance of getting in; and if you're LSAT score is below the median of a school, that school is a reach, assuming you don't have any major character and fitness questions. All that said, I would love to hear what Selene thinks about all this.
Selene: International applicants are not all created equal. I think an admissions committee would view an application from someone who had gone to Oxford very differently than an application from someone who went to Seoul National. That said, the GPA and the academic credentials, like how can you compare a 3.8 from a school in Korea or China to a 3.8 from an American university? How do you judge a first class if you are coming from a UK school with a 3.4 from somebody else here in the States? It's very hard to. But the LSAT score is something that a school will sort of glom onto.
If you admit someone with a 171 and no GPA and they come, then you can count that 171 in your LSAT pool. They would benefit from that. What gives an admissions committee pause is okay, but how will they do in the program? Are they going to be able to get a job? Are they going to graduate? Are they going to pull down our employment numbers for whatever reason? On the back end, will we pay for taking up this very high LSAT score? So that is a calculation that they are making.
Ways that you can strengthen your application: Work very hard on getting a strong LSAT score—the best score you can get. Work very hard on your personal statement. Make sure that you have lots of eyeballs on your personal statement so that it reads as smoothly as possible in English because they're going to look at your writing really carefully. They're going to look at your LSAT essays really carefully.
I know that the process of procuring letters of recommendation in different countries, culturally, is very different than trying to get recommendations from professors here in the States. I've had applicants say they don't want to bother their professor, partner or supervisor because it's really a burden for them to put together a letter, or they'll say, "They told me that I should write a letter and then they'll just sign it." And so, their references end up looking a little different and are not as typical as the kind of letters that we would get from domestic candidates, so that might make an international application look a little off.
It's like little things that set the application apart from the rest of the pool. You want your application to be distinctive for positive reasons. When you're trying to get letters of recommendation, try to find someone who is in a position to know you and can write about you well. That doesn't mean that you should go try to get a letter of recommendation from the dean of your college or your undergraduate school, or the partner at the law firm that maybe you were interning at, who never sees you but they're willing to use their letterhead. That's not very helpful. You should try to find someone who is going to be able to write about you well and personally knows what your goals are. I think that things like that can make your application stand out in positive ways.
David: Thanks. I've also heard (I think you said this) that many admissions officers say that they're much more likely to read the LSAT writing sample of international candidates. I've actually never heard of and I really never thought that much about how students can prepare for that LSAT writing sample. Selene, do you know of anybody who practices that?
Selene: Who practices—
David: the LSAT writing sample?
Selene: I think everyone should practice writing the LSAT essays, like that should be part of your review. Here's why: I was listening to a panel of admissions deans, and they were saying that they all read those essays really carefully. They will deny people who do not treat that process with respect. Someone was completely flippant in the essay, and maybe they got a decent score, but this person wrote inappropriate stuff in their essay. Oh my gosh, this one guy said this candidate drew spiders all over their LSAT essay page.
Selene: Yeah. And he's like, "You're applying to a professional school, what are we supposed to make of this when you treat the process this way?" And I made a mental note that, yes, I mean, I have always read the LSAT essays. Because it's a time crunch, they don't have the time to write something super polished, they haven't had different pairs of eyes looking at it, so this is really how they write. So I think they will review the essays of international candidates very, very carefully, because sometimes they don't provide TOEFL scores, because the TOEFL test is very different from the LSAT. If you can post a strong LSAT score then it doesn't matter. You know what your TOEFL score is. But they read it carefully for everybody, I think.
David: It sounds like we need to add a section to enforce—
Selene: No spiders.
David: No spiders. That's the main takeaway from this entire webinar.
J.Y.: Next, we hear from a student who was having a hard time getting started on her personal statement.
Sager: I just really need to work on my personal statement. I feel like after reading so many different essays and even talking with friends of mine who have all these extraordinary, fascinating stories, and not to say that I don't have a story I'm sure that I do, but being able to identify it in a way that makes it something I can write about, I could definitely use maybe some more pointers on writing a compelling statement.
David: Yeah, sure. Can you see my screen right now?
Sager: Yes, I can.
David: So, first thing I'll do is just show you a couple lessons at 7sage.com/blog. I just posted this—law school personal statement examples that worked. We see a lot of really good essays, but these are some of my all-time top favorites. These are all essays that I remember long after I worked on them with people. If you haven't seen this blog post yet, you should check it out for inspiration because a lot of these essays are also by people who never piloted a plane to carry water to a remote village that was on fire or whatever. These are just normal people who are good writers and who carved a story out of the otherwise undifferentiated mass of their lives.
This first one's a really good example. It's about somebody who thought about being a doctor and then decided that she wanted to work in law after a stint in advertising. It's not an incredible story from the outside, she wouldn't sell the movie rights to it, but it's just so well-written and so fun. So that's one you should look at. You should really read all of them.
The second one is another good example. This writer is not someone who's talking about an accomplishment or something extraordinary that happened to her, either in a good way or a bad way. She wrote about her experience of depression, and she just wrote about it with such precision and poetry and thoughtfulness that it turned into a great essay. And she was accepted to Stanford.
This one, I guess, is a little closer to an extraordinary experience, but not extraordinary in a bad way. The writer talks about how his friend passed away and how he dealt with grief by weightlifting. And he got into his top choice school. I think that he got in with a below median LSAT score, and I know that he got a handwritten note from the dean of that school praising his personal statement in particular.
So yeah, check these out. A lot of these essays are written by people with average experiences—experiences that are not themselves the hallmark of a good essay. They made up for it by just telling a thoughtful story. I know that's not a tip, but they might serve as inspiration for you.
If you're looking at the course, probably the most helpful lesson for "how do I tell a story about my life, it's boring" is this one, How to Write a Personal Statement: Story Basics, and then this one about personal statement topics. If you scroll down past the video, there's just a huge long list of prompts. And if you brainstorm these prompts—brainstorming means that you're not worrying about the eloquence, you're not letting yourself be psyched out, you're just writing as quickly as you can, and you're trying to dredge the bottom of your mind to see what comes up—you might surprise yourself with the details. But first, you're just going to sort of splatter the canvas with paint. And then later, you're going to look at it and see if there's an interesting shape in there. So before you despair, just brainstorm. Put a lot of stuff on the page and then come back to it and look for anything interesting. Does that help?
Sager: Yes, it does. I actually read those personal statements today, with the exception of one, I think. I mean, you're right, because I was just looking at the top. It says weightlifting and I started reading it. I'm like, "Okay, I don't see weightlifting." This is really gripping. I mean, of course, that didn't come in until the end. I'll definitely work on, I guess, the brainstorming. I have a long list of just like you said—like a smattering of things. I'm still trying to decide which one of these. I guess where I'm passionate enough about, where it has the story and the lesson or the event.
David: The thing is that you find the story and the lesson. Even though in an ideal world, you write a topic that you have to write, you have no choice because it grips you, it chooses you. The wand chooses the wizard, you don't choose the wand. That's the ideal scenario. In real life, lots of people just choose a topic, and then they work hard in a very matter of fact way, just plugging away, spend couple hours every day maybe for a while, until they just get to a good draft.
I have a friend who runs a writing workshop who just tweeted something like, "It is so much easier to turn crappy writing into good writing than write a great draft immediately." It's so true. Your first step is not to write a good essay. Your first step is to write a bad essay. Your second step is to revise it into a slightly less bad essay. And your fifth step is to write a good essay.
Sager: Oh, that's a nice way of looking at it.
J.Y.: This next student wonders if they really need to explain why law in their personal statement.
Krishna: As I'm going through applications, I'm noticing from school to school, some just say like, "Have a personal statement, talk about whatever you want." They don't really mention even talking about law at all, whereas another school, I guess, wants a little bit more emphasis. And then another school said, "Do whatever you want, include law, why you want to pursue law at their school," or put it on like additional to in another document. So my question is, in terms of the ones that doesn't say anything about law, should I be still putting some form of emphasis on it? Isn't it like implied that I should talk about why I want to pursue law?
David: That's such a good question. I'm going to take a stab at it and then I'm going to pass it off. I think the answer is yes and no. If you only wrote an essay about why you just love to paint your fingernails black—it makes you feel good and it expresses your identity—that's it? Like there's no sort of broader reaching towards a lesson, a moment of growth or anything about your career ambitions? You will probably leave the admissions committee scratching their head and saying, "Well, I'm glad that you can express yourself by painting your fingernails black, but I don't know why I care. I don't know why you thought I would care."
So even if they don't specify that they want to hear why you want to go to law school, it's often a good way to wrap up your essay because it just gives meaning to the whole thing. If you pivot towards law at the end, you sort of retrospectively cast the entire essay as a setup for this moment. And you can still have your personal story and your narrative poem about why you like to paint your nails black. But, I also think just from a practical point of view, you'll drive yourself crazy if you try to write 10 different essays for 10 different schools. So, the other really good reason to pivot towards law at the end is that it makes your personal statement work for most schools.
Krishna: Can I ask you a follow-up question to that?
Krishna: I've talked about dance because I did Indian classical dance. And I had a big graduation. It was an eight-year journey, basically. I had like 500 people came and it was a big celebration. So I kind of talked about starting from the beginning, followed by before and after the turning point (kind of like how you've put it in the curriculum), and then at the very end I talked about law in a couple of sentences. When I gave it to two people to read who were not too familiar with law but just kind of basing it off of the prompt, they felt like I was applying to a dance school, essentially. They got that at the end I put the law part, but they feel like I put a ribbon on the end just to say, "I put it." Does that make sense?
I was sort of basing it off of the personal statement that you put up. It was about culinary school. I think they were trying to make a dish and it took six weeks or something like that. So it was similar to that. I think that person ended up writing one or two sentences at the end trying to connect it. That was my thought process. I felt like that was the best way to talk about my motivation, dedication and perseverance. But I guess it came off as not really too law-based. I guess now I'm really confused as to how to approach it.
David: Well, I think, I feel like...by the way, I'm stalling because I feel like Selene is going to come in here and slap me with the hand of God. She's going to come in and say, "Yes, you need to write about law school." But while I'm still buying time, Krishna, I also think that you have to, like it's not a question of what the best personal statement is in a vacuum, the question is like what you can write about compellingly.
If you take two extreme cases, on the one hand, if you have absolutely no reason to apply to law school—you're just doing it—you're probably not going to be able to write a good statement about why you want to go to law school. So, you may have no choice or at least maybe the best choice is to write about dance and pivot to law at the end. Now, I haven't read your essay, maybe there's a better way to do it than you're doing it, but I don't think like it's a structural problem, necessarily.
On the other hand, if you have great reasons for going to law school and if you did incredible internships—at the DA's office and at a big law firm—and then you wrote about dance, I would say maybe you should rethink that. Maybe there's another way to write about dance for a supplemental essay or something, but the law experience would be better for the personal statement. So, you're always just comparing your options. I think that if you don't have a better legal essay and if the story about dance is the best story you can tell, and if the prompt doesn't ask you to talk about law school, it's probably okay, I say, getting nervous as I let Selene stomp on me.
Selene: No stomping. Obviously, you've dedicated a large chunk of your life to dance. You're passionate and you care about it. It takes a lot of work, concentration and dedication. These are all great things about a person that could be applicable in law school and in the law profession. So I would say, if this is something that you love and you care about, you absolutely should write about it. I don't know what your motivations are for wanting to go to law school. It might be because you want to be a social crusader and you want to save the world, or it might be because you want to go work at a white-shoe law firm and make lots of money for a little while, which is all great.
I was thinking that I have seen lots and lots of personal statements from artists who had made a go at being an artist—often musicians, dancers, people who write plays, or people who act in theater. They had experience as artists where they tried to be creative, and they ran into the legal side of the art world. They realized that this is really interesting or maybe they were taken advantage by some people and they realized they need to know their rights, or they realized that they want to help other artists with their rights, something like that. That's how they brought the law into it, and they said, "I experienced this personally, and therefore I want to know more for myself, but I also want to work with artists in the future. I want to represent artists. I'm very interested in intellectual property law, and that's why I want to go to your law school." It was a very natural progression. I'm not saying that that is true. It's one way and it completely makes sense. It is an approach that I've seen a lot and it works successfully. Is that truly the case for everybody? Maybe not, but it was the approach that made sense and was successful. So, it's something to think about.
J.Y.: And lastly, a student asks if a "why X" essay is necessary for each school that asks for one.
Sager: One last question. I did the Georgetown group interview and there was kind of a mention that writing an optional "why X" is advantageous, basically. Is that something you'd recommend for pretty much all schools that I'm serious about? Because in half of the schools that I'm applying to, there's an optional "why X." Other schools like USC does not have that. Is that something that you'd be encouraged to write, if that is in fact one of the choices?
David: I'll give my advice. I would love to hear what Selene thinks too. I actually haven't discussed this with her. I happen to think that obviously if a school offers a "why X" you have to write it, even if it's an optional. I don't think it's really optional. Unless it's something like Michigan, where they have a menu of essays. If you write another one, I think that's fine too—if you have a really strong one. I do not think that you should reflexively write a "why X" if a school doesn't ask for it. I've spoken to a Fordham admissions officer who said, basically, write it if it's really good. I think that that's the right answer for other schools too.
If you have really specific and compelling reasons to go to a school or maybe if you're an amazing writer and you just do a ton of research and you write something that's just totally natural sounding and it doesn't sound like a regurgitation of their own marketing material, which is what most "why X" sound like, I think in that case it is okay to send a "why X" as an addendum. If that's not you, I think that you should strongly consider the option of adding a couple "why X" sentences to the end of your personal statement. It's less of an ask on the admissions officer's time and it's a good way to make some extra effort without foisting another unsolicited essay on them. But Selene, I would love to hear your thoughts on that.
Selene: I agree with you that if they say optional "why X" essay, then you got to write it. Because if you're not writing it, somebody else is and that's going to make them stand out more than you. So if they give you the choice, then you have to do it. And if you do it, then you want to make sure that it doesn't sound like it's too obvious—a regurgitation of their own marketing materials. I would say get on Google and start googling that school—see what interesting things their faculty are writing about, see if any of them have been mentioned in the news, or is there an area of law that you're particularly interested in, and there's a course, seminar, clinic or some sort of study abroad program that the school has that really interests you. I would just pick out a couple of things that are not on the first page of a Google search just to show that you made an effort.
If they don't ask for a "why X" then absolutely what David said. I think it's a good idea to somehow add, maybe in the last paragraph, talk about specific things about that school that really interests you, like if you have a great interest in dispute resolution and you know that this school is one of the top 10 programs in the country for dispute resolution, then you want to say I'm coming specifically for this. That would be useful.
If the school doesn't give you the option for doing a "why X" essay, but they do allow for additional addenda in the electronic application, I would use that opportunity only if you have a special connection, like if they have a specific program that is completely on point with what you want to do in your future. Or if you've got like a family connection or a professional connection, if you've worked at a place where the mentor says you absolutely must go to this place, or if you have a connection with a student or a professor there, or something different and unique, that ties you to that school, then I would definitely try to figure out a way to discuss that. Because sometimes you'll see things in a file that makes the reader say, "Oh, the dean says that we should let him or her know if we get an applicant that has this type of connection." You never know. So if you have any sort of special tie with a school, then you might want to highlight that in some way.
Sager: Is it okay if it's just like two paragraphs or a paragraph? Even not a full page, but like a paragraph or two, is that cool?
Selene: I would say two really good, well-thought-out paragraphs are fine.
Sager: All right. Those are my questions. Thank you so much for helping me with that. And again, I'm excited now to take the January test. So thank you.
Selene: Good luck.
J.Y.: And that's a wrap for this episode. Like I said, Selene and David will be holding more office hours in the coming weeks, and we'll be collecting and releasing another episode of highlights soon. If you have questions about your own applications, please do join us. These office hours are totally free to attend and we love to have you.
I hope you found this episode helpful. If you did, please consider leaving us a review. If you have any questions or suggestions about future episodes, please send them to firstname.lastname@example.org.
See you next time!