On today's episode, J.Y. Ping and David Busis talk about how to present the best version of yourself and maximize your chances of getting into law school.
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What Affects Your Chances of Getting Into Law School?
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J.Y.: Hello and welcome to the 7Sage podcast. I'm J.Y. Ping, and on today's episode, you'll be hearing my conversation with David Busis. David runs our Admissions Consulting Services. And since it's November, we talked all about admissions, personal statements, diversity statements, recommendation letters, and résumés; how to present the best version of yourself and maximize your chances of getting into law school.
J.Y.: I'm here with David Busis, who heads up Admissions Consulting at 7Sage. Before we start, David, can I just get you to talk a little bit about yourself? Introduce yourself to listeners who don't already know you.
David: Yeah, sure. So my name is David. I went to Yale College and then I went to the Iowa Writers' Workshop, but I also applied to law school and I got into Harvard, Yale and several other T14 schools. I wanted to find a way to use my writing skills and so I wound up helping other people with their applications. Four or five years later, I have learned as much as I could about the admissions process. I have hired people who have directed admissions departments and worked as admissions officers. Now this is what I do and I love my job.
J.Y.: Cool. Can you tell us more about your team, roughly what's their composition, their background? What makes 7Sage’s Admissions Consulting Services different?
David: Absolutely. 7Sage has a team of people who worked in admissions offices and professional writers and editors. I think the second part is what makes us different. A lot of other admissions consulting shops are staffed with people who worked in admissions offices, but who aren't necessarily trained to or experienced in writing and editing essays.
For us, being a great writer is just a sine qua non of working here and being an effective admissions consultant, because although we give our clients advice, at the end of the day, like, 97% of the actual work we do is improving the essays and making sure that everything on the page absolutely sings.
J.Y.: Right. So let's say someone is considering admissions consulting services and they're trying to decide between our services and some other consultants who have more background in admissions consulting. I think the rationale is I'm going to go with people who have more background in admissions, maybe they were admissions officers at law schools before they were admissions consultants. They certainly have looked at tons of applications. They know how to pick out winners. I think from a student's perspective, maybe it makes sense to go with them as opposed to a team who has a writing-heavy background.
David: I don't think that you have to choose between people with a writing background and people with an admissions background. At 7Sage, we have both and we try to share knowledge. So if a client is working with an editor and has an admissions question that goes into some wonkery, we will just forward it to somebody on the team who worked in an admissions office. That just happened today. Someone just said, "Hey, 7Sage. I don't know if I need to update schools because I got a new LSAT score." Well, they see that automatically and we just ran it through one of our former admissions officers, and she told us, "Yes, schools will see it, but at the same time, it's a great opportunity to update the school and reiterate your interest."
I think the writing component though, again, is what makes 7Sage different, and that's really where the value proposition lies. Just because people have judged applications does not mean that they are necessarily good at putting together an application. For example, if somebody is a judge of Olympic figure skating, they might be really good at noting whether a person stuck the landing or not, but that doesn't mean that they can do a triple axel or even teach someone else to do a triple axel. We make sure that people on the team have done triple axels themselves, which means that they're professional published writers, and also that they know how to teach doing that. Almost everyone on the team has taught writing or edited in some capacity, and we try to give all of our clients the benefit of both that writing expertise and the admissions expertise.
J.Y.: Do you think admissions consulting services or essay editing services is something that every applicant needs? Or if not, who do you think benefits most from services like that?
David: I feel like it's easier to say who doesn't benefit from it. For one thing, I don't think that you should bother paying for our services if you're LSAT score and your GPA exceed the median of the school you want to go to. So if you have a 177 and a 3.91, and you want to go to Northwestern or U of Chicago, you can hire us and we can probably help you put together a better personal statement, but you really don't need to.
The other people who shouldn't hire us are those with unrealistic expectations. So definitely don't pay for admissions consulting if in your mind it's a bargain that will let you get into a T14 school. We cannot promise that you will and we never do. The way the admissions consulting works is you're essentially competing against people with the same or similar numbers. So if you have, say, a 166 and a 3.71, your file is going in a bucket with other people who have the same numbers. If a school, let's say it's a school that's a little lower down on the list, maybe it's Brooklyn law school, they want someone with a 166 or they want to shore up their LSAT median, they might look in that bucket to admit someone with those numbers. So you are trying to distinguish yourself from other people in the same cohort. That's when your admissions essays come into play. But you're not going to leapfrog somebody who has both a better LSAT score and a better GPA no matter how good your essays are.
J.Y.: Right. So definitely not for people whose numbers are already stellar applying to schools. You mentioned the LSAT and GPA above the medians, I mean, clearly above the 75th percentile, too, but if their numbers are above the median then you think it's a pretty safe bet, and probably don't need admissions consulting services.
David: It's never a safe bet because admissions offices are just bombarded with applications and like anybody in that position, they are looking for reasons to say no. So if you're unsure and if you're able to afford it, go ahead and hire an admissions consultant to make sure that you dotted your i's and crossed your t's, and also, frankly, to make sure that you don't come across as a jerk or something in your statement.
J.Y.: That's very true. Actually, I recall having worked with a student. This is years ago, when I was running the PreProBono program in New York, where the student had an exceedingly high LSAT score—we're talking, like, above 175. We just thought that he would get in anywhere. Also, really good GPA. So, as a consequence, we didn't really pay much attention to their essay. That came back to haunt us because he actually didn't get into, I think, any of the T10. It was only later that we had looked at the essay that we realized, "Yeah, wow. This essay, really, was bad." It was just like a poorly written essay. It kind of looked like it was an essay written for a high school English class.
I think that's when I realized that, like you said, they are looking for reasons to say no, because they have far more applicants with the right numbers than they have slots to accommodate those applicants.
David: Right. I mean, I do a similar thing when I hire people. I put out the call, I say I'm looking for such and such—a ton of applications come in. My first step is not to identify the most promising candidates, it's to identify the least promising candidates because that's much easier. You just push the reject button over and over and over again. And after you do that, you're dealing with a much more manageable subset of applications. I think a lot of admissions officers do the same thing. That's why every year top schools are turning down people with 180s.
If you have a 180, you have a decent shot of getting in anywhere, of course depending on your GPA and your character and fitness issues, but it's certainly not a free pass. But when you do have really high numbers, I think that you should play defense. I think if it is yours to lose, the opposite is true. If you have below median numbers for a given school, I don't think that you should try something crazy because it's probably just not going to work. Do not, in lieu of a personal statement, record yourself serenading the admissions committee. You're just not going to get admitted that way. But on the other hand, you have maybe a little more leeway to take a risk to write about a personal statement topic that could backfire, because frankly, you're probably not going to get in any way. So why not? Why not throw a Hail Mary?
J.Y.: So since we got on the topic of personal statements, it is a general sentiment among applicants that this is like the worst part of applying. Some people have even said this is worse than studying for the LSAT. Might have been easier for you since you are a writer, but I remember in my case I spent way too much time on my personal statement. It was like seven months because I just didn't know what to write and came up with multiple drafts, multiple different stories. They all sucked, I thought. I even benefited from editing services that my undergraduate university offered for free. They had an undergraduate writing center where graduate students in the Creative Writing Program offer free help for undergrads to bring in whatever piece of writing. So I benefited a lot from that. It was with that very intensive guidance and editing that I finally was able to craft—it's just like a two-page personal statement. So I ended up applying really late everywhere, because it was such a difficult process, and I know that sentiment is echoed by applicants today.
Do you have any advice, like big picture advice, for how people can get started?
David: Yeah. When I start working with applicants on their personal statement, I asked them a series of prompts, and I would recommend them to anyone. So I'll ask questions like, "What's the hardest thing you've ever done?" "What are you most proud of?" "Tell me more about your background." "Tell me about a time you changed your mind or learn something or grew." "What do you care about other than your friends or family?" and "Why do you want to go to law school?" Really, really think about that. Don't give me a glib answer.
J.Y.: That last one is going to be difficult. I would guess probably half, maybe more than half, don't have really good answers for that last one. But the idea is that you give your client this list and it's like homework now. They just have to sit down and write a paragraph-long response to each of those questions like, the hardest thing I ever done was fill in the blank, the thing I care about most aside from my family and friends is whatever. You just fill in the list and just send it back to you.
David: Yeah. Have you ever done any free writing or are you familiar with the concept? Some people call it automatic writing.
J.Y.: I have a vague idea, but probably best to just let you explain it.
David: The idea is basically that you close your eyes and you let your fingers fly, because writing is always sort of a back and forth between two processes. One is pure creativity, and when you do that, you just have to kill the editor in your brain and let anything go—everything's a good idea. And the other process is the opposite. It's diligent. It's rigorous. It's not creative. It's looking skeptically at what you've written in, throwing most of it out, because most of it is going to be crap. But the brainstorming is purely the first process, it's purely creative. If you just sort of type—type away, close your eyes, don't worry at all about grammar or punctuation, don't worry about sounding smart, don't worry if these are good ideas or not—sometimes you can just bypass that skeptical editorial part of your brain and dredge up really good details from your unconscious that you wouldn't be able to access if you were thinking about it in a more analytic way.
J.Y.: I've heard, I might be making this up, did somebody say like, "Write drunk, edit sober?" Is that a thing? Is that professional writers actually say?
David: Well, unfortunately, there were a lot of drunk professional writers—Hemingway, Fitzgerald. They did write sopping drunk. I don't know if it's an advice that I would give but I kind of understand it. You can think of the free write as an exercise in self-induced, although not actual, drunkenness. You just kind of want to act as if you're drunk and that you have absolutely no inhibitions. And again, later, that's when you can hit the reject button over and over again on the bad ideas, but for the time being, you don't want to give any quarter to that editor in your brain.
J.Y.: That makes a lot of sense. So you'll end up with something that's very long, very messy, possibly incoherent, but that's okay. That's fine.
David: Absolutely. Another technique for automatic writing is just to never stop typing, or if you prefer, never stop writing. You can also do it free hand. So you probably will end up with something that's an absolute mess. But that's okay, you need the mess—that sort of the raw clay that you shape and center and sculpt into something later.
J.Y.: Yeah, that makes sense. Again, just a drawing on my distant memory of writing my own story, it was just like a raw mess of experiences and memories that didn't have a narrative arc until it was shaped into a story—just like this happened, that happened, it's happened, I felt this way—until I was really forced through that tedious writing-editing-rewriting-editing-rewriting process to make it into a story, that then I can look back. Now I think back about the episode of my life where I wrote about my personal statement like that's how I remember it now. That's become like that's overtaken the random kind of disconnected memories and feelings I had. Now it’s that narrative arc that is that part of my life that happened in the past.
David: Well, that's a really good point. It sounds like you actually went through a really great process that most of our clients go through to, it's just maybe you indulge yourself and took too long. But what you were going to say is interesting, because of course, life doesn't happen in clean narrative arcs. All stories are artifice. You hear someone tell a good story and you think, "Oh, it must have happened like that." But of course, it didn't happen like that. Life is totally stochastic. It's only in the process of recalling it and usually conveying it to someone else, or at least conveying it to ourselves, that we shape it, we form it and we give it meaning. And we say, "Oh, this was the beginning and this was a moment that something changed, and here's where I am now."
J.Y.: Yeah, that is something I hear a lot. That's the advice that I hear a lot for writing a good, effective personal statement. Something has to be different—compare the beginning to the end—something has to have changed in you. Why does that make for a compelling, effective personal statement?
David: I think that's maybe just the definition of a good story, or a meaningful story. If something happened to you, but nothing changed, who cares? If you stubbed your toe, okay something happened, but if you didn't learn anything from it, then there's no point in relating it. It's the change that gives it meaning. The change can mean that you changed your mind or your attitude, or it could just mean that you matured a little bit and grew. Sometimes you don't even understand what the lesson of the story is until you start writing about it. The occasion of writing an essay is a perfectly legitimate occasion to do some reflection.
J.Y.: Yeah, okay. Or I suppose the related question would be why do you suppose admissions officers care? Or are they trying to get us to do that?
David: That's a good question. First of all, I'm not sure that admissions officers are phrasing this to themselves in the same terms. I'm not sure that they are sitting down and saying, "Okay, let's look at the essays where something changes." I think that, probably, stories where something changes are just going to be better stories. Admissions officers are probably operating by the principle of 'I know it when I see it. I know a good statement when I see it. And I also know it because I remember it.' I just think that the statements that end up sticking with you are more often than not the ones that articulate a change. That's also a really good way to show that you're self-aware and that you grew and matured.
J.Y.: Okay, that makes sense. It sounds like the admissions officers, from their perspective, are just looking at a massive data. They're just looking at numbers, personal statements, recommendation letters, and they need to tell applicants apart that have similar numbers. If your numbers aren't there, you're already out of the running. But choosing between people who have similar numbers, they need to be able to recall like you've got to be the one that they remember. How you do that is by conveying a compelling narrative just like the way to get other people to remember you. You are the girl that whatever your story is, versus someone who has, say, a bland story where nothing much happens. And then the admissions officer can't quite recall what's so special about you.
David: Right, I think that's true. I actually think that a big source of anxiety for some applicants is that they think nothing ever happened to them, so they tend to be a little bit glib, they say, "Oh, these people who suffered enormous challenges because they are immigrants, or they're refugees, or they suffered grief, they're so lucky because now they have something to write about." But of course, you really don't have to have gone through a challenge that everybody would, on the face of it, recognize as life-altering.
To write a good personal statement, it's all about how you tell the story. Some of the best personal statements I've ever read are about people who just went through unbelievable challenges and came out stronger, but others are about smaller, more internal challenges. I guess another way of saying this is that if your challenge was small and internal, you just have to shrink the canvas. Don't portray it as if it were something that everybody should be amazed by. Just portray it as what it was—something that was hard for you at the time and put it in perspective.
I'm thinking of one of the best essays I've ever read, which was about a writer's struggle with depression when she was 10. The personal statement sort of violates every rule, if there are any. It begins with an incident that happened in childhood. It's about her mental health. And yet she just does such an amazing job of reflecting on it and telling us how her encounter with depression shaped her worldview in a way that she carries forward through her adult life. The essay is absolutely gobsmacking. It's spectacular. And she got into Stanford, so it obviously worked. I wasn't the only person who thought that.
J.Y.: Or her numbers? Her numbers are obviously fair for Stanford as well.
David: Her numbers were also strong, but it wasn't a guarantee that she would get in.
J.Y.: Right. There's no guarantee at Stanford, they reject everybody.
David: No, there's no guarantee. But what I was going to say earlier is, like, I can think of two ways that you distinguish yourself and they're usually not conscious choices because you're always trying to do this anyway. They're also not mutually exclusive. One is to write an essay that is just so good that the admissions officer can't forget it.
The other is to brand yourself or sort of give yourself a hook. For example, when I applied, I didn't really think about this explicitly, but I branded myself as the food guy. I wrote my personal statement about how I was writing a novel about agriculture and food law, how I lost my belief in the novel, and I ended up getting more interested in the legal problems that I was fictionalizing and I wanted to study them in real life. And then I also wrote my Yale 250 about an encounter with a butcher who was artisanal and came from a long line of boutique butchers and then he had been hired by Hormel to make sausage for them. It sort of put him in a moral dilemma because he didn't know if he would be selling out.
So, both of those essays worked together to show me as like, "Oh, yeah, here's the meat food ag law guy."
J.Y.: In your case, obviously, it worked out. I suppose there wasn't any chance of that style of branding being over branded, like there were in your cycle 100 food guys. I mean, that worked out.
David: There probably weren't.
J.Y.: Yeah, there probably weren't. But do you suppose that strategy could backfire if you don't strategize well? What are some of the common, there must be right? There must be some brands that are just overused and you should probably stay away from.
David: I think there are. I mean, there are a ton of people, obviously, who say that they're interested in human rights or international law with a pretty fuzzy idea of what that means. If I were an admissions officer, I would roll my eyes at somebody who wants to do human rights law, especially if they don't have a strong record of doing human rights extracurricular activities or volunteering while they were in college or afterwards.
J.Y.: You mean like if it's just transparent from their application that they have a very vague understanding of what it is? I mean, work experience will be great to back that up, like if you actually worked at the UN.
David: If you worked at Amnesty International or the UN or something, that makes it a lot easier to pull off that essay. I think it's very hard to write an essay that's like 'I took a trip, whether it was a volunteering trip or a mission trip or something like that to a third world country, and I saw how people suffered and it really fired me up'. There are just so many essays that are like that.
J.Y.: It's funny you say that, I have to confess that is, that kind of fits the narrative of what my personal statement was about. I wonder if over time that's become a saturated narrative versus maybe when I was applying back in 2007, perhaps that branding worked for me.
I studied political science in undergrad and I went to a rural village in China to study local level elections. So China's authoritarian, as everyone knows, but what people don't know is that at the lowest level of government, at the village level, villagers actually participate in direct democracy. They elect their local village chiefs. So I wrote about how I went and stayed for like a month, and just actually witnessed the elections taking place. I wrote about that, which now sounds kind of like 'went to a really poor place saw some stuff that was different from what I'm used to and now I'm interested in the law'.
David: Yeah, but having said what I just said, I think you can make any essay work and yours actually sounds pretty persuasive to me, because an essay always lives or dies by the details. If you abstract enough, you see that there aren't that many different kinds of story. I've heard it said that there are two stories—person goes on a journey or stranger goes to town. They're sort of true for personal statements too. So for me to say that you should never write a law school personal statement about a trip and how it changed you, would be as ridiculous as saying nobody should ever write a love story again because Shakespeare covered that in Romeo and Juliet. There's room for infinite variation. It's just that the bar is probably higher if you're trodding well-trodden ground. It really can't seem superficial.
But at the end of the day, it's always about sincerity. Paradoxically, the best way to brand yourself is really not to think about your brand, at least maybe not until the very end, because if you do, it probably will come off as insincere and pandering.
J.Y.: So, we've been talking about personal statements this whole time, let's pivot and talk about an adjacent topic—the diversity statement. Maybe just broadly, what is a diversity statement and who should write a diversity statement?
David: A diversity statement is an essay about your identity. Sometimes law school applications will identify a prompt as a diversity statement. They will say, "If you would like to write a diversity statement, blah, blah, blah." Sometimes they won't. Sometimes they'll have a prompt that says something like if you think that your background or identity merits extra consideration, or something like that, you can write about it. Sometimes they have no option for this at all. Sometimes they'll just say if there's anything else you would like to tell us, go ahead and tell us in this addendum.
I think of diversity statement prompts as coming in two flavors. One is the traditional flavor. Those prompts seem to specify that they want people who fulfill a conventional definition of diversity, so we're talking race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, sexual orientation, and maybe religion.
The other flavor of diversity statement is loosey-goosey. Schools like Stanford or Berkeley seem to welcome statements from anyone, even if you don't meet these traditional definitions of diversity. You can talk about an experience or background, and when that happens, the diversity statement more or less becomes a second personal statement. It should probably be a little bit shorter. It should probably focus a little bit less on why you want to be a lawyer and a little more on your identity. But again, it's basically just a second essay.
Diversity statements are always optional. You should only write them if you can really complement your application (complement spelled with an E), add something new, and if you can write a really strong one. If you can't, don't feel like you're going to be in trouble because it's going to look like you're not trying. It won't look like that. It's way better to submit an application with just an awesome personal statement than to submit an application with an awesome personal statement and a mediocre, kind of pushing it, diversity statement.
J.Y.: So that could backfire on you, if you're diversity statement is either not well-written or unnecessary?
David: It really could, because everything you send to the admissions committee that they don't demand is a presumption. It's a presumption that it's worth their time to read it, that they'll think that it's important. If in fact it's not important, you might irritate them.
J.Y.: Right. Like why did you waste my time making me read this?
J.Y.: So you're saying for people who meet the conventional definition of diversity, like race or ethnicity or sexual orientation, that for those people, probably they should write one.
David: That's right. Sometimes you'll cover your diversity factors in your personal statement, and if you really have nothing else to say after that, I think it's okay not to write a diversity statement. But I would say that most people who meet the traditional definitions of diversity should probably write a diversity statement.
J.Y.: And the format if it follows, we can just rehash that conversation we had about personal statements on how to write a compelling diversity statement.
David: Yeah. You should, of course, look at the law school applications prompt itself. That's always going to supersede what I say or what anyone else says. But I think the best way to do it is to write another narrative. With a diversity statement, it's probably a little bit more okay to write a somewhat disjointed essay that just covers factor one, factor two, factor three. I don't think that won't necessarily violate the terms of what they're asking for. On the other hand, I don't think it'll be as effective as a good story, because what is as memorable as a good story? Almost nothing.
J.Y.: That's true. So it's the same reason why you want to write a compelling personal statement just so that AOs remember you.
J.Y.: Maybe we can talk about one other thing. So in rank order of importance, forget the numbers, would you agree that personal statement is first, diversity statement if you have one is second, and then recommendation letters as third?
David: I don't know if I would agree on that. I think it's really hard to say. I think that all of those things together form a story, a sort of gestalt. I generally spend the most time on the personal statement because I think it is your best opportunity to say everything you need to say and to tell the strongest story, but maybe the way I would phrase it is that all of the other components have veto power. So if you write a stellar personal statement, but your recommendations are terrible, it might still sink you. If you write an okay personal statement and your recommendations are the best that the Ad Com has ever seen, that could sway them too.
They're all really important, but I guess my concession to what you're saying is I do think it makes sense to spend the most time on your personal statement, and the second most time on your diversity statement. And unless your recommender is asking you to write the letter themselves, you aren't going to spend that much time on the rec, except in so far as you have to cultivate the recommenders.
J.Y.: Yeah, that does happen. How do you feel about that? When you ask a professor or employer for a recommendation letter and they're busy, they want to help you but they don't want to spend the time to write the letter, they just asked you to write it yourself. What do you say to clients who are in that situation?
David: Well, I hate it. I think it's crappy. But I think it's also just a reality that's becoming more and more common. I usually just bow to it and I say, "Okay, do it," at least it's an opportunity to get very specific. One thing that you know you can control is you can put in lots of anecdotes which your employer or supervisor might not take the time to add.
J.Y.: And those anecdotes are what makes the recommendation letter ironically credible?
David: Yeah, I guess it is ironic if you're the one who's writing yourself. I think that a good recommendation letter also falls into the category of 'I know it when I see it.' Asha Rangappa, who used to be, I think, the Assistant Dean of Admissions at Yale, had a blog called Ask Asha, which is still really popular, and she had a post once where she spoke about some of the best recommendations she's ever read. This isn't exactly right I'm quoting from memory, but one of them was something like, "Applicant X is the fifth person for whom I've written a recommendation letter. Persons one through four were already admitted to your school. Applicant X puts them to shame." That was, like, maybe the entire letter.
J.Y.: That's done, that's a done deal.
David: That was very effective. Anytime you give a rule for writing and probably for applications, there's a meta 80/20 rule. The rule is right 80% of the time and 20% of the time it's just wrong.
J.Y.: Yeah. What's your advice for students seeking recommendation letters? It's often like a very difficult ask. Again, speaking from personal experience, I remember it was hard for me to ask professors to write a letter for me. I don't know how best to say this, it felt like I was promoting myself. I find that to be slightly distasteful, like 'I took your class, maybe multiple class, I got good grades, talk about how good I am because I want to get into this law school'.
David: As an applicant, I can definitely relate. That to me is the ickiest part of the entire process and, really, of applying to anything. I also hate asking for recommendations. On the other hand, I was a professor, as an adjunct at Iowa for three years, and I know lots of academics, so I can tell you professors don't look at it the same way. They know that it's just part of the job and they're really used to it. Many of them will have a sort of template that they can use and then plug in your specifics. So they are probably not looking at you with loathing and dread when you come to their office hours and ask for the recommendation. I mean, maybe they are, and that's just someone that you might want to say, "Thanks, but no thanks. I think I'll actually find someone else." But most of them just understand that it's part of the job.
J.Y.: I've heard it said somewhere, I can't recall where I saw this, but I heard that if you're asking for recommendation, you should just be direct and ask, "Do you think you can write me a good recommendation?"
David: That is my advice too. I think that it's really refreshing, but this is partially just my taste. When someone is asking me for a recommendation, I do not want to read through 400 words of butt-kissing and small talk. I would love it if you just said like, "Hey, David, hope everything's going well. I'm writing to ask you for a recommendation for law school. I totally understand that you're busy and I will completely understand if you can't do it. But if you think you can write me a strong one, I'd be very grateful for your time, and I'd love to set up a quick conversation so I can tell you more about my career ambitions or whatever."
J.Y.: You make it sound so easy. That would be an email that I would spend like at least an hour, just not knowing how to write.
David: Well, it also depends on your relationship with the professor. You never want to take it for granted that they like you, but if you're chummier with them, you have a little more leeway.
J.Y.: Like if you go to office hours, you know you got a good grade, you know they like you, they like it when you raise your hand and speak up in class.
One of my recommendation letters was really easy. It was because I took two classes with this professor and I was his research assistant for two years through the work-study program at my undergrad. That was just a strong relationship that I felt like very comfortable asking for, but the others were kind of difficult for me to ask for.
What do you say to students who have been out of school for a while and have lost touch with their professors?
David: That's tough, so it's always worth it to try to reconnect. I'll tell them reach out, if you still have any connections, acknowledge the fact that it's been a long time. The purpose of that initial email is just to test the waters—see if they remember you, see if they're enthusiastic, see if they are amenable to the idea of having a conversation with you, something like that. If not, no harm. You haven't lost anything, you weren't in touch anyway.
If it turns out that you can't get a good recommendation from any of your old professors, I would just say take heart and know that admissions officers will understand that too. This is very common. If you've been in the workforce for 10 years, they're probably not going to penalize you for not being able to get an undergraduate recommendation. Some people end up taking classes later, just for the purpose of getting a recommendation. I guess if you have the time and the foresight to do that, go ahead and do it. But I don't think that's necessary. I think that you should just focus on getting really strong professional recommendations.
J.Y.: I think the last big component of application is the résumé, and we haven't talked about that at all. Is there something you like to tell people about the résumé?
David: Sure. The résumé has a paradoxical or sort of oxymoronic importance. It's often the first thing that an admissions officer will read and it might color the way she reads the rest of your file, but she might only spend 30 seconds on it. So I think the first thing that you have to know is that she is going to do the luge through it, and it needs to be scannable.
I don't think it's a good idea to pack as much as you can to make the margins .2 and to write in a 9-point font, and to add seven bullet points for every activity. For one thing, I think this sort of touches on the issue of presumption again. Was your marketing internship in Sweden really so formative and important that you need six bullet points to convey all your duties? Probably not, at least not from the perspective of somebody who is working in an admissions office. It might have been really important to you at the time, and if so, maybe that's something you should write your personal statement about. But you're not going to get points by listing every single thing that you did there, because the admissions officer probably isn't going to read every bullet.
When I read résumés, when I'm hiring people, I scan them. I'm just trying to get a sense of what they've done. I will dip in and out, I'll read a bullet here, a bullet there. So really, if you're cutting a bullet point, you're not losing an accomplishment. You're just redirecting the reader to something that's more relevant.
J.Y.: That's a good way to think about that, like everything on the page is competition for the reader's attention.
David: It is, exactly.
J.Y.: I think a lot of undergrads have the problem of maybe not having enough to put on their résumé, especially people who go straight through to law school. What kind of things are important to include if you've never had a full-time job?
David: In that case, you want to list every extracurricular that you do. If you've done 20 extracurriculars, you don't want to list all those, you want to list the important ones. But you certainly want to convey to the admissions committee what you're doing, when you're not studying for class or going to class. You can also include a personal section in which you list some interests or hobbies, the languages that you speak, maybe some skills.
Please don't tell us that you're proficient in Microsoft Office because first of all, almost everybody lists that, and second of all, most of the people who said that probably aren't actually proficient in Excel, which is like the only one that actually requires proficiency, so take that out of your résumé.
What else? You can put study abroad programs. Sometimes people include on their résumé a bullet point to explain a gap in employment. I think that you often want to write an addendum if you've been out of the workforce for a year or something. But it's not a terrible idea to add a bullet, say, in a personal section to explain that you were doing such and such, you're taking care of family for such and such a year, because if they noticed that there's a gap on your résumé, it's nice if the answer is also there on the résumé.
J.Y.: Right, so there's no guesswork. I think we covered somewhat in depth all the big components of an application.
David: Yes, those are the components that are common to every application, then, many applications often have idiosyncratic short answer questions or supplemental essays.
J.Y.: Is there anything else you'd like to say to an applicant who is currently more or less freaking out about their applications?
David: Sure. I think my biggest overriding piece of advice is to be honest. I think that, unfortunately, if you listen to people like me, if you listen to other admissions professionals, you can get in this mindset of like, "Oh, what are the tips and tricks? How am I going to game the admissions committee? What's the secret password that I need to say? What's the formula that I need to follow in my résumé to guarantee admission?" The truth is that good applications come in many different shapes and sizes. The ones that stand out are just the ones that feel like they mean it—the ones that feel like they came from a human being, not a law bot, not an admissions professional—and that feels sincere.
J.Y.: That's really refreshing to know. That actually puts me at ease to know that that's still true out in the world.
David: It is true. It matters most. It helps if you're a great writer, but I would say even that is not the most important part. The most important part is just that it feels real.
J.Y.: On that note, David, thank you so much for your time. This has been so helpful. I've learned a lot. I'm sure our listeners have as well. So thank you again. If people want to get in touch with you, what's the best way to do that?
David: If you want to get in touch, you should visit 7Sage and you can either tagged me in the discussion forum, or if you want to, you can email firstname.lastname@example.org.
J.Y.: Great. Thank you.
David: All right. So if you guys are applying, I wish you good luck.
J.Y.: Hi there, J.Y. again. I hope you found that conversation helpful. Like David said, you can always reach out to him if you have more questions. He will also be holding hour-long Q&As until the end of the year, that's 2018, on a weekly basis, mostly Wednesdays, where you can come and ask him your questions yourself. As always, if you like the podcast, please leave us a review on iTunes, Google Play or wherever you get your podcasts. And if you don't like the podcast, please tell us why. This is a new project for us and we want to do it well. You can reach us with your comments, questions, suggestions, and criticisms at email@example.com. Thank you.
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