It’s amazing how many law school applicants make avoidable application mistakes. It’s unfortunate, but hardly surprising, that these avoidable mistakes can result in your application being immediately rejected. You have one chance to get it right. We interviewed 3 deans of admission from leading law schools and a top admissions consultant to help you avoid application pitfalls.
- Kenneth Kleinrock, Assistant Dean for Admissions, New York University School of Law
- Jason Wu Trujillo, Senior Assistant Dean for Admissions, University of Virginia School of Law
- Sarah Zearfoss, Assistant Dean for Admissions and Special Counsel for Professional Strategies, University of Michigan Law School
- Linda Abraham, Accepted.com, President and Founder
Welcome to Law School Podcaster, your source for inside information and advice on the law school application process. I’m Althea Legaspi.
So, you’ve decided to go to law school, conducted diligent research, and chosen the schools to which you’ll apply. You’re ready to tackle the applications. But how prepared are you? Our experts say it’s astonishing how many law school applicants make correctable mistakes. And these easily avoidable errors could lead to your application being denied. How can you best navigate the application process and avoid the pitfalls? You can start by heeding the advice of these deans of admissions from top law schools and from an admissions consultant in this segment: Avoiding Application Pitfalls: What Not to Do On Your Law School Application.
We speak with New York University School of Law’s Assistant Dean for Admissions, Kenneth Kleinrock, University of Virginia School of Law’s Senior Assistant Dean for Admissions, Jason Wu Trujillo and University of Michigan School of Law’s Assistant Dean for Admissions, Sarah Zearfoss. They receive and read submitted applications and have the final say on who will be accepted to their law schools. We also speak with Admissions Consultant Linda Abraham, the President and Founder of Accepted.com. Together, our guest experts have seen every misstep and fumble applicants make and they share them with Law School Podcaster to help you avoid them and to improve your application.
So what exactly are schools looking for in an applicant? Our deans say, while LSAT and GPA numbers are signifiers to an applicant’s academic wherewithal, the overall application should give bigger insight on the applicant. They should gain a strong sense of the applicant, their personalities and their story from the application.
New York University’s Dean Kleinrock received 8,700 applications for its entering class with only 450 seats to fill. What does he seek in a potential candidate? “We are looking for, to put together a class where the people in that class are going to learn as much from each other and their points of view and their background, their diversity and so forth as they are from reading case books. So if I have done my job well, I will hear from faculty members in the next – in the coming weeks that the level of engagement and intellectual curiosity and the stories that our students bring and their involvement, their engagement and what’s going to go on here, then I’ve done a good job.”
“Those things come from the rest of the application. We do get a very good sense from other aspects. What did this person do with their time? Were they – how do they make the communities in which they live, you know, and work better? Is it a person who took advantage of educational opportunities? On the flipside of that, we have many candidates who – because they needed to work, to make money, to pay for college, whatever, support families – didn’t have the time to get involved in some of the things that we expect, that we see in the typical undergraduate. We value that as much. It’s not sort of a one size fits all. I know this kind of sounds like we’re trying to cover all bases and so forth and it all sounds very good. But the fact is that if you truly look at the person’s academics against those things that they had to do alongside of it, you get a fuller picture, it sort of adds dimension to the candidate.”
With the hundreds to thousands of applications law school admissions committees receive, there is no doubt applicants look to stand out. However, as University of Michigan’s Dean Zearfoss explains, you don’t have to be superhuman to do so. “I really think it’s not a formulaic standing out because it really is a reflection of the reality of the individual applicant. But often — it is often the case. You know, you’re reading applicant and you close it and you just – you feel like that’s just like the ten people before. And sometimes people understand that advice about standing out to mean that they have to be someone extraordinary. They have to save some lives or hike Mt. Everest. But that’s not the case. We all know individuals who, when we talk to them, seem charismatic and fun to talk to and interesting. And it’s not usually because they’re extraordinary people. It’s just because they have confidence and they are good at presenting themselves and they just are successful at communicating. So I don’t think people need to feel that they have to be extraordinary candidates to be candidates that are the kind that admissions officers live and die for.”
Also in a broader sense, standing out in a negative way can also be a mistake. Accepted.com’s Abraham explains. “I think that the biggest thing that makes people not stand out is trying to write what they somehow think the admission committee wants to know. When applicants are sincere, when they are personally revealing, then they are much more likely to provide insight into who they are and that’s what the admissions committee wants to learn from this exercise. The application essays need to balance description and analysis, so you sometimes have applicants who write these theoretical treatises on good character and they are hiding themselves as much as the applicants who provide the travelogue or resume in prose. So, the applicants need to balance that kind of description, analysis, fact, and opinion or insight in their essays. And I think along with the most common mistake is writing what you think the admissions committee wants to hear and the other one would be not balancing these two elements, giving too much of one or the other or only one or the other.”
You don’t want your application to stand out by making obvious mistakes either. Now that we’ve looked at the big picture, let’s tackle specific blunders. According to our guests, every year there are very common errors that proofreading alone could prevent. U of M’s Dean Zearfoss explains. “The number of people who have sloppy errors like typos and easy grammar missteps is quite amazing. It is amazing the number of times the first sentence of a personal statement will have some big blunder and that’s just so easy to fix. A perennial favorite of admissions officers everywhere is the essay about why a school is a perfect fit, in which the candidate names the wrong school. That’s an obvious mistake that everyone should try to avoid. And on the one hand I think we try hard not to let a single instance of carelessness weigh too heavily in the much larger context of an application. But on the other hand, we do want to select people with the capacity for unusual attention to detail. And I think putting some negative weight on a pattern of carelessness is entirely appropriate. I mean, that’s the kind of profession this is, it’s a profession of details.”
In addition to carefully proofreading your entire application to avoid these errors, U of M’s Dean Zearfoss recommends these tips. “Well, spell check and then spell check again. One tip I got is reading backwards, reading particularly a resume. Going backwards helps you pick up weird things that you left off. Doing it slowly, taking the time, putting it aside, and coming back to it. All of those are sort of standard bits of advice for making sure you’re not making some really bone-headed mistake.”
NYU’s Dean Kleinrock cites another obvious mistake. “We ask a series of questions and we put – you know, we ask people about their activities over time. What did you do as an undergraduate? Did you work? And it’s just basically dates from X date to Y date. We ask people how many hours they spent. Sometimes they want to – they exaggerate. They think about more is sometimes better, and if I add up the number of hours that they listed on their resume in a particular semester, and I realize it’s more than the number of real hours in a week, that you may have – that you’ve probably exaggerated. So you’ve gone through that whole exercise. But you want to make sure that you’re not kind of turning off your reader right away by writing on that second page, “see attached. In other words, I have said, please answer these questions, and if you need more space, feel free to go ahead and expand on it later as an addendum to your application or in addition. And yet I’ll see it time and time again, See Attached. In other words, your form, admissions committee, is stifling my creativity. So therefore, I’m not going fill it out. That’s not the best first impression to make.”
Procrastination is another obvious mistake in Accepted.com, Abraham’s book. “You know, I think another real obvious mistake is rushing the applications and the essay, waiting for the last minute and feeling, you know, I can knock out this essay in a couple of hours. That’s a mistake. First of all, it doesn’t take into account that maybe there should be some time really devoted to self-reflection. Take a walk. Think about what you want to do. If you are to prefer to jog than walk, then jog, whatever it may be. But think about it. What are the pros and cons of a legal profession for you? Why are you going into this? Why are you applying for the schools that you’re applying to? And if the answer merely is the ranking, you haven’t done your homework. Go back and do it.”
While obvious mistakes are easily preventable with a thorough review of your application before submission, strategic mistakes can also be avoided with proper thought and attention to detail. University of Virginia’s Dean Trujillo, discusses the importance of whom you choose to write a letter of recommendation. “There are a couple of strategic errors, I think, that students make in the law school admissions process and one of them is, I think, not spending enough time and giving enough thought to who are going to write your letters of recommendation. We get just – I mean you can do the math. We get a minimum of two. Let’s say we get an average of three letters of recommendation per applicant with 8,600 applications. That’s over 25,000 letters of recommendation.”
“So when you’re seeing that volume, it’s not hard to pick out the ones that are a little bit bland or just a little bit less detailed than the other ones, and that can be a mark against an applicant. So, a lot of applicants think it is more important to select somebody who has an important sounding title or is a chair of a department rather than somebody who actually knows them and can write substantively about their abilities. And that, I think, is the biggest mistake that applicants make is not really giving a lot of thought to who is going to write their letter of recommendation.”
UVA’s Dean Trujillo also explains how a letter of recommendation can further emphasize your strengths. “I think the most important thing is, how are they in class and what are they going to contribute to this academic environment? So we look, for example, when I look at letters of recommendation, I often will look for two things in particular. One is how they behave in class. Are they active? Are they participatory? Do they treat others with respect when they have different opinions? And also, how do they write when recommenders write that the person is a wonderful researcher and writer? That is something that obviously counts very heavily in favor of the applicant.”
Another strategic mistake, says NYU’s Dean Kleinrock, is to get overly creative with your application. “This is different from undergraduate school. And I caution candidates all the time that don’t let the form overtake the substance by trying to be too creative, too cute scrapbooks, and all kinds of different forms and poetry. And we caution candidates not to let sort of the – we get people who present themselves in legal brief. They write themselves into a contract where they are the party of the first part and we’re the party of the second part. And they try to show that they already are a lawyer. So they write – you know, we promise we’ll teach you law. You don’t have to show us that you can do it in the form of a – you know, of an appellant brief or something like that. Again, video tapes, things like that we discourage. These are the types of things. It is professional writing. It’s supposed to be good reflection. I think that when candidates try to – again, it goes back to our standout but not in a positive way, is not serving them particularly well.”
Some applicants may have had bad semesters or infractions they try to gloss over in their application. That would be a strategic error. U of M’s Zearfoss says being forthcoming in these situations is key. “I think they should really come to grips with whatever caused the problem and write about it in a very straightforward, very non-defensive way. Particularly this comes up with misconduct issues. You know, people will have a minor in possession, say, and I think they just get themselves so worked up about it that they do themselves a huge disservice. But simply saying, here are the facts, here are the circumstances of what happened. Here is the date, here is the outcome, and I am embarrassed and regretful that this happened. Showing some contrition is a really important part of it and people just tend not to do that. I don’t know why. For other kinds of errors, contrition isn’t an issue, say a weak semester. But being forthright about it is nonetheless important. Just saying even if you don’t have a great explanation, saying I just got caught up in an extracurricular activity that semester and I really miscalculated or I was feeling very burnt out at that point. And if you feel like it’s going to be the death of you, that is really unlikely. There is just no single factor that’s going to be the death of your application. So tell me why it shouldn’t be? Presumably you think it shouldn’t be, explain to me the circumstances. Don’t tell me I shouldn’t care about it though, because that’s just not your bailiwick.”
Along the same lines, pity personal statements should be avoided, as NYU’s Dean Kleinrock details. “You know this strategic mistake is making excuses and/or I guess, you know the term for everything that stood, all the obstacles, it’s perfectly fine to explain a bad semester where there might have been external factors that impacted negatively on performance. But when it comes across in a way that it’s everybody’s fault but mine or not taking ownership of a particular situation, you know, you can turn a negative into a positive and I think that that’s important. But I find that those types of additions or entries in applications where it’s kind of a ‘poor-poor-pitiful me,’ everything is conspiring against me, too much detail about a background, this is, after we do not know the candidate, and it’s called a ‘personal statement’ but a ‘not too personal statement,’ as one of my colleagues once said, and I think that that’s very right. You don’t want to necessarily get into details that are too intimate and to make explanations that just go sort of beyond the scope of good judgment. And as I said, I think that trying to shock or to – we tell candidates be careful with humor. Just because you think you’re funny doesn’t mean everyone else is going to think you’re funny. You don’t know who you’re writing to. You don’t know what their sense of humor is. You don’t know what their sort of sensibilities or sensitivities are. I think it can be a costly error.”
Personal statements and essays are your chance to show not only your writing skills, but it’s an opportunity to show individuality and personality. Accepted.com’s Abraham says you should avoid cliché’s. She also adds, “I like to recommend that the applicants start off with an engaging opening to their personal statement in much like a journalistic lead. If you – in any piece of writing with the headline, the start, beginning, really will determine whether that piece of writing is read, is read out of obligation, or is read out of interest. And if you start off with – it doesn’t have to be gimmicky but it should not be one of the common openings or a declarative statement that is along the lines of ‘I was born in,’ ‘I came from,’ ‘I want to be a lawyer because.’ Those are so common and they’re so sleep-inducing that I think the applicant, who uses those very, very common openings, is putting himself in a disadvantage right away.”
“So if you can start much more with a journalistic lead and by that I mean again the good old anecdote, I emphasize that a lot, the importance of stories. An anecdote, sometimes a question, is a good opening. Sometimes one quote – not a bunch, just one – if it fits what’s going to follow can work. A startling statistic, a description of a scene and I don’t mean it was a dark and stormy night. Those kinds of opening, as long as they relate to what comes after, can be very, very effective in engaging the reader, who again is a human being, and getting started off on the right foot in terms of reading your essay out of interest and not just out of obligation.”
Another mistake applicants make is to tell rather than show their strengths. UVA’s Dean Trujillo gives this example. “”I’ll give you a great example. I used to be the Director of Public Service at the law school, so I look for people with public service backgrounds and a lot of people say that they have a commitment to public service or demonstrated commitment to public service. But when you look at their résumé and you look at their letters of recommendation, there’s not a mention of it. There are no activities that support that statement and none of the recommenders mentioned it either. So it is much better for an applicant to demonstrate a commitment to public service than to just say they have one. And again you can substitute public service for anything else.”
NYU’s Dean Kleinrock agrees and cautions to not use the following tactic either. “We get a particular type of personal statement that I will call the – it comes, and all of us, all of us have seen these – all of us who do this kind of work. It’s usually in the form of an obituary. It’s about the candidate who has written their own obit. I guess it’s like an exercise they might have done in creative writing in school, maybe in high school or maybe in college. And usually what happens in these obituaries is that the candidate has died and after a very illustrious career where they went to our law school and then ultimately wound up on the Supreme Court. And they talk about, you know, for over that fifty year period, all of the wonderful decisions that they made and all the tremendous things that they’ve done as a member of the judiciary, and one of the – first of all it’s a fiction. It’s sort of like this sort of speculating about the future. It’s nice to dream. But what we’re much more interested in is the demonstration of what you have done. That’s the sort of ‘show’ rather than the ‘tell.’ The ‘tell’ is sort of like what I aspire to do, what I wish I had done, what I think I’m going to do. We want to see – again it comes down to law. We like to see evidence. If you say you’re interested in a particular area, show me where you found that interest in a particular area. If you’re interested in corporate law or you’re interested in public interest, what have you done in your background in terms of community service? What can you show or demonstrate as an accomplishment rather than what you aspire to do or what you wish you would do? I don’t think that that’s a particularly good approach.”
Another important aspect of your application is your résumé. It’s an area UVA’s Dean Trujillo says some applicants don’t spend enough time crafting. “We have a very open application process. So for example our application form does not involve filling out off a lot of boxes or checking off a lot of things or listing. We basically say give us a resume. So the resume is in lieu of all of that information and really also represents your best foot forward, it doesn’t seem like a lot of people are spending a lot of time crafting a coherent résumé. And when I see one that’s formatted incorrectly or that it just doesn’t look like very much care has been put into it, that’s a real turnoff.”
Your résumé, along with your personal statement and letter of recommendations, are places you can add depth to your application, as Accepted.com’s Abraham explains. “Then I need to think about, okay, given my life experiences, given where I want to go, what experiences do I want and how do I want it? What experiences do I want to include and how do I want to include them? Perhaps some experiences are not going to make it into personal statement but they can be brought out in the résumé or maybe they can ask a recommender to bring out a particular experience in recommendation. You can strategize about how you’re going to present yourself through your application in the different elements in that application. So for example somebody has a stellar GPA. Then he’s talked about what kind of a great student they are in the essay. That will be clear for the transcript. Let them talk about some leadership experiences they had.”
Applications may have a few or several boxes and short forms to fill out. How important are they? NYU’s Dean Kleinrock says it’s a way for candidates to address gaps in applications. “We’re trying to make comparisons of candidates. We need sort of a history so we want to know if there are any gaps in the résumé. And if there are, the candidate has an opportunity to tell us, well you know, this particular time I did not work this year because I was traveling or I was doing something else or I was writing the great American novel, whatever it might be. We like to have a full history. So if I have read a file and I have questions, what happened here, what went on in this particular period, that’s a red flag and that candidate should avoid any kind of gaps. So that’s why those boxes are there. And again because we’ll say in our application, you know “an office held” or “the types of activities,” and I realize how many characters they can fit there. It’s much less than a tweet, if you will. They can fill it out elsewhere if they feel they need to be more expansive. But it gives us – it let’s us see the candidates history over time so we can make comparisons from one candidate to the other.”
U of M’s Dean Zearfoss concurs. “We’re asking questions because we want the answers. And law, as I said before, is a profession of details. If filling out the application form seems onerous then that’s a good hint that you’re looking at a profession, you’re quickly going to come to hate. So I need that information to process your application correctly. So doing it well, doing it neatly, doing it clearly, those are all marks in your favor.”
Waiting too long to apply is another strategic mistake you don’t want to make. UVA’s Dean Trujillo says that while their technical deadline is March 1st, he advises to apply prior to January 1st. The reason? “Well, you always want to apply when fewer offers have been extended than when many offers have been extended. So, early in the cycle it’s just a little bit more upbeat. And the class is completely empty and you can maybe stretch for somebody who you might not otherwise stretch for when spaces get tight.”
How your overall application flows altogether is paramount and each section gives you the opportunity to highlight your strengths as a candidate, through evidence rather than statement. It should tell your story in such a way that it not only represents you but also engages the person reading it. As U of M’s Dean Zearfoss says, “Sort of the idea of it hanging together that it’s rhetorically clear. I mean, that you are a coherent application. It’s sort of a rhetorical undertaking. And it is what we do as lawyers. And of course, we’ll be training people once they get here. But showing that they have an intuition for that undertaking, I think, is really important.”
Your application is the first insight admissions committees get from an applicant. Make sure each part is taken seriously, as NYU’s Dean Kleinrock reminds us. “You’re trying to make a first impression and if the first impression sort of leaves you cold because the person hasn’t really taken the time to think about this, you’re not going to make it. It’s kind of, again, the stack of 100 résumés for one job. You’re looking for, that case a reason – I’m looking for reasons to admit people, to be perfectly honest. That’s my job as an admission officer. But you’re also, in a situation like that where you have so many candidates who are so strong and are so earnest and really want to gain admission to a particular school, you’ll take the time to really think about this, that this is the first impression you’re going to make on someone. Let them make sure that, within the first couple of pages of your file, even before they get to your personal statement, or your résumé, you haven’t turned them off in some way.”
If you follow our guests’ advice, you can avoid application pitfalls and create an engaging, cohesive application. After you’ve completed your application, take a step back and then review it as a whole. Does it sound like you? Is it a true representation of you? With careful personal reflection and a thorough review of your application, you can catch and correct the mistakes all too many applicants make. Use the different areas of the application to exemplify your strength rather than just stating your strengths. Follow directions and thoughtfully craft your resume and personal statement. Be forthcoming but not overly revealing. Be professional. Remember, you only get one chance to make a first impression. Make it a good one.
For more information, a transcript of this show, or to register to receive more law school podcasts, visit lawschoolpodcaster.com. Look for us on Facebook and Twitter to get the latest news and insight into the world of law school. This is Law School Podcaster. I’m Althea Legaspi. Thanks for listening and stay tuned next time when we explore another topic of interest to help you succeed in the law school application process and beyond.