Wouldn’t it be great if you could submit a perfect law school application? There’s no such thing, say the experts, but one of the most significant challenges law school applicants face is the need to mitigate weaknesses or perceived weaknesses in an application. In this show, we help you take a step back to critically evaluate your application for true weak spots, we delve into the problems that most frequently trip up candidates, and walk you through the steps that allow you to correct weaknesses and mitigate problems through other parts of your application. Listen as we help you present your weaknesses in the best light possible.
- Ann Richard, Associate Dean for Admissions and Financial Aid, George Washington University Law School
- Rita Jones, Assistant Dean, Admissions and Financial Aid, Boston College Law School
- Graham Richmond, Co-Founder and CEO of Clear Admit
- Anna Ivey, Admissions Consultant and author of The Ivey Guide to Law School Admissions
Welcome to Law School Podcaster, your source for inside information and advice on the law school application process. I’m Diana Jordan.
One of the more difficult challenges law school applicants face is the need to mitigate weaknesses or perceived weaknesses in their applications. It’s hard to ascertain which elements are true weaknesses, to understand the significance of these possible weaknesses in the context of the overall application, and then to mitigate them in a way they will ultimately convince the admissions committee to admit you.
On this show, we help you take a close look at your application and our experts provide tips to help you present your weaknesses in the best light possible. We speak with two law school admissions deans and with two admissions consultants, who run down the steps to get you started. In this show, we will see that there are limits to repairing weaknesses, but certain things can be done, as Ann Richard, Associate Dean for Admissions and Financial Aid at George Washington University Law School says. “The candidates are who they are. They’ve done what they’ve done, so there’s no magic bullet that can take care of a problem in the past. It’s just trying to put the whole package together in the most positive way possible.”
And as a candidate, you may have much more support than you think, as we hear from Rita Jones, Assistant Dean, Admissions and Financial Aid at Boston College Law School. “In all fairness to a candidate, I mean, they put together a package of information that’s their life and they’re wanting to move forward in a direction that involves us and we want to give people every opportunity to make that happen.”
There is consensus from all our guests on this point. There are no perfect law school applications. With that in mind, let’s first look at the types of weaknesses you most often see in law school applications. Graham Richmond is an admissions consultant and Co-Founder and CEO of Clear Admit, and he helps us identify where you’re most likely to see weak spots. “Obviously, a quick look at the transcript and LSAT scores usually reveals the most important weaknesses in the law school admissions process since undergraduate GPA and LSAT are really key parts of the application. Other weaknesses, I guess, when looking at someone’s file if they’ve already prepared it. I mean, sometimes they’re really easily discerned from the personal statement, so candidates choosing a poor topic or just poor execution of a topic, in which the admissions committee never really gets a good sense of what the candidate might bring to the class. So, that’s another area. Recommendations can also be a bit of a weakness, if they’re just not very strong, although on some levels you can sense this from GPA, often if the low GPA is on account of its record then maybe the recommendations will speak to that and sort of be damning in that respect. And then another thing, I would say, in terms of identifying weaknesses, there are occasions where candidates have academic or disciplinary issues in their past or even interactions, or run-ins with the law. Now, those can be explained but it is a potential area of weakness.”
Law school admissions deans are the ones who review and evaluate each application along with other members of the admissions committees, and they tend to see and focus on certain types of weaknesses. Boston College’s, Dean Rita Jones, gives us a unique view on admissions deans’ perspectives. “Others include the level of difficulty of courses. It could be a weakness if you’ve taken too many intro-level courses later in your college years, maybe having several jobs on your résumé but no apparent advancement in responsibility or position, lack of demonstrated leadership in co-curricular and extracurricular activities, no demonstration of a long-term commitment to any one endeavor. These are things that I would look for. I don’t know that candidates always think [about] that, but I think it’s something to consider.”
You must identify your weaknesses, as Dean Jones explains. “If someone goes that far as to say, ‘wow I’ve looked at my résumé and I really haven’t done a lot, I think you have to sit down and write down the facts. What did I do? Why didn’t I do something?’ And sometimes you have to go with what you have. Sometimes you can’t explain everything. Sometimes there may not be a way to mitigate the way your résumé or your actions have panned out. On the other hand, if you know there’s a reason for these things, that’s what you want to write down. Was it a time management issue? Was it something that was a weakness or maybe not having leadership roles or not having much involvement with activities due to the fact that you were involved in something else that may not be as glitzy, but it might be a matter of helping to support your family. It might be a matter of overcoming some other issue in your life. There are a lot of reasons that people might not have that.”
We hear it over and over, the most debilitating weakness in an application is often low numbers, and there’s no way to convince a school that it doesn’t matter. You have to report your LSAT score and GPA to the law school and the law school has to report these numbers to ranking organizations. While there isn’t much you can do to change or fix a low GPA or an unsatisfactory LSAT score, there are strategic ways to work with what you have. You can start with school selection and make smart choices there. If a candidate has a low GPA and a low LSAT for a particular law school, that will be a ‘reach’ school. There are 200 good law schools from which to choose, according to Associate Dean for Admissions and Financial Aid at the George Washington University Law School, Ann Richard. “What I find is sometimes prospective students think, ‘oh, my GPA and my LSAT, you know my GPA is good and it’s higher than the median, but my LSAT’s not, so I don’t have a shot.’ And that’s not the case at all. Many students in our law school come in with a higher number on one and a lower number on the other. So if an applicant has either an LSAT score or cumulative grade point average at or above a school’s median, I think that that candidate has a realistic shot at that school. If both numbers are below, it’s a ‘reach’ school. If both numbers are above the school’s median, then I think the candidate has a good shot of being admitted, but that’s not the end of the inquiry for the law school admissions committees.”
The admissions committee is looking for weaknesses, says Dean Richard. “What we’re doing is that the person who has great numbers – numbers above our median – we’re looking at that application to see if there’s something in that file, very poor writing ability or a terribly weak résumé, a criminal record, you know, a history of bad judgment illustrated in the file, if there’s something in there that’s going to cause us to deny admission to that person. For the person that has both numbers below the median, we’re looking at the file in its entirety to see if there’s some compelling reason, some extraordinary accomplishment, something that explains away the numbers satisfactorily, that is going to compel us to admit that person. And the majority of people in our entering classes are going to be people who have one or the other number, so the other factors are going to be important in helping us decide which of those people with split numbers are the individuals we’re going to admit into our law school communities.”
The two most important factors are your LSAT scores and your GPA, and you should look closely to see how you stack up relative to your particular applicant pool. It’s important to take a careful look at the competitive landscape and for law school applicants to make every effort to analyze their candidacy in relation to other applicants, not just the people around them like classmates, family, and friends. Admissions consultant and former Dean of Admissions at University of Chicago Law School, Anna Ivey, explains. “Schools make this available and there are some different websites where you can look these things up. So individual schools will tell you what their 25th, 75th percentiles are for those two different numbers. If you want to see them all in one place, you can go to LSAC’s website. LSAC are the people who actually administer the LSAT test. You can go to their website and they have a calculator where you can plug in your LSAT score and your undergraduate GPA, and it puts up the odds for all these different law schools based on last year’s admissions results. That is actually my favorite source for looking at that kind of information because LSAC has a complete set of data. Anyone who applied to law school in the United States basically has to run their information through LSAC. So they have a complete data set, and that’s going to be the most reliable place to run your numbers and see what your odds are looking like.”
You can also look at the numbers in the ABA Journal and ABA Guide. To make strategic choices about school selection, you have to first investigate law schools and research your position at your top choices, as Assistant Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid at Boston College Law School, Rita Jones, says, “Part of the research they could do would be to meet with faculty, pre-law advisers for comparative analysis of the pool at his or her school, to kind of understand where you stand with your peers. If someone is out of school, I think the good research reference would be The Official Guide to Law School that the ABA and the LSAC uses, again, just to get some comparative data to see where you would stand compared with other prospective candidates. You need to understand weaknesses, I think, from the perspective of one who knows what it is or what’s been overcome and then clearly and thoughtfully explain it.”
And not everybody can go to Yale or Harvard. “Candidates have to look at a broad range, to apply to their dream schools, apply to schools where the numbers are in line, and then apply to schools, where their numbers are higher, kind of their safety schools, and applying to schools that they’d be happy to attend — not just applying to 20 or 30 schools to try to rack up some offers of admission — but applying to schools that they would be happy to attend.”
These days, candidates are applying in a very rich pool. About a third comes straight out of college, as Dean Richard shares. Aside from the obvious problems applicants have with low GPA and LS scores, there are also issues in the personal statement, as Clear Admit’s Graham Richmond tells us. “So, some candidates decide to talk extensively about high school or childhood stories. Maybe they talk too much about their family and there’s not really enough substantive information about the applicant’s recent experiences and character.”
Personal statements can particularly reveal an applicant’s weakness when the writing is poor or when the judgment is weak, according to Dean Richard. “Applicants want to stand out somehow, which they should, but for example, we’ve had vulgarity in personal statements, people trying to be creative in writing obituaries or pleadings, different things that don’t really sell very well with admissions committees, so a personal statement that is poorly written or demonstrates poor judgment, I think, that can be kind of a show-stopper.”
Negative letters of recommendation aren’t the only letters to be aware of. “The lukewarm references can be sort of really bad in the sense that the recommender might harm the candidate with their ‘faint praise.’ So that’s always a thing to look into as well.” And there are trickier issues. “Academic, disciplinary, or even criminal issues can indicate that a candidate is sort of volatile and, even worse, they might be prevented from being admitted to a state bar to practice law. So, be careful about that. Now, the schools do allow folks to explain themselves in these types of situations but just keep that in mind. So, there are a few things that are kind of under the surface. Obviously, LSAT and GPA are the big guns, but then underneath that, it’s sort of personal statement topics, recommendation letters, and then settle things like do you have any marks on your – sort of black marks on your academic record, et cetera.”
What are other weaknesses you might want to consider addressing? GW’s Dean Richard named some of the more critical issues. “A history of a bad pattern of conduct, a lot of disciplinary issues in college or multiple criminal charges and convictions, things like that, are going to be a problem. People need to report those things accurately and completely. It’s important that they think and work hard to explain all the deepness of what happened, what was learned from particular incidents, to take responsibility. There are people who just disclose, oh, you know I got charged with code section ‘this,’ which doesn’t tell us anything. They need to give us information to explain incidents that happened when its criminal matters or disciplinary matters. Honor code violations are problems that need to be addressed completely and sufficiently.”
It’s clear these weaknesses can really trip up candidates and the serious issues, like academic dishonesty, misdemeanors, felonies, get evaluated on a case-by-case basis. Anna Ivey, “Ultimately, in order to practice law, you have to pass what’s called a moral character and fitness evaluation by your state bar and they do a lot of digging into your background, and so law schools have to care what kind of things the bar is going to find.” In taking a hard and self-critical look at your application, these are the most likely weaknesses you’re probably facing.
So now, let’s go deeper and look at ways to fix these weaknesses. Consider how you can mitigate through the application, first, the GPA. Here’s something to consider. If you’re still in school, protect your transcript. A good GPA carries more weight than extracurriculars. Anna Ivey says you can mitigate a weakness in your GPA. “Well if you’ve just gotten out of college and your college transcript is a train wreck, I think you don’t have a lot of credibility if you then go to a law school and say, hey I’m not that guy anymore. And they’re thinking, well, that was last year. How much could have changed between now and then? But sometimes when I’m dealing with what I call older and wiser applicants, maybe they really are ready now. Maybe they weren’t 10 years ago or 15 years ago or 5 years ago, and a lot has changed between now and then and they’re more mature and they’re more focused and they’re basically going to be a different kind of student in the classroom. That’s a more compelling argument. And I think one way to back that up is, of course, you can’t go back and do college over again, but maybe in your geographic location you can take some college level courses at a local university. You’re not taking them toward the degree but you can show them, ‘hey, I’m doing college level work, it’s challenging and look at these A’s I’m getting.’ That is interesting evidence to suggest, oh, okay, you aren’t that student anymore back from 1990, whatever, or 2002. That’s a pretty good argument that you’ve changed as a student. But I think you need to show them some kind of evidence.”
You can retake classes. That won’t raise a poor grade or change a GPA, but it might show you’re moving in a better direction. Dean Jones. “I would not suggest retaking a class to, say, boost the GPA unless the low grade was really due to not understanding the subject and that’s something you really want to know. I mean, if it works, if it’s important for you to really have that knowledge that you did not get from the class, it might well be worth repeating it. But I would suggest repeating it just for purposes of boosting the GPA.”
When it comes to raw numbers, they are what they are. So put together the best package, present yourself in the best light possible. If your GPA isn’t that great, focus on the LSAT, as GW’s Ann Richard explains. “An applicant applying to law school is the person that she is. So, you can’t go back and change the past. You have to just present yourself as best you can. Work on what you can control. And I always think that LSAT is controllable because it’s a test of skills so that you can practice and prepare and hopefully do well on the test. Whether it’s taking a course, working with a tutor, or practicing alone, to devote time to it and not just say, ‘well, I’m going to take a LSAT and I’m not a good test taker. I’m going to explain it that way,’ but that doesn’t show enough initiative and real drive. So, I always encourage people to work hard on the LSAT. I believe that’s a test that can be beaten, if one prepares adequately. Put together a strong resume, get some good experience. But I think most importantly, just be realistic and apply to a range of schools.”
It’s always going to help if you can get your LSAT scores up as Anna Ivey says, “There are good LSAT prep courses out there, and I think that’s actually money well spent. Given what you’re about to spend on law school, which is incredibly expensive, spending money on getting your LSAT score up and really getting that score as high as you are capable of, I think it’s a really good investment.”
You can retake the LSAT but only under certain conditions as we hear from BC’s Dean Jones. “I have run into people the last few years who have taken the LSAT just for practice, which is not a good idea, and they don’t do well, and then they do practice and prepare and they do a good job, but they still got that first lower score on the record. Repeating the test, I think is important if there were circumstances that caused the lower score. Being sick, disruption in the exam center, being sick is usually a big one or just being too involved and stressed leading right up to the test. So, you’re just not prepared, you’re fatigued, that sort of thing.”
Mitigation for a weak GPA and a poor LSAT score will mean using the application to express to the reader that you indeed have the maturity, focus, and discipline to succeed in the law school classroom. The key is to use the personal statement and other application components as a way to change the reader’s mind about the specific element of your application that’s lacking. The fact is no one is going to get the candidate into law school, but the candidate. Candidates should have glowing letters of recommendation, says GW’s Richard. If they’re negative, “that’s a real red flag because I don’t think it’s our nature to want to say bad things about people. So, if someone goes to the great length of writing a negative letter, that person feels strongly, I think that the person probably shouldn’t be in the legal profession, so that’s a red flag. So when a student goes to ask a professor or a work supervisor to write a letter, the student should be sure that the person knows enough, has had enough experience with the individual, maybe provide a résumé, a copy of the personal statement, a transcript so that the recommenders doesn’t look like a fool and get blindsided. We’ve had recommenders sending letters saying that this is the greatest student ever. He did outstanding work at the University of X and then the transcript shows a 2.2 or 2.5. So, you need to work with your recommenders to make sure they have adequate information and ask if they can write a positive letter. If someone who is approached to write a letter says ‘oh, I’ll try to get to it, but I don’t have a lot of time,’ maybe that person isn’t the person who should be writing a letter. So, that student should have kind of a frank conversation as part of the request for a letter of recommendation to make sure that it will be positive.”
Dean Jones says she welcomes a new trend in the résumés that applicants are using. “The good ones for law school are not necessarily the business résumés that you might use if you’re applying for a job. The résumés that we’re getting from some of the candidates, and they’re really wonderful, are the résumés that not only list your education, your employment, but they list honors. They might list what you received as scholarship but I’ve seen students say, I was awarded a scholarship and was one of 500 candidates chosen. I got a certain honor and was one of a certain number. You know, there’s an ability to quantify on the resume that you might not do if you are doing a straight one-page business résumé, although most résumés are still one page. People might talk about their interest but rather than just saying swimming, biking, writing. Last season we had a candidate write that he biked across the United States to raise money for affordable housing, and listed the amount of money that was raised. You can use a résumé to bring out points that really let us see the kind of well-rounded person you are. You can do it in a personal statement, but the résumé is one other place to maybe highlight just certain pieces. Because if you try to say it all in a personal statement, it just starts sounding garbled.”
The personal statement has a separate purpose for mitigating weaknesses, according to Anna Ivey. “So, I would not be using the personal statement to be trying to mitigate or explain some kind of blemish or weakness in your profile. I would be using a personal statement to be showcasing something that you’re happy to showcase, something you want to highlight, something that you’re proud of. That’s not the place to be focusing on your weaknesses.”
And don’t put your explanations for weaknesses in your personal statement, BC’s Dean Jones tells us. “The personal statement is really what we would call precious real estate. It’s your chance to really highlight yourself. It’s to make you stand out. And I don’t know that explaining any weakness perceived, or otherwise, is a good use of a personal statement. So, I always suggest an addenda. And it could be a matter of a few lines. It could be a matter of a page or two if it’s something really significant. But I have read applications from candidates who have said my inability to be involved in college was due to the fact that I work 40-hour weeks, I help support my mother and my brother. And just hearing that — it doesn’t have to be long, drawn out. It’s not anyone making excuses. It’s not someone saying, oh, pity me. It’s someone saying this is how it happened, and I think that demonstrates maturity.”
Weaknesses should go in the addenda. “The addenda is best used when there’s an additional matter to be discussed, and I think it’s always good at the end of the application or added afterwards or wherever the candidate feels comfortable including it. And it should be used to sort of make a point or provide a clarification or explanation that just doesn’t fit well anywhere else, not in the body of the personal statement, not anywhere else. I think it should be brief, descriptive, and explanatory.”
Use addenda to explain any glaring anomalies in your package, Dean Richard confirms. “They should be used to explain negatives that stick out in an application. For a strong student who got a B one semester, that’s probably not a subject for an addendum. If a student has a whole semester of withdrawals or a whole semester of F’s or one or two F’s on a transcript, then there’s a reason for it, besides, you just didn’t feel like doing that class, then it can be addressed in an addendum. A lot of law schools want to see if a person is taking the LSAT more than once and there’s a gain of more than four or five points, and there was a difference in the two scores, they’d like to see that explained.”
And you have to be perfectly honest, advises Dean Richard. “If there’s a weakness that can be addressed in the addendum or there’s been a problem, a disciplinary or criminal matter, say here it is, here is what happened and here’s what I learned from it. And take ownership and responsibility. And then we see statements going on and on and that ‘the police were wrong about this, they were wrong about that, and it wasn’t my marijuana,’ and we see it all. We want to see people with maturity and good judgment, who accept responsibility for problems in the past and show us what they learned from it and how they’ve become stronger, and in going forward, how they’re going to contribute to our law school community, to our profession.”
Aside from requiring disclosures, academic disciplinary action, and run-ins with the law, where you’re straightforward and factual and you tell how the situation was resolved without making excuses, some weaknesses can be explained. But there are some things you just shouldn’t say and Anna Ivey has a number one don’t. “The one I see the most and that really puts a bee in my bonnet is, ‘oh, well my grades in the following four classes, six classes, whatever the case may be, are not so good because I just wasn’t interested in those classes. I wasn’t passionate about them. But if you look at the classes I was really passionate about, I have really good grades.’ You know, that is just going to make an admissions officer shake her head because life is full of things that you might not be passionate about but you still have to do them really well and you still have to show your best effort. And even law school is going to be full of classes that you might not be passionate about, more often than not. So, if I’m the admissions officer, you’re basically telling me, advertising to me in a piece that I have not requested, you’re telling me, ‘oh, I’m only going to perform well if I’m not really passionate about the subject matter.’ You’re a terrible match for law school, and life in general is going to be really hard on you.”
Other advice, make use of all your material, says BC’s Dean Jones. “If you look at every part of the application as an opportunity to present yourself, you’re doing the best you can to be the most complete candidate you can be. That goes for the letters of recommendation. You wouldn’t want a recommender to repeat everything you’ve put in the résumé. You wouldn’t want to say in your personal statement everything a recommender has said. And sometimes applicants will give their personal statements to their reference writer, for background or whatever, and sure enough the recommender, at some point in the letter, repeats what the candidates said. I consider that a missed opportunity. You want every piece to build on the other.”
These suggested fixes help you mitigate weaknesses through elements in your application. Sometimes, however, it’s best to look to match your strengths with the schools. Clear Admit’sGraham Richmond says the solution is to be smart about school selection and research to find the best fit. “Applicants who present themselves as possessing the same values and interest as a particular law school will have an easier time of coming across as a good fit. So NYU, for example, if a candidate who has kind of spent time abroad and speaks a foreign language and wants to pursue a legal career that would allow them to kind of put that experience to use, then they should be talking about the Hauser Global Law School Program’s offerings, right? There are ways to kind of really get in inside a program, find out what unique offerings they have that are really tailor made to your strengths and highlight that. Then you might be able to kind of get by with slightly lower numbers in one area, whether it’s the LSAT or GPA. So, that can be an effective strategy. If these schools are really strong in a certain area and you can identify to that area, you may be able to squeeze in.”
When the admissions committee evaluates your application, they are looking to fill their class with candidates who are the right fit. They want to know that students will graduate from law school having gotten the most out of the experience. “I think it’s important for people to follow their own heart and find the right fit. And so often people are influenced by friends, by family, by others, and that isn’t always the best way to approach something as important as choosing a career path and choosing the school that’s going to get you there. What’s right for one person isn’t right for others, and I’ve said to numerous applicants, I said, you know what? There’s a place for everyone. It may or may not be Boston College, but we’re going to help you get to the best place. And I’ve talked with people and I’ve said, you know, if you want to go to law school, I could help you. If you want to go to BC, it might be tougher, it might be a challenge. We can talk about that too, but be sure you find the place that’s the right fit for you.”
Admissions offices exist to help students, as well as for the sake of their institutions and the law profession, says GW’s Dean Richard. So call. “Students should never be hesitant about calling an admission office, trying to talk to dean of admissions or director of admissions or admissions counselors. And that’s one good way too to gauge a law school, to kind of get a feel for it is how accessible and helpful the admissions path is going to be.”
There is a way to give your application the best chance to succeed even if you feel it has certain weaknesses. Whatever your numbers and pre-law school experience, Dean Jones says, self-analysis is critical. Research schools, look for a good fit. “If you decide to apply to a school because of the fit and if that comes through in the application, then even addressing any weaknesses can be viewed as thoughtful and pertinent because if it’s a good fit for you chances are, if you’ve done your research, someone reading your file is going to say, hey, here’s someone who’s a good fit for us and we can overlook whatever has been described as a weakness.”
In considering your law school application, take a step back. Identify true weaknesses by making the effort to analyze your candidacy relative to other applicants. It may even help to have someone with admissions expertise help you identify potential weaknesses. Be smart about school selection and choose to apply to schools with the right fit. Once you’ve done that critical self-analysis, take any possible steps to correct or fix your weaknesses. If that means enrolling in a challenging college class to prove your mettle, retaking the LSAT or getting more involved in extracurricular activities that fit your goals and don’t appear to be a last-ditch effort, get a move on. Then mitigate through your application to change the reader’s mind on a thematic level about a weak component from your profile. Strengthen your personal statement, create a powerful resume, find the most positive recommenders, and make each piece work for you without overlapping, so you have a dynamic and persuasive law school application.
For more information, a transcript of this show, or to sign up to receive more law school podcasts, visit www.lawschoolpodcaster.com. Look for us on Facebook and Twitter to get the latest news and insight into the world of law school. I’m Diana Jordan with Law School Podcaster. Thanks for listening. Stay tuned for more shows as we explore another topic of interest to help you succeed in the law school application process and beyond.