The Components of the Law School Application: LSDAS, GPA and LSATs, Personal Statements, Recommendation Letters, Addenda, and Misc.
This is a comprehensive guide to help Wilson students and alumnae navigate the law school application process. Before moving forward, it is important that you consult the application process timeline.
LSDAS, Transcripts, and Application Forms
LSDAS: First things first: You must register with LSDAS (Law School Data Assembly Service) before you can even begin applying. LSDAS was created to centralize and standardize undergraduate academic records for the law school admissions process. Nearly all ABA-approved law schools require you use LSDAS. The LSDAS prepares a report for each law school to which you apply. This report will include items such as an undergraduate academic summary, all LSAT scores and writing sample copies, copies of letters of recommendation, and all transcripts.
There is a fee, over $100, for signing up with LSDAS. However, information about possible fee waivers is available on www.lsac.org. Your membership is good for five years.
Transcripts: You must send transcripts from all institutions attended, including undergrad and graduate schools, professional schools, summer schools and evening courses, schools from which you took college-level courses while in high school, and schools that sponsored off campus or overseas study. If you have more detailed questions, refer to http://www.lsac.org/Applying/lsdas-requesting-transcripts.asp
You must have the institutions send official transcripts directly. Transcripts sent by you will not be processed. Be sure to use the form on the LSDAS website.
Actual Applications: Through LSDAS, you will have access to the electronic applications for all ABA-approved law schools. This is the easiest and most streamlined way to apply. In most cases, you will incur additional application fees for individual law schools.
Grades and LSATs
Are grades and LSAT scores the only things that matter in admissions decisions? No, but they do constitute a threshold requirement. That is, if you have numbers that are far below their averages, schools are not likely to consider your application. However, just because your numbers meet a school’s expectations does not mean you will get in. Your personal statements and letters of recommendation matter very much in making final decisions. However, grades and LSATS do matter tremendously, so take them seriously.
For consistency between schools’ grading systems, LSDAS will convert your grades from all institutions attended (up until your first undergraduate degree was received) into a standardized score. Grades excluded from conversion include withdraw, incomplete, and passing grades within pass/fail or credit/no credit systems. LSDAS has a very detailed policy regarding grade conversion, so please check with them if you have more specific questions.
The LSAT is a half-day standardized test that is required for admission to all ABA-approved law schools. It is a skills test that assesses analytic abilities. Studies have shown the LSAT is an accurate predictor of performance during the first year of law school, which is why admissions officers rely on it so much in making decisions.
The LSAT consists of 5 sections, each 35 minutes long: one reading comprehension, one analytical reasoning, two logical reasoning, one experimental test question section (not scored). There is also a writing sample section that is not scored but is sent to law schools. LSAT scores range from 120-180, with 180 being the highest possible score.
You should spend a significant amount of time studying for the LSAT. You should either purchase test preparation books or take a commercial prep course. The downsides to commercial test preparation courses are that they are expensive and instruction can be of varying qualities. However, the course may be the best option for people who have problems managing time, need extra help, or need an extra push. It is absolutely fine to not take a test prep course, so long as you devote a significant amount of time to studying. Months before you plan to take the test, work out for yourself a study schedule and do not let anything interfere with the blocks of time you have carved out to study. Under no circumstances should you take the LSAT unprepared or “just to see how you will do.” Law schools will see each score and you will probably have to explain a very low score in an addendum (see below).
Should you take the LSAT more than once? Ideally, you would take the LSAT once, having prepared in advance. If you think your score is an accurate reflector of your ability, you should not take it again. However, the LSDAS recommends that if you truly believe that your score does not reflect your ability—if you woke up with the flu the morning of the test, experienced severe anxiety, or had a death in the family—then you should re-take the test and be sure to explain the discrepancy in scores in an addendum.
Law schools will look at each LSAT score, but schools have varying policies about what to do with multiple scores. Some schools combine them while others only consider the high score. Consult each school for its policy.
Your goal here is to develop a statement that is personal. The personal statement is essentially your interview. This is the main opportunity for law schools to get to know you as a person: your background, your passions, your challenges, your ambitions, your inner strengths. They will be looking for what makes you stand out from other candidates with similar GPAs and LSAT scores. The personal statement is not an, “I want to go to law school because...” essay. Instead, it is an interesting story about you that highlights the non-quantifiables, or information that is not already available elsewhere in your application. This is your chance to make an impression.
Personal statements are usually two double-spaced pages or 500 words in length, but be sure to check with individual law schools for specific requirements.
To begin the composition process, you should spend more time thinking than writing. Consider experiences and feelings that are memorable to you. This is a time for personal reflection. During this time of thinking and brainstorming, also try free writing, journaling, or just writing down random thoughts. Do not sit down at a computer, without having thought through your essay, and start composing the statement.
First and foremost, personal statements help law schools determine if you write well. Can the applicant use the English language properly? These statements should be absolutely free of spelling and grammar errors, so proofread carefully. Can the applicant organize, develop and tell a relevant story? You should follow the general guidelines for writing essays. Your personal statement needs to have an introduction, body and conclusion, and you need to substantiate your claims. That is, you need to back up your claims about yourself with real evidence and concrete examples.
Be honest. Be sincere. Be confident. The tone should be positive overall. Any negative information you feel the need to discuss should be included in your addendum (see below).
Be sure to have a close advisor or trusted friend read over your personal statement. However, understand that it is not their job to write it for you. Be flexible. Be prepared to draft and re-draft. The best personal statements often result from multiple drafts.
What not to do in personal statements:
- Do not rehash your resume. Rather, you will want to use your resume as a tool to help you search for times you felt energetic, challenged, proud, and inspired.
- Do not use quotations in your personal statement ever.
- Do not title your personal statement.
- Do not write a novel. Stay within the prescribed limits on length.
- Do not repeat information.
Letters of Recommendation
Law schools want to see academic letters of recommendation written by faculty members from whom you have taken courses. At least one should be from your major department, if possible. The reason for this is law schools are interested mainly in your academic abilities: your writing, class participation, how you compared to your peers, etc., and faculty are uniquely situated to assess these things.
Non-academic letters are less helpful (from college administrators, employers) although they may be necessary if you have long since graduated. If you plan to delay your application to law school, be sure to have faculty members write letters for you before you leave college and keep them on file (LSDAS, where you will upload your letters to be sent to law schools, will hold letters for five years).
You should ask faculty members in person and well in advance of the deadline, “Do you feel that you know my work well enough to write a strong, positive letter for my application to law school?” You will want to make sure that the answer to this question is a definite, ‘yes.’ A superficial, cursory or negative letter will not be helpful to the applicant. Once again, this is why it is very important to get to know faculty members well during your academic career (see “Preparing for Law School: 10 Things to Do”).
The following is a list of information you should give your faculty recommender to assist her/him in writing a letter:
- a copy of your transcript
- a draft of your personal statement (if ready)
- a resume
- copies of exams, papers from her/his class (preferably with returned comments)
- forms from LSDAS or law schools
- stamped envelopes appropriately addressed
- the date when the recommendations are due
As your deadline approaches, be sure to politely follow up with faculty or check your LSDAS account to see if the letters have been submitted.
Finally, be sure to write a thank you not to each of your recommenders. Once you have decided where to attend, be sure to tell them.
What is an addendum? It is an optional attachment to your application. You should use an addendum to explain negative or questionable aspects of your application. Reasons to complete an addendum would include a low grade or series of low grades, a criminal record, disciplinary actions, “holes” in your record that are unaccounted for. If composed properly, an addendum may help ease any concerns an admissions committee may have about your record.
An addendum should also not be a novel. Keep it short: a paragraph or two will suffice. It should clearly state the circumstances of the situation you are addressing. Do not make excuses for yourself. Do not whine or cast blame. But do be sure to show that you have taken responsibility for your actions and that you have learned from your experiences. An improperly composed addendum can actually hurt your application.
Once submitted, check with each law school to make sure your application is complete.
Clean up your Internet profiles (Facebook, MySpace, blogs, etc.). Admissions officers do check these.
If you are applying to a school that is geographically distant from Wilson or where few Wilson students have applied or attended, it does not hurt to send directly to the law school admissions office information about Wilson, such as a brochure or description of the curriculum. Attach a note asking that the information be included in your file. This does not hurt and can actually be useful to admissions counselors.