Differentiation is the key to admissions – which makes intuitive sense. If a school receives 5,000 applications and admits 500, you need to positively differentiate from 4,500 other applicants. You can most often do so empirically – scores above both medians are always the best starting point. If you are there, and have no character and fitness or other negatively influencing factors, I'd likely advise just reading our blog and using other free resources. You are in a really good position (in undergraduate admissions, things have become so competitive this actually would not be the case, so to be clear we are just talking about law school admissions). But most people need to differentiate in other areas, too. Most applicants are, almost by definition, not above both medians of their dream school. Please keep that word, then, in mind, because this is not an all-encompassing list. There are thousands of ways to differentiate yourself, this is just what we came up with to serve as a helpful starting point. Enjoy!
First, there are the concrete factors, the application components themselves:
- LSAT/GRE Score — Your high score is by far the most important factor, but also considered are the total number of takes, cancellations, other scores, and the recency of scores. This is also sometimes considered within the context of the LSAT College Mean and the applicant’s score/score band in comparison.
- LSAC-Computed Cumulative uGPA — This is the most important academic factor, as it is what goes into the school's statistics for calculating their medians, which go to the ABA and USNWR.
- Timing and Context — When did you apply? What does the overall applicant pool for the school look like at that time? Is volume up or down? Is the school on track to meet their target medians/other class targets (e.g. in-state vs. out-of-state proportions for public universities, gender balance, diversity), and do you help them reach one or more of those targets?
- Diversity — Can you contribute a perspective to the class that is traditionally underrepresented in law school and in the legal field (URM)? Do you bring some other form of diversity to the class, such as military experience/veteran status, socioeconomic status, having an unusual or difficult upbringing, geographic diversity, having lived with a disability, or having gone through some other hardship in life? The degree to which these factors will contribute to the class is typically discussed in the Diversity Statement.
- Character & Fitness Issues — What matters here is not only the actual severity of C&F issues, though that absolutely does matter, but also how you address them and whether you take responsibility for them or not. Also considered are how long ago the incident(s) occurred and whether there have been repeated occurrences similar in nature.
- Personal Statement — A personal statement can be done well in a number of different ways (see our examples of great personal statements here), so we won't outline what exactly has to go into a PS to make it great, but ultimately, admissions officers read the personal statement to see whether you can you express yourself well and whether you have the self-awareness and maturity to discuss experiences you've had and then reflect on how they have changed you in some way, ultimately presenting yourself in a positive light. Successful personal statements often reflect one or more of the qualities listed in the second part of this blog.
- Resume — Do you have work experience, and if so how much and in what field? If you've been working for a while, does your experience show increasing levels of responsibility over time? Did you work during college? If you do not have significant work experience, have you had meaningful internship or other summer experiences? Were you involved on your undergraduate campus, and in what capacity? Have your experiences equipped you with skills useful for law school and the legal profession? What are your interests?
- Full Academic Transcripts — In addition to the LSAC uGPA, also considered is the greater context of that GPA: the transcripts. This includes trends in grades, where you went to school, how others did at your university (cumulative GPA percentile rank), major(s)/minor(s) and what sorts of classes you took, how long ago you graduated, withdrawals, whether you transferred, whether you had one particularly bad semester, and whether there were gaps in your education. Also considered is any graduate education, how you performed academically in that setting, and the other details of that (where you attended, how recently, what you studied, etc.).
- LSAT/GPA Addenda — If one of these is written, what the applicant says and how they say it matters. Does it sound like they're making excuses; were there valid reasons behind the obstacles they faced; if there was a personal or health issue that impeded their ability to perform, does the applicant have a plan to be able to do well in law school and stay healthy?
- Interview — If the law school offers interviews, they will evaluate how you perform in that context: how do you do under pressure? Can you think on your feet? Do you present yourself well in a professional setting? How would you do in an interview for legal employment? Schools look for mature, self-aware, thoughtful answers as well as general interpersonal demeanor. Additionally, if a law school offers interviews to all applicants (vs. discretionary invitations), just the fact of whether you chose to do an interview or not gives them some amount of information about how highly you prioritize their law school and whether you are more or less likely to attend.
- Why X Essays/Other Optional Essays — How sincerely interested are you in the law school? Did you take the time to write any optional essays that aren't a part of other schools' applications? Do you have any ties to the law school, the greater university, or even the city/state where it's located? If not, did you take the time to carefully research the law school and connect some of its classes/professors/programs/clinics to your own experience/interests? Note that this is less of a factor at some of the very top schools.
- Letters of Recommendation — As we've written about in the past, most of the time, letters of recommendation are from perfectly good choices and say perfectly nice things. The main scenarios where letters of recommendation make a real difference are when the applicant chooses a LOR writer from someone who’s a big name but doesn’t really know them, or a professor who gave them an A but doesn’t have anything else to say about them, or the rare negative letter.
- LSAT Writing Sample — The LSAT writing sample is occasionally useful if an admissions officer has concerns about your writing/language ability.
Second, there are the less concrete factors, the overall skills and traits that law school admissions officers are looking for throughout the application. These don't necessarily show up in one particular spot on the application, but they are absolutely assessed and considered by law school admissions officers.
- Employability — This is somewhat an amalgamation of many of the characteristics listed below, but it is very common for aspects of the application to strongly convey this trait or a lack of it, and for that to be a significant positive or negative for the application. The most employable applicants are those whose applications convey maturity, professionalism, and at least some indication of their goals/why law school. Other factors that can contribute to an applicant's perceived employability include work experience/past job performance, how well you do in an interview, and even things like eligibility for the patent bar.
- Reasoning for Going to Law School — How well-thought-out is your decision to attend law school? This doesn't need to be conveyed through any one particular part of the application, but from reading the application as a whole, the admissions officer should be able to understand, to some degree, where you are coming from and where you hope to be headed.
- Writing Skills — Every written component of an ideal application should be clear, concise, grammatically correct, mature, and informative.
- Professionalism — Professionalism is conveyed in both form and content. In your essays, do you use appropriate, well-formatted headers and titles? Are fonts and spacing consistent across documents? Is the tone throughout your application appropriate and professional, avoiding being sarcastic, cynical, callous, or overly casual?
- Maturity and Self-Awareness — Maturity is an especially important trait to convey in your application if you are going to law school straight from college, but for any applicant, it is important that your materials reflect a level of emotional and intellectual maturity and understanding of yourself.
- Leadership — Have you held positions with genuine responsibility/leadership (volunteer, activities, employment)?
- Judgment — Do you display judgment in what you have chosen to include in your application? Are all of your statements appropriate, necessary, and concise? Do you put your best foot forward in all aspects of your application?
- Attention to Detail — Did you pay attention to the format of your phone number on the application form? Did you leave blank sections that you could have filled in? Are there typos in your application? Just one or two of these small mistakes probably aren't a big deal, but admissions officers do notice them, and if you have a bunch, it will likely convey sloppiness/lack of attention to detail.
- Authenticity — A great personal statement doesn't have to talk about an extraordinary experience or an event of massive importance, but it does have to be sincere. Essays that seem inauthentic or forced have a negative effect on the application. Did study abroad really change your life? Did (insert pop culture reference here) really influence you to pursue a law degree?
- Well-Roundedness — This can be especially showcased in the interests section of the resume, or in any optional essay/short answer prompt that asks about your life outside of work or school. Do you have different things going on, or are you just focused on one aspect of your life? What have you done outside of your comfort zone? How have you challenged yourself? What do you do in your free time?
- General Likeability — Admissions officers want to admit people who they like, who will add to the law school community in a positive way. They want to build a 1L class that will enjoy their time together, both working together collaboratively in the classroom and making meaningful connections outside of it. Will you contribute to that goal?