Applying to Law School: Top 8 Tips from Former Faculty Admissions Chair Scott Moss

Scott Moss, as a full-time professor at two law schools, served on law school Admissions Committees for 13 years, including serving as Admissions Chair for 10 years after receiving tenure. In those roles, he read and voted on thousands of law school applications, reviewed others’ votes on thousands more applications, wrote law school admissions policies, and helped initiate a program to interview applicants.  As a professor, Moss has taught constitutional law, employment law, litigation strategy and skills, and economic analysis of law. Moss received his B.A. in Economics and M.A. in Media Studies from Stanford University, and then his J.D. from Harvard Law School.

In this article Scott explains his top 8 tips for a successful law school admissions cycle.

1.Think about what your weakness as an applicant is, and focus your application — essays, recs, any last-minute resume additions — on addressing them. In litigation, you can't really predict wins and losses — but I almost always knew, "If I lose, it'll be because of this weakness in my case." If you think about it, you probably can figure out, "If I don't get admitted, it'll be for one of these 2-3 reasons" — not just obvious things like "this number is low," but things like, (A) "My high LSAT and low GPA make me look like a talented slacker," (B) "My work ethic and motivation are clearly strong, but my numbers are weak, so they may think I'm appealing but doubt my raw talent," or (C) "My numbers and/or work are strong, but show no obvious motivation for law school." Use your essay, choice of recommenders, etc. to target any weaknesses: applicant (A) needs recs to vouch for work ethic more than raw talent, while (B) needs the opposite; (C) needs an essay persuasively showing law school is a well thought out choice, not a casual backup plan, and also should consider some last-minute law-related volunteering.

2. Even though your essay's job is to sell you, take pains not to sound arrogant. Even if you're not an arrogant person, your essay's job is to sell you as someone awesome to have at a law school, so it can easily sound arrogant. That's dangerous: because law schools are smaller communities than colleges, admissions offices are trying to figure out who'd be a good community member — and who wouldn't. So after you draft your essay, edit it with a close eye for tone: be matter-of-fact about something awesome you did; be self-effacing where appropriate. Simply stated, too many times each year essays come across as arrogant while submitted by people without a shred of arrogance to them — don't sell yourself too hard.

3. Explain why you really want to go to this law school. Applicants think law schools (other than any "safety schools") have all the cards, but every school outside the top 3 is terrified that those they admit will decline, and they're right; even at top-tier schools, 2/3 to 5/6 of admitted students decline, just because students can accept only one among several offers of admission. That's why, in choosing among borderline applicants, schools often give a plus to those who seem more likely to accept. So in the last paragraph of your essay, or in a supplemental statement, explain to each school why you're interested in that school in particular, whether family/friend ties to the school or region, an affinity for the location, a particular offering at the school, or something else.

4. In choosing recommenders, "knows me well & will write a detailed letter" beats "important person." As between professors, the untenured lecturer or adjunct who really knows you, and will really write an effusive letter, is better than the fancy-titled Department Chair or Dean who barely knows you or is too busy to write a detailed letter. As between employers, your immediate supervisor is usually better than the company CEO for the same reason.

5. No typos or grammar errors allowed! You'd be surprised how many otherwise solid applications have those flaws. Typos reflect badly on whether you'll be an organized, diligent student, rather than a hot mess who underperforms his/her talent and soaks up administrators' time with missed deadlines, etc. Grammar errors reflect badly on your ability to write good exams, in law school and on the bar exam — which schools really want you to pass.

6. Do a visit if you can, and be polite to everyone at the law school. Visits are often a little bit like unofficial interviews: if you're polite and you ask good (but not too many) questions, they may well enter a positive note about you, which can help if you're on the admit-or-not borderline. The receptionist or student tour guide can be every bit as important as an admissions dean: If they report back to an admissions officer that you were rude or arrogant, you've increased the odds you'll be rejected even if you have a 181 LSAT.

7. Don't hesitate to apply to "reach" schools, but be realistic too. Schools do admit folks whose numbers are below both their LSAT and their GPA medians, but not too many. So by all means, apply to "reach" schools, and if you do, it's better to apply to several rather than just one reach, since you never know which might accept you. But if you genuinely want to go to law school, apply to schools where your numbers will be on par too.

8. Find ways to destress during the admissions cycle. Some cycles go slowly, and some schools go slowly. If you have a wonderful application, but are below both medians, schools may want to admit you! But they're also waiting on their medians to shore up, so it is going to take time, perhaps a long time. This can get to applicants and cause them to act irrationally, e.g. sending emails for 60 consecutive days. Focus on YOU. Find ways to destress, we all need them, and take your mind off the admissions process. Don't check your status checker every other minute.

Need an example? Here's our Founding Partner Mike Spivey boxing from a few days ago. He seems more chill after doing stuff like this.