Podcast: Law School Admissions AMA with Mike Spivey & Dave Killoran (Part 2)

You can find Part 1 of this episode here.

In this episode of Status Check with Spivey, Mike and Dave answer more questions from the Law School Admissions Reddit! Part 2 discusses personal statements topics, reapplying, letters of recommendation, the relative importance of "softs" generally, Why X essays, work experience vs. going "K-JD," how law schools look at leaves of absence during college, and undergraduate record addenda.

Relevant links from this episode:

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** A note on our personal statement examples: Probably not every personal statement in this post will be your personal taste, and that is perfectly fine! However, they are all essays that contributed toward the applicant achieving great results, i.e. multiple acceptances where they were below both medians or substantially below the LSAT median. The examples come from our team of consultants with collectively over 250 years of experience reading law school applications and making decisions on files, and they were each deeply authentic and genuine for the applicants who wrote them (in addition to fitting well within the greater context of their applications). Ultimately, those are the personal statements that are the most positively differentiated—those written sincerely from the heart—so certainly don't try to write something like one of these essays if it's not your cup of tea. We hope they are helpful examples nonetheless.

Full Transcript:

Mike: Welcome to Status Check with Spivey, where we talk about life, law school, law school admissions, a little bit of everything. This is Part 2 of our talk with Dave Killoran from PowerScore, and we're going to move on to personal statements, softs, and essentially other elements of the application process. If you liked Part 1, if you like Part 2, please hit subscribe. We're going to be doing these podcasts all cycle long, probably more than the cycle. Without further delay, me and Dave.

Dave: All right, Mike. We're back.

Mike: Yeah, with Part 2!

Dave: Part 2. All right. This is Dave Killoran with PowerScore.

Mike: Mike Spivey with Spivey Consulting.

Dave: Yes indeed. So let's continue on with the questions. Let's move to the personal statement—I feel like this is an interview suddenly. “How bad is it to reapply with the same or mostly the same (with light editing) personal statement? So which is worse, reapplying with a mostly identical statement, or reapplying with a clearly inferior statement?”

Mike: To answer your second point, I think everyone has in their multiple—a really good personal statement.

Dave: Agree.

Mike: I think in talking to 60,000 law school applicants in my career, I've never met someone that doesn't have at least, at least one good, and they probably all have multiple good ones in them. To answer the question from Reddit, it is bad, you do want a new personal statement. Schools are going to tell you that. So explore to yourself like, “All right, I had a good one. But what are these moments in my life where something really changed? What brought me –” not necessarily to law, it can be to law. We have 10 sample ones on our website, spiveyconsulting.com, at our blog. Many schools have sample personal statements. Look at those. I mean, people are talking about their inflection points in their lives, when things really mattered to them. Find your 9s or 10s in your life. Things that happened—where you're sitting down, and you're like “oh my god” and you stand up. And I know what's behind this question because I've done this for 23 years. I know that you have more than one in you. And to answer the question, schools want more than one. They want a new one.

Dave: What happens at the school when they see the same personal statement they saw the year before?

Mike: Yeah, they say this person is lazy or is not that interested in our school.

Dave: Yeah, it's like, mostly identical, clearly worse—I agree with you 100%, it doesn't have to be clearly worse. They finally get that statement written, they're so thrilled that they've gotten it and they're like, “It's really good,” and they don't want to go back into the well. They don't want to have to like re-plumb the depths and actually figure out a new way to present themselves. And so that's tough. You're applying to law school; law school is going to be a lot of work.

Mike: Right.

Dave: Accept the fact that you're going to have to deal with that. But don't use the same statement.

Mike: Yeah, we get married to our writing. I’m writing two books; sometimes I find myself when I'm public speaking using the same stuff I use in my writing, because I get married to it. But I'm not using the same thing, I'm using multiple stuff, and you have multiple stuff.

Dave: Exactly. All right, next personal statement question. “What is the best way to show your personality in your essays without sounding too cutesy or casual?”

Mike: Yeah, it's a good questionm because one of the things that frustrates admissions officers is when you try too hard. And when you try too hard, it comes across as cutesy. I wouldn't worry about casual. Now you want to write like a professional, but the way I was talking about this is, if you just write your personal statement for yourself—you don't know the person that's reading it. And I've had so many times in my life where I've had a conversation with an applicant and I've said, okay, you really want to write this first draft for yourself, not to try to impress with bumptious, bloviating—right, don’t use those words, the language, but write something that’s important to you, because sincerity matters.

And what happens is, when I see the first draft, you'll see two awesome paragraphs where they're writing for themselves. And then you'll just see, all of a sudden their brain clicks over, they say, “I need to impress this Dean of Admissions or this Admissions Committee.” No, they're sick of people trying to impress them.

Dave: And you can tell when people are trying to sound impressive and be impressive.

Mike: When you're in admissions, it's so obvious when someone's not being themselves. So the way you don't sound cutesy is be yourself.

Dave: I like that. Let's go to the next question. “Does a personal statement need to specifically answer, ‘why law’ by addressing what kind of law you'd like to go into?”

Mike: Yeah, it's kind of a funny pendulum. Law schools generally give you a lot of leeway here. Keep in mind institutional memory is kind of funny in this space, it's about a year long. So every year it's sort of reinventing itself. And one of the common reinventions is, you really gotta answer why law. Well, yeah, if something happened to me in my life, family divorce where it was hostile or an injury where a parent or a sibling was never compensated and unjustly punished, or anything unjustly done to me or a loved one, and it's a really important moment in my life. Then I'm going to gravitate towards, “This brought me to law.”

Dave: If you have a compelling explanation, use it.

Mike: Right. But if you have any incredible life story, if you started an elephant refugee camp in Afghanistan, true story of a former client of mine, and it has nothing to do with law, use that frickin’ story.

Dave: What if you haven't started an elephant refugee camp and you don't have a particularly compelling reason to go to law school in your life? You're just, you know, a regular person. What do you do with that?

Mike: Yeah, there's a personal statement on our blog about someone who learned to ride a bicycle as an adult. People who have listened to our podcast have heard me tell this story. She got into 11 of 12 schools, she was below most medians. I can remember where I was, standing in a Target parking lot, when I told her, “Look, you're going to get a lot of waitlists.” And I was wrong. And her personal statement is killer, and it's about learning to ride a bike as an adult. So is that an elephant refugee camp story? No, of course not. Do we all have killer stories in this? Yes, because that was her story.

Like it started off on a hill, and she was like 25, and she had training wheels on the bike, San Francisco, she's now crashing into mailboxes. But there was a reason that she was on that bicycle. It had to do with her team at Google that she was a part of, and everyone rode their bikes into work but her and she wanted to be a team player. And she didn't want to be the one person who showed up in a car. And it rounded out a balanced application in other areas. And Derek Meeker and I, who's a partner at my firm who was the former Dean of Admissions at Penn Law, we have a whole podcast on the genre of essay writing and how to round out your application.

We had a client who gave a speech to the UN General Assembly, you don't have to have that. I don't have it. Do you have that, Killoran?

Dave: Actually, no.

Mike: Exactly. But I have a story on my personal blog about a second-grade teacher telling me I was going to be a failure. And we all have those kinds of stories, right? Where you’ve proven—well, maybe I'm a failure, but hopefully not—you've proven wrong.

Dave: So the answer is you actually don't have to tell them why law, but if you have a really good reason, do so.

Mike: Exactly.

Dave: Capitalize on that.

Mike: I can even sort of proportionally break it down. I would say about 80% of the people I talk with planned on ending with a why law, you know, last paragraph or two. And about 20% never touch it.

Dave: It's a pretty good percentage there.

Since we're in the soft zone here, we’ll go through a number of like soft elements in applications. Go to letters of recommendation. “Should you submit an optional professional letter of rec if you think it will be fairly average, it'll be positive, but nothing special?”

Mike: Letters of recommendation are fascinating. The letters of rec are the least scrutinized—we consult for law schools, I've actually timed admissions officers reading applications. Far and away the most sped-read—speed-read? Sped-read?—speed-read part of the application. The reason for that is because 95% sound exactly the same. You don't ask enemies for letters of recommendation. So you get fawning, glowing adjectives, and you want those fawning, glowing adjectives. The 5% that are like, “I kind of know this person, they seem like all right, but I never really got to know them”—those stand out, but they stand out in a bad way there.

Dave: Right. So would you say a letter of rec is a real positive in the app, or is it more likely to be a negative if anything?

Mike: It's incredibly rare that it's a positive. And I hate saying that, because I know people have invested a lot in the relationships. But as a former person who made admission decisions and read tens of thousands of files, the positive ones are so replete that it's really only the negative ones that stand out. Again, there's exceptions to everything. So if it's a positive one from an alumnus of the school, who has great giving potential—I guess I remember this Princeton Law professor who just worded things like I was reading like an awesome novel. You don't want to go for that. What you want to do strategically is avoid the person that doesn't know you that well.

Dave: Literally, what you're saying is, if it's a good rec, it checks this box of expectation. There's probably a few outlier cases where somebody wrote a recommendation that really did move the needle a little bit. But what's more likely to happen is if that rec comes in and isn't great, or the person doesn't know you, then it's a negative.

Mike: I've never said this before, because it just came to me. You're going to submit a 12-page application. There's parts of the application where you want the Admissions Officer to not turn the page. You want them to slow down and pay attention to you. But there's also parts of the admissions process, particularly character and fitness essaysnbut also letters of rec, where you honestly just kind of want them to turn a page happily.

Dave: Perfect. Let's get into the softs a little bit more. This question is, “How important are softs with a strong GPA and LSAT score?”

Mike: Everything is important. So in a vacuum, they're important. But what I would say if someone called me—because our firm turns down a lot of people if they have strong GPAs and strong LSAT scores, no character and fitness—and they say, “Here's what I got,” and we say, “Well, you might not need us.”

What I would say is, if you're above both medians to all your target schools or your dream schools, you just want to tend towards being more risk averse and not risk taking. Now if you're below both medians, I'm not going to give examples because I don't want to out any former clients, but you can take more risks with your topic. Don't take unnecessary risks, don't talk about religion or politics. Obviously, there's nuances in both of those where, you know, people have these religious moments or life changes. But in general, if you're above of medians, you can be a lot more risk averse.

Dave: It's kind of like the medians, the hard numbers, they tell you where you are on the field. Are you close to the endzone, are you far away from it?

Mike: Right.

Dave: And that's going to change your game strategy with the rest of your application and the importance of the rest of your application.

Mike: We've done a lot of football analogies, but with that analogy, your GPA and your LSAT score are going to get you 80 yards down the field. This is why I always say, if you have only money to spend in one place, if it's admissions consulting or LSAT prep, spend it on LSAT prep. Because it's the last 20 yards where your application package, your essays, your interviews—maybe 30 yards— are going to get you.

Dave: All right. In this kind of similar vein, “I've heard that for many schools, a good Why X or other supplemental essay can be the difference between a waitlist and acceptance. Many students get into these schools without having written these supplements.”

Mike: Yeah, you want to write them, unless you've just self-assessed you’re a horrible writer, which most of us wouldn't self-assess even if we were. Or I don't know many scenarios where if they ask—they ask, that’s the key—for a why statement, you wouldn't want to do it. Now some schools specifically say don't. Always read the application, always listen to the vibes of the admissions office, including if you want to visit. If you want to visit and they're like, “We don't take visitors”—I'm not going to name them but I can think of a few schools—then don't. They say, “We don't take visitors.” Now Admissions Officers are generally hired because it's the office of admissions, not the office of denial. You have these outgoing, warm, friendly people, but always follow instructions. Your default is if they're asking for anything, an optional essay, “Hey you can do 0 to 5,” do one, to two. “We accept why statements,” do the why statement. Because you're signaling to that school that you're interested in that school. Schools do this too much, and I could get into the micro sort of nuanced mathematics of U.S. News and World Report, and I won't, Killoran will get bored.

Dave: What do you mean? I'm already bored.

Mike: Okay, yeah. But schools shouldn't care about yield protection as much as they do. But they do.

Dave: I think that's a great answer. And I'm not bored for the record. But I had to say that because you just set me up. You threw the—

Mike: I think sometimes, you know, I'll just ramble on forever about the wonkiness and stuff.

Dave: I actually get into that. I mean, I teach the LSAT for a living.

Mike: You’re right, you’re right.

Dave: Clearly into that kind of stuff.

So let's talk about K-JD, so people go directly from high school to college and then college directly into law school.

Mike: By the way, law school applicant created terminology.

Dave: I love it.

Mike: I mean, a lot of terms come from admissions, but this is one that comes from applicants.

Dave: I think it's a really good point to make there too, and it's a cool one.

There's a little nuance to this one. “How much does being a K-JD, or super K-JD, which means graduating college in three years—so an accelerated version of it—matter in terms of admissions chances?” And you can see we’re getting into gap year discussion.

Mike: Right.

Dave: You know, should I take time off?

Mike: Right.

Dave: Does it make sense to take a gap year if the only reason you're doing that is purportedly to increase the chances of admission?

Mike: Yeah, so was this good as I thought experiment. Killoran is laughing because my favorite podcast with Peter Attia always says, let's do this as a thought experiment.

Dave: You've said “thought experiment” to me, I would say at least 15 times.

Mike: It was in the Peter Attia podcast 15 times on all the travels I've been doing.

Dave: I’m enjoying it.

Mike: So as a thought experiment, it’s down to you and one other applicant for the last spot at the law school. And this person has two years’ work experience and the exact same everything, letters of rec, blah, blah, blah, and you have the exact same everything, but you don't have the two years. I would say 9.9 out of 10 times they're going to admit the person with two years’ work experience.

So in this crazy hypothetical—which is never the case, for multiple reasons—you would rather have a couple of years’ work experience. What I would also say though is, because admissions is the accumulation of hundreds of tiny little factors, mostly your LSAT and GPA, your undergrad school, your major, your personal statement, your interview, but also tons of little factors. There's never a tie at first base. We’re using a lot of sports analogies.

Dave: Yeah, well.

Mike: there never is. There's always a fractional difference. So if that fractional difference is going to be somewhere else in your application, and you want to graduate straight out of kindergarten to college, or if you want to graduate in three years, go for it.

Dave: Yeah, I think there's this—

Mike: Thought experiment!

Dave: The idea behind a gap year is, you know, for a lot of people, if they're just taking the year to take it off, and it's the true idea of, “I'm not going to work a whole lot. I'll study for the LSAT,” I think you need to be a little bit more careful. I don't think it's a wise thing to tell a law school, “Oh, I took the year off to study for the LSAT.”

Mike: No, they don't generally like it.

Dave: They don't think that that's a wise use of your time. If you took the year off to work at a cool job or to do really interesting things, then it really is valuable. It depends upon the use of your time in that gap year. I don't think there's anything wrong with somebody who goes directly from college to law school, you're talking about a huge number of people where that's the standard. It is completely normal; it is not going to be held against you.

Mike: I will say this though: people tend to interview better, handle message boards better, etc., which I'm going to double click on—admissions deans read message boards to figure out who people are. And after a couple years of having a boss, having work experience, it sort of settles you down to the cruelties of this cruel world we're all in. So it's more than just a vacuum. It's more than just two applications being held up against each other. I do think work experience sort of rounds out people, makes them better interviewees, etc.

Dave: Even makes you look like a more stable applicant in some respects. Now, if you're a super high achiever, and it's quite clear you've got a linear path that you're following, you're not going to be hurt. Every situation is different. It depends upon the person’s—how they're situated as to whether or not a gap year is going to be a great thing, or neutral, or whatever it might be.

Mike: Right.

Dave: So let's talk a little bit about breaks. I think you and I wanted to address this question, because some people run into this problem and it's not really a problem. “Do schools view a year of medical leave of absence, then a semester of emergency leave of absence due to a family member having cancer, negatively?”

Mike: I guess I would turn it around and say, would you even want to ever go to a school that would view that negatively? The answer is, I don't personally know anyone in admissions that would ever view that negatively. You know, there's a human element to admissions, these are people who have hearts. So as tragic as this, sometimes life challenges that’re thrown your way, people are going to have a lot of compassion for you.

Dave: Sympathy. I think sometimes the way softs work, kind of like the scenario I envision is, what if you had a friend who went through a certain situation, how would you view it? Well, let's say your friend had been drinking and driving and hit somebody. You would view that negatively if they were your friend. And so what of law school? What if your friend got sick for a while and had to take time off from work or school and then a family member of theirs got sick? Would you view that person negatively? Of course not.

Mike: Right.

Dave: You'd feel sympathy. And that's exactly the same type of situation.

Mike: Yeah, I also talk to these psychologists on our blog from time to time. It brings up a whole point of, maybe, where the question—I don't want to put words in anyone's mouth—where the question is coming from is, we’re often the least compassionate towards ourselves. So that's a great way to think of it, Dave. What you said is, how would you view it if a friend told you that story?

Dave: Yeah. And that's a really good point. We're often our worst self-critics, the primal mind.

All right, now we get down to really the end almost. We'll close out with some questions about addenda. StrongBikini—I like that username—“Should an addendum be written for someone with a 3.66 science undergraduate GPA when applying? I feel like it's so much lower than most of the other posts I'm seeing on here. I’m also 12 years out of my undergrad, so more non- traditional.”

Mike: So they're going to see the 3.66, they're going to see you’re STEM or whatever—there's actually a cool technical term for this: “high-consensus fields.” High-consensus fields are the harder GPAs—math, physics, sciences, mechanics—because there's a right or wrong answer. And “low consensus fields”—I was a philosophy major, it's more subjective—tend to have higher GPAs. They're going to see all this. If I know these terms, somewhere along the line, likely the admissions dean has learned these terms. So do you necessarily have to point out you graduated 12 years ago and had a 3.66 in math? No, I personally would not.

On the flip side, if you also had a life challenge as part of that four-year process with a 3.66, absolutely I would bring it up. If something hit you in the face that had nothing to do with being in a difficult major, but it did have something to do with your ability to focus on your studies, yep, I would then write an essay.

Dave: All right.

Mike: I saw you taking notes, you hadn't heard high consensus?

Dave: Just for the record, I had not heard that.

Mike: This is endearing to me; Anna Hicks, our COO, often takes notes.

Dave: That's nice. All right, then we have jelleephish with a question that says, “If you attended more than one undergraduate institution, do you always need to write an addendum about that?”

Mike: I don't like the word “unique”—I don't like the word “always.” They are absolutes. Absolutes don't work well in life and in admissions. Even worse than the word “unique” is saying something's “very unique” or “kind of unique.” It's a binary word. Nothing can be very unique; it’s impossible.

Do you always need to write about transferring schools? No. I would say most of the time, most of the applicants I've seen in my career, if they transfer one school, they either haven't or haven't needed to.

Dave: Yeah, it's not that big of a deal. Transferring is fairly normal. People do it in law school even, and so it's not considered anything unreasonable. The rest of this question goes on to talk about actually the experience… They were a steady student; their grades didn't change; it just looks like somebody moved, and maybe it wasn't the right fit at the first institution. It doesn't matter.

Mike: You know what's weird is, I went to Vanderbilt, and I loved Vanderbilt and I loved my time there, but I almost transferred at the end of my freshman year because my three best friends all failed out. And so as—you know, “something” experiment—you could think about me applying to law school today with all my experience, would I write an addendum about my three friends failing out, thus I transferred? No, that would almost—you could think about it as hurting me. Like who was I hanging out with in my freshman year that everyone was failing out?

Dave: Did you cause them to fail out?

Mike: It's arguably possible that I contributed. We certainly didn't go to class all the time.

Dave: That sounds like my freshman year.

Mike: I didn't come close to failing, I don’t even know—

Dave: Me neither.

Mike: Right.

Dave: I did just fine, but I didn't attend all the classes. Don't tell my parents that; they're still unaware of it.

Mike: My mom does not listen to my podcast. Do your parents listen to this?

Dave: No, absolutely not. Maybe once or twice in the early days. But I think, Mike, amazingly enough, that is the full slate of questions that we had tagged to answer.

Mike: We hope it was helpful. Dave and I get together—well, we get together and Zoom more often than travel, but we get together from time to time.

Dave: Yeah.

Mike: Keep the cycle updated.

Dave: We're here in Napa Valley.

Mike: I might be the most sober person in Napa Valley, I've discovered.

Dave: Yeah, well, it's an afternoon podcast for me, which is actually unusual and rare. I usually record at night, but at 3:43 on a Saturday afternoon in Napa, yeah, you're the most sober.

Mike: Yeah, that's funny. One thing—we're going to start a spreadsheet this coming week as these podcasts populate with all the new school medians.

Dave: Excellent. I will actually look for that too, because you guys always do a great job of putting that information up. It's really useful.

Mike: Yeah, it won't be 100% accurate because if nothing else, schools’ medians change after orientation for a couple of schools every year, but we'll try our hardest.

Dave: Yeah, and that's actually a good closing note. Some people are listening to this and maybe haven’t gotten into a school or are on a waitlist. You still could get the call. It's not quite over yet for people wanting to attend this fall.

Mike: Yeah, someone's going to say that we guaranteed everyone's going to get into every law school. But I will say this: inarguably, there will be schools that have needs after the first couple days of orientation.

Dave: That's always the case. But either way Mike, appreciate you having me on here. It's good to talk to you about all this stuff, and especially as we look forward to the new cycle that's just kicking off now. It should be an interesting year.

Mike: I'm going to go hike around non-trespassing vineyards. Thanks, Dave, for helping me out.

Dave: Excellent.

Mike: Bye everyone.