This post comes from our consultant Karen Buttenbaum, former Director of Admissions at Harvard Law School.
We were recently asked about the most common mistakes that we see applicants making, and below are our top eight. Note that these aren’t the most egregious mistakes you can make, but they’re the pitfalls we see people falling into most frequently. Some of these may seem basic, but if you avoid these eight mistakes, you will already be ahead of many of your peers.
1. Rushing to get your application in
Applications take time, and this mistake can take a number of forms. So plan ahead, and make sure that you can apply within the timeline that works best for you!
Do you have enough time to prepare for and possibly retake the LSAT? If you’re starting from scratch, you should allocate at least a few months for studying — and possibly more, especially if you have a busy work and/or school schedule. The LSAT is a relatively learnable test, and it can make a huge impact on your admissions prospects if you’re willing to take more time to attain a higher score. So start your LSAT prep as early as you can relative to when you hope to apply to law school — you may need more time than you originally anticipated to achieve your full LSAT potential, and you may end up wanting to retake it, too. LSAT scores are good for five years, so for most applicants there’s pretty much no time too early to start preparing for the test.
It’s also worthwhile to consider, is this the right time for you to apply? If you’re planning to apply straight from undergrad, so often it is totally fine or even beneficial for you to wait a year and apply the following cycle. Admissions offices tend to look favorably at post-college full-time work experience, and it doesn’t have to be in the legal field to be beneficial. For a more in-depth look at whether you should take time off after college or not, check out our YouTube video on the subject from our consultant Tom Robinson, a former Director of Admissions at Harvard Law. Most law schools have been around for a long time, and they’ll be here when you are ready to apply.
Finally, even once you’ve taken the LSAT and determined that this is the right cycle for you — take your time on your applications, and don’t rush to submit. While your numbers (LSAT and undergraduate GPA) are certainly the most important parts of your admissions chances, turning in a sloppy application is part of the overall impression that the schools get from you, and it can absolutely make an impact. Applying early may have its merits, but it is far better to take the extra few days or a week/ or few weeks to make sure that you are submitting your best application. This means reading and re-reading, revising, and proofreading; it’s not a bad idea to have a detail-oriented friend or family member look over your application as well. Just don’t get too caught up in making edits for the sake of making edits — there’s such a thing as over-thinking your application, too.
2. Neglecting to cast a wide net
Just as it is in undergraduate admissions, you’ll want to have a good mix of safety, target, and reach schools. This past cycle (2020–2021) showed us how significantly the admissions landscape can change over a short period of time, so it’s a good idea to apply to safety schools where you would be a strong applicant even in an ultra-competitive cycle — that means somewhere where your LSAT score is 3-5+ points higher than their prior year median. These schools are also most often the ones where you will receive hefty scholarship offers.
But casting a wide net goes the other way, too. As odd as it sounds, you’ll want to get at least one denial, because if you don’t, then you probably could have aimed higher! In the end, you’ll want to be able to make decisions on where to go based on actual options rather than hypothetical ones, and the best way to do that is to apply broadly.
3. Not following directions
This may sound like a basic rule that we learn as children, but those application instructions are so long sometimes! Still, it is important to follow the specific directions at each school, as they do vary from one to another. Particularly when it comes to character and fitness questions, the specific wording of each schools’ questions varies such that something you disclose on one application may not need to be disclosed on another. There are other differences, too — some schools ask you to list the hours you worked at each job on your resume while most do not; some schools allow you to submit a 3-4 page personal statement while most ask for only two pages; some schools lay out specific font size and margin guidelines while others leave it open. Careful and precise reading comprehension is a hugely important skill in the practice of law, so start yourself off on the right foot with your law school applications.
4. Focusing on “why law” too much in your personal statement*
Many schools will want to know the answer to the question “why law” in some form or another, but you don’t have to focus solely on that in your personal statement, especially if that’s not the most interesting thing about you. Your personal statement will not be read in isolation — your application is read as a whole, and as a whole, the fact that you are applying to law school needs to make sense, but you don’t have to go into too much detail if there are more interesting things to showcase about you. Don’t let a great personal statement topic go to waste just because it doesn’t explain why you want to go to law school. *Certainly a focus on “why law” can make sense for some applicants, but don’t force it if that’s not you. Stick to your strengths, and don’t be disingenuous. For more on this, check out our podcast episode, “Do you have to explain WHY you are going to law school in your law school application?”
5. Focusing the personal statement too much on skills and not enough on personal characteristics
Yes, you are applying to law school, and that requires a certain skill set, but you do not have to showcase each and every attribute as part of that skill set in your personal statement. You want to make a good impression and show the admissions committee who you are, and discussing the nitty-gritty of how you analyze problems is often not the best way to do that. I’ve seen too many personal statements that spell out the skills acquired by certain experiences, and while those are great skills, the precious space in the personal statement could have been used to discuss something that would give the reader a better sense of what you bring to the classroom and community. You will learn the law in law school, and you will develop skills to a new level, so you don’t need to list each lawyerly skill in your personal statement. Just remember that many of your skills are inferred by the reader based on your experiences, other things that you mention in the essay, and your resume.
If this mistake and the prior one have you asking, “So what should I write my personal statement on?” check out this video from our consultant Derek Meeker (former Dean of Admissions at UPenn Law) on how to choose a personal statement topic.
6. Throwing everything in the application and seeing what sticks
Many schools offer optional statements that are not entirely optional, meaning that you really should do them if you want them to take your application seriously. But there are many truly optional essays — most schools include a prompt for a diversity statement, for example; but for many applicants, it doesn’t make sense to submit one, and it may even show poor judgment if you do so. (For more on this, see our blog post, “Should you submit a Diversity Statement for Law School?”) Addenda, too, are often misused and overdone — just because your GPA or LSAT scores are lower than your target school’s medians doesn’t mean that you need to submit an addendum to explain them. “Why X” essays are another area where submitting an extra statement isn’t always helpful — of course, if a school offers you this option explicitly within their application, it’s not a bad idea to write one, but most schools that don’t ask for a “Why X” don’t want them, and oftentimes in those cases it’s actually a negative if you submit one anyway. This especially applies to the top-ranked schools.
Beyond these specific examples, the common mistake here is the misconception that the more material you can put into your application the better. This is simply not the case — and in fact, back when applications were physical stacks of paper, there was a saying amongst admissions officers that “a thick application means a ‘thick’ applicant.” So think carefully about what you are and aren’t including in your application. Just because you could submit something doesn’t mean you should.
7. Not fully filling out application forms
Application forms often ask for information that can be found elsewhere (e.g. having you list your work experience even when you are also submitting a resume). Yes, you will be repeating yourself, but don’t put “see resume” in your application. You should be filling out every question the application asks (if it’s applicable to you).
8. Not remembering that applications are looked at as a whole
We discussed this a bit earlier, but remember that your application components are not looked at in a vacuum. So don’t repeat yourself in your essays, but also try to paint a cohesive picture of who you are. For example, if your resume is entirely business-oriented (maybe you studied business administration in college and now work for a management consulting firm) with no volunteering or public interest experience, admissions offices will notice the discrepancy if you write your personal statement about how you’re fully dedicated to your goal of practicing public interest law. It’s okay to have different interests (of course!), but none of your application components should directly conflict with others