BY ROBERT P. MCGOVERN, JR.
Photo credit: Olga Filonenko
Want to make a great first impression on the law school admissions committee and stand out amongst a sea of applicants? Start by following this advice...
Applying to law school is both exciting and stressful—and I can speak from experience on both sides of the process.
As a proud alumnus of New England Law | Boston and now the assistant director of admissions, I know what works, what doesn’t, and what you can do to make your law school application stand out.
The fact of the matter is you need to show us who you are and why you are the right fit for law school. And because most law schools don’t have sit-down interviews with prospective students, you need to demonstrate that fit through your application materials.
That may be easier said than done, but I hope the following advice helps.
Make your personal statement sing
A good personal statement can be the difference between the waitlist and an acceptance. I know this because I have personally fought for students who have gone above and beyond in their essays.
We’ve discussed what makes a good personal statement at length, but it’s worth reiterating the power of this part of your law school applications.
Consider what you are trying to accomplish with your essay: you are introducing yourself to a law school in a way that lets us know who you are, explains exactly why you want to go to law school, and tells a story that helps you stand out.
So how do you do this? I will use myself as an example...
Prior to law school, I was a newspaper editor. In writing my personal statement, I explained that journalism was my passion and I wanted to do everything in my power to protect it. To me, that meant going to law school, where I could learn the intricacies of media law, contracts, and constitutional law. My personal statement checked off all the boxes: I explained who I was, I outlined why law school was an important step in the pursuit of my passion, and I had a unique background to boot.
As an attorney, you will be an advocate for yourself and your beliefs as well as your clients'. Your personal statement is a great introductory exercise in that regard.
Pro tip: your personal statement can help you stand out for institutional scholarship opportunities too. For example, New England Law has several scholarships for students who exhibit a passion for a particular area of the law. Your personal statement is the perfect way to show the admissions team that you are a worthy candidate for such scholarships. In fact, I have asked our scholarship committee to consider applicants for these financial awards based on their personal statement.
Related: 5 Outstanding Real-World Law School Personal Statement Examples
Take charge of your letters of recommendation
Believe it or not, many law school applicants submit letters of recommendations that say very little about what makes them a strong law school candidate—defeating the purpose of the requirement. For example, a professor might write a recommendation saying an applicant did well in their class, but then they fail to explain why the student will do well in law school.
You, as the applicant, need to take charge of this part of the process.
As you consider who to ask for recommendations, think about the relationship you have had with that person. Did you frequently go to a professor’s office hours and talk about more than just the subject matter of the class, like your hopes and dreams for the future? Did the supervisor you’re about to ask work closely with you? Did they see you at your best, and did they appreciate your work? Above all, do they know who you are as a person and why going to law school is important to you?
I would much rather see a thoughtful letter from your manager at a restaurant who really knows you than a cookie-cutter, one-paragraph statement from someone who seems important, like the director of an academic department at your college. The letterhead matters less than the substance underneath it, and a lot of law school applicants don’t realize that.
Once you have possible recommendation writers in mind, make sure you sit down with the person and ask whether or not they are ready and able to write a letter that will show you in your best light. If they hesitate, or if they fail to ask probing questions about your needs, consider broadening your search.
When I went through the law school application process, I had multiple sit-down meetings with those who I wanted to tell my story. I ended up asking three of the five people I spoke to, and that was because those three were not only willing to write a recommendation letter but excited at the prospect.
A recommender’s excitement will shine through their letter, and it lets law school admissions professionals know the person on the other side of the application is worth fighting for.
Related: View law school application requirements
Use your résumé to share your professional roadmap
While personal statements and letters of recommendation fill in a lot of the “unknowns” about a prospective law student, résumés should give the admissions committee a clear and concise outline about an applicant’s professional trajectory.
If you’re coming to law school directly from college, your résumé is likely a bit shorter than the more seasoned applicant’s. However, that does not mean you can’t make your current work history jump off the page. Even if your employment history has been entirely in the service industry (restaurants, retail, etc.), be sure to explain what you did in a way that outlines the demands of the job. Trust me, most admissions professionals understand and appreciate what it means to be a line cook in a “fast-paced, demanding environment.”
If you’ve been out of college for some time and are now seeking a new challenge, use your résumé to outline your professional journey. Remember too that many non-legal professions give you a surprisingly solid foundation for law school. Applicants with science backgrounds often bring a helpful pragmatism to law school, and folks with lots of liberal arts experience thrive in this environment where reading and writing is king.
Be sure to include every relevant activity you participated in during and after college in your résumé too. Whether you were a college athlete and/or a volunteer at the local soup kitchen, you should highlight those activities. Even your hobbies can be helpful in making your application stand out.
Don’t be shy about adding awards you received. It’s not showing off; it’s explaining who you are through your achievements."
Also, don’t be shy about adding any and all awards you received, whether as a student or working professional. It’s not showing off; it’s explaining who you are through your achievements. And all these things show us you can juggle multiple responsibilities while maintaining an impressive academic or professional career.
Pro tip: if you’re concerned about the aesthetics or content of your résumé, go to your alma mater’s career services office for advice and resources. I asked my university for help when I was going through the law school application process, and they helped me put forth my best possible résumé.
Don’t stand out for the wrong reasons…
Where there's writing, there's always the potential for errors. And when it comes to applying to law school, spelling, grammar, and other careless mistakes can sometimes raise red flags for the admissions committee.
As you finish up your applications, be sure to review them carefully. Then have a pre-law advisor, professor, and/or trusted friend look over your application, particularly the personal statement. At the end of the day, you are your own best law school advocate, but you need a quality editor too.
Finally, we are aware that you are likely applying to other law schools, but make sure you reference the right school in your personal statement and elsewhere in your application. It's a surprisingly easy thing to miss—and it definitely stands out in the wrong way.
Applying to law school is a big deal. Make sure your application reflects the best version of yourself before you press “submit.”
Robert P. McGovern, Jr., is the Assistant Director of Admissions at New England Law | Boston. He previously served as a legal columnist and reporter for the Boston Herald.