Guide to Applying to Law School

For Swarthmore Undergraduates and Alumni/ae
August 2013

Applying to law school is a reasonably straightforward process. Swarthmore applicants apply to an average of 10 schools, and there is a centralized service that will forward your transcripts, LSAT scores and even your recommendations to the schools to which you are applying. Law schools are quite clear and public about the GPAs and LSATs of those students they commonly accept. The fact that the process is relatively easy means that you should be able to execute it with good judgment, timeliness and careful attention to detail.

Swarthmore applicants are quite successful in the law school application process. For those students applying to begin law school in 2012, 50 applied and 46 were accepted, for an acceptance rate of 92%, compared to a national acceptance rate of 75%.

Personal Assessment

A career in law can be exciting and personally fulfilling. It can be an opportunity to use the intellectual skills honed at Swarthmore and to be involved in a wide range of important issues. However, it is a profession that should be entered only after careful consideration as to whether it will be a good match for your interests and talents. Law school is an expensive proposition, and not one that should be embarked upon as a default when you don't have other plans. Before you get to the point of application to law school, you should take the time to investigate the field, learn more about possible specialties of interest, and actually talk to lawyers about the challenges, rewards and disappointments of their work.

What are law schools looking for? First of all, they are looking for strong LSATs and GPAs, although if you are willing to consider a wide range of schools, having less-than-stellar numbers should not preclude you from becoming a lawyer. Law schools express no preference for particular majors, but they do want to see that you've challenged yourself with a rigorous, well-rounded course of study. They are interested in people who have interesting non-academic pursuits and who have involved themselves in making a contribution in some aspect of community life. They are interested in applicants who have some realistic notion of a career in law, either through internships or employment or in-depth conversations with lawyers.

Most Swatties apply to law school after graduation, so as to give themselves some time in the work world. ( In 2012, 43 of our 50 applicants were alums. ) This approach would allow you to get a more direct and real sense of possible career directions, with the added benefit of strengthening your application through additional experiences and giving you a break between two very intense academic experiences. In 2012, two-thirds of incoming students at U.S. law schools had taken at least a year after college to work or earn graduate degrees. At Northwestern, for example, more than 90% of their recent matriculants have at least one year of full-time work experience; at Columbia, 62% did not come directly from college. Gigi will provide the same advising and help to alums as to seniors.

Law School Credential Assembly Service (LSAC)

Nearly all U.S. accredited law schools work with the LSAC Credential Assembly Service as a clearinghouse for individual transcripts from applicants. The LSAC will translate your coursework and grades into a standardized format and compute GPAs for each academic year, for each undergraduate institution you've attended, and overall. They will also send copies of all your undergraduate and graduate transcripts, along with these GPA summaries, your LSAT scores and your LSAT writing sample to the law schools to which you are applying. They also provide a recommendation and evaluation service.  Your account will remain active for five years.  You can register for these services through the web site listed below.

The registration fee is $166. Once you register, you must use the LSAC Transcript Request Form to contact the registrars from all the colleges or universities you've ever attended, and ask that your transcripts be sent there. You can subscribe to this service at www.LSAC.org.

You will pre-pay LSAC $25 for each school to which you plan to apply.  Additional reports requested later also cost $25 each. LSAC reports are then requested BY THE LAW SCHOOLS once you've applied, not by you.

LSAC (www.LSAC.org) has a very useful FAQ section and links to every law school's web site. 

Please indicate "yes" to releasing your information to your pre-law advisor, so that Gigi can best assist you and other students.

Students with extreme financial need can apply for a fee waiver for LSAC and for the LSAT.

Law School Admission Test (LSAT)

The LSAT is a half-day standardized test of reading comprehension and analytical and logical reasoning skills. It also includes a writing sample, which is not scored but is sent on to the law schools to which you are applying. It is a test for which you should prepare, either on your own, with a commercial test prep service, or the LSAT prep course given on campus in the spring.

Your LSAT score is a very important part of your admissions profile. The optimal time to take the LSATs is the June or September/October administration of the year that you are applying, with the December one being a less good option. During the 2013-2014 academic year, the test will be offered October 5, December 7, and February 8. Most law schools will accept scores for up to three years. 

Law schools vary in how they look at multiple LSAT scores. Most average them, some will consider the highest scores, some will look at the most recent. So don't take the test without carefully preparing, on the assumption that you can do better the second time around. Aim to do your very best the first time, so you don't drag your candidacy down with a score that doesn't represent your best effort.

You can register for the LSAT at www.LSAC.org. The fee for on-time registration is $165.

Choosing Schools

In developing a list of schools to which to apply, you should consider a number of factors. Obviously, geography and location are important. If you are hoping to settle down in a certain region of the country, it often makes sense to consider law schools there very carefully, as their graduates likely comprise a good portion of the professional networks there. You should also consider possible areas of law in which you may be interested, and find law schools that offer courses in those areas. Individual school web sites are likely to be very helpful to you.

Law schools are very clear about the numbers that are likely to make for a successful applicant at their school. In considering schools, you can use The Boston College Law School Locator (www.bc.edu/LawLocator) to develop a list of schools where you are likely to be a strong candidate, based on your GPA and LSATs. The LSAC web site also has a feature where you plug in your GPA and LSAT score and it will generate lists of schools at different levels of likelihood of acceptance. (Note that a few schools do not participate.) You can click on these tools from our website. While there is surely some "give" for Swarthmore's rigor and reputation for excellence, if you are not within the range for a certain school, you may be best served putting your application money and effort elsewhere.

While reputation is certainly an important factor to consider in making choices, it shouldn't blind you to a school's real qualities and strengths, and whether or not it would be a good match for your talents and interests. You should be sure to include schools where you have a good shot at getting in, not just your dream schools that are very competitive.

Be on the lookout for law school presentations on campus and try to attend at least one or two. Even if it is a school in which you're not interested, it is still helpful to hear what law school admissions officers look for in an application. Often much of the material they present is applicable to other schools as well.

The Application

LSAC uses a program, which allows you to complete and track your individual law school applications in a streamlined way.  Be sure that your transcripts and all your recommendations and evaluations are already at the LSAC, so that the law school will get your complete credentials when they request your information.

Essays

Every application will likely require at least one essay, often known as a "Personal Statement." This is your opportunity to distinguish yourself from other applicants, and explain why you would be a perfect an excellent addition to their student body. An essay that is powerful and vivid and focuses on you and your experiences and accomplishments is much more powerful and effective than an essay on your thoughts on, say, the American legal system. You might discuss 1) a turning point in your decision to attend law school, 2) a role model for yourself, 3) a personal struggle or accomplishment, or 4) a leadership, employment, or community service experience that is somehow related to your interest in law. Be sure to read the prompts they give you carefully, and tailor each essay appropriately, rather than simply re-using an essay for each school. Think of the reader as you write your essay. Law school admissions officers are very busy people, reading hundreds, if not thousands, of these essays. They want to pick up your essay and by reading it just once, see the main points that distinguish you from the other applicants. They will not have the time or patience to re-read essays that are overly academic and jargon-filled, poorly organized, vague and rambling, or filled with clichés. If your essays have typographical or grammatical errors, that will reflect poorly on you. So be sure to have a very picky friend check your applications over for little mistakes your own eyes skip over.

Gigi is happy to read your essays to give you general feedback on their effectiveness.

Expanded Resume

Attaching a descriptive resume to your law school applications can be a very effective way for you to clearly present your accomplishments and activities, especially those that you are not able to fully present in the actual application. An expanded resume is somewhat different from a business resume in that it should describe each activity in a bit more depth. However, it should not be overly wordy, and it should not list information that can be found elsewhere on your application, like contact information, or coursework. Remember, your goal is to clearly illuminate the significant things you've done, not overwhelm them with too much detail.

Gigi or the staff at Career Services would be happy to give you feedback on your expanded resume.

Recommendations

LSAC has a Credential Assembly Service (CAS), which collects and distributes letters of recommendation and/or evaluations that you have requested. These are sent to the law schools at the law schools' request, once you have submitted your application.

Evaluations allow your recommenders to rate you on 6 cognitive and noncognitive attributes and skills and add their comments, in each category or overall. The categories are: intellectual skill, personal qualities, integrity and honesty, communication, task management, and working with others.

The Credential Assembly Service will also collect and distribute traditional letters of recommendation.  You would give your recommenders the LSAC Letter of Recommendation Form and they should send their letters plus the form directly back to LSAC.

Both evaluations and letters of recommendation may be requested and submitted before you actually complete your applications. Then, when you apply and the law schools request your information from LSAC, LSAC will send copies of your letters or evaluations along with your academic records. Most law schools require that you use the LSAC for your recommendations. Through the CAS, It is possible to direct school-specific recommendations to specific law schools based on each school’s requirements or preferences, but that should be done only in very special situations.

Check the LSAC web site for specific instructions on the mechanics of the evaluation and letter of recommendation process. Each law school has specified how many recommendations or evaluations or what combinations they require. You can research this on the LSAC website. Assuming that the law school accepts either, you should decide whether to ask your recommender to do a letter or an evaluation. Do not request both. Most students prefer to request letters.

Most law schools request two letters of recommendation or evaluation. Some will allow you to send as many as three or even four (you can check the LSAC web site for each school’s requirements). You should request at least one letter or evaluation, and preferably two, from professors with whom you have done very well. If you send a third, you may want to consider one from a supervisor in a work or a volunteer experience.  Law schools are not impressed by letters from “VIP”s, unless you have actually worked closely with that person for an extended period of time. As a courtesy to your recommenders, be sure to request recommendations with an ample amount of lead time.

While you are not required to, it is recommended that you waive your right of access to your letters of recommendation and evaluation, as law schools are likely to give more credibility to confidential letters.

Dean's Certification Forms

There are some schools that will ask you to get a dean's certification, basically attesting to the fact that you have not had any disciplinary problems or been placed on academic probation. Please direct these forms to Gigi, so that she can gather information and complete them. If you have had any disciplinary or academic actions, or if there is something unusual about your academic history (such as a leave for illness or financial reasons), please contact her to discuss the situation. It is very important that you disclose any problems to the law schools.

Interviews

Interviews are not normally a part of the law school admissions process.

Timelines

Most law schools report using rolling admissions, with some reporting having filled up to 90% of their seats already by their official admissions deadlines. So be sure to get your applications and supporting information in as early as possible. Even though official deadlines may say February 15, you should aim to have your complete application in by Thanksgiving, particularly if you're interested in obtaining a scholarship.

Pre-Law Advising

Gigi is available for advising for students or alums at any point during their college careers or afterwards. Please e-mail her, or e-mail or call Jennifer Lenway at 610-328-8356 to set up an appointment.

Please be sure to let Jennifer Lenway know that you are interested in attending law school, so that she can add you to our e-mail list to receive important information related to law school.