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The Law School Admissions Game

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Where better to go for advice on getting into law school than to someone who is responsible for the evaluation of thousands of admissions applications a year? Here are some commonly asked questions and their answers:

When Should I Start to Prepare for Law School?

Deciding on a legal career as a preteen is not necessary, and many successful law students never considered a legal career until after graduating from college. However, some people begin their preparation for law school in the earliest stages of their undergraduate college career. This kind of early preparation can include selecting classes that will be helpful later in law school in general or in a particular substantive area of the law in which you would like to specialize, maintaining a good grade point average, and even choosing which undergraduate university to attend.

In one way or another, admissions committees take into account the reputation of an applicant's undergraduate school. Some law schools have developed computerized models that measure the competition at undergraduate schools and use that as a factor in adjusting an applicant's undergraduate grade point average.

Is It Important to Pursue a Particular Major in Undergraduate School?

The traditional perception that you should major in political science or history if you want to go to law school is misleading. The skills, rather than the major, are the important thing. Writing, analytical, and oral communication skills are important to success in law school.

As an undergraduate, you should go out of your way to seek courses that demand papers and writing exercises. Courses in science, math, philosophy, and logic will encourage the development of analytical skills. Courses or activities such as debate and rhetoric develop speaking skills.

What Weight Will Be Given to Undergraduate Extracurricular Activities?

A solid academic record and a good LSAT score open the door to law school. Extracurricular activities are generally endorsed by law school admissions officers, but they are unlikely to be among the most important factors in the admissions decision.

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Where Can I Get Information About Law Schools Before Deciding Where to Apply?

The Pre-law Handbook, published by the Law School Admission Council, the American Bar Association, and the Association of American Law Schools, contains a description of virtually every major law school in the United States. Its profiles include the average LSAT score and average undergraduate GPA for admission and indicate your own chances of admission at a particular school.

Another often-overlooked resource is the pre-law adviser. Granted, pre-law advisers at some schools may be junior members of the faculty having no particular experience with law school, but many of them are dedicated professionals who can provide valuable assistance. Some universities also have pre-law clubs that sponsor programs featuring speakers familiar with the law school admissions process.

You can also request information directly from the law schools. Many schools publish informational booklets for distribution at no cost. Some law schools sponsor an orientation day that you can attend, or they participate in pre-law day forums at area undergraduate schools.

What Is the LSAT?

Contrary to popular belief, the LSAT is not a devious means of frustrating and eliminating potential law school applicants. Nor is it a warmup for the bar exam-the bar exam is much, much worse. The LSAT, formally known as the Law School Admission Test, is a prerequisite to admission to law school. The score for the 4-hour examination is reported as part of the application process. Security procedures are followed strictly to ensure that the person for whom the test score will be reported actually sits for the examination.

The LSAT tests reading comprehension, logical reasoning, and facts and issues analysis in much the same way as do undergraduate admissions tests. It also may include presentation of a fact situation to be solved by essay answer, as a writing exercise.

The LSAT is designed to predict only success in the first year of law school. Like it or not, most statistical information available tends to suggest that the LSAT is an excellent predictor, and law schools tend to rely quite heavily on the scores when selecting applicants for admission. Obviously, some law schools will have higher score requirements than others.

How Should I Prepare to Take the LSAT?

In theory, the LSAT measures analytical skills and reading and writing skills that take years to develop; nevertheless, it is very important to prepare for the LSAT by familiarizing yourself with how the exam tests that knowledge. Over the last ten years or so, an entire industry has grown up around the LSAT by providing test preparation courses. These courses take a wide variety of forms, and some of the private courses can be quite expensive. There is a common perception that taking such a course is essential to earning a competitive score on the test. Taking a commercial prep course is not necessary to successfully taking the exam. That is not to say that preparation courses are not very helpful, only that there are alternatives.

Potential applicants are furnished with instructions and with sample LSAT questions when they register. Commercial publications provide more extensive, but similar, information. Many undergraduate schools and college extension programs also offer LSAT preparation courses. However you choose to familiarize yourself with the exam, the important thing is that you do.

When Should I Take the LSAT?

Law school advisers urge applicants to take the test no later than the fall prior to the year in which they plan to apply. While some law schools accept results from the December test, waiting may place an applicant at a distinct disadvantage by eliminating the opportunity to retake the test if necessary. Waiting until the last possible test time also can be risky since you could wake up on the morning of the test with the flu or with a car that won't start.

Taking an early test gives you the opportunity to receive your score before deciding where to apply, so that you can more realistically assess your ability of meeting the admissions standards of the law schools you consider. You may be able to retake the test in hope of achieving a higher score. Many schools accept the scores from a second test, but they may average the scores from both tests for consideration in the admissions process.

Is There a Trick to the Application Procedure?

Law school application forms often surprise people with their brevity. Nonetheless, particular questions are asked for a reason. Answering the questions asked as carefully, concisely, and accurately as possible is always in an applicant's best interest.

Most law schools ask the applicant to submit a personal statement in essay form as part of the application process. Frequently, the personal statement is used as a device to determine which applicants within a group of similar applicants with similar academic records should be admitted.

Take the time to read and consider the question being asked and to answer it specifically. Although there is little likelihood that a school would turn down otherwise desirable applicants because they did not answer the specific question asked, borderline applicants must use the opportunity to make a personal statement to their best advantage.

If an applicant has a particularly difficult major, has been in an honors program, or has taken courses in a department in which grades are significantly lower than in other departments, it should be brought out in the personal statement. The personal statement is an opportunity to explain personal academic weaknesses as well as strengths, for example, that particularly difficult courses one year or personal problems that interfered with studies are responsible for low grades.

Finally, care and neatness count. In a sense, the personal statement is the first and perhaps the most important "brief' that you will write. If you don't take the time to do it properly, an admissions committee is not likely to give it a great deal of consideration either.

How Does the Law School Admissions Process Work?

Applicants whose LSAT scores and undergraduate grade point averages rank them at the top of the applicant pool are generally admitted automatically.

There are many different elements that an admissions committee may consider when making determinations among applicants who are not automatic admits. Applicants who will be admitted must distinguish themselves from the 3,000 others. Having earned an advanced degree or demonstrated an ability to overcome disadvantages or having a minority affiliation, unusual experiences, or outstanding achievements may provide the needed distinction.

When deciding among applicants with similar academic backgrounds, the admissions committee will be looking for the applicant who can bring something special to the first-year class. Show the committee that you are that student.

In Closing ...

Applying to law school can be a frustrating, expensive, and nerve- racking undertaking. Careful preparation, common sense, and a realistic attitude should greatly increase your chances of getting into the law school of your choice. You may be surprised to find that getting the information you need, and even getting into law school, isn't as difficult as you thought.

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