It's almost the end of February, and you have all the time in the world to deal with your law school applications, right? Wrong. By the time we hear from people in the fall, or even as early as June, they've missed a lot of lead time to get their application strategy and logistics in order. Here are ten things to start thinking about now:
The Law School Admission Council (LSAC) is the gatekeeper for all your application logistics. Almost every component of your applications will be funneled through LSAC, so you'll need to pay attention to LSAC's process and rules. Yes, all those rules can seem prissy and annoying. Yes, their website can be hard to navigate. But every spring and summer we hear from applicants who didn't know LSAC had anything to do with their applications beyond administering the LSAT. Things you can do now:
- Create your LSAC account and poke around the LSAC website. Figure out where the different pieces of information are, especially anything to do with rules and deadlines. (Should be really easy, but it's not.)
- Familiarize yourself with their logistical checklist for using LSAC during the application process. Know their FAQs inside and out. (LSAC buries their FAQs in various subpages. Here's an example you should bookmark.)
- Pay the fee (currently $124) to sign up for CAS, their Credential Assembly Service, which handles your transcripts and recommendations. It's OK to pay the fee now, because your account will be active for 5 years.
2. Befriend the LSAT/GPA Calculator
The upside to all that centralization at LSAC is that they have a complete set of aggregated data for applicants, including success rates at different schools. You can pull up their LSAT/GPA calculator (look for a box labeled "LSAT/GPA Search," currently on the upper left part of that page), punch in your undergraduate GPA on a 4.0 scale along with any real — or hypothetical — LSAT score, and see how last year's applicants fared at different schools with those same numbers. (You may find the information easier to digest if you then sort the results by "Llkelihood" rather than "Alphabetical.")
The calculator will give you a rough idea what LSAT score you'll need in order to be competitive at various schools. That information can guide you both as you decide which schools to research further and also as you embark on your LSAT preparation and start taking practice tests.
3. Letters of Recommendation
Recommendations are an important and time-consuming to-do item both for people graduating from college this spring/summer, and also for people who have already graduated. For many applicants, it makes sense to ask for recommendations now, even if you won't be submitting them until this fall, or even a year from now.
Recommendations can take a while to wrangle. It takes time to select appropriate recommenders and talk to them about their suitability and willingness to write you a letter. Then it takes time for them to write the letters, and for you to ride the ones who have gone AWOL (I've seen recommenders go AWOL with depressing regularity). Then LSAC asks for two weeks to process your letters once your recommenders have put their letters in the mail (snail-mail!) and the letters show up at LSAC. And you'll have to know LSAC's recommendation rules cold, because when applications get held up or fail to go complete, it's often because either the applicant or the recommender didn't follow the rules for submitting recommendation forms. All in all, it can take a long time to get your recommendations done. Do not put this off.
Feeling out your prospective recommenders now will also help you plan your timeline appropriately. Some recommenders ask for a copy (or at least a working draft) of your application essay, and if that's the case, you'll have to budget enough lead time to get your essay in good shape before your recommender starts writing his or her letter.
4. LSAT Prep
Ideally, you'll be taking your first LSAT no later than June in order to apply the following fall. Why? Because October is the latest score that will allow you to apply early in the season, and applying early is important. If you wait until October to take the test, you are effectively giving yourself just that one shot, and things go wrong all the time. In theory, you can still take the December test if you botch October, but that's putting yourself at a disadvantage in terms of your application timing. Law school admissions is competitive enough even when you're applying early. Don't make it even harder on yourself by putting all your eggs in the October basket and potentially having to submit your applications late in the game. Things to do now:
- Choose a good LSAT test prep program. Some people are well served by self-study, but in my experience, most people do better on the LSAT with the benefit of a good prep course (emphasis on "good"). Start investigating prep courses, and don't sign up with a test prep company just because it plies you with free pizza at the information session, or because it spends lots of money to advertise at every bus stop. Or maybe you're already signed up with Free Pizza Test Prep and wondering why your score hasn't improved much. If that's the case, switch to a better test prep tutor or company, even if that means you pay twice. The LSAT prep expense is a drop in the bucket compared to what you're about to spend on law school, and high LSAT scores can pay for themselves in scholarship money (i.e. discounted tuition).
- Sign up to take the June LSAT. If you knock it out of the park, great, because then you can give your undivided attention to the written parts of the application. If you don't knock it out of the park in June — and many people don't on their first try — plan on taking it again in October. It's OK to take it twice, but it's even better if you can do it right the first time.
The most important factors that will determine your success as an applicant will be your GPA and LSAT score in combination. Your grades matter just as much as the LSAT, but they are mostly water under the bridge if you're planning on applying this fall. You still have total control over the LSAT, however. We routinely hear from applicants later in the season who tell us they waltzed into the LSAT "just to see" how they would do, or studied for only two weeks beforehand, or studied for a longer period of time but with less than full commitment. That's a mistake, unless you are one of the few who can get a 176 walking in unprepared. The LSAT is a hard test. DO NOT UNDERESTIMATE IT. And if you hear people tell you that you can write your way around a crummy LSAT score, they are either are buttering you up or don't know much about law school admissions.
And finally, know the LSAT rules for retaking the test: you can take the test only three times in two years, including cancellations. That rule catches some applicants off guard. This is a subset of our advice above to know the LSAC rules cold, including the LSAT rules (read through the entire LSAT drop-down menu here).
5. Your Goals
Chances are, you'll find yourself writing at least one essay this fall explaining and implicitly defending your professional goals. Why are you applying to law school? What do you hope to do with your law degree? Why is this the right time? Many applicants struggle to articulate good reasons for seeking a law degree, so use this lead time to do some soul-searching and figure out why you're even doing this. And if by the fall you still don't know why, ask yourself whether you should be applying at all. Law school is way too expensive (and risky) an investment without a clear vision and a solid game plan.
6. Your Summer
Make your summer plans wisely. What do you have lined up for the summer at this point? A job? A service activity? Travel? Triathlons? More school? If you haven't started focusing on your summer, when do you plan to start? Figure out how to make productive use of your summer and add good stuff to your resume.
7. Masters degree??
Thinking of running off to grad school to bolster your apps? Not so fast. This time of year, we hear from applicants who breezily tell us they're going to do a one-year masters somewhere to improve their eventual law school apps, and they come to us for help in picking the right masters program to get into law school. They are surprised when we tell them that their undergraduate transcripts are going to matter a lot more, and that grad school is not some kind of stepping stone to law school. If your goal is law school, you're better off doing what you need to do to get your LSAT score up, rather than wasting a year in a master's program that you're attending just to bide your time before law school. If time and money are no object, it's fine by us if you want to park yourself in some masters program, but in most cases, a masters is not going to help you get into law school.
Even if you're still in school, go ahead and have your transcripts submitted to LSAC now. Also order copies of your transcripts for yourself, and take a close look at them. Look for any errors and do what you can to get them fixed. Sometimes that can take a while. You'll also need some time to figure out which transcripts you have to send to LSAC in the first place. That semester abroad in Paris? The community college transcript from when you were a high school senior? That summer course in calculus you flunked and would rather make go away? That painting course you took at the Fine Arts School just for fun? Make sure you understand which transcripts you have to submit, and if in doubt, contact LSAC directly to get confirmation.
Once LSAC processes your transcripts, it will generate an Academic Summary Report that you can view. Scrutinize that carefully too, especially to see what weight LSAC has assigned to Withdrawals, Incompletes, etc. If you don't graduate until the spring, you can have another round of updated transcripts sent to LSAC once your new set of grades has come in. In the meantime, you can see how LSAC handles the grades you've earned so far.
9. Disciplinary or Legal Problems
If there are disciplinary or legal problems lurking in your past (underage drinking charges, academic probation, etc.), chances are you're going to have to disclose them somewhere. It can take a while to get all the documentation together, and it can also take a while to figure out what you even have to disclose to which school (they all have different disclosure requirements and triggers). If you do have something to disclose, you'll have to think about how to tell your story in a way that is least damaging but also truthful, and you should start sorting that out now.
10. Seek Advice Sooner Rather than Later
The list above is just a sampling, and notice that the topics covered are all logistical; they don't even get into other time-consuming parts of the application process, like writing your essays. You shouldn't even be tackling the written parts of your application until you've figured out the big picture.
It's not too early to start seeking strategic advice from outside sources, whether that's a pre-law adviser at your school, our e-book, or an independent adviser like one of our admissions coaches. We offer a diagnostic service that is designed to help you start thinking about strategy and logistics before you dive into the applications themselves. Contact us if you're interested, or if any of the above tips make you think, "Huh, I'm not sure how to handle XYZ" and you want personalized help. It's not ideal to wait until the summer, when you will probably be bogged down with preparations for the October LSAT. You wouldn't train for a marathon in two weeks or even two months, and your law school applications are no different. It's far better to start tackling these preliminary things now so you can be in fighting shape when the fall rolls around.
Former Dean of Admissions at the University of Chicago Law School and a recovering lawyer, Anna Ivey founded Ivey Consulting to help college, law school, and MBA applicants navigate the admissions process. You can find more admissions tips in The Ivey Guide to Law School Admissions. Join the conversation here in the blog comments and on Twitter and Facebook, or email us a new question for the blog.