How to Decode Your Law School Application Instructions

Are the character count limitations in some of your law school applications killing you? If you are struggling with instructions that tell you to list your extracurricular activities or honors/awards (including description!) in 500 characters or less, you are not alone. Here are some real examples:

  • List your important scholastic or academic honors including scholarships, fellowships, prizes, honor societies, etc. (maximum characters 500)
  • List your extracurricular, community, or other activities in the order of their importance to you. Give a brief description of your involvement, including any special responsibilities or leadership positions held. (maximum characters 500)

What do 500 characters look like (including spaces)? You're looking at 551 just in this measly paragraph! You're probably wondering how on earth you're going to list all your activities or awards in even less space. There is a solution. In a recent post, I talked about how important the instructions are in your applications, and I explained that admissions officers use those instructions to convey important information about what they're looking for. Your job is to decode those instructions, and this character count limitation is a good example.

If a school limits you to an answer roughly as short as the character count in the paragraph above, that's a strong signal that they do not want you to list every single thing you've done that meets the definition of "extracurricular activity" or "honors and awards." Instead, they're signaling that you should list the one or two or three most important ones only. You will have to use your judgment to decide which ones should make the cut, and how much detail to include. Through their instructions, they are rewarding people who can ruthlessly prioritize information and who can express themselves succinctly.

Don't forget that you'll also have an opportunity to submit a resume for most applications. You have a whole page there to add more detail, and to list more items, than you can in those application fields where they are limiting your character count so drastically. 500 characters is very little space, so admissions officers are asking for a birds-eye view, and an even more birds-eye view than they get in your resume. You are not being asked to replicate the depth or breadth of your resume in those fields. How do you know? Because they are intentionally making it impossible to do so.

Are you finding other examples of short character count limitations? How about other examples of instruction decoding? Please share.

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. Read more admissions tips in The Ivey Guide to Law School Admissions, downloadable as an e-book. Join the conversation here in the blog comments and on Twitter and Facebook. Or email us a new question for the blog.