What are the biggest mistakes I've seen over the years in law school applications?
Thanks to a recent interview with Vault's Law Blog, I had a chance to ponder that question. Here was my reply:
[T]he biggest mistake I see is a failure to think -- really think -- about what you are being asked to show [admissions officers] and what you want to say, and then a failure to protect your story from well-meaning but misinformed third parties, especially parents. When application materials read as if they were written by committee, it's often because mom and dad had a hand in them, and those essays-by-committee are pretty blah.
Another mistake is the assumption, perhaps a generational one, that you can write your way around any problems with your application; that you can, in essence, sweet-talk someone into ignoring your sub-par transcript or your sub-par LSAT score or that disciplinary charge in college. Explanatory addendum essays are essential in some situations, but sometimes they do more harm than good. The best ones are an exercise in advocacy, judgment, and persuasion, not sweet talking. Many applicants rely a bit too heavily on what they think is their overall awesomeness, even if they don't have the obvious record to go with it, and they want to write meaningless addendum essays about everything under the sun. They miss the crucial step of answering for law schools, "Why should we discount this factor we have already told you is important to us?" and making a compelling argument. It's not enough just to announce that this thing or that thing doesn't represent your otherwise stellar merits. That kind of approach doesn't work in legal practice either.
And finally, the most widespread problem I have seen and continue to see (and I hear this complaint from current admissions officers as well): mediocre or even poor writing skills. Applicants who seek out opportunities to have their written work rigorously edited and critiqued during college will later have a leg up in the admissions process and beyond. If a professor or a writing center or a tutor is willing to critique your writing skills, take advantage of that offer. And you need to write -- a lot -- to get better at it. It's like practicing the piano.