I am often asked how applicants can make themselves "look unique," and I actually think it's the wrong question to be asking.
To see why this is, let's start with what the word actually means, courtesy of Random House Dictionary (here are the first three definitions):
1. existing as the only one or as the sole example; single; solitary in type or characteristics: a unique copy of an ancient manuscript.
2. having no like or equal; unparalleled; incomparable: Bach was unique in his handling of counterpoint.
3. limited in occurrence to a given class, situation, or area: a species unique to Australia.
Wow, that would be asking a lot. To succeed as a law school applicant, do you really have to be "unique" the way the sole copy of an ancient manuscript is unique? Or the way Bach's use of counterpoint is unique? Or the way an animal species in Australia is unique? Do you have to stand out in some way by having a job/activity/major that nobody else on the planet has?
Of course not. Even top law schools could never fill up their classes each year if those were really the standards. (Check out how many law school students have interned on the Hill, worked as paralegals, majored in Poli Sci, competed in forensic debate, or tutored underprivileged children.) So uniqueness isn't actually the top priority for admissions officers; they're looking for something else. And what is that? Simple: it's excellence.
More specifically, they want you to be unusually good in three areas:
Can you demonstrate that you have the requisite
- intellectual horsepower
- work ethic
- critical reasoning skills and
- writing and speaking skills
to handle an unusually rigorous academic program?
2. Soft Skills/Life Skills:
If you can demonstrate that you are unusually good at the academic criteria, then (responsible) law schools will next worry about your soft skills, and in particular how you are going to fare on the job market and in the world at large. Can you demonstrate that you will be able to:
- interact with recruiters and legal employers professionally
- be proactive and focused in your job search
- get along and work well with people who are different from you
- have the grit and wherewithal and flexibility to land on your feet when the market gets tough
- be a great ambassador for the school, a role you would have for the rest of your life, and
- exercise good judgment and ethics, both in school and in the wider world?
The most competitive law schools in the country will also care about your future impact. Will you be the kind of law school graduate who is likely to become a game-changer, whether in private practice, the public sector, the non-profit world, or in business? What in your background will give them the impression that you're going to have impact?
Note that none of the three metrics above assumes that you've done Activity X or Job Y. How you fill in the Xs and Ys doesn't matter as much as being able to show that you've done them really, really well.
"Uniqueness" is therefore greatly misunderstood by many applicants (and misused by some law schools in the language of their applications). Applicants hear the word "unique" and think they have to be able to do something no one else can, and they sometimes despair if they haven't solved the Riemann Hypothesis on the back of a napkin or learned how to yodel Cameroonian folk music or summited Aconcagua on a pogo stick. You don't even have to be the first in your family to go to college, or an exotic ethnic minority. All of those things are interesting -- and worth showing off if you have them -- but they are not necessary in order to be a successful law school applicant.
Whether or not you have a unique background, what makes you stand out in the application process is showing, in a very limited amount of space, that you are unusually good along the three metrics listed above. That's why law schools pay so much attention to LSAT scores, previous academic performance, experience in a professional setting, life experience, previous impact, and ethics.
Demonstrating those things is hard in and of itself, even if you don't have to be one of a kind or know how to yodel. Assuming you have achieved the underlying excellence, you then have to figure out how to feature all those various experiences and talents and ambitions in a few pieces of (virtual) paper. That's a big challenge, but nowhere near as daunting as being "the only one" or "having no equal" or even pursuing wacky activities. Wacky activities might make someone in the admissions office notice you, but they will almost never compensate for lack of excellence.
Schools want to see what you've made of the talents you were born with and the opportunities that life sent your way, or -- even better -- the opportunities you've made for yourself. Some of the most interesting applications come from people who took the lemons they were handed and made lemonade.
Bottom line: If you don't have an unusual background, no law school would expect you to go engineer an unusual background out of thin air so that you can be "unique," and they wouldn't expect you to try to present a non-unique background as unique. When applicants try to dress themselves up as something they're not, that almost always backfires. Better to present yourself at your best -- even if it's a background they see a lot -- than twist yourself into an artificial pretzel. So don't lose too much sleep about your "uniqueness." Concentrate instead on communicating your excellence.
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, recently updated and available as an e-book. Follow Anna on Twitter (@annaivey).