Of all the different parts of the law school application process, the application forms are the ugly stepchildren. You sweat the LSAT. You agonize over your essays. You lose sleep over your recommenders. And while you're spending all that mental bandwidth on other parts of the admissions process, you might leave the application forms until the last minute on the assumption that they are just... forms.
And they are forms, that's true, but they are very important to your success in the admissions process for two reasons: The forms signal information that is important for you to have as an applicant, and in filling them out you make all kinds of choices that signal important information back to admissions officers about yourself.
1. Schools are signaling important information to you through the application form
Once the coming season's applications are released (typically in September), take a close look at them. What kind of information are they asking? And how are they asking for it?
- How much space do they give you to answer each question? Is it a lot? A little? Is that going to be a problem, either way?
- Do they invite you to submit attachments if you run out of room?
- What do their disclosure questions look like?
- Do they ask for a personal essay or a professional one? (Hint: Applications will often refer to the required essay as a "personal statement" even if you are being asked to write about your professional goals, so don't rely on the name they're giving the essay; scrutinize the essay question instead.)
- Do they want two recommendations? Require two but recommend three? Require two but accept up to four? Require zero?
While you'll be using the same online site to fill out your applications, the schools have a lot of flexibility to ask their own questions and to tweak the standard ones. You'll have to read each application carefully to figure out what they're asking for, and how they want you to provide the information.
2. How you fill out your application forms signals important information about you
Most importantly: Can you follow instructions? Lawyers live and die by attention to detail, and in your application you're being evaluated for that skill, among others. (If details aren't your thing, don't become a lawyer; it will be the worst profession in the world for you.)
Examples of instructions that are easy to miss:
- Include an attachment / don't include an attachment / attachments are welcome but fill out the space provided on the form as well (who knew attachments are so tricky?).
- List your three most recent LSAT scores (you leave off the lowest one because it looks bad).
- List the other schools to which you're applying (you decide not to list all 27 of them because you think it looks bad that you're applying to so many, or you treat the question as optional even though it's not marked as optional).
- The recommendation forms must be sent to LSAC (but you tell your recommenders to send them directly to the law schools, causing some law schools to reject the letters; and perhaps they don't bother telling you that your file is incomplete until you call in the spring to find out why you haven't received a decision yet).
In the interests of keeping this post reasonably short, I won't list the 600 other examples I could easily come up with. But I will list two:
- What's your name?
- Where did you go to college?
Those should be slam dunks, right? Wrong. As an admissions officer, I encountered applicants who had spelled their own names wrong, or spelled their colleges' names wrong.
"They must be complete idiots!" you think. But they weren't idiots. They just weren't respecting the application form for what it was. Filling out an application isn't rocket science, but it does require a fresh pair of eyes, ample time to proofread, and an obsessive attention to detail. Instead, plenty of smart applicants put off the forms until the last minute—because they're "just forms"—and overlook important instructions or careless typos, or fail to disclose things they need to disclose (that can open up an entirely different world of problems).
Reading the forms carefully is key to your success—not the only one, but an important one. How you complete the forms conveys a lot of "hidden" information about you: whether you take the application seriously, whether you are someone who sweats the details, whether you are able to gauge the submission-worthiness of your own work, whether you respect admissions officers' time, and whether you exercise good judgment.
Do you have other examples? 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.