Above the Law

You’ve finished the June LSAT…now what? In this blog series, I will help you navigate the perilous road to 1L.

First, decide whether (and why) you’re going to retake the LSAT in October

Given that you just finished the LSAT, you’ve put at least three and a half hours of thought into one incredibly important component of the application. For your sake, we hope that wasn’t the extent of the thought you put into the LSAT.

Even in some cases where you have planned and studied appropriately, you might be considering re-taking the test. Or, if you aren’t reconsidering it yet, you might be when you get your score. There is nothing wrong with this. Tons of successful applicants to even the most selective law schools in the country take the LSAT multiple times; that’s not to say it’s encouraged, but it’s certainly not the end of the world. I myself took the LSAT three times.

There is plenty of generic advice out there about the circumstances under which you should retake the test, but ultimately it is a highly individualized decision. Nonetheless, here is some guidance on how to make this decision:

• How you felt after the test: if you left the test feeling confident – or really anything other than terrified or sad – it’s unlikely that retaking is going to be necessary. More importantly, even if you leave feeling as though you were constantly scrambling for time, and always one step behind the test, don’t let that influence your decision unless you are quite confident that that feeling resulted in (or was the result of) making several mistakes that wouldn’t have happened during practice tests.

• What’s the score you need, and what score do you think you got? Remember all those questions that send you spiraling into panic on test day? Let’s assume you got those all wrong. If you did, approximately what would your score be? Can you live with that? If not, retaking might be a smart idea.

• How much time can you devote to retaking the LSAT between now and October? Don’t plan on retaking unless you can buckle down with your study schedule.

• Would studying for the October test detract from something important? Make sure that dedicating yourself to studying for the next two or three months won’t substantially detract from something else important that you’re completing in that time.

Unless you are certain that something went wrong during your LSAT, or know that you were not as prepared as you should have been, you should not worry about retaking the test just yet. For now, just acknowledge that you might have to dedicate another 2-3 months of test preparation after the scores are released.

Second, get started on your applications – especially the personal statement

From now until your LSAT comes out, just accept the fact that there is nothing you can do to improve your June score. However, what you can affect is the strength of your application.

You should be preparing now so that you are ready to apply almost immediately after law schools begin accepting applications. As you probably already know, applying earlier in the application cycle will improve your chances at schools that employ a rolling admissions system. What’s more, it will also improve your chances at schools that do not have rolling admissions. The reason is simple: if the school has already filled the bulk of its class by the time you apply (which would be the case whether you’re applying late to a rolling admissions school or a non-rolling one), you will need to impress an admissions officer that much more if you’re going to make the cut. In short, it’s easier to get in when the admissions office has to fill 75% of the class than when it has to fill 25%.

It goes without saying that—besides the LSAT—your law school personal statement is the most important piece of your application. It is your best opportunity to showcase yourself, to convey your strengths, to explain your weaknesses or any gaps in your application, and to convince the admissions readers that you will make a valuable contribution to their next year’s 1L class. You should already be brainstorming topics for this, and thinking about how to weave many of the most meaningful experiences of your life into a cohesive narrative.

Third, besides the LSAT and the personal statement/supplementary essays, the components of your application that need the most planning and work are the ones that are not entirely within your control.

It’s important to remember that just because something isn’t entirely within your control, that doesn’t mean it’s not entirely your responsibility. You need to be managing deadlines and shaping content at the same time. The three “uncontrolled” components of your application that you should be thinking about are:

1. Letters of Recommendation – I’m going to contradict myself right off the bat here: people who think letters of recommendation (LORs) are completely out of their hands have it all wrong.

Yes, there are ethical boundaries that you should not cross.
Yes, you are at the mercy of your recommender’s schedule.
Yes, you will not actually be writing your letter of recommendation.

Nonetheless, you can take steps to ensure that each letter you receive serves a specific purpose and complements the other letters from your other recommenders. What’s valuable in having multiple recommendations if they say the same exact thing?

The ideal letter will reflect a close relationship to you; your writer will have known you for a long time, on a close basis, and in a variety of settings. That intimacy should be communicated. Moreover, your letters should include soaring praise. Every one of your peers applying to competitive schools will have great letters – letters that describe them in only the highest superlative praise. Anything less on your letters risks “damning by faint praise.”

Concrete details will help to substantiate this soaring praise, and should be considered a “must.” Giving your recommenders a copy of your transcript and a paper you wrote for him/her isn’t enough. Sit down and talk about the characteristics you would like your recommender to emphasize, and provide them a written summary of the work or experiences you had together that you think enables them to comment on those traits meaningfully. If possible (and within reason), you should encourage them to compare you to your peers. Obviously, don’t ask them to make this comparison if they are going to note that you are consistent only in the bottom of your class as long as you are comfortable with the effort and work product you gave them). I could go on and on about how to get the perfect letters of recommendation, but that’s a subject for another post.

The bottom line is that these letters are absolutely critical to your success. They are the only external validations of the other subjective material (beyond grades and scores) that you’re providing in your application. They don’t just involve handing forms and materials to your professors; and if you let them be, your application will likely just be a form that admission officers read and toss aside. Thus, you should plan for and treat your letters of recommendation as meticulously and carefully as you do for your personal statement. No matter how much a professor likes you, you should do anything you can to avoid giving them complete ownership over the process of writing your letter. It’s their letter, but it’s your application. Don’t be shy about this. It’s perfectly acceptable to tell a professor that you want him or her to focus on your writing ability because you have two other professors focusing on your quantitative aptitude and problem-solving ability.

Telling them that you’ve carefully planned your application will most likely help you gain their respect more than anything else. One of my favorite professors in college, who always tried to convince me to pursue a PhD instead of a JD, was dead set on expressing his mild disdain for my choice in his letter. He, of course, did not mean it maliciously in anyway; yet, I definitely did not want him planting any seed of doubt about one of my closest mentors suggesting I should do anything other than attend law school at that school. Instead of worrying about it, I sat down with him and expressed my reasoned concern and he assured me he would not write it in my letter. In order to make it an approachable topic that I could remind him about without being annoying or inappropriate, I turned it into a running joke that I over-used until the point at which I received confirmation that he had sent in his letter.

More importantly, telling them what you would like them to do makes their lives easier. Typically, a professor will ask you for your personal statement draft (which I advise against if at all possible because they end up just parroting much of what you’ve already said), your transcript, and sometimes written work from their class(es). We think you should go several steps further than that. After providing a short summary of your application persona and the way in which you see this recommendation fitting into that narrative, you should bullet point a couple of key traits or characteristics that you want each recommender to emphasize and flesh out in great detail substantiated with concrete anecdotes. As I briefly mentioned earlier, the more specific anecdotes about your experiences together your writer includes, the better the letter will turn out. If you have any questions or hesitation about approaching your professor in this way, then you should talk to other students who have asked that professor for recommendations before or reach out to one of our admission experts. Remember, while you don’t have control over when the recommender sends the letter (and thus should stay on top of that professor/employer/mentor throughout the process, you can exert some control over what goes into your letter…much more than you think! Remember, it’s your application, not theirs.

2. Transcripts – Schools can be notoriously slow about getting transcripts sent in, and the process for requesting the transcripts can be frustratingly bureaucratic. Make sure you know exactly what your schools’ process is for submitting transcripts and how long it takes. Check your LSAC Credential Assembly Service page when you think they have been submitted and keep checking until you see that it has been received and that item has been successfully completed. You would think the school is always on top of this type of think, but they have thousands of students to deal with in this respect and each of them applies to dozens of schools; it’s not always their fault, so be respectful and stay attuned to what is going on with your application.

Another very important thing to consider is your transcripts from other instiuttions, if applicable. If you have been abroad for a semester or a summer, or transferred in credit from another school for any other reason, you will most likely be required to get a transcript from that institution as well even if your work there did not result in a degree. This can be an even more difficult problem because often you are dealing with international mail and people in different time zones that are not necessarily full time registrars. Talk to them early and often to make sure that you get the documentation that LSAC and schools will require. It took me two months to get mine submitted properly, and it took several tries. To be on the safe side, get your official transcripts from abroad submitted to LSAC as soon as possible, even if you don’t think it’s strictly necessary. Jumping through some of these administrative hoops during the summer will save you time and headache during the school year when you will have plenty of other things going on. If you’ve already graduated, you’ll definitely want to get an early start on this because the process of obtaining transcripts for alumni at your school might be even more difficult to successfully navigate.

3. Dean’s Certification of Your Academic/Disciplinary Record – Usually, you are required to get some sort of Dean’s Certification of your academic and/or disciplinary record from college, and the process for obtaining this certification or acknowledgement varies from school-to-school. Most schools are pretty good about this, and they have standard forms for submitting the certification. Sometimes, though, these forms are not adequate and so you will want to make sure that they fill out the LSAC form or each school’s specific form as well. Stanford, and a couple of other schools, have unique Dean’s Certification forms and will not accept a standard from your college in many cases. Go through your school list, and make sure that you are abreast of the requirements for each school. You’ll also want to pay attention to whether or not a certification is required for your transfer credits (see #2 above). Don’t hesitate to call the admissions office to clarify exactly what you need if you are hesitant about what your college told you about how they typically process these requests.

David Mainiero is an Admissions Expert at InGenius Prep; JD, Harvard Law School.