Law School Admissions Officers Reveal How They Evaluate Candidates

Most applicants don’t realize this but law school admissions officers are constantly making public statements about how they view candidates. These preferences won’t matter if you’re a clear admit or a clear reject, but if you’re a marginal candidate–like if you’re a low GPA and high LSAT “splitter” this information is absolute gold. As a marginal candidate, you need every advantage you can get. That includes taking information about what admissions officers like and don’t like and custom tailoring your application accordingly.

Related: How to Get Into a Top Law School with a Low GPA

Current and former admissions officers are constantly being interviewed on and off the record. There’s probably more information from former admissions officers, since many of them have gone off to become admissions consultants. Even though they are no longer working for the law school, these former admissions officers also hold tremendous insights about how schools will view your candidacy. And even though there’s probably less information from current admissions officers, the few statements that they have made are extremely valuable.

I’ve compiled a list of books that I’ve found and used during my own admissions cycle. You might have to dig around (the best books are often also the longest ones) but there’s definitely good stuff in them.

How to Get Into the Top Law Schools (5th ed.) by Richard Montauk

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(Click image for Amazon link to book)

This is hands down the best resource available on admissions officers’ preferences. While there’s a lot of generally useful info in this book, the most important material are the responses to the very specific questions Montauk asks admissions directors. For example, some hot topics include:

  • Can post graduate work make up for a relatively poor undergraduate performance?
  • What factors do you consider when evaluating an undergraduate record?
  • Does it matter what a candidate majors in?
  • Overcoming a weak undergraduate record
  • Admissions officers discuss whom they interview
  • How much decisional weight is placed on the LSAT score?

The admissions officers don’t respond to these questions in generalities. Although they do use qualifiers and use neutral language, there are clear differences between and among what they do say. For example, splitter friendly schools like George Washington and Columbia Law’s admissions officers expressly mention a high LSAT score as the way to overcome weak grades. Officers from less splitter friendly schools like Cornell make statements downplaying the importance of the LSAT.

There’s also other useful information, like whether an applicant should include an addendum in their application. There’s no simple answer, so there’s a lot of debate about the usefulness of addenda on Internet forums. However, in the Montauk book there is at least one law school that requests applicants to submit addenda to explain bad grades caused by a difficult major.

When I applied to law school many years ago, I consulted this book so often that all the pages got wrinkled. Fortunately, these days you can get the e-book version. I highly recommend that applicants purchase this book. The information in the book should be relatively up to date because the Fifth Edition was published in 2011.

How to Get Into Law School by Susan Estrich

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(Click image for Amazon link to book)

This book is particularly special to me because the information in it helped me land an interview with the head of admissions at a top law school despite the school’s official policy of not offering any interviews at all. (I’ll explain how in a second.) The author, Susan Estrich, is currently a partner at Quinn Emanuel, but back when the book was published, she was a full time law professor at a top ranked law school.

So the book has a lot of really good information as well, but the golden nugget about interviews above was found buried deep inside the book.  There was a passage quoting an admissions officer at USC that said something to the effect of:

Law school applicants rarely ever reach out to me to talk about their candidacy. I’ve never turned down anyone who’s ever made such a request. I’m surprised more applicants don’t do this.

I’m paraphrasing here but it was something like that. Anyways, that passage jumped out at me because generally I am better in person (I think) and do better at interviews than on paper. (Evidence: After landing a summer associate job at Sullivan & Cromwell despite being under their GPA floor, one of my interviewers told me I was hired because she felt I was personable and friendly.)

Related: How to Succeed at Biglaw OCI Interviews.

So anyways by the time I applied, this admissions officer no longer worked at the same school. I learned that he had moved on and became the head of admissions at one of my top choice law schools (in the T14). Figuring that he probably felt the same way about granting interviews to anyone who asked, I sent him a letter (after I was waitlisted) requesting a meeting. Imagine my surprise when he said yes! All conventional wisdom I’d read online said it’s impossible to get an interview with schools that don’t conduct formal interviews, but they obviously never saw that quote in this book.

(Prologue: I ended up withdrawing from this school after getting into Northwestern Law. I suppose I’ll never know if I would have gotten admitted due to my stealth interview, but I imagine that interview helped me stand out from the thousands of applicants.)

The Ivey Guide to Law School Admissions: Straight Advice on Essays, Resumes, Interviews, and More by Anna Ivey

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(Click image for Amazon link to book)

Anna Ivey was the former head of admissions at UChicago law, and the insights she provides in her book really shows her experience. Although there are more books and resources out there by many former admissions directors, back when I was applying to law school, Anna Ivey was the only one out there. There’s a ton of useful information in here about how she and other officers view aspects of a law school candidate’s application.

There are no specific interviews or statements by other admissions officers in the book. This book goes deep instead of broad–we get to take a walk inside the head of an admissions officer. Having an understanding of what she (and by extension other admissions officers) find common and dull regarding applicants’ essays helped me write a unique essay. For example, before I read the book I planned to write my personal statement on “Why I want to go to law school.” However, after reading her views on why that’s not a good essay topic, I wrote about something else.

Other topics in the book include:

  • I have an LSAT score of 164. Will that get me into Columbia, my dream school? Is it even worth paying the $70 to apply?
  • Should I write a letter explaining my unrepresentative LSAT score, my D in Organic Chemistry, my attention deficit disorder, my stint in rehab? Or will that make me sound whiny?
  • Do I look bad if I cancel my LSAT score and retake it?

One additional reason to buy this book is to get a preview on what you’ll get from Anna Ivey before hiring her as an admissions consultant. Regardless, I believe this is a worthwhile purchase for any law school applicant.

Free Information on the Internet

Nowadays there’s also a lot of free information on the Internet. Law school admissions officers are always making presentations or public statements to the media about admissions generally. If you’ve got decent research skills I’m sure you can find them.

Former admissions officers who started consulting companies are also a good source. For example, here’s a great thread started by Mike Spivey of Spivey Consulting Group that includes information from former admissions directors at Harvard, Penn, Chicago, and Vanderbilt.