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Applying to law school is an art all its own, and the LSAT plays a major role. You have to choose several schools, go through the expensive and complicated application rigmarole, scrounge around for financial aid, and then decide which one of the schools that accepts you is the one you want to attend. The whole process is daunting and really not much fun, but it’s the only way to get where you want to go (assuming law school is, in fact, where you want to go).

applying to law school © zimmytws /

Pick more than one

Back when you applied for undergrad, you probably picked out several schools that interested you and applied to them all (unless you got in somewhere early). You probably knew that you couldn’t count on getting into them all, but if you applied to several places, you’d most likely get into at least one and wouldn’t be stuck after high school with no college to attend. (If you were fortunate, several schools accepted you, and then you got to choose the one that best suited your needs.) The same principle holds true in law school.

Unless you’re sure you’ll get into a particular school or there’s only one place you could feasibly attend, pick several schools that you think satisfy your craving for legal education. The prevailing wisdom is to apply to at least one or two safety schools, where you’re pretty sure you’ll be accepted; four or five schools where you have a reasonable chance of getting in; and one or two “reaches,” schools where you probably won’t be accepted but still have a chance of getting in.

Applying to law schools isn’t cheap. At about $60 to $100 a pop, the cost can really add up if you apply to several schools. Spend your money wisely; only send applications to schools you’d seriously consider attending. If you already know that you can attend only your local law school, don’t waste money applying anywhere else.

How admissions work

Law school admission offices run on a yearly cycle. In the fall, the admissions folks begin accepting applications. In the winter and spring, they read these applications and send out letters of acceptance. They spend the late spring and summer assembling the entering class — fielding letters of commitment, accepting students off the waiting list when spots open up, and getting ready for the next admission cycle. Most law schools promise to send out letters of admission by April 15, though many of them begin sending them out much sooner.

The early bird . . .

Most law schools stop accepting applications in January and give students until March to get in all their supporting materials. That doesn’t necessarily mean you can wait until January with impunity. Many schools start reviewing applications in the fall and may begin sending out acceptance letters in November. As a result, students whose applications aren’t complete until March are competing for fewer spaces in the entering class, which decreases their chances of acceptance.

Some law schools offer an early notification option. Students who get their applications in really early — during September, October, or November of the year before they want to matriculate — receive a decision by December. This option doesn’t necessarily commit a student to that particular law school; make sure to check the rules at individual schools.

If you know you’re going to apply to law school, take the LSAT the spring, summer, or early fall of the year you want to apply. You can take it in December and still get in, but you risk losing a space to someone who gets her documents in earlier. Some law schools accept February LSAT results, but don’t wait that late; most of the spaces in a class are gone by the time the results come in.

A complete application

Check out this list for a complete inventory of what most law schools consider a complete application:
  • Completed, signed application form
  • LSAT score
  • Transcripts of prior academic record, submitted through the Credential Assembly Service (CAS)
  • Dean’s certification forms from your prior institutions of higher education (to prove that you went there)
  • Letters of recommendation, submitted through the CAS or independently
  • Personal statement — an essay you write, usually explaining why you want to go to law school
  • Application fee — $60 to $100, though this number tends to creep upward year by year
You may also have to send in forms about your state residency, financial needs, or other relevant bits of information. Every school’s admission form tells you exactly what to send.

If one piece of your application isn’t in place by the deadline (or whenever the admissions committee stops considering applications), no one will read any of it. So if the form for your dean’s certification goes missing or one of your recommenders forgets to send in his letter, your application is no good and you’ve wasted your money.

Review of applications

Many law schools receive far more applicants than they have spaces in an entering class. Obviously, the first thing admissions committees look at is academic credentials and LSAT scores, but numbers definitely aren’t everything. Every year, competitive law schools admit some students with fairly low scores and grades and reject some with stellar numbers.

Law schools are interested in more than mere academic ability. They hope to create law school classes that represent a diversity of backgrounds and interests and that have the potential to do great things. Nothing makes a law school look as good as an illustrious group of alumni. Here are a few of the factors that admissions committees consider:

  • Geography (where students come from); schools like to get people from all over the place
  • Ideological background
  • Race and ethnicity
  • Unique experiences and responses to hardships
Your personal statement is a good place to mention anything you want the admissions committee to know about you — anything that makes you unique.

Law schools take great pains to assure everyone that their admissions committees and faculty members really do read every single application, regardless of how low the applicant’s numbers are. Usually at least two people review each file. Each reader makes a recommendation — whether to admit, deny, wait-list, or put on hold to reconsider later. If the two readers disagree about an application, it goes to a third reader. At the end of the admission cycle, the committee ranks everyone who is left; some get in, some don’t, and some get wait-listed.

If you’re wait-listed, don’t despair. Every year, many students receive phone calls from law schools during the summer, often as late as the week before classes begin, informing them that they’ve been admitted. This doesn’t give you much time to prepare or find housing, but it’s not a bad deal if you’re flexible.

Don’t forget the money

Law school is expensive and seems to get pricier every year. The good news is that most people who need it can get financial aid from their law school or from other sources. The bad news is that the vast majority of this aid is in the form of loans, not scholarships or grants, which means you have to pay it back after you’re done with law school. (The large loans are one of the factors that keep many recent and not-so-recent law school grads working outrageous hours for law firms.)

If you need financial aid, you have to fill out the correct paperwork fairly early, by March of the year in which you’ll matriculate. The financial aid office at your future law school can tell you what you need to do.

Some law schools offer merit scholarships to applicants with very high LSAT scores. Some schools also waive application fees for high scorers, which is less lucrative than free tuition but still pleasant.

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