Letters of Recommendation

I have a few thoughts on letters of recommendation that I want to share.  Most schools ask for two or more letters and you will want to send a minimum of three letters (and likely a maximum of four).  Given that this is a relatively small number of letters, you will want to carefully consider who writes your letters and what type of picture is portrayed to the reader in these letters.  But the most interesting and useful guidance for letters that I have received from a director of admissions was that law schools evaluate applicants principally as prospective law students, not as prospective lawyers.  This means that you will want a minimum of two academic references writing your letters.  These letters tend to do significant work for you in the admissions process because they speak to the applicant’s ability in an academic setting (i.e. ability to critically analyze text, contribute to a classroom discussion, quality of writing and research, etc.).  Letters coming from outside of an academic environment (e.g. a professional reference) often speak less directly to the skill set and abilities law schools prioritize.  These letters can provide additional dimension to you as a candidate but you want to make sure that these are relevant and impactful dimensions.  (For example, your ability to innovate in the work place may not be as relevant to a law school as it is to a future employer.)

Thinking a bit more about the content of your letters, you want to think about the kind of letter you believe the professor or advisor will write on your behalf.  Obviously, you will want to have done well in the class taught by the professor.  But you will also want to think about how many different reference points the professor has with you.  For example, if you take one class with a professor and do well (good grade, robust participation, good feedback on papers, etc.) then the professor can write a solid letter.  But, if you take two or three classes with a professor, they can talk about all of the things mentioned previously plus your performance across subject matters, success in requirements in various courses, your intellectual development, etc.  (Personally I think intellectual development is particularly useful.)  Moreover, if you have had contact with the professor in extracurricular contexts (honors societies, Minerva house events, public lectures, etc.) then they have even more material for the letter.  Again, I think it is quite useful to try to envision the kind of letter you think the professor will write for you and you can begin to think about whether there is sufficient information for an impactful letter to be written.

Once you’ve thought about who it is you would like to write your letters, you need to contact them.  Do this early.  I advise students to first contact their references in the spring term of their junior year (assuming that the student is going directly from undergrad to law school).  You do not need to do much more than contact them and have them agree to write the letter.  Tell them that you will then contact them again in August with the LSAC letter of recommendation form, which they will need to submit with their letter.  This accomplishes two things: First, it does as much as possible to assure that your letters will be submitted early in the process.  The last thing you want is for a professor to slow down (or halt) your application because they haven’t submitted your letter.  Not only can this hurt you when the school has rolling admissions but it puts you in the awkward position of having to pester your professor for the letter.  Second, it makes you look highly organized, which is a good impression to give before someone is going to write a letter on your behalf.  I hate it when a student asks me for a letter and then gives me a short timeline.  This is very frustrating and it impacts the quality of the letter.  You want professors to be able to draft and revise their letters much as you draft and revise your personal statement.  (Although professors almost certainly will not work through a dozen drafts of your letter.)  Keep in mind that some professors write many letters each year and this becomes quite burdensome, especially in the fall term.  Give them the time they need and they will appreciate you all the more.

Lastly, after your letter of recommendation is submitted, write your references a thank you letter—not an email. Write them (as in pen to paper) a thank you letter (as in that stuff that used to be a tree).  I can’t stress to you how important the thank you letter is.  Writing a letter of recommendation takes a long time and it reflects positively on you when you take the time and effort (rather than something you wrote on your iPhone while standing in line at Reamer) to acknowledge those who made an effort on your behalf.  I keep every letter I receive and I always think more highly of the sender after I receive it.  (And, for what it is worth, my stack of letters is not nearly as high as it should be.)  So, make this a general rule in your academic and professional life, write thank you letters.

The Personal Statement

When I’ve asked members of law school admissions committees to rank the impact of the materials submitted by applicants, the LSAT and GPA are one and two respectively and then they stressing the importance of letters of recommendation and the personal statement (hereafter PS).  Obviously, an applicant does not totally control the content of their letters of recommendation since the applicant is not their author.  This means that the PS is the most consequential element of the admissions package that is totally under the applicant’s control.   This post is designed to help you think about writing a PS that will positively impact your chances of successful admissions.

Before jumping into crafting a personal statement, let me say a few words on what it is designed to do from the perspective of law schools.  First, this is a rough proxy for an interview since most law schools do not have an interview process.  (A few schools–Northwestern for example–have alumni interview applicants but such a step is unusual.)  This makes the PS your only opportunity to tell the law school about yourself.  Think about it for a minute.  Everything else you submit is some kind of measure of performance (GPA, LSAT score, letters).  This is your chance to say something beyond how you have performed academically or on a standardized test.  Second, the PS serves as your writing sample.  Law school is writing intensive and your ability to write well has significant consequences for your success in law school (examples: exams, writing onto law review, clinical work, etc.).  The more you can do to demonstrate excellence in writing, the more work your PS will do for you in admissions.  And, painting with a broad brush, professors much prefer good writers to bad ones and law professors (and admissions officers) will be reading your PS.

So what does the personal statement entail?  For the most part, law schools ask pretty generic and interchangeable questions.  For example, Boston University instructs as follows: Your personal statement should discuss the significant personal  social, or academic experiences that have contributed to your decision to study law.  Fordham University School of Law provides the following: While you have the widest possible latitude in choosing the substance of your personal statements, experience shows that the most successful personal statements are those which develop a sense of the person, his or her values, aspirations, and concerns.  You are to answer these prompts in approximately two double-spaced pages (length varies a little depending on the school).   And, as you will see, BU and Fordham are very typical.  The only other thing you see with any frequency is that some law schools want to hear why you are interested in pursuing a degree in law.  (Some schools require supplemental essays but that is a topic for another post.)  In short, the PS is broad enough to allow you to write about yourself from any number of different angles.  But, importantly, keep the focus on YOU.  Essays that attempt a disquisition on law and its role in society may give the admissions committee a sense of what they think or believe but they often fail to give a sense of self.  Given that law schools are asking for this, give it to them.

But how do you write it?  This is not academic writing.  Too often I read PS that are crafted the way you write a paper.  Intro, evidence, conclusion.  Topic sentence, evidence, transitory sentence. Etc., etc.  Rather, you want to think a bit about how you relate yourself to others (strangers, friends, family, etc.).  We often do so through storytelling.  This is the power of the anecdote.  You relate a sequence of events that raises and answers a questions.  This form of communication is highly effective because it builds suspense such that the audience wants to know more.  But a good story is not sufficient.  You need to have what Ira Glass (host and producer of This American Life) refers to as a moment of reflection.  In other words, you need to tell the audience why this story matters.  Really good PS tell a story that teaches the reader something about them and something that matters for someone who is evaluating you as a prospective law student.  I’ve had students write good personal statements on topics as diverse as snowboarding, gender identity in American corrections, cooking, sexual violence, and mosh pits at death metal concerts.  The key to each of these was that the authors were able to take an experience and use it to convey to the reader a sense of who they are and how it relates to their journey to law school.

Writing a good story with a payoff is easier said than done for most students.  It takes a lot of writing and re-writing.  I usually tell students that they should think of the PS as, at a bare minimum, a ten to twelve draft process.  Everything needs to be perfect, not just the story you relate and the lessons conveyed in that story but its presentation.  Grammar, syntax, construction, flow.  Perfect, perfect, perfect, perfect.  I meet with students and tell them that I hate their statement.  I meet with students and tell them I hate a single sentence.  I meet with students and tell them I hate a word.  Working through a dozen or dozens of drafts is the best way to hone your PS into something remarkable that will leave an impactful impression with the reader.

To get a  better sense of what works and what doesn’t work, you should have many people read it.  While having “experts” (e.g. professors, tutors at the Writing Center, your friendly neighborhood prelaw advisor) read your PS is great, it is also useful to have trusted friends and family read it.  It is possible that you will get some conflicting opinions but soliciting advice from multiple sources is useful for figuring out what works, what doesn’t, and why.  And remember, a thick skin is useful in this process since you are asking people to criticize your work.  As painful as it may be, it will pay dividends in the long run.

Start thinking about the personal statement early.  Think about the best way to relate who you are and why it is that you find a degree in law compelling.  And, remember, the best way to start writing is to start writing.  Anyone who writes for a living will tell you that they have countless drafts of things started that were never completed but were nevertheless useful for getting them writing on something that came to fruition.  Writing begets more writing so start the process early.  Happy drafting!







The LSAT–Some Questions and Answers

Here we are in September.  The air is starting to turn crisp, leaves are getting a hint of color, football is being played (my fantasy football team is undefeated at 1-0), and the LSAT is just a month away.  Given that this is the season of the LSAT, I thought I’d answer some frequently asked questions.  This will certainly not answer all of your questions but it may help clarify some preliminary frequently asked questions and, hopefully, sharpen your thinking about the LSAT.

When should I take the exam?

Union students have a fairly unique problem when it comes to the LSAT.  It is offered four times a year in February, June, October, and December.  (See specific dates here.)  For most students, June is ideal for three reasons.  First, the June date is offered shortly after the spring term concludes freeing up time and attention for the final studying push.  Second, you receive your score in July and gives you plenty of time to create an admissions strategy.  Third, if the exam does not go well, then you have can consider taking the LSAT in October or December.  (More on this below.)  However, because of the trimester system, the June date is pretty messy for Union students.  The LSAT is usually offered either during our spring finals week or the week thereafter.  In either case, the timing is terrible for one of the more important exams of your academic life.  So, Union students seem most comfortable taking the exam in October.  This date affords students an opportunity to prepare for the exam over the summer months and gives you an LSAT score sufficiently early in the fall to apply for early action, early decision, and/or to submit your application sufficiently early for those schools that use rolling admissions.  In all likelihood, October is your target testing date.

What is the best way to prepare for the LSAT? How long should I give myself to prepare?

Test prep services like Kaplan, Princeton Review, etc. are popular among Union students and many LSAT takers.  I think the services these companies offer are often worthwhile and can be important to helping students improve their LSAT taking skills.  However, these tests are not a panacea and should not be seen as such (no matter how much they imply to the contrary).  Rather what they do well is to create a structured learning environment and most students learn better in a structured learning environment.  After all, this is why we in the Union community value the classroom experience as much as we do.  Important insights and breakthroughs occur in the classroom.  Additionally, having an “expert” (meaning someone who took the LSAT and did exceedingly well on it) at the front of the room to ask questions and gain some clarity is highly useful.  That being said, there is little in these LSAT courses that isn’t available in standard test preparation books (often published by the same companies that offer classes).  And, of course, these test prep books are much, much cheaper than an entire course.  If you are a disciplined student that learns well on his/her own, then you may be better served relying on these books.

Whatever the case, you want to give yourself sufficient time to prepare for the LSAT.  What exactly does this mean for you?  It depends.  Abilities to preform well on the LSAT vary widely.  Some people need only a few months to prepare while others need something closer to a year.  Also, it may depend on what your aspirations are.  If you have your heart set on NYU and you have the grades to match, then you are going to need a score somewhere between a 168-172.  Those are not easy scores to get so you will need to dedicate sufficient time to LSAT preparation for you to reach that score, whether it be weeks, months, or even years.

I usually advise students to purchase an LSAT prep book from the campus bookstore or online.  Then begin the process of assessing their comfort level with the LSAT.  Also, Kaplan and other services regularly offer mock LSAT tests and then provides test-takers with their score on that test.  Doing some of these should give you a sense of your starting point and enable you to begin planning how long you will need to prepare for the LSAT.

How many times can I take the LSAT?

All scores are reported to the schools to which you apply.  They can do with those scores what they will: take the best score, average the scores, etc.  With this in mind, you want to think of the LSAT as a one and done exam since it is far better to only have one strong score than one strong score and a weaker one.  Yes, if you need to take the LSAT a second (or third) time, you can but almost no one wants to take the LSAT more than once so approach your first LSAT as if it is your last.  Best effort, best foot forward, etc.

How much does the LSAT matter in admissions?

It is hard to generalize since admissions policies vary from school to school.  But, to hazard a generalization, it is the most impactful item assessed in admissions.  A significant portion of the law school admissions calculus turns on your LSAT score and your GPA.  Within that calculus, the LSAT often receives more weight.  The reason for this is fairly simple: The LSAT allows for direct student comparison unlike any other single piece of admissions information.  (GPAs vary from major to major, college to college, and university to university.  Letters of recommendation and personal statements are too qualitative to enable easy and direct comparisons.)

Directors of admissions and members of law school admissions committees have told me that they do not believe the LSAT is the best predictor of success in law school (these individuals seem to believe performance in undergrad is a better indicator) but they need to rely on it as a crucial metric despite their reservations.  Whether you like it or not, you are stuck with the LSAT as a critical element of law school admissions.

Where can I find out more about the LSAT?

The Law School Admissions Council’s webpage is the best place to start.  It is the official source for all things LSAT.  But there are lots of other resources including some blogs (like the LSAT blog) that you may find useful.




First and Second Year Students: Some Thoughts to Consider

Students in their first two years at Union regularly come to see me in the fall term inquiring what they need to do to be viable for law school admissions.  This post will break down a few things underclass students should consider when contemplating law school.

Scholastic Success

There are two things every student should keep in mind during the early years of their collegiate education.  First, your grade point average (along with your LSAT score–more on this in future posts) weighs heavily in the admissions decision.  This may sound glib but your grades are the most impactful thing under your immediate control in the early part of your education.  Academic success will result in admissions success.  The more you do to succeed in your classes, the more you will make yourself desirable in the admissions process.

Second, while getting good grades is useful for admissions, this is only part of the game.  Not only do you want to be accepted to your dream school, you want to succeed once you are enrolled.  This requires more than good grades (and a good LSAT score), it requires preparing your mind for the rigors of law school.  Regardless of your academic major, you need to develop critical reading skills, logical reasoning skills, and writing skills.  Law school is reading and writing intensive so the more you can do to hone these skills the better you will be prepared for success in law school once there.  How do you do this?  Seek out reading and writing intensive classes.  No major has a monopoly on such classes.  Philosophy classes will force you to engage challenging texts while exposing you to the world of logic.  Political science courses on political theory and law require you to read thoughtful prose on governance and core political principles.  And, of course, there is the expression that the best way to prepare for law school is to take a course on Shakespeare so take a look at the offerings in the English Department.  Again, it does not matter which department you develop these skills but you want to take positive steps towards becoming the best (future) law student you can be and it is never too early to begin that process.

Let me say one more thing about developing writing skills.  While the curriculum at Union College is designed to develop strong writing skills, you need not rely solely on academic assignments to develop these skills.  Write for The Concordy, The Banner, The Idol, The Minerva Review, or, as your friendly neighborhood prelaw advisor has done, go ahead and start a blog.  If you do not have the time or inclination to write for public consumption, keep a journal.  Like most skills, writing is something that improves with practice and repetition.  You simply need to keep at it to develop your skills to where they need to be.  So write and write often.

Gain Some Exposure to the Law and Legal Practice

Ok, I should start by saying I mean that you should gain this exposure in a constructive fashion.  Encounters with the police at 2AM outside of the Bier Abbey do not count.  All joking aside, it is important to get a sense of what lawyers do and what a career in law looks like before making a decision that comes with significant financial and professional consequences.  One of the interesting things about the law as a profession is that lawyers tend to be a rather unhappy lot.  (See Seligman, Verkuil, and Kang, 2001. “Why Lawyers Are Unhappy.” Cardozo Law Review.)   There are many reasons for this but I have always thought that undergraduate education does not do a good job giving students interested in law a very good sense of what lawyers actually do.  (By the way, I don’t think we SHOULD do this in undergraduate education.  But I think we should be more explicit that we don’t do it well so that students don’t confuse their constitutional law class for what they likely will do as a lawyer.)  The best way to get a sense of what a career in law will be like is to dip your toe in the legal profession.  There are many opportunities to intern in local government or with legal practitioners.  You can do this during the academic year or during your summer months but it is something you should seriously consider so that you will be a happy lawyer who wants to shower your former prelaw advisor with praise and an endowed chair. (Kidding!)

Build Relationships with your Professors

One of the other major variables in the law school admissions calculus is your letters of recommendation.  I’ll write more about these in a future post but, as people early in their academic career, first and second year students should begin cultivating relationships with their professors.  One of the advantages of attending a small liberal arts college like Union is that you will have opportunities to engage your professors both in and outside of the classroom.  You may have opportunities to work with professors on research projects or in activities not limited to the classroom (like Union’s excellent Ethics Bowl or Model UN teams).  When professors write letters of recommendation, they rely on their experience with that student to inform their letter.  If a professor has had a student in one class, the bulk of their letter will be limited to that one experience.  If a professor has had a student in two or three classes and gotten to know them outside of the classroom, they have a wealth of experiences to draw upon when drafting their letter of recommendation.  So, think about engaging your professors.  Trust me, we like smart, energetic, and enthusiastic students!

In sum, do well in your classes, challenge yourself and develop your reading, writing, and logic skills, and begin establishing relationships in your academic community.  If you do these things, you will be laying a strong foundation for law school admissions and for eventual success in law school.




Welcome to the Prelaw @ Union Blog

I am starting this blog to help disseminate information on legal education, law as a profession, law as an academic discipline, and, of course, the process of applying to law school.  The blog is not designed to be comprehensive, per se, but rather a collection of my thoughts as Union College’s prelaw advisor and someone who has served as a prelaw advisor for close to a decade.  Please note that some of what follows will be my opinion on good ways to explore the legal academy, careers, in law, and the application process.  I think my opinions are worth considering but let me be equally clear that I do not have a monopoly on good ideas and I encourage anyone who reads this to consult multiple sources of information.  And, eventually, I hope to invite select students and (hopefully) alumni to post their experiences on this page so that you will be able to benefit from their experiences and insights.   So, check back regularly to catch the latest postings on Prelaw @ Union.  Thanks!


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