Hi, my name is Jacqueline and I am a 1L (first-year law) student at Harvard Law School. As a 1L, I am still learning to navigate what it means to be a law student, but the admissions process is fresh in my mind, which means that I'm able to give up-to-date tips on the process. Hopefully my experiences can be helpful to you as you begin the application process!
Because many parts of the application process are standardized, especially for top law schools, I will first discuss generally preparing your application and then delve more into shaping it for Harvard. Even if you ultimately decide not to apply to Harvard, I hope this summary will still be helpful for you as you apply to law schools.
I. The Law School Application – An Overview
Almost every law school, including Harvard, requires you to apply through LSAC (the Law School Admissions Council). Before you dig into the application process, I suggest you browse and familiarize yourself with the LSAC website. The website is not difficult to manage, but it is not intuitive either.
Even if you are not sure that you want to apply to law school—or even that you want to apply in this cycle—it is still a good idea to create an account and start building your application. Your LSAT score is good for three years and LSAC stores application information for up to five years. While applications for many schools are not available until mid-September, why not start entering basic information when things are a bit calmer and get ahead of the game?
B. Letters of Recommendation
Most schools require at least two, but this varies by school. Harvard requires two letters but accepts up to three. LSAC also gives you an option to submit an evaluation, but no schools require it and letters of recommendation are more helpful.
At least one of your recommendation letters should be from a professor who knows your work—either someone who had you in class or perhaps someone who supervised a paper or project. Ideally, you should request your academic letters of recommendation before graduating. It is easier for a professor to write a personalized letter if s/he recently worked with you or had you in class. Even if you do not apply immediately, LSAC will store the letter for you for up to five years, so it will be ready when you need it.
You have some flexibility with your other letter(s) and should use it to flesh out different aspects of your application. If you worked between college and applying to law school, you should considering asking a supervisor to recommend you. Letters from coaches, other professors, or mentors are also good options. Personally, I submitted three letters: one from a professor, one from my manager at my job at the time, and one from my varsity swim coach. Swimming was a large part of my undergraduate career and I felt it strongly reflected my work ethic.
You should talk to your potential recommenders as soon as possible. Your recommenders are busy people and you do not want them to be rushing to complete your letter, or to have your application held up by a missing letter. How you approach someone for a letter of recommendation is up to you. Whether you ask in person or over email, you should give the individual time to reflect on your question and an option to turn you down—you do not want a recommendation letter from someone who did not truly want to endorse you! I recommend providing information which they can reference while writing your letter. Always provide a resume and consider including a paper you wrote for the class or a list of tasks you accomplished while in your work role.
C. The Personal Statement
The personal statement can be very difficult to write because it really is the heart of your application. The most important thing to remember is that your personal statement should be a compelling narrative about you, why you want to be a lawyer, and why you are going to be a great lawyer. The personal statement should not just compel someone to let you into the classroom—it should compel them to invite you over to dinner to talk more about your interests and passions.
There is no one right way to write a personal statement because everyone has a different motivation for attending law school. If you are looking for inspiration, I suggest thinking over conversations you have had with friends, mentors, and advisors when they have asked about your future plans. If you are still stuck, there are books with samples of personal statements by admitted students. However, you should not treat those samples as an admissions formula. Instead, read them to discover how to build a compelling narrative. My personal statement was about overcoming adversity at my job. It is a fairly common narrative, but I really tried to turn the statement into a conversation by infusing it with my tone and my pattern of speech. Regardless of what you choose to write about, stay within Harvard’s limits: two pages double-spaced with an easily readable font.
I recommend not tailoring your personal statement to a school unless that school is what inspired you to become a lawyer. You detract from the purpose of the statement, which is why you want to go to—and know you will succeed at—law school and are forced to compress your reasoning into a few short sentences, which may sound insincere because they are so short. Not to mention the risk of submitting the wrong personal statement. (Yes, it happens!) I suggest having a general personal statement which you use for all schools and then write supplemental essays about why you want to attend [insert name here]—if the school does not already require one.
II. Focusing on Harvard
Before you finalize the list of law schools to which you attend to apply, you should think very hard about where you want to study for the next three years. You will get a great education at any of the top schools, so you want to make sure you are living and studying in a place that will keep you motivated and enable you to excel at academics. If you prefer living away from the city and being in areas with lots of greenery, perhaps Harvard is not the best place for you. However, if you like exploring cities, like living in a vibrant neighborhood, and want to be in a place that has activity beyond the academic environment, Harvard might be the place for you.
Here are a few Harvard-specific things to keep in mind as you build your application.
• Harvard admits on a rolling basis. The earlier you turn in your application, the fewer spots that are filled and the better your chances! However, you should not rush to complete your application because you want to give the best possible impression. Personally, I did not submit my application until December. Harvard’s deadline in February 1st.
• Harvard uses a holistic review and does not make a decision based on one part of the application. So even if your LSAT score is not your dream score (at HLS, the 25th and 75th percentile scores are 170 and 175 respectively), you can boost your application with a great personal statement and/or work experience. My LSAT score was on the lower end, but I think my personal statement and work experience really helped me stand out from other applications.
• On a related note, HLS prefers students who have work experience. Top law schools across the board are expressing a preference for students who worked between college and law school. I worked before law school and I think that work experience made a difference in my application. However, work experience is not a requirement, and I have a number of friends who went straight from college to HLS. You should do what feels right to you—and possibly help you explain why you want to be a lawyer in your personal statement. If you know for certain that you want to be a lawyer and you want to get to law school as soon as possible to fulfill that dream, you should apply immediately. If you are not certain and want to work before you make up your mind, you should do that. Work experience can only help your application, not hinder it.
• Harvard looks at your top LSAT scores; it does not aggregate. While Harvard will see all of your scores, it will use only your highest score when considering your application. If you do not like your LSAT score the first time, take it again. I took the test twice and I know students here who took it more than twice. For your own personal sanity, I suggest capping the number of attempts at two—maybe three.
• Your application will be reviewed by a panel of professors. For your application move forward, it must receive a “yes” vote from at least one professor on the panel. So it may be helpful to discuss your passion for learning in your personal statementand give the professor an idea of what you will be able to contribute to class discussions.
• Harvard offers Skype interviews to some candidates. An invitation to a Skype interview is very exciting because it means the Admissions Office thinks you might be a great fit! The interview will be very short—about twenty minutes—so make sure you are in a quiet place, you are punctual, your microphone and camera are working, and you are smiling and dressed to impress (at least from the waist up). Confession: I wanted to be comfortable for my interview, so I wore a nice top but had pajama pants on!
• Pay attention to details! Pay attention to page limits, deadlines, and other details. A big part of being a lawyer is attention to the little details—a court may refuse to read a late brief or a brief that is submitted incorrectly. Every part of your application should tell Harvard that you will be a great lawyer.
I often respond to questions from readers on the law school admissions process. Here is a question I recently responded to:
Q: How do you write a compelling law school personal statement?
A: As a Harvard Law School graduate who also worked for 5 years as a law school admissions counselor for Kaplan and Harvard College before and during law school, I have a strong point of view on this.
Simply put, you should write about something you care about deeply. Something you’re passionate about. If there is a specific reason or event in your life that makes it appropriate for you to write about “why I want to go to law school” or even “why I want to go to XYZ Law School specifically,” then go ahead and do that. But explaining why you want to attend law school is not necessary, and certainly should not be a topic you default to if you don’t have a compelling reason to do so.
Use the personal statement as an opportunity to help the admissions committee learn more about yourself, your interests, aspirations, and perhaps your goals for the future. You don’t have to declare these things directly. You can tell a story. And you should use examples. Your reader should draw the right conclusions on his own. In fact, telling a good story and entertaining the reader (appropriately) are good ways to distinguish yourself from the masses of other applicants that simply write “why I want to go to law school” essays. By the time your reader reads the 357th essay about “why I want to go to law school,” they are ready to bang their head against a wall. So being able to tell a good story that shows things about you, that shows what kind of person you are and what kind of leader you may likely become, rather than simply declaring those things, can make your application memorable when the admissions officer must go back and separate admitted applications from rejected or waitlisted ones.
Finally, help your application reader get a glimpse of your personality and character through your essay. One successful applicant to Yale Law School I knew about spent his 250-word essay writing about pie crusts. Not one word about the law or being a lawyer. Pie crusts! But what it did show was his humor, character, and surprising insight about a topic that seems so tangential and fringe. I am sure the applicant got a good chuckle from the admissions committee–just before they accepted him.
My own essay to Harvard was about a volunteer experience I had with a non-profit organization that was important to me and had special sentimental value. I wrote about why I volunteered there, what I learned, and how that experience changed me and influenced my thinking. I mentioned nothing about why I wanted to attend law school, and I didn’t even say I had any aspirations of being a lawyer. I just wrote about a personal project I had been part of and why it was important to me. It was enough for my application reader to draw whatever inferences he wanted about my character, personality, and potential as a graduate of Harvard Law School. Two months after I applied, I got my acceptance letter in the mail.
Be sure to check out our law school admissions guide “How to get into Harvard Law School (whether you have the highest scores or not)” for in-depth tips and strategies on admission to elite law schools!
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