A Step-by-Step Guide to Applying to Law School

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Applying to law school can feel like a labyrinthine process, we know. So we thought, as a bit of public service, we’d simplify this process as best as we can. Here are the fifteen steps you need to take to apply to law school, along with a deluge of links to posts on how to make the most of your law school applications.

1. Go to college, and get the best GPA you can

Earning a J.D. is a postgraduate endeavor, of course, so you’ll eventually need an undergraduate degree to matriculate into law school. You’re probably, at the very least, already in the process of earning that. Your major matters far less than many believe, so choose the concentration that interests you most. But your GPA will matter quite a bit — it’s a major factor law school admissions offices will use in constructing your academic index, or whatever figure they use to get an initial read on you as an applicant. Your LSAT score will eventually be the centerpiece of your law school application — and at many law schools, a great LSAT score can rescue a less-than-stellar GPA — but an amazing GPA can occasionally carry you into 1L, as well.

2. Make a plan to take the LSAT

This is the hurdle most pre-lawyers fear the most. Almost every law school application requires you to include a score from some standardized test that the law school thinks will effectively appraise your lawyerly mettle. And the LSAT is the one standardized test of lawyerly mettle that’s approved by all 203 ABA-accredited law schools. Ergo (step 2b, by the way: start dropping “ergo” in everyday conversation), you should plan on taking the LSAT.

But which LSAT should you take? The LSAT is offered many times a year, giving you a ton of options to choose from. Our advice: choose an exam — preferably one to which you can dedicate about twenty hours of weekly study time during the two-to-four-month span before that exam — and sign up for it. As in, sign up before you start studying. Smash that register button. Having a deadline will force you to take the study process seriously, which will only help you get prepared. But, of course, this will require you to choose your LSAT wisely. The amount of time you’ll have to study should be your number one consideration. No single exam is any “harder” or “easier” than any other, so that shouldn’t be part of your decision making. Just choose the exam that fits best with your schedule.

Some law schools have begun to accept the GRE or GMAT, so those can be options instead. Still, we recommend the LSAT; we think it’s a better test (and it lacks math), but it’s also still the only test accepted by every law school.

3. Sign up for the Credential Assembly Service

You can do this when you sign up for your LSAT. Eventually, this service — abbreviated to CAS — will be how you distribute your grades, LSAT scores, letters of recommendation, personal statements, and everything else to all the law schools you apply to. It’s helpful but pretty expensive, so you’ll need to budget for it. (LSAC also sells bundles that include LSAT fees, CAS fees, and law school report fees to save you some money. And there are also fee waivers you may qualify for.)

4. Study for the LSAT

Most people use some sort of study aids to prepare for the LSAT. It’s not the kind of test that most can show up and crush. And, wow, do we have study aids available for you. But you should explore — LSAT prep isn’t a one-size-fits-all kind of thing. You may want to think about whether an in-person class or an online course is right for you. Or if private tutoring is best option. Consider sitting in on some free classes, to see if you dig that style of learning. To explore more of our options, we recommend signing up for a free LSAT Toolkit and scheduling a time to talk to one of our Academic Managers, who can help you find the study plan that makes the most sense for you.

5. Take the LSAT

It’s a lot, but you’ll get through it. And if it doesn’t go well and you have to retake? No biggie. Law schools will mostly just look at your highest score. Oh, and don’t forget about taking the Writing section of the exam within a year of taking the LSAT. You do that at home, and most schools require it as part of your application.

6. Research law schools

Of course, you’ll need to know which law schools you want apply to before you apply to them. Do your research. Don’t just rely on the U.S. News & World Report rankings. You can use better, output-based rankings or just look at the raw data yourself. Remember, you’re going to law school to pass the bar and get a job. So look for schools in your price range and preferred locations that are good at helping their grads pass the bar and get jobs.

There are also law school predictors — such as our own Law School Compass — that can give you a good sense of the schools you’re almost certainly getting into, those you have a good shot at getting into, and those you have an outside chance of getting into. Ideally, you’ll apply to schools in all three categories. And if you qualify, make sure to check if these law schools offer fee waivers to reduce application costs.

7. Start getting your letters of rec together

After you secure your LSAT score and figure out where you’re applying, you’ll need to get your application materials together. Start with the letters of recommendation, since those require the assistance of people who may lack your sense of urgency on the matter of your law school application. For most schools you need two letters of rec, but can include an optional third. If you’ve graduated within the last five years, at least two of your recommenders should be professors or people who can otherwise speak to your academic prowess; if you’ve been out of school for five or more years, your recommenders can be people from your work field. Here are some tips on how to secure the best letters of recommendation.

8. Craft your personal statement

It sucks to write about yourself in this way, but everyone applying to law school’s gotta do it. Fortunately, the prompts law schools use are so open-ended that the same personal statement — with minor revisions and additions — can be used for every application.

Start early, work through some inevitably terrible drafts, and get a lot of people to lend their editorial perspective. And remember, it should be a narrative that communicates what’s you unique about you and why you’re interested in a legal education and career. It can, but certainly doesn’t have to be, a tale of overcoming adversity. Don’t be falsely modest or a braggart. And definitely don’t just write a laundry list of accomplishments that many other applicants likely have as well.

9. Update the old résumé

This, by the way, will be the laundry list of your accomplishments. Tips on what to include in your résumé here and how to format it here.

10. Write an diversity or explanatory essay, if applicable

Most law schools allow you to include an addendum to your application. In a diversity essay, you can discuss how your race or ethnicity, religion, socioeconomic disadvantage, sexual orientation, or otherwise unique experiences might contribute to the diversity of the law school. In an explanatory essay, you can address any weaknesses in your application, such as a semester of anomalously low grades, a low LSAT score, or a gap in your work history. (Provided, of course, there is a reasonable explanation.) These addenda are truly optional — you should only write one if you do have a story to tell. No diversity or explanatory essay is preferable to one that elicits an eye roll from the admissions officer tasked with reading it.

11. Secure your transcripts from your undergraduate institution

You’ll also need to make sure your transcripts are uploaded to your CAS.

12. Review your applications, and send it to law schools

Next comes a scary part.

13. Wait for responses

This is the scary part. But, remember, you did it! You had a mountain of stuff to compile for your law school applications. You got through that, and now you’re on the other side. You’ll eventually be put through the 1L ringer, so try to enjoy these next few months. Travel, see friends, cultivate interests, etc.

14. Negotiate your offers

Once you start getting accepted to law schools, you can start negotiating with them to obtain scholarships. Many schools have built-in processes to negotiate such offers. So follow those rules, be realistic, and be polite and respectful in all communications. But don’t be a pushover — you finally have some leverage. Use it.

15. Figure out how to finance law school

OK, this is also the scary part. But there are many options to finance law school for you to consider.

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