This is the second post about attending law school in the U.S. to orient toward high-impact careers. Part 1 describes why and when attending law school might make sense for some members of the EA community.
If you are considering applying to law school, after reviewing the advice below, we encourage you to fill out this short survey; if you do, we’ll try to connect you with others in the EA community who can provide concrete, tailored advice about your application strategy, including additional recommendations about specific books and study plans to consider as you prepare for the LSAT or GRE.
- Admission to a top law school may be within reach, even for people who haven’t been planning to attend law school. Earning admission to a top law school is a realistic option for people with good college grades (especially grades above a ~3.8 GPA) and some aptitude for learning and taking standardized tests, even if they did not go to a top college and do not have a conventional “pre-law” background.
- Other law schools can be good options. Law school is also an option for people with lower college grades or less comfort with standardized tests. People in these groups may want to consider applying to mid-ranked schools in the region where they hope to work after graduation, in addition to more selective schools. (See below for more details on which schools may be in range with different combinations of grades and test scores.) For example, top-30 nationally-ranked schools in the Washington, D.C. area may be great options for those interested in U.S. federal policy careers.
- Applying to law school is time-intensive. From starting to think about law school to submitting your applications, you can expect the application process will take over 100 hours over the course of at least four months; some applicants spend more like 400 hours. (Ideally, you would spread this work out over a longer period of time). Many applicants will spend at least half of the time they invest in their application on test prep for the LSAT or the GRE.
- EA funders may be able to help. If you are interested in law school as a way of orienting toward and preparing for high-impact work, especially in skill-bottlenecked areas like AI and biosecurity policy, you can apply for grants from EA funders to cover part or all of your costs. While the selection process for these grants has a high bar, many people underestimate their odds of success; if you are in doubt about whether you should apply, we encourage you to do so.
Confidence in this advice
The advice in this post is based on public writing about the law school admissions process and the individual experiences of people who have been through the process in recent years, but none of the contributors have worked as professional admissions staff. Consider this post a series of “best guesses” about how to approach the process, rather than a definitive guide or empirical study.
For advice directly from decision-makers who have read thousands of law school applications, we recommend checking out the Navigating Law School Admissions Podcast, hosted by Miriam Ingber and Kristi Jobson, the deans of admission at Yale Law School and Harvard Law School.
This advice is targeted toward people who have already decided to apply to law school, but law school is not the right choice for everyone. See this post for considerations to weigh when deciding whether law school is the right fit for you and your goals.
Navigating this post
This post includes background information about the law school application process that may already be familiar to some readers, as well as advice about how to use your time most effectively to craft a successful application. We encourage you to use the chapter headings to skip around to the sections that are most useful to you.
Readers who are already familiar with the law school admissions process may find most value in Section II, “Where to focus your time and effort,” and Section IX, “Waiting for decisions.”
I. Overview of your application
The typical law school application consists of six components, one of which is optional:
- Test score(s) from either the LSAT or the GRE, or both
- Two to three letters of recommendation, at least two of which should come from college professors, unless you graduated more than five years ago (though even then, law schools may prefer academic letters)
- Transcript from your undergraduate degree and any graduate studies
- One-page resume
- Personal statement (length requirements vary; plan to prepare at least a two-page version that is double-spaced with one-inch margins and at least 11-point font)
- Diversity statement (optional; length is generally flexible but aim for one double-spaced page)
Some law schools have additional application components. For example, as of 2023:
- Yale requires an additional 250-word essay and extensive background information about your professional and extracurricular experience
- Penn has two additional, optional one-page essays
- Duke has an additional optional essay
- Michigan has several options for additional one- to two-page essays, of which you can choose up to two
- Northwestern has an additional optional, one- or two-paragraph essay
- Cornell has an additional optional essay
- Georgetown has an additional, optional 250-word essay or one-minute video component
Some schools also have additional optional essays as part of their application process for merit-based scholarships.
II. Where to focus your time and effort
For the typical law school applicant, the following actions seem to have very high expected impacts on chances of admission relative to the amount of time and effort required. Each of these actions is discussed in more detail below.
- Studying and practicing for the LSAT or GRE until you are consistently achieving practice test results above the median score of incoming students at your target schools (see tables below for medians at 20 schools to consider). Test scores are a very important part of the admissions and financial aid process at many law schools, so small improvements in score can make a meaningful difference in your chances of admission and/or the amount of merit-based financial aid you receive.
- Developing positive relationships with your college professors who can write letters of recommendation on your behalf, until you have two to three people who you feel confident would write effective letters for you. Especially at small, elite law schools like Yale and Stanford, letters of recommendation play a significant role in the admissions process; detailed, personal letters can help improve your chances of admission.
- Reaching out to former professors to provide an update on your work and plans to attend law school, especially if you have already graduated college and haven’t yet secured letters of recommendation. Keeping in touch with former professors is a great way to keep “warm references” that you can draw upon in the future.
- Asking friends for help with proofreading your resume and personal statement to ensure that they are free from typos and other errors. Lawyers and law school admissions committees tend to value attention to detail, so small mistakes in your application materials can be costly. Just be sure to disclose any help you receive, if asked to do so. (Yale, for example, asks a question about this topic.)
- Applying early in the application cycle, ideally in September or October of the year before you plan to start law school. Most law schools have rolling admissions, meaning that there are fewer seats available as the cycle progresses. All else being equal, planning ahead to be ready to apply toward the beginning of the cycle may help improve your chances of admission.
You might also want to consider these other actions, which can be valuable on the margin but require much more time and effort relative to the benefit they provide:
- Aiming for higher grades in your college classes and any graduate classes you take before law school. Better grades definitely help—undergraduate GPAs are an important part of the admissions process—but it can take a lot of effort to achieve better grades, especially in courses where there is a lot of competition for top marks. People who are already part-way through college also have less leverage to affect their four-year GPA, which will average in results from years already in the past. On the margin, most people can improve their test scores much more easily than their grades.
- Aiming for impressive extracurricular activities during college. Like aiming for higher grades, impressive extracurricular activities tend to require a very significant time commitment, but it is ambiguous how much benefit people receive from these kinds of activities. Anecdotally, they seem to be much less necessary in the law school admissions process than they are in undergraduate admissions, where most top candidates have near-perfect high school GPAs and test scores, and schools seem to use extracurricular activities as a way of distinguishing otherwise-similar candidates. Having one or two meaningful extracurricular commitments is probably sufficient for most candidates, especially if a recommender can speak to the candidate’s interest and performance in that activity.
- Demonstrating an interest in a specific area of law, for example through extracurricular activities or post-college work experience. These kinds of experiences can help show law school admissions committees that you have thought carefully about why you want to go to law school and what kind of work you want to do with your degree. However, having this kind of background isn’t a requirement for admission; many people enter top law schools with no prior legal experience. If you are more excited to focus your time on other kinds of work before law school, it’s fine to do so.
Finally, the following actions are probably less important than some applicants might assume; you might want to skip them to focus on other things you care about!
- Choosing a “pre-law” major or “pre-law” classes. Taking law-related classes will not improve most people’s chances of admission to law school. All top law schools admit people with a wide range of college and professional backgrounds, so you are better off choosing your classes and experiences based on what genuinely interests you and sets you up to achieve a high GPA. (That said, if undergraduate law classes are the classes that interest you most, go for it!)
- Tailoring your personal statement to each school (as long as you write strong, tailored optional essays when available). Most law school applicants use the same, two-page personal statement for each school, perhaps adding greater detail for schools with longer page limits. If you are concerned that you might not be admitted to a particular school where your GPA and test scores would be above-median because they will assume that you will choose to go somewhere else, it can make sense to use part of your application to make the case for why you are interested in that school in particular. However, you can make that case effectively by writing strong supplemental essays; you probably do not need to rewrite your personal statement. (See this discussion of “yield protection” by the Director of Admissions at Michigan for additional background.)
III. Deciding where to apply
Law school applicants often hear the advice, “Go to the best law school you can get into and afford.” People giving (and receiving) this advice often equate “best” with “most highly ranked in the most recent U.S. News and World Report ranking of law schools.”
“Aim high” is good advice for most people, and the U.S. News rankings are a fair place to start when sorting out which schools are the most attractive. All else being equal, a law degree from a school with a higher ranking is likely to be more valuable in terms of career capital. Law school rankings tend to be correlated with graduates’ overall employment outcomes and the strength of the school’s alumni network, especially in its local market.
Generally speaking, rankings matter most if you’re aiming for a conventionally prestigious legal career in legal practice or academia, and less if you’re considering other paths. Law school rank will also matter less when your goal is to get non-legal jobs where your hiring managers are not themselves lawyers, as is true for certain congressional or think tank positions.
Considerations by career path
For people interested in practicing law, career outcomes can vary a lot between law schools, so attending a highly ranked law school can be especially important. Multiple contributors to an earlier post warned that prospective applicants interested in practicing law should think carefully before accepting a seat at a law school outside the top 14 of the U.S. News and World Report rankings (referred to in law circles as the “T14”), where tuition is similar to that at top schools but career outcomes may be very different.
The demand for especially high-impact legal jobs in federal government, litigation, or advocacy significantly exceeds supply, so employers often resort to filtering candidates using naive proxies, including which law school a person attended. The focus on where people earned their degrees is stronger in the legal profession than in some other fields, so attending a mid-ranked law school may have very different career consequences from, for example, attending a mid-ranked college (which may be an excellent choice for many people). There may be an exception to this rule for those who can easily chart their own career paths (e.g., opening up their own impact litigation nonprofit), but the personal risks of that path are high, and even here getting a top-ranked degree can help.
In some regional legal markets, especially outside major cities like New York, Washington, D.C., and Chicago, recruiters may prefer graduates of local law schools.
Some senior leaders working in D.C. have given the advice that a law degree from Yale, Harvard, or Stanford is most valuable for D.C. policy careers. After that point, people disagree about whether rank (e.g., University of Chicago, which is #3 in the 2023 U.S. News and World Report rankings) or proximity (e.g., Georgetown, located in D.C.) matters more.
The U.S. News rankings are influenced by factors that are likely to be less relevant to those interested in careers in policy, nonprofit, and government settings, such as the impressions of hiring partners of large law firms.
As discussed in a previous post, one significant benefit of a law degree is that it opens opportunities for working in the U.S. federal government in an area relevant to a top problem, which may be an especially promising way of using one’s career to help others. For those interested in pursuing this path, law schools that place many graduates in careers in Washington, D.C. may be particularly attractive. Employment rates in the D.C. area are not specifically factored into the U.S. News rankings, so some schools with lower rankings may be much more promising for developing relevant career capital than they appear based on rankings alone.
As one illustration of this idea, consider this perspective from an admissions consultant:
“A school like George Washington (GW), for example, may be ranked 25th in the U.S. News rankings (as of March 2022) but places its graduates at some of the most coveted D.C. positions. This is in large part because GW’s staff has intimate connections to various government and firm positions and can place students at these institutions through externships and internships.”
Similarly, as of 2019, Georgetown was the second-most common law school alma mater of Members of Congress (14 alumni), after Harvard (23 alumni).
Many people with successful, high-impact policy careers received law degrees from schools outside the top handful of highest-ranked schools; for example: Avril Haines, current Director of National Intelligence (Georgetown); Alejandro Mayorkas, current Secretary of Homeland Security (Loyola Marymount); Lisa Murkowski current U.S. Senator from Alaska (Willamette); Kathy Hochul, current Governor of New York (Catholic); and Leon Panetta, former Secretary of Defense and CIA Director, among other roles (Santa Clara).
Most legal academics (especially those without a PhD) attended law school at Yale, Harvard, or Stanford.
Schools to consider
With the above factors in mind, here are two lists of schools to consider aiming for: the conventional “T14” highest-ranked schools in the U.S. News list, and two other top-30 schools that place many graduates in policy roles in the Washington, D.C. area.
Conventional “top 14” law schools
|Name||Accept-ance rate, 2021 enter-ing class||Grad-uating class size, 2021||Median LSAT score of 2021 entering class||Median under-grad. GPA of 2021 entering class||Share of graduates working in Washington, D.C. the year after graduation||U.S. News Rank-ing, 2023|
|University of Chicago||11.9%||213||172||3.91||n.d.||3|
|Harvard University||6.9%||594||174||3.92||18%||4 (tie)|
|Columbia University||11.4%||460||174||3.84||5%||4 (tie)|
|University of Pennsylvania||9.4%||257||171||3.90||12%||6|
|New York University||14.5%||466||172||3.86||7%||7|
|University of Virginia||9.7%||318||171||3.91||24%||8|
|University of Michigan||10.6%||363||171||3.84||13%||10|
Two more law schools to consider in the Washington, D.C. area
For people particularly interested in policy roles, it may make sense to consider two additional law schools with especially strong, relevant networks in the Washington, D.C. area, where most federal policymakers work. The law school at George Mason University might be particularly worth considering for readers interested in building networks among conservative policymakers.
|Name||Accept-ance rate, 2021 enter-ing class||Grad-uating class size, 2021||Median LSAT score of 2021 entering class||Median under-grad. GPA of 2021 entering class||Share of graduates working in Washington, D.C. the year after graduation||U.S. News Rank-ing, 2023|
|George Washington University||21.6%||564||167||3.83||41%||25|
|George Mason University||27.1%||161||164||3.81||31%||30 (tie)|
Where to find more data
For much more comprehensive data comparing law schools, prospective applicants can review the disclosure forms the American Bar Association requires all accredited law schools to complete each year, including the ABA 509 form, employment outcome reports, and bar passage reports. This guide may be helpful in interpreting the ABA 509 form.
Because deciding where to apply (and eventually, which offer to accept) will involve some case-by-case judgment calls, it can be helpful to talk with someone else who has been through the process. We encourage you to fill out this short survey to be connected to others in the EA community who might be able to help you think through your options.
IV. Financial considerations
Cost of attendance
Tuition and fees for law school programs vary widely. As of 2021, some state universities were offering in-state tuition and fees totaling less than $20,000 per year, while the total for many highly-ranked private law schools was nearly $70,000 per year, not including room and board expenses. Most students cover some of the cost of attendance using a combination of need-based scholarships, merit-based scholarships, and loans.
Most law schools offer merit- and need-based scholarships that can significantly reduce the cost of attendance below the “sticker price.” (However, notably, Yale and Harvard do not offer merit-based scholarships and Stanford has just one merit-based scholarship program, which is highly competitive and requires an application much earlier than the normal deadline for law school applications.)
Merit-based scholarships often (but not always) go to candidates with undergraduate GPAs and LSAT or GRE scores that are significantly above the medians for the school’s incoming class. These scholarships can be extremely valuable: The Knight-Hennessy Scholars program, as one example, covers up to three years of tuition at Stanford, plus a stipend, for a total value in the range of $200,000.
Loans and loan forgiveness programs
Most law students take out loans to finance the cost of tuition. Some students find that they can borrow to finance their law school education at a lower interest rate than was available to them as undergraduates, in part because the cohort of J.D.-holders has a higher average earning potential than the cohort of people with bachelor’s degrees.
Before looking into private loan options, consider the Federal Direct and Grad PLUS loan options available from the U.S. Department of Education. These are the first stop for many law school borrowers, and even if you end up choosing another option, it can help to understand the terms of the federal loans as a baseline.
Because the amount being financed is so large, small differences in loan interest rates can make a substantial difference in the total cost of law school for someone taking out loans. If you are considering private loan options, be sure to compare interest rates available from different lenders. (However, note that some private loan options with attractive interest rates may not be eligible for Public Service Loan Forgiveness, discussed below.)
Candidates interested in government or nonprofit work should study the requirements for Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF), a program through which the federal government will pay off any remaining loan balances after the borrower has made 10 years of payments. The requirements have some nuances, and it is essential to understand the program completely before relying on this option. Here is a summary of requirements from the program website:
To qualify for PSLF, you must
- be employed by a U.S. federal, state, local, or tribal government or not-for-profit organization (federal service includes U.S. military service);
- work full-time for that agency or organization;
- have Direct Loans (or consolidate other federal student loans into a Direct Loan);
- repay your loans under an income-driven repayment plan*; and
- make 120 qualifying payments.
Some law schools also have loan forgiveness policies for people working in public interest jobs that are more generous than the federal PSLF. The details of these programs vary widely and change from year to year, but most provide financial assistance based on a graduate’s job category, income, and debt burden. As one example, Harvard Law School graduates who enter nonprofit or government work and have incomes below a certain threshold are eligible for that school’s Low Income Protection Plan. At certain schools, these programs are relatively generous and can place graduates’ take-home (after-tax, after-loan payments) incomes in the ballpark of $40,000, and sometimes more. People who remain eligible for and continue to participate in these programs often have any remaining loan balances forgiven after 10 years.
If you are intending to rely on any of these financial assistance programs, it is important to understand each program’s details as fully as possible before enrolling in a law school.
Some private foundations, including some in the EA community, also provide scholarships for people pursuing law degrees.
If you are interested in law school as a way of orienting toward and preparing for high-impact work, especially in skill-bottlenecked areas like AI and biosecurity policy, you can apply for grants from EA funders to cover part or all of your costs. For example, Open Philanthropy’s scholarship programs for building career capital to work on biosecurity or more generally improving the long-term future can cover tuition and living costs. Other funders may also be interested in funding promising individuals to go to law school. While the selection process for these grants has a high bar, many people underestimate their odds of success; if you are in doubt about whether you should apply, we encourage you to do so. If you are interested in learning more, start by filling out this short survey to be connected with members of the EA community who have attended or currently attend law school to talk more about your plans.
Application fee waivers
While they are small relative to the cost of tuition, law school application fees can add up to hundreds of dollars for applicants applying to multiple schools. You can apply for need-based fee waivers directly from the Law School Admissions Council (LSAC). Some law schools may also send you unsolicited fee waivers based on your LSAT and GPA if you opt into allowing LSAC to share your application information with law schools.
V. Quantitative components of the application
After you submit your transcript to the Law School Admissions Council (LSAC), LSAC will summarize your transcript and compute a standardized undergraduate grade point average (GPA). This standardized figure may differ somewhat from the GPA that your school calculates. Law schools will receive your transcript alongside the standardized GPA.
The undergraduate GPA is one of two quantitative data points that law schools receive about candidates that is standardized across all applicants, and it plays an important role in admissions decisions.
If you are still in college, it might make sense to try to optimize to some extent for a higher GPA. All else being equal, you may want to consider taking a smaller number of classes so that you have more time to dedicate to learning the material in each class very thoroughly.
Another strategy you could consider—subject to important caveats, discussed below—is choosing classes in which high grades are more likely, unless there is a compelling reason to take a class with a less generous grading curve. Grades typically matter much more in law school admissions than the difficulty of the classes and the corresponding effort put into achieving them. For example, getting an A in an easy class is typically more valuable than getting a B+ in a hard class, even if the B+ was more difficult to achieve.
That being said, it is often not worth steering away from entire subjects that would otherwise help you achieve a positive impact in your career simply to try to maximize your GPA. For instance, while STEM classes at some colleges might have less generous curves than classes in other subjects, you may gain valuable knowledge by taking those classes that would be difficult to gather outside the college context. STEM knowledge might be particularly helpful if you decide to pursue a career related to technology policy, such as one aimed at AI governance or biosecurity.
As a simple heuristic: If you were excited to take a class before you started thinking about law school admissions and you have a theory in mind about how the class will help you have a positive impact later in your career, you should still take the class.
If you feel uncertain about your choice of major or decision about whether to take a particular class after reading this advice, we encourage you to fill out this short survey to be connected to others in the EA community who might be able to help you think through your options.
LSAT or GRE
Law school candidates must take an admissions test. Historically, American Bar Association rules have required candidates to take the LSAT, and law schools have used LSAT scores as an important factor in making admissions decisions.
Following a policy change by the ABA in 2021, an increasing number of law schools now accept the GRE in lieu of the LSAT. It is possible that future applicants may not have to take either test: in spring 2022, an ABA committee recommended dropping the test requirement. The ABA could act on this proposal as soon as February 2023, but may delay its decision or take no action.
A significant majority of law school applicants take the LSAT. However, if you already have an outstanding GRE score within the past five years (for example, from applying to another graduate program), it could make sense to skip the LSAT and focus on schools that accept the GRE.
Comparing the LSAT and the GRE
If you have not taken the GRE, or if you have a lower score and are considering retaking that test, you should consider whether the LSAT or the GRE plays better to your strengths.
The tests cover somewhat different material. The LSAT rewards strength in solving logical puzzles and spotting problems with arguments, while the GRE rewards having a large vocabulary and being quick with high school-level math.
One other minor difference is that the GRE is “adaptive,” meaning that you will see harder problems in the later sections of the test if you do well on the earlier sections. (In practice, most readers aiming for top law schools will likely do more than well enough to see these harder questions.)
The LSAT includes:
- Two 35-minute, multiple-choice sections of “Logical Reasoning” questions that ask you to draw conclusions from short sections of text, which are usually about a paragraph in length (sample questions here)
- One 35-minute, multiple-choice section of “Analytical Reasoning” questions about puzzles involving logical relationships and structure, which are often called “logic games” (sample questions here)
- One 35-minute, multiple-choice section of “Reading Comprehension” questions about longer passages of complicated writing (sample questions here)
- An unscored (and generally thought to be less important) 35-minute essay component that you can take at a different time than the scored, multiple-choice sections; the test administrator sends your essay to all law schools that receive your score (learn more here)
The GRE includes:
- One hour-long section on “Analytical Writing” that is split into two 30-minute tasks, “Analyze an Issue” and “Analyze an Argument,” both of which call for you to write a short essay in response to a prompt (learn more here)
- Two 30-minute, multiple-choice sections of “Verbal Reasoning” questions that are similar to the “Reading Comprehension” questions on the LSAT but are more oriented toward testing vocabulary (learn more here)
- Two 35-minute, multiple-choice sections of “Quantitative Reasoning” questions that test math skills up to the level of high school algebra and geometry (learn more here)
- One 30- or 35-minute, multiple-choice section that is unscored and used to calibrate future tests; you will not know during the test which section is unscored.
You can read more about similarities and differences between the tests in this article.
Deciding between the LSAT and the GRE
Try a practice test for both the LSAT and the GRE before deciding which test you will take; if you have a significantly higher initial score (in percentile terms) on one than the other, that could be a good signal that it plays better to your strengths.
The LSAT is widely understood to be learnable; you likely have a good shot at improving on your initial score by 10-12 points through practice.
Also note that the LSAT provides greater “resolution” at exceptionally high scores: the median LSAT score at top schools is a higher percentile score than is possible on the GRE, short of a perfect score. Harvard and Yale’s median LSAT score is 174 (99.4th percentile), but it is possible to score up to 180 on the LSAT. By contrast, on the GRE, 3-4% of test takers receive a perfect score of 170 on the Quantitative Reasoning component and about ~1% receive perfect scores on the other two components.
If you are on the fence in deciding between the two tests, you should probably take the LSAT, which more law schools accept and is the much more common choice among applicants. (For example, less than 10% of Harvard’s entering class in 2021 took the GRE instead of the LSAT.)
Preparing for the LSAT
The LSAT is a hard test. You should plan to study and practice, even if you didn’t do so for the SAT or ACT when you applied to college: Many law school applicants who did well on other standardized tests without studying find that they can significantly improve their LSAT scores with practice. The conventional wisdom is that most people can improve their scores by about 10-12 points through diligent practice, with a significant part of that improvement often coming from the Analytical Reasoning (“logic games”) section. (One contributor to this post improved their score by 15 points between a first LSAT practice test and a final result; another improved their score by 10 points.)
Give yourself plenty of time to prepare and to retake the test if necessary. Starting to study at least six months before you plan to apply is a good goal, though starting earlier would be helpful and starting later would be possible. Anecdotally, the short end of the LSAT prep-time distribution seems to be around two months, with those two months including at least 8-10 hours per week of practice.
Khan Academy’s LSAT resources, which are available for free online, can be a good place to start; other contributors highly recommend LSAT Demon and PowerScore as alternatives. The cheapest way to access a large number of old tests is through LSAC’s online “Prep Plus” service, which is $99 for one year of access to 70 tests. This service has the advantage of allowing you to familiarize yourself with the online test-taking format. You can also purchase official copies of dozens of actual LSATs that were administered in previous years for about $10 per test (for recent tests) or about $25 for a book of 10 older tests. There are also books by third-party publishers that suggest strategies for approaching certain types of problems. One contributor to this post found this book helpful in getting the hang of the Analytical Reasoning or “logic games” section. Another recommends the “Thinking LSAT” podcast for background on test strategy and the admissions process in general.
There are other third-party resources available to help you study, including in-depth courses that cost hundreds or thousands of dollars. It is not necessary to take one of these courses, but it’s worth considering doing so if you feel stuck in your own studying and think you would benefit from the structure of a formal course or one-on-one coaching. One contributor who paid for a small number of coaching hours said that in retrospect, doing so was definitely the right decision for getting past a score plateau in their preparation.
One of the best things you can do to prepare is practice under simulated test conditions: Take full-length, timed tests in spaces like libraries and coffee shops where you might encounter some distractions. (As of the time of writing, LSAT takers have the option to take the test at home on their own laptops. If you have this option, you should take your practice tests in precisely the place you expect to take the actual test.) Do not take breaks or check your answers in the middle of your practice tests. This approach will give you a realistic sense of how you are likely to perform on the day of your real test, allowing you to identify and focus on any weaknesses that come up in that environment.
After each practice test, take your time to review your answers and try to understand anything you did wrong. It can be especially helpful to do this review before you check your answers against the answer key, since it can be difficult to see the problem as you did while taking the test once you know the correct answer. This strategy is sometimes called “blind review.” Understanding what you did wrong and, most importantly, trying to sort out why you did what you did can help you learn and improve more quickly.
Finally, do not worry too much about preparing for the writing section. You may want to practice once or twice to get a feel for how much you can write in 35 minutes, which may help you decide how to structure your essay on test day. However, because the writing section is unscored, most applicants are better off focusing on practicing for the multiple-choice sections.
Preparing for the GRE
See this post for a guide to preparing for the GRE, contact information for a member of the EA community who can help answer questions about the process of studying for the test, and links to additional resources.
Assessing your numbers
Once you have a standardized GPA calculated by LSAC and a score from a practice test for either the LSAT or the GRE, take a moment to compare your numbers with the median numbers of incoming students at the law schools you are considering (see table above and admissions “predictor” calculators here and here).
If you believe you can do better on the LSAT or GRE, keep studying! An extra hour spent studying for the LSAT or GRE typically has a high marginal value in increasing chances of being admitted and receiving merit-based financial aid, which ultimately positively affect career outcomes. Standardized test scores are among the application components most within applicants’ control, and most applicants can dramatically improve scores with practice.
If necessary, it is okay to retake the LSAT or GRE, potentially multiple times. On the LSAT, you can pay for the option to cancel your first score within six days of receiving it, so that schools do not see the score if you are unhappy with it. If you are feeling stuck or doubtful about whether you should take either test again, we encourage you to fill out this short survey to be connected to others in the EA community who might be able to help you develop a study plan.
VI. Qualitative components of the application
Most general-purpose advice about resume-writing also applies in the law school application context. Your resume should fit on one page using a reasonable font size and margin width. Use a neat and consistent format throughout. Use a variety of powerful, specific verbs to describe what you did in past jobs and extracurricular activities. This podcast episode has lots of advice about how to format your resume and how to highlight the most relevant parts of your experience.
You should find a friend or two who can help you proofread your resume. Attention to detail matters a lot in the law school admissions context, so typos can be costly. It is much easier for someone else to spot errors in your writing than it is for you to spot those errors on your own, so having another pair of eyes can be especially helpful.
As always, you must be scrupulously honest in the details you include in your resume. Falsifying or misrepresenting an experience in your law school application could lead to being expelled, or to being unable to gain admission to the bar after graduation.
Personal statement and other essays
LSAC provides the following advice about personal statements:
An essay on actual experiences and past accomplishments has more value to the committee than speculation about future accomplishments. Any noteworthy personal experience or accomplishment may be an appropriate subject, but be sure to do more than just state it. Describe your experience briefly but concretely, and explain why it had value to you.
Many law schools provide detailed advice about what they look for in personal statements. For example:
- Yale: “The personal statement should help us learn about the personal, professional, and/or academic qualities an applicant would bring to the Law School community. Applicants often submit the personal statement they have prepared for other law school applications.”
- Stanford: “Enclose a statement of about two pages sharing important or unusual information about yourself that is not otherwise apparent in your application.”
- Harvard lists five pieces of advice, including: “Keep an open mind about your topic. Sometimes it makes sense to talk about your journey to applying to law school and why you want to attend. Other times, you would rather share a personal story or other aspect of your past. As long as we are learning about you and your experiences, we truly have no preference about what approach you take. Our main concern is that you write about something that is quintessential to us understanding who you are. We want to learn about you, so please don’t leave us wishing we could admit your relative, student, or client.”
In general, you want your personal statement to tell a compelling story about you that logically leads to your decision to attend law school. Ideally, this would be a story that is unique enough to you and your background that the admissions committee won’t have read one just like it from someone else. For one idea about what this story might look like and how it might fit in alongside other application components, here is one example of a successful law school application.
As with your resume, find one or two friends who can help you proofread your essays to ensure that they are completely free of typos and other errors.
Letters of recommendation
For most law schools, you will need to submit 2-3 letters of recommendation.
LSAC summarizes what law schools are looking for in letters of recommendation the following way:
The most effective letters of recommendation are written by professors or work supervisors who know you well enough to describe your academic, personal, or professional achievements and potential with candor, detail, and objectivity. Letters that compare you to your academic peers are often the most useful.
For most applicants, it is important to have at least two letters of recommendation from college professors, rather than employers or colleagues. (Yale takes this preference for academic letters particularly seriously.)
To cultivate strong letters of recommendation from your college professors, prioritize developing relationships with three or four of your professors so that they can provide detailed perspectives about you. Be specific with yourself about who these professors will be, since no one has time to develop these kinds of relationships with every professor they encounter, and it can be tempting to spread yourself too thin (or, on the opposite end of the spectrum, to avoid developing these relationships at all). Other things being equal, prioritize cultivating relationships with professors who you think will get to know you well and will offer superlative praise over “big name” professors with more stature or public acclaim. Often, this strategy will mean prioritizing professors with whom you share an interest in a particular academic topic; you may find it easier to show your interest and abilities when working with these professors.
Once you know which professors you want to build relationships with, plan a few concrete ways you can engage with them outside of class. This might include taking a small class with the professor, attending the professor’s office hours, working for the professor as a research assistant or teaching assistant, or serving with the professor on a university committee that includes both faculty and student members.
During your last year of college, take stock: who of the professors you decided to prioritize do you think would write the most effective letter on your behalf? Ask two or three of those people to write letters for you. Again, prioritize the professors who know you best and who you think will provide the most generous impression of you over the professors with the biggest reputation.
Even if you don’t intend to apply right away, you can ask your professors to write a letter while their impressions of you are fresh in their memory, then keep the letter on file. You might also decide to keep the recommender relationship “warm” by checking in with your prospective recommender every six months or so, then asking for a letter when you do begin preparing your applications. However, in most cases, unless your recommender will have new information about you after you graduate (for example, based on research you completed together after graduation), it is helpful to ask for a letter sooner and keep it on file.
If you decide to work between college and law school, it can be helpful to add a letter of recommendation from a supervisor, especially if they went to one of the law schools you are aiming to attend or have worked with lots of people who have gone on to law school. Recommenders with that background tend to be in a better position to make comparisons between you and other applicants.
To submit your letters to some schools, you will need to use the Law School Admission’s Council’s Credential Assembly Service. The FAQ and help pages on LSAC’s website explain the process in detail, but it is not the most intuitive tool. Be sure to leave yourself enough time to explain the process to your recommenders and work out any technical glitches. It is your responsibility to ensure your recommenders submit their letters; continue to follow up with them (politely) until you have confirmed that all of your letters are submitted.
Not all schools offer interviews, and some that do offer interviews also admit some students without interviewing them. If you are offered an interview, take some time to search online for descriptions from people who have interviewed with that school in recent years so that you know what to expect.
Most, if not all, law school interviews are conducted remotely. In general, it is a good idea to plan to dress formally (e.g., in a business suit) and take the interview from a quiet place where you will have a neutral background behind you. As with other important virtual meetings, be sure to test your audio and video setup before the interview begins, using the same application the host will be using for the interview.
To prepare for interviews, consider reviewing this advice and list of questions from prior interviews with many of the top-ranked law schools. Organizing a practice virtual interview with a friend who can prompt you with some of these questions and give you feedback can also be helpful.
VIII. Application Timeline
If you plan to start law school in fall 2023, now (July 2022) is a good time to start focusing on assembling your applications, assuming you have already taken or started studying for the LSAT or GRE. Start by registering to take the LSAT or the GRE (if you have not done so already) and reaching out to people who can write letters of recommendation on your behalf.
If you have not started studying for the LSAT or GRE, now is still a good time to reach out to recommenders, but you can hold off on registering for a test for now. Start with the advice above about preparing for the LSAT or GRE; then, you can register when you feel confident you are ready to hit your target score. (A highly aggressive but plausible timeline would be to decide whether to apply this year by the end of July, then start studying intensively with the goal of taking the LSAT held on October 14, 2022, which has a registration deadline of September 1, 2022. This timeline would allow you to submit applications in early November. If, by the end of September, you feel uncertain about whether you will achieve your score goal on the October LSAT, you can also register by September 29, 2022 for the LSAT held on November 11, 2022, which would allow you to retake the test if you undershoot your goal in October. Contributors had mixed feelings about this timeline; some recommended aiming for the LSAT held on January 13, 2022, instead, to maximize time for studying and practicing and hopefully achieve a higher score.)
Most law schools begin accepting applications in September of the year prior to enrollment and have an application deadline between February and April. Most schools make decisions on a rolling basis, so there is some advantage to applying early in the cycle when schools have filled fewer of their seats. Another advantage of applying early is that you are more likely to receive a decision sooner, giving you more time to make plans for the following year.
As a rough guide:
- Aim to apply in September or October if you hope to receive your first decisions before the end of the calendar year.
- Aim to apply before the end of November for the best chance of admission.
- If you need more time to improve your test scores or application essays, it is okay to apply in December or early January. Do not apply before your materials are in excellent shape.
- However, try to avoid applying in late January or beyond, unless doing so would allow you to significantly strengthen your application. By this time, most schools will have filled many of their available seats, so your odds of admission to a selective school may be lower. Applying later may also signal less interest in the school, which could reduce your chances of admission due to yield protection.
As you plan out your personal application timeline, focus first on the two components of the application that require the most advance planning: admissions tests and letters of recommendation.
Schedule and take your admissions tests
You will need to report either an LSAT or GRE score with your application. Because it takes about three weeks from the date of the test to receive an LSAT score and about two weeks to receive a GRE score, plan to take one of the tests at least one month before you intend to apply.
If you think you might want to retake the test if you are not happy with your score, plan to take a test at least three months before you intend to apply, which will give you time to continue practicing between receiving your score and taking the test for a second time.
Be sure to check the LSAT and GRE websites to confirm test registration deadlines, which are often six weeks in advance of the test date.
Request letters of recommendation
You will need to include 2-4 letters of recommendation with your application. As a courtesy to your recommenders, and to ensure that they have time to write you the strongest letter possible, you should aim to ask for the letter at least six weeks in advance of whatever target deadline you provide to your recommenders. You should also build in one or two weeks between the target deadline you provide to your recommenders and the actual date you intend to submit your applications, to account for any technical difficulties or other unexpected problems.
In total, plan to ask for letters of recommendation at least two months before you intend to submit your applications.
Some recommenders—especially college professors—may ask to see your resume, personal statement, and transcript to help inform their writing on your behalf. If you are asking for a recommendation early in your application process and do not have a polished personal statement yet, it is usually okay to share just your resume and transcript, to start. Just let your recommender know that your personal statement is a work-in-progress, and that you will send a copy as soon as you have completed it.
Note that some recommenders may also ask you to draft the recommendation letter yourself. While this can be awkward, it is relatively common. If you end up in this position, take the opportunity to ensure that your draft letters highlight different strengths than your personal statement and focus on specific details of your work that your recommenders have observed.
Compile and submit your applications
You will probably submit most (or all) of your applications via LSAC.org. Follow the instructions on this page to create an account and request copies of your transcripts and letters of recommendation. You should allow at least two weeks for LSAC to process these requests.
Then, follow the instructions to upload your personal statement, resume, and other materials to each school’s application. Be sure to proofread everything one more time before you submit.
IX. Waiting for decisions
Law schools make decisions on a rolling basis, with most decisions arriving between December and April. Candidates who apply earlier in the cycle tend to receive decisions first.
Candidates who apply in September or October may start to receive decisions in December. However, because the admissions process is rolling, it is possible to receive a final decision much later—perhaps as late as the summer if you are admitted off of the waitlist.
Most schools will give all applicants a decision of some kind—acceptance, rejection, or an offer of a position on the waitlist—by April 1. Some schools may request a seat deposit soon after this date to confirm your interest in joining their incoming classes. If you receive multiple offers, read the terms of each offer carefully: the seat deposit may be non-refundable, and the school may expect you to withdraw all other applications (except those for which you are on a waitlist) before placing the deposit.
If you have received an offer of admission from at least one school, it usually makes sense to place a seat deposit by the deadline, even if you are still waiting on waitlist decisions. Under LSAC’s policies, you are free to accept a new offer of admission (including an offer off of a waitlist) even after you have paid a deposit. However, if you do not place a deposit by the deadline at the school that admitted you, you may forfeit your opportunity to join that school’s incoming class in the fall.
Offers of admission to people initially placed on waitlists may come at any time between early May and late August, with only a short timeline to make a decision: perhaps only a day or two, and usually without information about financial aid available. While most top schools have a small waitlist, Harvard usually admits 100 people off of the waitlist, so being on its waitlist may provide a better chance than other top schools.
To maximize your chances of receiving an offer off of a waitlist, you will need to write a compelling “letter of continued interest” (often abbreviated “LOCI”) in late April or the first few days of May, emphasizing your interest in the school and confirming that you will accept at any time. It can help to emphasize a geographic tie to the location of the school you are targeting (e.g., family or partner in the area, a place to stay if you need to move last minute). Note that it is considered very bad form to stay on a waitlist and not accept if given an offer.
If you need to make a decision on a short timeline about whether to accept a new offer, or if you have been offered positions on multiple waitlists and are looking for advice on your strategy, we encourage you to fill out this short survey to be connected to others in the EA community who might be able to help you think through your options.
A note on mental health
Many people find the law school admissions process to be taxing on their mental health, particularly during the several-month period between submitting applications and receiving decisions.
One potentially valuable thing you can do to save yourself time and emotional energy during that period is to commit not to visit websites where you might be tempted to check for “news” about the admissions decision process (e.g, status updates from other applicants).
There is almost no upside to checking for this kind of news. Updates about the decision process are not action-relevant for most applicants. With very few exceptions, there is nothing you can do to improve your chances of admission after submitting your application.
However, the downside of checking for this information can be significant, both in the opportunity cost of the time you spend checking (doing so can be habit-forming) and in the emotional cost of comparing yourself to others who receive favorable news before you do.
X. Thinking ahead: One possible timeline for candidates applying in future years
If you are thinking about applying to law school in a future year, there are several things you can do now to set yourself up well for a successful application. This section outlines one possible timeline, but you can be very successful in applying to top law schools even if you start the process later than this timeline suggests.
First and second year of college (and earlier)
- Explore broadly. Take a variety of classes that interest you. Make time for student activities and other ways of exploring potential paths.
- If you think law school is a likely path, consider optimizing for grades (e.g., consider taking a smaller number of classes so that you have more time to dedicate to each), but don’t let a focus on grades interfere with exploring your interests and testing your fit for other paths.
Junior year of college
- Engage with 3-4 professors (e.g., by taking a small class, attending office hours, working as a research or teaching assistant, or working on a university committee together).
- Get excellent grades.
- Consider starting to study for the LSAT or GRE, if you have time and doing so won’t trade off against getting excellent grades, developing good relationships with three to four professors, and doing other things you want to be doing in college.
- If you feel confident that law school is right for you, consider applying early through programs like the Junior Deferral Program at Harvard Law School, which accepts applications by July 1 of your junior year for law school admission two years after you graduate from college.
Senior year of college
- Search for meaningful full-time work on an important problem that interests you.
- Continue to get excellent grades.
- Ask professors for letters of recommendation.
- Start studying for the LSAT or GRE, if you decided not to start during junior year.
- Consider taking the LSAT or GRE for the first time, if you have time and doing so won’t trade off against getting excellent grades, developing good relationships with two to four professors, and doing other things you want to be doing in college.
First year of full-time work
- Study and practice intensively for the LSAT or GRE under realistic conditions.
- Build a good relationship with your supervisor and consider asking them for a letter of recommendation.
Second year of full-time work
- June: Take the LSAT or GRE, if you don’t yet have a score that you are happy with.
- July: Ask for a letter of recommendation from your supervisor, and from any other recommenders you haven’t contacted yet.
- August: Draft your personal statement and optional diversity statement; update your resume.
- September: Retake the LSAT or GRE, if needed; revise your essays and resume.
- October: Submit your applications.
- November-April: Interview; receive admissions decisions; commit to a law school.
- May-August: Wrap up your full-time job; take a vacation; move to your new city; attend law school orientation.
- September: Start law school.
Reminder: Fill out a short survey to be connected with others
If you are interested in getting in touch with members of the EA community who have attended, currently attend, or are considering law school, we encourage you to fill out this short survey. We will use your answers to connect you to people with knowledge or networks relevant to your specific interests and career stage.
For many schools, you must report all LSAT and GRE scores you have received within the past five years, even if you have taken both tests and scored higher (in relative terms) on one than the other.
Empirically, people who apply in earlier months are admitted at higher rates than people who apply later (see, for example this calculator for predicting chances of admission). However, it is difficult to parse whether those higher admission rates for earlier applications are causally related to application timing; for example, it’s likely that applicants who apply earlier have different traits, on average, from applicants who apply later.
Adjusting for class sizes, Georgetown still compares favorably to other schools in sending alumni to Congress, but slips behind Yale, which has smaller graduating classes. There is currently one alum in Congress for every ~48 people in Georgetown’s 2021 graduating class, compared to one alum for every ~26 people in Harvard’s class and one for every ~36 people in Yale’s class that year.
One explanation for this dynamic is that law school admissions officers do not have much visibility into the grade distribution in any given class. While admissions officers might assume that the average organic chemistry class awards a smaller fraction of A grades than the average history class, they typically would not know whether those generalizations hold at your particular school or for any particular class. Another interpretation is that some law schools are optimizing for the highest possible position in the U.S. News and World Report rankings, which place value on enrolling students with high undergraduate GPAs but do not consider the relative difficulty of enrolling students’ undergraduate classes.
In the portion discussing considerations by career path I would add:
When deciding which schools to apply to and more so when deciding which school to attend, consider the clinics, journals, centers, and other opportunities that are relevant for a topic area of interest to you. Participating in these extracurriculars is a good way to learn about an area, signal to employers to have an interest in an area, and develop mentors and connections in the field. There are significant differences in otherwise similar schools in this regard .
If anyone reading this is in law school or about to start and you would like my advice about how to succeed there (including my unconventional strategy for law school exams) DM me and I can share a document I have written and shared with other EAs.
Thanks for this post - I'm currently in the process of applying for law school, this post was really helpful!
One bit that I would add about the LSAT vs GRE decision is that law school applicants with both a GRE and an LSAT score on file don't need to report their GRE score(s) to schools if they don't want to, but will almost always be required to report all their LSAT scores (law schools almost always require applicants to apply using the Law School Admissions Council's "Credential Assembly Service", which automatically reports all your LSAT scores to schools you apply to).
If you're on the fence about whether to take the LSAT or GRE, my suggestion would be to try taking the GRE first. That way, if you happen to get a really good GRE score (and don't think that you could get an equally good or better LSAT score), you can avoid taking the LSAT and just submit your GRE score instead. If you underperform on the GRE, you can still take the LSAT and only submit your LSAT score. (Many law schools also allow you to submit both scores if you choose to do so. It's sort of unclear how schools weigh the scores against each other when applicants submit both GRE and LSAT scores - and there's probably a lot of variability between schools in this respect - but most experts seem to think that your LSAT score will mostly override your GRE score if you submit both.)
I personally took the GRE, happened to get a really good score (much better than I was doing on practice LSATs), and am currently planning on applying with only that GRE score. In addition to (likely) increasing my odds of getting into my top choice school, this strategy has saved me a lot of time and stress that would've gone into studying for the LSAT. In my case, the GRE required relatively little study time to score well on. I thought the GRE was very similar to the SAT and ACT, while the practice LSATs I took felt very different. So the case for trying the GRE before taking the LSAT might be especially strong for people (like me) who did really well on the SAT or ACT but aren't doing as well on practice LSATs.
Obviously, this is anecdotal and might not be true for others. It's also possible that I'm underestimating how much taking the GRE disadvantages law school applicants, especially since many admissions officers seem to think it's not as accurate a measure of ability as the LSAT (if this is true, I might be in for some disappointing results in my own application process).