Understanding the Law School Application from a Holistic Lens – How the Personal Statement Functions in Your Application

“Will This Student Succeed At My Law School?”

This is really the only question that a law school admissions committee member is asking himself or herself when reviewing your application. It is a remarkably simple question with a binary answer. Yes, you’re in; no, you’re out.

That said, while the question is simple, answering it can be very difficult. What works for one school won’t work for another – as classes are most often on a sliding scale, especially in the first year, it’s important that students are not only able to keep up with the curriculum, but also their peers. For that reason, your application provides the admissions committee with several different metrics by which to measure you. The first, your GPA and LSAT score, represent the fixed portion of your application; they’ll get you through the door. The second, your recommendations and statements, are the discretionary portion, and are what get you over the finish line. You’ll need both to get into your dream school.

The Fixed Portion of Your Application – Setting your Bracket

You’ll often hear online, whether it be on forums, in blogs, or from other professionals, that your GPA and your LSAT are the most important components of your application. In a certain respect, that’s true – and, if we’re being entirely honest with ourselves, application professionals such as myself can’t do much to help you here. Your GPA is set when you finish your undergraduate studies, and your LSAT determined by how well you prepare for the test (although we have some great recommendations for LSAT preparation programs!).

Understand, however, that the importance of the fixed half of your application comes with caveats. The first is obvious – it’s only important insofar as it helps the admissions committee answer its most important question: will this student succeed at my school? Experience has shown your typical law school admissions office that there is a high correlation between students with certain fixed scores and students that finish all three years of law school at their school. Harvard isn’t saying that it wants high scores just to be a pain. Its admissions office knows that students with high scores tend to do well in their curriculum and compete well among their peers.

The second caveat is related to the first – because, while your fixed scores heavily inform the question of whether or not you can succeed at a given school, they can’t answer that question completely. For that reason, it’s best to understand that your fixed scores provide you with a bracket. A student with a fixed score in the 99th percentile has a bracket of about 25 or so schools to which they should apply, beginning with the top-ranked schools and ending around #20-30; a student with lower scores may have a bracket from #15-50, or lower, depending on their numbers. Movement within those brackets, however, is accomplished through other means.

Put another way, that same student in the 99th percentile could probably get into the #30 school with little effort – a sloppy personal statement and substandard recommendations won’t overcome Wake Forest’s desire for those scores. Getting into Harvard is going to take a lot more work, however, regardless of that student’s excellent fixed scores. The same can be said for the student with lesser scores – Pepperdine is relatively easy with 80th percentile scores, but UCLA and Vanderbilt are possible if the student knows what they’re doing. To get into these schools, however, these students will need to move within their brackets – and that is accomplished through the more discretionary portions of their application.

The Discretionary Application – Moving within the Bracket

If the GPA and LSAT represent the fixed elements of your application, then the statements and recommendations are the discretionary half. Short of inventing a time machine, there’s not much you can do to go back and change your GPA or a poor LSAT score. By contrast, we can endlessly fine-tune a personal and diversity statement (and often do!). In this manner, they function as the half of your application more open to choice and change.

It is within the bracket set by the fixed scores that we find the importance of the discretionary elements. If the fixed scores determine the bracket, the discretionary elements provide the means of moving within it. A poor personal statement, a half-hearted diversity statement, and poor recommendations will more than likely place you in the bottom half of your bracket. The inverse is also true, however; knocking them out of the park is the only way to get into the top 10% of your bracket – and the only way of getting into a top five law school, period.

That’s not to say that it’s unheard of for a student with lower scores to move beyond their bracket with exceptional statements and recommendations – just that it is, well, exceptional. More often than not, the statements function to place you in the higher end of your bracket. If your bracket is 15-40, you might be able to squeak into the top ten with an incredibly moving personal story, but it’s more likely that a well-written discretionary portion gets you into the 15-23 range.

This is really what is meant when law school admissions officers say that the LSAT and GPA make up 90% of your application. The higher the school of your dreams, the higher the LSAT and GPA requirements are merely to get into the door. They are the price of admission, the greens fee, the buy-in. They are, in fact, the bare minimum. If a prospective student only accomplishes the bare minimum in their application, they will ultimately have to accept the bare minimum in their results – in this case, the lowest spot in their bracket. Students who do more, who ace the personal and diversity statements, who cultivate the best recommendations, will find themselves rewarded.

Nobody gets into Harvard off of their GPA and LSAT alone. The competition is too fierce. Remember, at the end of the day, all of the elements of your application work together to answer just one question: will this student succeed at my law school? Consider them all different pieces of the same puzzle, different evidence for the same argument. Your fixed scores frame the discussion, but your statements and recommendations are often the difference maker. You need them both to land that dream law school.

And remember, at the end of the day, you don’t have to do any of it alone. Just as there’s tutoring to bolster your GPA and lessons for the LSAT, there are professionals that can work with you to really nail those recommendations and statements, and get you into the top end of your bracket.

We’re here to help! Schedule your zero-obligation, free consultation to see how Stratus can help you get the most out of your law school application and maximize your placement!

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Author: James Suzano
As a member of Team Stratus, James specializes in working with our international and transfer clientele, with whom he helps translate either the international legal or the transfer experience into a cohesive law school application. Prior to joining our team, James worked as a human rights and immigration attorney in Washington, DC and Geneva, Switzerland, where he labored on behalf of disenfranchised and persecuted populations in the Middle East, North Africa, and South Asia. He continues to take on human-rights related projects on a case-by-case basis, and advises several non-governmental organizations on international human rights and humanitarian law. In his evening hours, James also works as an adjunct professor of political science and law on US military bases in Germany. James lives in France with his wife and two dogs, and, when not working, is probably struggling to tame his back yard into something resembling a garden.
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