Top Ten Tips for African Americans Who Want to Be Prepared to Face the Highly Competitive Law School Admissions Process
The law school application process is challenging. The process of preparing applications to submit to law schools takes research, early planning, organization and attention to detail. Earning a spot in any of the law school classes across the country is extremely competitive and can be considered beyond fierce for the higher-ranked schools with the more recognizable names and the national reputations.
Below I have provided the top ten tips which are very important for anyone contemplating applying to law school, but especially for the Black law school applicant as they navigate this daunting process. These pieces of advice are certain to steer you in the right direction and lead you closer to successfully gaining acceptance into law school. The emphasis or theme here is on striving for excellence and being as competitive a law school admissions candidate as possible so that you will not only get into law school, but also so that you will have some choices regarding which law school you can ultimately attend. By making yourself an outstanding person and making the most of your educational experience, you will ready yourself for law school or really any endeavor after college you undertake if you decide to take time off or pursue another avenue after your undergraduate career.
Tip #1: Take the admissions process seriously and create a strategic plan for your admissions success
Take the admissions process very seriously. Many of the applicants that you are competing against for admission will do this. Plan out your strategy for admission right away. As soon as you think that you might want to attend law school is the time to get started. It is never too early to begin creating a success strategy or a strategic plan, especially if you want to attend a top or reputable law school. But this is terribly important in order to have a good chance to get into any law school. Understand that you have the power to create the type of image you want to present to those law school admissions committees. Try to plan out your course as early as possible. Consider ahead of time what kind of grades you want to make, what awards, activities and work experiences you want to place on your resume, what kinds of things you want your recommenders to say about you to the types of experiences you want to talk about in your personal statement. Take control of what you can from this point on. Then, it is up to you to make it happen and execute your plan.
Be proactive, talk to your instructors, seek out help and guidance from advisors and tutors, and investigate the possibilities. Talk to upperclassmen who seem to have it together and are headed for success for their assistance and get to know other like-minded people who want to go on to law school, graduate school or some other type of professional program so that you all can serve as a support system for each other and make sure you reach your respective goals. Utilize the internet and reach out to people who are doing the things you want to do and find out what it takes to get to where they are.
Understand that it is a reality that often times we simply cannot plan out the directions of our lives completely. However, I do suggest that those things you decide to do are not an afterthought while in the middle of the application process, but part of an overall master plan for success. You must take on a strategic mindset from this date forward.
Tip #2: Become the best admissions candidate and demonstrate your strengths in every way possible
The best way to increase your chances of getting into law school or the law school of your choice is by becoming the best candidate you can be. You can become a competitive candidate by demonstrating your strengths in every area or most areas considered by the admissions committee so that you will purposely make it difficult for that law school to say “no” to you.
First and foremost, you should try to have both a strong GPA and LSAT score. Don’t accept mediocrity! You can’t afford to. If you have only one or the other, then you should try to overcompensate in all other possible areas. Then, you might be able to get away with not having such a strong GPA or LSAT score. However, remember that that’s not all that admissions committees consider to be significant. Many highly-qualified applicants with the right numbers get turned down, so try to make sure that you are as well-rounded and interesting as possible and excellent (or striving to be) in those other areas of interest that you pursue.
Show the admissions committees that you have made the most of the opportunities and resources that are available to you no matter what college you attended and that you have those extra pluses going in your favor to add to the diverse and talented class that they are trying to build.
Tip #3: Take full and complete advantage of your “academic” undergraduate experience
You should take full advantage of your academic undergraduate experience. You must do what is necessary to lay a well-rounded, broad, diverse and solid academic foundation prior to commencing legal studies. Law school should build upon that foundation. You should try to gear yourself up for strong intellectual training during your undergraduate years to prepare yourself for the rigorous legal education that lies ahead of you. You must make sure that you receive a quality education where you can truly learn and not just memorize and forget everything. Remember that this is your responsibility and no one can do this for you.
Train your mind to think independently, clearly, critically and logically. You should do everything in your power to build up an intellectual, disciplined, skeptical, analytical and inquiring mind. Your undergraduate years offer you a once-in-a-lifetime chance to think about things that you have never thought about before, to learn about subject matters that are interesting and to explore areas that somehow fascinate you. You want to walk away with your undergraduate degree knowing that you took advantage of every opportunity that you possibly could and that whether you decide to attend law school or do something entirely unrelated, that you got your money’s worth and would not change a thing or very little about the college education you received.
If you have already completed undergrad, you might want to take this approach to your graduate education if you decide to earn a Master’s degree or take on Post-Baccalaureate studies prior to going to law school. Understand that your undergraduate grades will always carry more weight than any degree you earn after your Bachelor’s degree because of the fact that the Bachelor’s degree is all that is required. However, there are many schools that believe in second chances, especially if you do an exemplary job in every area possible throughout your graduate school career and demonstrate excellence and success in your professional work experiences.
Tip #4: Find out about your competition
Figure out what you are up against in the admissions process and learn about your possible competition. Size up your competitors. This can more than likely be determined by the law school’s ranking and reputation. The higher the ranking and the better the reputation, the more you are potentially up against and the more fierce and severe the competition. One way to get a sense of how difficult it is to get into certain law schools is to look at the listed median (middle) LSAT scores and GPAs of those admitted and to also check out the acceptance rates of applicants to those particular schools. You can usually find this information in the ranking information in popular publications about law school admission such as U.S. News and World Report Best Graduate Schools and in the Law School Admission Council’s Official Guide to U.S. Law Schools. You can find out the level of selectivity from most to least by referring to U.S. News & World Report’s Ultimate Guide to Law Schools.
Just know that highly successful students and overly competitive people apply to the more prestigious schools and the law schools at the top flagship state universities. Many of the persons applying to top-tier schools are those persons who sincerely believe that they have what it takes to get in. Make sure that you do too. Additionally, keep in mind that many excellent students and outstanding individuals likewise apply to the not so prestigious regional and local law schools for family and financial reasons, so understand that you will still have to compete regardless of tier level. Take on the mindset that you are willing to do whatever it takes to blow your competition out of the water.
I would recommend that you read How to Get into Harvard Law School: Invaluable Advice on Applying and a Look at Successful Application Essays from Current Students and Recent Grads by Willie J. Epps, Jr. (Contemporary Books, 1996) as well as Profiles & Essays of Successful African American Law School Applicants by Evangeline M. Mitchell (Hope’s Promise Publishing, 2004). Carefully read the profiles and personal essays of those students admitted. This should give you a good idea of the caliber of students that apply to top law schools and you can set out to pattern yourself after (and even better – outdo) their examples of excellence.
Tip #5: Ignore the stereotypes about Blacks’ inability to perform well on standardized tests and plan to prepare hard and do well
Don’t buy into the stereotypes about Blacks not being able to perform well on standardized tests. Make note of anything that you might have read and any statistics you have come across, but when it comes to your personal expectations, ignore them. Don’t allow these things to be used as an excuse for not giving 100% in preparation for the LSAT. This is an extremely important test. Striving for the highest LSAT score you can get is the single most important thing you can do to increase your chances of getting into law school – period.
Don’t think that you can overcompensate in every other area and fail to adequately prepare for the LSAT by falling back on all of your other strengths. Chances are that this way of thinking will backfire.
The test is designed to measure your logical and critical reasoning and analytical thinking abilities. Just remember that what the LSAT really tests is how well you can take a standardized test. Although there is a correlation between LSAT score and first-year grades, it does not test your chances of getting through law school or becoming successful in the legal profession, or in any other profession for that matter.
Keep in mind that the LSAT is a different kind of test than what you are accustomed to taking. It is a test that assesses a way of thinking, instead of facts that are learned. You are intentionally placed in a position where you have more questions to answer than time to answer them. Your goal is to learn how to think like the test makers and practice on as many actual tests as possible (all that are available) until you get to the point where you can beat the clock.
Place yourself in the position of law school admissions committees and appreciate its value. If you have thousands of people vying for spots who attended different schools and majored in different things, you need some standard measure by which to compare them all. Across the nation, everyone who wants to go to law school must take roughly the same test with the same number of questions and with the same time constraints and testing conditions. I have even heard of it being described as an “equalizer,” where some schools may perceive it as a way, although an imperfect one, to compare people on a somewhat equal footing.
Instead of fighting it, embrace it for what it’s worth and take it as a bitter pill every law school applicant has to swallow. Instead of going in with a resentful or negative attitude toward the test, approach it understanding that this is a test that you have to and can learn. It’s a necessary hurdle that all law school applicants must contend with. You must do whatever you can to prepare for it and not allow it to defeat you. It’s you against the test, and you must decide you will win.
Society, the media, students’ and teachers’ attitudes towards and low expectations of Black students constantly send them the message that they are unintelligent or less intelligent and that they are “poor test takers.” Therefore, they can’t perform well on these exams. Many African Americans buy into this and tend to believe that it is some sort of natural failing and that somehow they can’t “get it.” For many, they have it in their minds that they won’t do well even before they sit down and take a single practice test – and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Stanford psychologist Claude Steele calls this phenomenon of Blacks doing poorly because of the extra pressures of feeling that they are not expected to do well as “stereotype threat.” It is not that many African Americans don’t have what it takes, but because of prior educational disadvantages and a lack of mentorship, some of them just don’t fully know or understand what it takes to fully prepare for and perform well on these tests or how to take these tests.
Don’t let these stereotypes threaten your chances of doing well. The LSAT score is the single most important factor in your quest to attain law school admission. The results of this test probably do more to keep Blacks out of law school than anything else. Don’t allow this test to have that kind of power over your future. Do whatever it takes to do well whether it means taking an expensive commercial course, hiring a tutor, going through every LSAT book and previously released test question you can get your hands on, or taking a year off after undergrad to spend your spare time focusing solely on learning how to perform at your highest level on the test. You might even need to treat preparation as a full-time or part-time job if that is what is required to get you to the score you need.
If law school is what you really want, then it’s worth the sacrifice. No matter what you do – don’t go in to take it until you have prepared to the very best of your ability. You don’t want to spend the time and space in an addendum discussing how you don’t do well on standardized tests and how they under predict your abilities, when you know that you did not take the test when you were at your best and failed to put in the time and effort in preparation for it to truly reflect how well you are actually capable of performing. In the end, after having given your best efforts, it will be worth it.
Tip #6: A good GPA and a high LSAT score are no guarantee for admission – and they won’t always just speak for themselves
If you are told that all you need is a good GPA and a high LSAT score to get into law school, this is not necessarily true, especially at the more competitive law schools. Remember that no matter how good your credentials are, there are many other people out there with similar or better credentials than yours. There is simply no “guarantee” for admission – at least at the law schools you choose. Many schools compare applicants with similar LSAT scores and GPAs against each other and choose the ones that are the most interesting, and intriguing, and who they feel can contribute something special or unique to their class. This means they will have to take into account more than grades and LSAT scores when they have a large pool of competitive candidates. Among this group, they will compare the content and quality of the personal statements and essays, as well as the strength and impressiveness of co-curricular and extracurricular activities, community service and volunteer work, employment experiences and other information provided. Make certain that your essays are engaging and compelling. Make sure that your resumes and profiles are detailed and well-thought-out and orchestrated beforehand.
You must consider from the beginning what you will have to offer that will set you apart from other highly qualified individuals who are also striving for a seat in the classes when the offers admissions offices are able to make are limited. This takes not only doing well but advance planning and talking to high achievers, current law students at the schools you want to attend, and lawyers about the types of things they’ve done to come out on top despite the severe competition they’ve had to face.
If you want this, you have to do what is necessary to get a competitive edge and stand apart. There are a lot of smart people with a great deal going for them who want to go to law school too – who will make the effort to do whatever it takes to get in.
Tip #7: Just being Black may not be enough to be counted as a “plus” factor; you should explicitly state that you strongly identify with African American or Black culture and that you feel a responsibility or have a commitment to give back to the people within your community, and will contribute to diversity in a number of ways at the law school
Don’t think that just marking off a box indicating your racial and ethnic identity on your application is enough. Be certain that you include organizations, activities and community service work that you are or have been a part of which involve African Americans and other minority group members, as well as multicultural and diversity and inclusion work in your resume and profile. In your essay, personal statement or in an optional or additional diversity statement (which should not be optional for you – submit one regardless), you should also directly mention your race, multicultural and diversity-related work, projects and insights based on personal experiences that drew you to the law, or that should add a unique diversity of perspective and leadership based on your identification with being a Black American. You might like to discuss situations you have encountered as a person of African descent and how they were significant in influencing your experiences and shaping who you are. It is critical that you state and demonstrate that you identify with, have a connection to, and are deeply concerned about issues within the Black community and have a desire to go back and serve these people who are greatly underserved.
Some schools may make an inference that you will add something to diversity because you are a member of a historically disadvantaged and underrepresented ethnic and racial group. Other schools may be leery about or be prevented by law (states passing referenda ending racial preferences through ballot initiatives include California, Washington, Michigan and Oklahoma) from looking at your Blackness alone as a positive factor. Don’t expect or think that they will assume certain things just because you are Black.
Always try to explain explicitly what it is that you can add to the student body because of your race, if you honestly think that you can truly contribute or offer something special because of your historical legacy as well as your overall experience and identity as a minority group member. Also, note that many schools are unclear as to what role race will play in the admissions process. Keep in mind that it can only legally be a “plus” factor, according to Bakke and Grutter v. Bollinger, meaning that the United States Supreme Court upheld the use of race as only one of many factors that admissions committees can use in looking at applicants. Law schools may consider many factors to enhance diversity at their law schools for the educational benefits it brings to all students in the learning environment.
Therefore, I would also urge you to consider all of the other ways that you can add to the diversity of a law school class in addition to your race. Bring out your multiple social identities. Consider areas such as age, gender, ethnicity, culture, interests, political affiliation, sexuality, parental/home environment (single parent household, foster care), educational background, socioeconomic background, disabilities, activism, and international experiences, among others. You should express and demonstrate the ability to represent diversity not only in regards to race, but in a number of varied and interesting ways. This will also place those persons in check who think they have your story figured out just because you’re Black. Show them that you are a complicated, complex individual whose interests, experiences, perspectives and outlook are not limited only by where you come from and spans a lot further, wider and deeper than your own front porch and go beyond those from your own racial and ethnic background.
Don’t think that race will save you if you are not a competitive applicant. According to statistics from the Law School Admission Council, nearly 50% of African Americans who apply to law school don’t get in anywhere. Don’t let people fool you into believing that Blackness or underrepresented minority status will ensure you a seat in a law school class. Just like everyone else, you must be prepared to fight for it.
Race may assist a committee, even if just a little, to decide in your favor, but only if you’ve done all that you could to be as competitive as possible. It might help to be a tiebreaker, but it won’t make miracles if you are not in the running as a highly attractive contender.
Despite the many misconceptions and what some people may think or feel, schools will not “let you in” because you’re Black if you don’t meet their standards. Almost half of Blacks who apply to law school don’t get in, so if you don’t make the cut, you don’t. The heyday of affirmative action is over and the competition for the limited law school student seats is severe. The only answer is to use race to your advantage to show that you do indeed have something special and unique to add because of that and other forms of diversity while at the same time knowing that in every area of preparation you must step up your game to the maximum level.
Tip #8: Develop relationships with potential recommenders; Ask for recommendations in person, provide your references with relevant positive information about you, and express the importance of the recommendations for your future
From the moment you even think you want to go to professional school, you should begin sizing up professors, teaching assistants, campus leaders, administrators and employers with the mindset that you will possibly need to impress them and make the effort to establish and maintain a relationship with those people in order to write a letter on your behalf at some point in the future. The committee needs to hear from others who you are, what your abilities are and what you have to offer. As much of a person of honesty and integrity that you may be, they are not going to only take your word for it. You need other people willing to vouch for you, back you up and support your candidacy for admission. Make sure that you select persons who you are confident are really good people and who want to see you advance in your educational and career pursuits.
When the time comes that you have to ask for recommendations, be certain to set up an in-person appointment if this is at all possible. Be sure to ask your references for letters at least two or three months in advance. Be certain to ask them politely if they feel comfortable that they can write an enthusiastic recommendation on your behalf. If they can’t, thank them for their time and go ahead and ask someone else. Be professional and serious. Explain that the recommendation is really important to you and to your future. Tell them that you will need a meaningful recommendation that is filled with examples and details to support your acceptance. Give or send the recommender an organized folder with all of the relevant information about you that will be useful to him or her in making their assessment. In this folder, you want to provide a statement as to why you want to go to law school, a copy of your personal statement, a listing of the courses you’ve taken and the grades that you have earned in them, as well as activities you were involved in, the roles you played in those activities, honors, awards, talents you possess, accomplishments you’ve garnered, how you have contributed to diversity in the classroom and on campus. You may prefer to also provide a resume, curriculum vitae, profile and a listing of any and all other information you deem important.
Moreover, be certain to include any representative, well-received and high-scoring tests or research papers with that professor’s comments in order to refresh his or her memory as to your writing abilities and performance in his or her class(es). You should provide any other writing samples that are representative of your intellectual, writing and research abilities as well, even if not carried out for that particular professor. Provide examples and stories that the recommender may or may not be aware of that you want them to consider mentioning in their letter.
Include a short letter explaining how important their recommendation letters are in distinguishing you from other competitive candidates. You should also list and explain what qualities law schools seek in students and therefore what type of information is most useful to the admissions committees. Provide them with a sample recommendation letter and some guidelines and considerations to provide them with some guidance as to what you need. Let them know that some schools think it is useful if they provide comparisons to other students and former students who have gone on to pursue a legal education from your school and especially those who have been successful. Request that they make such comparisons if positive.
Do not ever just ask for a recommendation, let your recommender know when you need it by and leave it at that giving them free reign to write whatever they want without direction and supporting documentation. It is your responsibility to provide enough positive information about yourself so that your reference can provide a thoughtful and thorough assessment of you. Through doing this, you want to demonstrate that you are prepared, conscientious and want to make their jobs easier. Put yourself in their shoes. How frustrating it must be for a student to simply show up and ask for a recommendation with nothing else especially when they may not have a lot of time and this is something else that is on their “to do” list. Be the type of person that someone will want to write a recommendation for so that they don’t see it as a burden but a pleasure.
Tip #9: When applying to competitive schools (or any school for that matter), always be certain to express what you have to offer them, what you can do for them and what you can contribute
Many Ivy League and big name schools know that they can do something for you. The reality is that saying you went to Harvard, Yale, Columbia or Stanford does mean something and will be recognized. These types of institutions don’t necessarily need you. Again, there are multitudes of bright and talented students ready and willing to become law students there. You have to fight your way to the top and prove you are deserving. They recognize that your having their name on your law degree will help open doors for you. Going to such schools will provide important contacts, networks and unbelievable resources. They have a large number of talented and extraordinarily well-qualified people applying. Just being smart and highly motivated is not going to be enough. They need to know that you are going to give something valuable to them, add something to their law school and contribute something to the law school community while you are there and once you become an alumnus that any other applicant can’t offer. Show them that you are the type of person who has made a great deal of contributions wherever you have been and based on your past actions (which is all they can really go by), it is very likely you will continue to do the same at their institution and provide something special and unique – that “x” factor – that not one of the numbers of other applicants can.
Tip #10: There is a difference between affirmative action versus personal action
If you are Black or a member of any historically underrepresented racial or ethnic minority group with a subpar GPA and a mediocre LSAT score, if you didn’t earn any outstanding awards or honors or were unsuccessful in standing out in any way during your undergraduate years or graduate years, and if you did not take the initiative to make anything happen in the community, or do anything outstanding in the workforce or the professional arena, then no type of affirmative action is going to get you into law school or help you. In this case, what you need is not affirmative action, but personal action.
However, your case is not hopeless. Be proactive, seek guidance, and find ways to turn your situation around. Make a decision, create a strategic plan, focus on the positives and simply get it together, then apply again next year or in a few years. You may need outside guidance. Unfortunately, the free advice you receive from your pre-law advisor at your undergraduate institution may not be enough. You may need to invest in a professional admissions consultant who takes a vested interest in helping you to better market and package yourself. In addition, you may need to attend graduate school to help prove that you have the academic ability to make it through a rigorous professional academic program. You may need to hire a tutor and re-take the LSAT after extensive, painstaking and backbreaking preparation. You may need to pull together your own personal board of directors made up of law students, lawyers and others to be your success team to bounce ideas off of and to help you come up with a strategy for standing out and getting in.
I truly understand that the playing field is not equal. Many people had to work while in college, had to support a family, and deal with death and illness, and other unimaginable and seemingly insurmountable obstacles that took its toll during their undergraduate years. Many people were not exposed to different things and were limited due to their environments. A lot of people were not given the types of challenging education they needed to reach their full potential and are having to make up for being cheated in their previous education earlier in life. There are those who were around people unable to look beyond their own front porches and allowed this to place boundaries and limitations around them that were hard to break away from. Some people were trying to figure out where they are going to get their next meal and making straight As was not the priority, survival was. Many were victims of a complete lack of support, low expectations and self-esteem. Life happens and it is not fair. These things make it more difficult for some to achieve to their full potential academically and as leaders. There are many obstacles to achievement. That’s why not everyone who has a dream and the potential to make it happen actually realizes it. These are gritty and harsh realities but you must overcome these issues from wherever you sit if you want to best be able to compete.
There is absolutely no shame in looking at your situation, considering ways to make yourself more competitive, acting on this with all that you have within you and then presenting an admissions package that you can be proud of and that can place you in a position to get admitted. As much as admissions committees may be interested in those students with the high numbers, they also take a genuine interest in those with powerful stories who have overcome their obstacles and setbacks and set themselves up for amazing comebacks. They actually like those candidates who were the underdogs that others counted out but who are overcomers and made it against the odds. You have to be willing to take the initiative, do the research, talk to law school admissions officers, do the hard work, get the assistance you need, and go from there. Be persistent and don’t be ready to give up if things don’t work out during your first or second try. There are many stories of people who have succeeded after failing numerous times. Failure is never final, unless you choose for it to be. Our society doesn’t share those stories of those knocked down who constantly get back up until they achieve their goals as often as they should. If success was that easy, everyone would be living their dreams and doing well. You have to continue swinging and fighting for your dreams no matter how weary you may get.
Just know that there are many law schools that are willing to give you a second chance and consider the ‘whole package.’ Understand that getting into law school is tough, getting through law school is tougher, and law practice or anything you decide to pursue and be successful at in the professional world will be even more difficult. Take on a competitive mindset and choose to succeed knowing it will take extremely hard work and sacrifice, undying determination, passion for the law, a vision for the difference you can make, and an unwavering willingness to overcome failures, dust yourself off and work toward those successes. No matter what – if law school is what you want, then don’t ever give up! That admissions acceptance letter may just be around the corner.
Before you decide to embark upon the law school admissions journey, remember the importance of research, not just on the law school application process, but also on what a legal education entails, what the legal profession is like, career opportunities that are available, the legal job market and what legal employers are looking for, perceptions of the law degree in the real world, and the special challenges persons holding the coveted Juris Doctor face in selling their credentials to non-traditional employers. Read books, surf the Internet, network with law students and lawyers and develop relationships with them so that they can serve as possible mentors, and talk to as many knowledgeable people as you can. Know and fully understand what you are getting yourself into.
This early research is so often overlooked. Unfortunately, once students begin their legal education, because the demands on their time are so great, they find that they often don’t have the opportunity to do this necessary research. Many law students who realize that law school and the opportunities available are not what they had thought find themselves in a position where they may have made too much of a life change, time commitment and financial investment to get out. I cannot stress enough the critical importance of early planning and preparation and seeking out pre-law and career advisement from a variety of sources very early on so that you fully understand not only how the process works but can ensure that you will be a truly successful and competitive law school admission candidate – and ultimately a law student who is truly satisfied with their decision to attend law school and the possibilities for a fulfilling and rewarding career after graduation. Best of luck to you in your quest to attain law school admission!
Evangeline M. Mitchell, Esq., Ed.M. is a graduate of Prairie View A&M University, the University of Iowa College of Law and the Harvard University Graduate School of Education. She is the founder of The National Black Pre-Law Conference and Law Fair.
Evangeline M. Mitchell. Copyright © 2005-2018. All rights reserved.