Here's exactly how to get into Harvard Law School, according to the chief admissions officer, 2 students, and 2 admissions consultants
- Kristi Jacobson, the chief admissions officer at Harvard Law School, Jeff Thomas, Kaplan Test Prep's executive director of admissions programs, and Anna Ivey, a professional admissions consultant, spoke with Business Insider about how to prepare and optimize your application to Harvard Law School.
- When you send in your application matters, so applying strategically is smart.
- HLS takes the GRE - but the LSAT is still a better bet.
- Fancy titles don't make for better letters of recommendation - and less is more when it comes to personal essays and addendums.
- Click here for more BI Prime stories.
Cameron Clark started training for a future legal career when he was still a teenager. In high school in Houston, he sharpened his rhetorical and critical-thinking skills on the debate team. In college at The University of Texas at Austin, he cultivated relationships with professors, interned, and kept his nose in the books and his GPA high. That diligence ultimately earned him acceptance-letter gold: entry to Harvard Law School.
Even in light of all his hard work, admission into the highly selective program was still an impressive feat. Clark graduated in 2018, the year that, according to data from the American Bar Association, the number of lawyers in the United States reached a 21st-century high. Only a small fraction are HLS grads: In 2018, the school - currently third in the rankings, behind just Stanford and Yale - received 7,419 applications and offered admission to just 12% of applicants. Kristi Jacobson, chief admissions officer at HLS, shared that there are currently a lean 561 students enrolled in the 1L class of 2022.
But while Clark's story sounds like an archetypal path to the Ivy Leagues, it's also far from the only way to get there. Per law school admissions coaching consultant Anna Ivey, a former dean of the University of Chicago Law School herself, "HLS admissions officers are very conscientious about recruiting minorities of various kinds: They want a diversity of colleges people and geographic areas," including veterans and older applicants.
Which is all to say: There is no standard profile for an HLS student. And though the bar is incontrovertibly high, with the right preparation and knowledge, it could be more reachable than you imagine. Read on for expert insight about how to approach the LSAT, optimize your application materials, and avoid errors admissions officers see year after year.
Be strategic about when you submit your application
Some students, like Clark, begin laying the groundwork years before ever actually applying. Others decide they want to go to law school during college after working for a few years, or later in life.
But when it comes to the application cycle for next year's enrollment: "All things being equal, earlier is better," explained Jacobson, HLS' chief admissions officer.
Historically, the school has admitted students on a rolling basis. But in 2019, it made the shift to rounds of admission, posting the three dates applicants would be admitted on the detailed and informative Harvard Law School admissions blog: December 16, February 10, and March 16. The switch was designed to stagger the volume of submissions as well as give anxiety-ridden applicants more concrete insight into the process. The idea is that if you're cutting it close to one date, it's unlikely your materials will be reviewed during that round and thus it's more sensible to aim for the next window instead of rushing.
That being said: Don't dawdle, urged Ivey. "With law school admissions, there [are] all kinds of stuff that happens after you submit," she explained. Interviews, always conducted via video, must be scheduled and completed for those moving onto the next round.
Take the LSAT even though you can use the GRE
Historically, the LSAT has been the go-to exam for would-be law students. But in recent years, a number of schools across the country - HLS among them - have allowed students to submit GRE scores instead. Still, most of the time, it's wise for students to stick with the LSAT, explained Jeff Thomas, Kaplan Test Prep's executive director of admissions programs.
The reason being that if you're applying to schools that don't take the GRE, you're going to have to take the LSAT anyway. And if you take the LSAT, the ABA rules require that schools evaluate you using those scores.
"The bottom line is: Unless the only schools you apply to take the GRE, don't bother to take it," said Thomas. Plus, there's a silver lining to all the LSAT work you'll put in. The test is designed to mimic the skills one uses in law school, so consider it pre-training for your future scholastic pursuits.
Focus your study routine on areas of high impact
People often ask Thomas if it's true that the LSAT is such a heavily weighted factor. "The answer, quite frankly, is yes," he said. The range for the LSAT score is 120 to 180, with 151 as the median 50th percentile score; spots at elite schools typically go to the top 1% to 2%, or those with a 170 or above. You have to be in the ballpark to be competitive - nor can you write or interview your way around poor scores.
The good news is that practice makes … well, perhaps not perfect, but high potential for improvement.
"I equate it to learning how to play a sport or a musical instrument: Just because you don't have the skills today doesn't mean you can't develop them tomorrow," said Thomas. The test is given nine times every year. Thomas encourages applicants to pick their date for a time when they can spend three months beforehand treating it as a top priority.
While it's tempting to immediately sign up for a prep course, consider testing your skills solo, offered Mikaela Gilbert-Lurie, HLS class of 2021. "Before you sink a ton of money into a class or a tutor - or even the books, which are $50 each - think about where you are. Not everyone needs to learn in a classroom setting," she said. In her case, practice tests revealed that logic games were her weak point, so she doubled down on studying for that section.
Clark added another element to his studying. "You have to take [practice exams] in as arduous of conditions as you can," he said. Prepare for the nerves you'll feel on the day and try to mimic those during practice exams, he advised. In his case, that meant taking practice tests in distracting circumstances, including chilly temperatures and a noisy Starbucks.
It paid off: The day Clark sat for the LSAT, the room was freezing and the room was a chorus of sniffles, but he had no trouble staying focused.
Pick recommenders who can champion your accomplishments
When it comes to asking people to write a letter on your behalf, you might assume that impressive titles are a priority. Not so, said Jacobson. "It's about substance over signature," she explained, adding that someone who has more to say about you is a better choice than someone who you encountered only briefly. "The letters are really important and they're much more meaningful if we have a strong sense of who you are from someone who knows you well," she added.
When reaching out to these people, it can be helpful to share samples of your work or jog their memories with anecdotes about your background together. Just make sure you're giving them adequate lead time - Jacobson recommends three months at least.
"I can't tell you the number of times I've read a letter of recommendation where the recommender says something like, 'I didn't have enough time to prepare this because so-and-so asked me only two weeks ago,'" she shared.
Keep your personal statement brief - and personal
In total, there are four essential components of the HLS application: the academic record starting with college, LSAT (or GRE) scores, the interview, and the personal statement. HLS doesn't require that the personal statement be about why you want to go to Harvard or even why you want to go to law school, necessarily.
"The emphasis on the personal statement is 'personal,'" said Ivey. "You're not writing it as if it were a term paper or a dissertation: The actual topic is you."
The two-paged, double-spaced essay shouldn't be a rehash of your resume either, added Jacobson. Rather, it should complement everything else you've submitted without marching the reader through information they've already encountered. She also recommended having someone who doesn't know you well read it over and summarize it back to you: If their description doesn't capture what you're trying to convey, it's time to revise.
Clark surmounted this challenge by leaning on the tools of narrative journalism. His personal statement opened with a description of a Black Lives Matter die-in protest he attended during undergrad that happened to occur during a major civil rights anniversary. Building on that structure, he was able to delve into his passions and goals and touch on Harvard's legacy of educating civil rights leaders throughout history.
Clark also submitted an optional statement, something that applicants should only do if they really feel there is something that hasn't been covered in other areas of their application, according to every expert Business Insider spoke with. This one-paged, double spaced supplement has an analog in the "diversity statements" applicants write for other law schools.
"You can take it in lots of directions. One of my favorites from last year was someone who wrote about being a unicyclist," said Jacobson.
In Clark's case, he wrote about what people who are not white, male, or of means bring to the HLS community-at-large: "A lot of the time, you come into a space like that if you're black, queer, low-income, or an immigrant, and your experiences are the topics being debated," he said. "You need me to do the unpaid labor of teaching your students about black culture and queer culture and these issues."
But it's also worth remembering that just because you can submit more information doesn't mean you must - or should. Ivey argued that something that seems so important that it seems to merit an addendum may be better incorporated into your personal statement.
"Even if a school invites you to submit something, if it's not required, you should really have a good reason for sending it," said Ivey. Overdoing it can look self-important, and admissions staffers are already neck-deep in paperwork.
Do your research before going into the interview
Clark recalled his interview as being really "anticlimactic" - a straightforward video session where people are asked to speak in depth about why they want to go to law school. When counseling current applicants, he reminded them to keep their online presence updated - particularly LinkedIn - and read up on the person who will be interviewing them.
"Basically, remember that people are researching you," he added.
Ivey recommended being prepared to talk about why you want to pursue a law degree and what you hope to accomplish. "A lot of people apply to law school as a path of least resistance, and admissions officers are looking to weed out people who are there for prestige or rankings," she said. "The interview is less about a right or wrong answer and more about: Can you have a conversation? Can you sound like a thoughtful person?"
Last but not least, Jacobson added that applicants should consider anything they included in their materials fair game, and to refamiliarize themselves with what they wrote. Once, a few years ago, an applicant listed "baking bread" as one of their personal interests - when Jacobson asked them about it, they blanked. If it's in your file, she said, "You need to be prepared to talk about it."
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