Sunday, August 19, 2012

Why Law School Admissions Probability Calculators are Useless

Last year, I posted a link to the law school probability calculator based on data compiled by Law School Numbers.  I had reservations about the value of the calculator even then, because when it comes to law school admissions, the odds aren't really very important.  The applicants in a particular demographic slot who are admitted to a particular law school aren't chosen at random.  The fact that 10% of applicants with numbers similar to yours were admitted didn't mean, even then, that you had a 10% chance of admission.  It meant that a handful of people with very good soft factors had a reasonably solid chance of admission, while a lot of other people with nothing to set them apart from their numbers had almost no chance.

So, even in the best of times, all a law school admissions probability calculator could really tell you was how important the subjective pieces of your application were likely to be.  That is useful information, but it's a far cry from being able to punch in your numbers and learn what your actual chances of admission to a particular school might be.

And that was in better days.

This year, I'm not even posting a link. Yes, I know you'll probably just leave my blog and go look elsewhere for that information, but I'm not going to make it easy for you.  And I'm going to hope that you've read this post before you go looking.  Because this year the value of those projections will be even lower than it's been in past years.  That's because probability calculators are typically based on last year's numbers.  The one I linked to last year, based on LSN numbers, relies entirely on self-reported data.  Yes, that data skews a bit and may not be entirely reliable, but it was enough to give you an idea.  Enough, that is, when the applicant pool and the number of applicants and the number of available seats at a given school were relatively stable.

That, as you probably know, is not this year.  Applications are down. The demographics of the applicant pool may well shift with the decline in numbers, but we don't yet know what the characteristics of this year's law school hopefuls will be.  And, to further complicate the predictive process, several law schools have announced that they'll be admitting smaller classes.  In short, the many shifting variables have rendered predictions that were already qualified and speculative even more so.  Look if you must, but take what you learn with a very large grain of salt.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

The Hell With Conventional Wisdom

The most important function of your law school personal statement, as I've said again and again, is to show the admissions committee what's special and unique and interesting about you. That's why there's no magical formula. That's why it doesn't pay to shell out big bucks to have a "professional" write your personal statement for you. It's personal, and the same is true for most of the optional statements and addenda you might be including with your law school applications.

That's why it can be dangerous to take what you read too much to heart.

Let me be clear: I am definitely not suggesting that you ignore the experts or assume that you know better than those actually involved in the process or with long experience helping applicants through it. That would be self-defeating.

But take those books, tip sheets, websites, etc. for what they're worth, which is (in the case of good ones) good general information that may or may not apply to your situation. The key to maximizing your applications is to figure out the best way to present your experiences, strengths, weaknesses, etc. It's determining how to make your application, your personal statement, your recommendations and your supplemental materials complement one another to create the most compelling overall package.

A book can give you guidelines, but it can't apply them for you. The determinations that may well determine the success or failure of your application require discernment--it's up to you to make educated decisions about how the "rules" apply to your particular set of circumstances and how the pieces of your particular puzzle best fit together. This discernment is the make-or-break step in the process. You may be able to make those determinations on your own, or you may find that you need the assistance of a law school admissions consultant to look at your history, interests, strengths and goals with you and help architect that package.

What you can't do (at least, not with good results) is expect to follow a set of "rules" laid out for you in a book or on a website and create the strongest possible package. If it were that easy, every application would look the same...and be entirely useless for impacting the admissions decision.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

The Secret to 1L Success

I wasn't a good student in law school. By that, I don't mean that I didn't get good grades. I mean that while many of my classmates were slaving away in the library for seven or eight hours every afternoon and evening, I had a couple of part-time jobs, volunteered like crazy and (if we must be brutally honest) spent far too many late nights hanging out with some classmates who had a band. It's not like I didn't study; I gave it a couple of hours a day.

One of my suitemates during my first year of law school was an older woman who had returned to school after raising kids not too much younger than I. She would shake her head as I chattered away on the telephone organizing a fundraiser while I put on make-up to go out for the evening. "Tiffany," she would say gravely, "I'm going to be amazed if you graduate."

She was even more amazed when I made Dean's List that semester, and I didn't hear much from her about my lifestyle after that. But really, her concerns weren't unreasonable. From where she was sitting, it looked like I wasn't taking it seriously. She didn't know that I had a secret weapon; even if I'd tried to explain it to her, she might not really have understood how powerful it was.

It was too late for her, anyway.

But if you're considering law school now, you may still be pursuing your undergraduate degree. And even if you're not, chances are that you're at least 13 months from starting law school. That means you can still benefit from my experience.

The thing that most set me apart from my "competition" during the first year of law school wasn't intelligence or aptitude or legal knowledge or superior writing skills or a payoff to my professors. It was the simple fact that I had taken twelve hours of substantive law classes as an undergraduate.

When I say "substantive", what I'm really getting at is that these were classes that employed case books in place of traditional textbooks. Business law, for example, is typically NOT what I'm referring to as a substantive law class--business law textbooks generally look pretty much like every other textbook, and where case law is employed it's conveniently excerpted for you.

That's no good.

There's very little excerpting in law school case books, and for good reason. There won't be any in the cases you have to read and apply in the practice of law. That, as I explained in Why the LSAT Matters, is exactly why it's so important for you to learn to do your own "excerpting", and to do it well and efficiently.

I'm sure you've heard that you'll be expected to read hundreds of pages each week in law school. That's true. But what no one tells you--including your professors when you show up ready to plow into those massive texts--is that a lot of what's in those hundreds of pages isn't really relevant. Your job is to distill what may be ten or twenty or thirty pages of discussion, digression and sometimes straight up rambling into a few pieces of relevant content.

Going into law school, few people know how to do that; in fact, most don't know that you're supposed to do it. Thus, good students push themselves to their limits carefully reading every word of the dissenters digression into what would have happened if the case included entirely different elements and had occurred in a state with a slightly different law. They lose time, they lose sleep, they stress themselves out and--perhaps most importantly--they lose focus. Most law students spend a good chunk of the first year figuring out first that they're supposed to be figuring out what's important and leaving the rest and then figuring out how to figure out what's important.

After four classes taught exclusively from casebooks, after having experienced the shock of learning what really was and was not included in a judicial opinion as a college sophomore, I came to law school having already learned the biggest lessons of the 1L year. And it gave me a leg up that most of my classmates didn't have, but you still can.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

October LSAT Students - You're Destined to Fail

Not the LSAT, of course. That's not even a pass/fail test.

No, I'm talking about the grand plan you have right now to practice for three hours every Tuesday and Thursday and take a full length practice test every Saturday morning (or whatever the specifics of your plan are).

It may be for the best that your plan is going to fail; I'm not at all sure that taking a full length practice test every week is the right thing for you. In a tutoring relationship, I'd assess that with you individually, but since I don't know you I'll just say this--it isn't the right thing for most LSAT students at this stage of the game. Once you've mastered the techniques a bit, perhaps, but not now.

Here's the thing: as recently pointed out by a student blogger, life happens. Maybe you're sick one Tuesday (and studying when you're not up to par can be worse than not studying at all, but that's a topic for another post). Maybe one Saturday morning you find yourself saddled with your sister's three screaming children. Maybe you simply tell yourself that you're still going to put in your time while you're spending that week on the beautiful island of Oahu, but come on...that's not going to happen. Let's just admit that up front.

This might all sound a bit defeatist, but it's actually quite the opposite. Realism is a critical part of solid planning. If you build a study schedule around the theory that you're going to use every available time slot between now and October to do something specific toward LSAT prep, a couple of missed or ineffective sessions will bring the whole system tumbling down.

Avoid the stress, the scrambling and the efforts to rebuild your schedule every time you miss a step by leaving plenty of open time in that schedule so that you have a place to fill in when you've missed a scheduled chapter or practice test and the whole process will go more smoothly.

PS: You don't need every available minute between now and October to get prepared, anyway.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

June 2011 LSAT - Should You Cancel Your Score?

Before we jump into my regularly scheduled advice on canceling (or, more likely, not canceling) your LSAT score, let me take a brief detour:

If you're considering canceling your June 2011 LSAT score because you think you blew the Reading Comprehension section, join the club. And, as a club, stand fast and support one another in the decision not to cancel your score over what by all reports was a monster-tough section. Everything I have heard thus far from students and seen in forums indicates that nothing "went wrong" during the Reading Comp section; it just really was that hard.

We now return to the same advice I've been giving people on the day after the LSAT for close to 15 years: don't do it.

That's qualified advice, of course. There are reasons that you should consider canceling your score. Here are a few:

• You were very ill or distracted by the fact that you got into a serious car accident on your way to the LSAT testing center and so sincerely believe that your performance was impacted by outside factors;

• You misbubbled a section and didn't get a chance to fix it, so that you're pretty sure a significant number of your answers ended up on the wrong line;

• You have gotten through the sections in plenty of time in practice, but for some reason during the actual LSAT you ended up with half a section unfinished.

Those are just a few examples, but they illustrate a larger principle that anyone considering canceling an LSAT score should live by: cancel only if there is a measurable issue that makes you believe your performance wasn't representative of your ability to perform on the test and what you've been doing in practice. Feeling like it didn't go as well as you'd hoped is not a measurable issue.

Did you do better than you think? I don't know. But neither do you. And if you cancel your score, you never will. And the next time you take that test, you'll walk out of that room with the same uneasy feeling...

If you walked into the testing room prepared and you did what you've been doing in practice and your pacing and focus were similar to what they've been in practice, don't try to guess whether or not you've done well enough.

The June LSAT is Over...Now Get to Work!

If you took the LSAT on Monday, you're undoubtedly still decompressing. That's good. Breathe a sigh of relief, congratulate yourself on the efforts you put in during the weeks leading up to the test and take a break.

But just a little one.

You've given yourself a nice advantage by taking the June test and getting out in front of the crowd. You can have your applications completed and sent off while much of your competition is still preparing for the fall test date. But summers, as you may recall from your elementary school days, tend to disappear in the blink of an eye. And if you're still in school, August will be a busy month. So don't let that lead slip away.

Take a few days off to enjoy yourself and the fact that the LSAT is over, but then start constructing your applications. In particular, start thinking about your personal statement and recommendations--the pieces that will take a little longer to put together. Find out what documentation you'll need to gather and start those balls rolling.

If you prepared for the LSAT over a period of weeks or months and did it in small bites, you know how much less stressful it was than what some of your competitors have been blogging and Tweeting about and discussing in forums. Give yourself the same advantage in putting together your apps. And if you found yourself in a last minute crunch preparing for the LSAT--well, you don't want that to happen again, right?

Friday, February 18, 2011

The Clock is Ticking - Now What?

As the end of the law school admissions cycle approaches, stress is high for those who haven't yet applied and conflicting advice is flying:

"It's too late--you should wait out a year."

"It can't hurt to try; just apply and if you aren't happy with where you get in, try again next year."

"With your numbers, you could apply on the last day."

"It depends on whether or not the school uses rolling admissions."

And so on, and so on, and so on. If you are one of those who decided late to apply to law school or was waiting for a December test score or for whatever reason haven't yet applied, this sea of contradictions can only add to your anxiety.

There's a reason for all the conflicting advice, though: there's no one right answer. If you're just getting ready to apply to law school and unsure about whether you should hurry up and get those applications out or sit it out a year, take a deep breath and make a reasoned analysis of YOUR situation. Some of the factors you should consider are:

• Where do your credentials fall in relation to the medians and 25/75 numbers for the schools you're most interested in?
• How important is it to you to get into a particular school, or one of a few schools?
• Do you have time to put together compelling applications at this stage of the game, or would you be throwing them together just to get them in on time?
• Do you have time to gather outside materials such as transcripts and letters of recommendation in a timely manner?
• What would you do with that year if you waited out? Would it help, hurt or have no impact on your desirability as a law school candidate?
• Do the schools you're most interested in use rolling admissions?

That's just a start. Too often, applicants blow one factor out of proportion and believe that they "don't have a choice". The truth is that there is a choice to be made, and it's best made by weighing all considerations and by recognizing that not all factors will come down on the same side of the analysis. As in every other area of life, there are trade-offs and compromises and only you can determine which factors weigh heaviest in your situation.