Helicopters to Harvard Law: Transitioning to Law School!

I’m excited to host another guest writer today who will be describing some of the key aspects of the law school application process from a military applicant perspective. This piece is incredibly well written and informative for those looking to transition to law school. The author is a former aviation officer, USMA graduate, and future Harvard Law student. I hope it helps all of those prospective law students out there!

The law school application process bears frightening similarities to prom, albeit with significantly more work after the dance and a guaranteed three year experience with your date. Much like your date’s father (or mother), the Law School Admission Council (LSAC) serves as a chaperone. Unfortunately, unlike your date’s parents, you can’t ditch them. If you apply to a law school in the United States, it occurs through LSAC. This approach in itself is different from other graduate school applications because: 1.) LSAC is a non-profit, third-party entity that acts as a centralized distribution center for both you and the schools, and 2.) applying to exponentially more schools results in only minimally more effort, primarily because 80% of applications are the same.

LSAC charges a processing fee per application, in addition to the fees charged by individual schools, many of which are waived for military applicants (the LSAC fees are not, unless you qualify for a fee-waiver based on your income). In essence, you’re paying LSAC $45 per application to not ask your Battalion Commander to submit slightly different letters of recommendation to every school. For all the Assistant S-3s applying to both the SEC and PAC-12 reading this post, rejoice, as this trade-off is probably worth it in itself. For everyone else, consider it a $45 regressive tax.

Within the LSAC software portal applicants choose their preferred schools and open applications accordingly. School applications are straight forward and broadly consist of the following: 1.) Personal data 2.) Family data 3.) Employment and activities 4.) Resume 5.) Statement of purpose 6.) School-specific essay 7.) Optional diversity essay, and 8.) Honor statement. LSAC further requires your college transcripts, GRE or LSAT test scores, and letters of recommendation, all of which are warehoused for you to send as appropriate. One note on the above–LSAC weights your GPA based on their previous applicants from your undergraduate institution to correct for grade inflation or deflation, often creating a different submitted GPA than the one on your transcript. The efficiency of the system, especially compared to applying to business schools, lies in the recessed ability to independently finish your applications once the core requirements (test scores, LORs, and college transcript) have been submitted. 

Aside from plumbing the mysteries of LSAC, below are a few additional insights garnered from bumps and bruises during the application process:

Looking for a future career in Law? Take a look below to see what one future law student took away from his military transition into a prestigious law program!

1.) Regardless of your military experience, your test scores and academic record matter greatly, perhaps even more so for law schools than other graduate programs. Law school remains deeply academic in nature. Due to this fact, admissions teams heavily weight the academic portion of your background. 

Fortunately numbers don’t define applicants, a concept admissions officers frequently recite. They are only two brush strokes in a broader painting. By definition, half of every law school class has students with standardized test scores at or below the class’s median (the author can attest to this statistic). 

For military folks, this means leveraging the one factor you can affect in this regard: your LSAT or GRE score.

From conversations with admissions officers, I think they view the LSAT/GRE much like the ACFT. Neither test is perfect, but applicants know the standards and general nature of them in advance. In many ways, they are testing your work ethic, preparation, and desire to succeed more than your intelligence. It also offers a direct comparison to everyone else applying, which fair or unfair, probably deserves to be part of the equation. 

The LSAT in particular is a non-conventional, highly unusual test that requires substantial practice. It cannot be taken cold (successfully at least). I actually think this greatly benefits military applicants, most of whom have a wonderful amount of skill and experience in the field of preparation. If you are willing to put in the time and effort, the LSAT is a learnable test. It is also a remarkably predictable test. My LSAT score was the exact same as my last two practice tests (LSAC sells old tests for practice; I recommend taking them in chronological order, ending in the most recent tests, which will be most similar to the one administered to you as the test has evolved over time). Most people find their ending practice scores are within a point of their score on test day. From this perspective the LSAT may actually make the system more of a meritocracy–you have a good idea of where you will be before you even take the official test. The choice is then yours whether to plunge in or not.

It’s not made up and the points do matter! The LSAT or GRE are essential aspects of the law school application process.

2.) Your application is a prism that reflects different aspects about you. Try to polish each side of that prism. Unlike quantifiable stats, your letters of recommendation and essays can help bring your story to life. An important part of both is explaining your fundamental rationale to go to graduate school. As Yogi Berra said, “If you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll end up someplace else.” 

After getting extensive help from other military admits at programs I hoped to attend, I realized how flat my own efforts fell. The best applicants clearly explain their motivations and offer a balanced outlook of their desired outcomes after graduating. They tend to tell illuminating stories, openly explain areas for improvement, and tie together different parts of their background so it can be readily understood. Better yet, they do so in a manner that is down-to-earth and enlightening to the reader. As my friends dutifully pointed out, I had managed to accomplish none of these items on my first go.

Articulating what truly drives your decisions is difficult. I found the hardest part was explaining my desire to change career paths without sounding like a military transition drone. Everyone has a unique story to tell, explaining it is where you go from a gallon of milk to a Chick-Fil-A peach milkshake. Who or what influenced you? Was there an inflection point that changed your decision-making process? Why not stay in?

In the same vein, letters of recommendation are another potential source of differentiation that are often overlooked. Most letters are generic and positive, which doesn’t necessarily aid in making any decisions on your behalf. The only helpful advice I can attempt to offer here is 1.) try to find people that want to write you a LOR. It’s always much easier to swim with the current than against it. 2.) provide them with a brief letter or e-mail highlighting relevant and personal character stories from your relationship (something I repeatedly failed) 3.) explain to them why you’re choosing to go to law school (another lesson I learned after not doing) so they can tailor their recommendation accordingly, and 4.) remember they’re taking time out of their busy schedule to help you. 

Considering the inherent contradictions in writing about yourself in a positive light, your recommenders can provide valuable insights into your character and performance, which can be doubly significant coming from a third-party source. Like many others, I owe a sincere debt of gratitude to those who undertook this task on my behalf.

Be sure your application reflects different aspects about you. Remember, you are trying to paint a wholistic picture of yourself to admissions.

3.) Remember you are picking a school equally as much as the school is picking you. As much as my wife loves Harry Potter, the Sorting Hat only exists at Hogwarts. Visiting a school is invaluable. Besides the benefits of seeing the campus firsthand, speaking with current students and faculty reveals the cultural nuances of a law school and can consequently reduce a complex equation to its simplest form: do you really want to go to law school, and if so, where do you actually want to go to school? 

If the answer to the first part above is yes, finances become a major factor. Public law schools can offer distinct advantages in this regard because they are essentially free if you have the full G.I. Bill. This means any additional internal scholarship you receive goes directly into your bank account. Why does this matter? Well endowed public schools will offer $60,000 scholarships in a heartbeat to strong candidates. This is an extra $20,000 a year you can live on, invest, become a one night high roller in Vegas, etc.–the world is your oyster.

With private law schools, the key number is their Yellow Ribbon Program contribution, although this only applies if you have the full G.I. Bill. Private schools live across the full spectrum of financial aid, from complete YRP coverage (basically a full scholarship) to only $5,000 a year at a $70,000 per year school. If you are not eligible for the full G.I. Bill, the financial split between public and private schools evens out, since you will receive the same amount at either before financial aid and scholarship offers.

Don’t forget to account for the unknown, as some schools may surprise you. I was not planning on applying to Harvard Law School. My LSAT was below their average, my GPA was below their average, and my general impression was colored by The Paper Chase and Legally Blonde. I thought I had little chance of getting in and feared rejection. 

Luckily, I was fortunate enough to attend their Military Visit Day, a fantastic opportunity orchestrated by the admissions staff to introduce transitioning military members to the school. Harvard ended up being the most military-friendly school I visited. I had a memorable experience, met a number of wonderful people, and ultimately applied as a result, a scenario that otherwise would have never occurred. 

Three things drove this decision, all of which I only learned after visiting: 1.) the welcoming nature of the staff 2.) the breadth of the curriculum and ability to cross-register at other graduate schools on campus 3.) the professors and classroom experience. (1) led me to recognize (2) and in turn discover (3). Looking back, those were probably the three most important considerations to me for a law school–I just didn’t realize it at the time. In Steve Jobs’ memory, “People don’t know what they want until you show it to them.” 

As much as the admissions process acts as a filter for schools selecting students, it should also work in reverse. I found analyzing the inverse of a problem can help illuminate what really matters to you.

Looking back, I honestly enjoyed the entirety of the admissions process during my last year in the military. It was a bit of an adventure and there’s always excitement in the unknown. I appreciate the opportunity to share some lessons with you and wish you the best of luck in your future decision.

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