We posed questions to admissions officials at Cornell Law School regarding the application process, what they look for in applicants and what sets their school apart. These are their responses:
1. What can applicants do to set themselves apart from their peers?
At this point in their lives, most applicants don't really need to think of this as an objective. Our applicants typically have already distinguished themselves in college, graduate school, community involvement and/or work experience, and their records by themselves make each of them unique and interesting. Many times, if a person approaches a law school application as an exercise in setting oneself apart from peers, they end up doing things in the application that are contrived or unauthentic. This usually works against an applicant.
2. What do you look for in the application essays? What do the essays tell you about a candidate?
At Cornell, we look to learn something personal about an applicant that isn't readily apparent from the rest of the application. We encourage applicants to approach their statement as if it were an opportunity for a short evaluative interview. So, if you had a chance to meet with an admissions committee member for 20 to 30 minutes, what personal theme would you try to bring out? Whatever it is would be worth considering as a personal statement topic. We hope it goes without saying that it should be a well-written and polished piece.
3. How important is the applicant's LSAT score? How do you weigh it against undergraduate GPA and work/internship experience? Which of these carry the most weight? The least?
The LSAT score is only one piece of a fairly complex and subtle puzzle. Our main goal is to admit students who are likely to thrive in a rigorous academic environment and who will also be engaged and active members of our law school community and, eventually, of the legal profession. To accomplish this goal, we use all parts of the application to make an assessment. In some cases, the LSAT is relatively unimportant (e.g., in the case of someone whose academic record and recommendations make a clear case for their ability to thrive academically). In some cases, the LSAT will be relatively more important (e.g., in the case of someone whose college record may be lacking, but who otherwise shows promise). The important thing to remember is that in all cases, we review all aspects of each application in making our decisions.
4. How much does prior work/internship experience weigh into your decision making? What's the typical or expected amount of work experience from an applicant?
Real world experience turns out to be helpful in law school. It gives students perspective and experience with day-to-day realities. The discipline of work experience also mimics to some extent the study expectations in law school. You have to come in every day, engage, and work hard. It won't work to coast along and then try to cram at the last minute. So, any kind of experience outside of a formal academic setting is something we like to see.
5. What sets you apart from other schools? What can students gain from your school that they might not be able to find anywhere else?
At Cornell, we manage to maintain the advantages of a small, collegial environment without sacrificing opportunity. As an example, we are located in Ithaca, N.Y., but at any given time a large number of our students might be studying for a semester in any of our partner law schools, located in 13 different countries around the world. Similarly, close of half of our students participate in our clinical programs, which can have them doing anything from human rights to securities litigation, or death penalty cases to labor or environmental law cases.
We are also part of one of the world's most highly regarded research universities, Cornell University. This provides a superb opportunity for our students to engage in interdisciplinary study and to experience the rich cultural and intellectual activities that are a daily occurrence at the largest of the Ivy League schools.
6. What do you look for in recommendation letters? How important is it that the letter's writer has worked regularly with the candidate in an office or school setting? Do you put much weight on letters from prominent public figures who may not know the applicant well?
We like recommendations that are from teachers who not only know the student well, but who also are willing to make comparative judgments about their intellectual qualities. Supplemental recommendations from work or internship supervisors can also be helpful if they address the qualities that are important to success in law school. Unless an applicant has had an extended and direct working relationship with a public figure, it is unlikely that such a person would be able to provide a helpful recommendation.
7. Can you give a brief description of the life cycle of an application? What's the timeline applicants should expect?
We collect all of the required elements of an application before anyone reviews it. Once the application becomes complete, it is reviewed by at least two members of our admissions committee. If further discussion is necessary, the application might be referred for further review by additional members of the committee or by the committee as a whole. For our early action applicants, they can expect a decision by the middle of December. For our regular pool applicants, by mid-April. For applicants who are placed on our "reserve" or "waiting" lists, the timing of things will be more extended, possibly even into the summer months.
8. Which firms/organizations recruit heavily from your school? Which ones hire the highest percentage of your graduates?
We are visited by the full array of employers in the legal profession. This includes not only the top large firms from around the country and the world, but also smaller and mid-sized firms, government agencies, and not-for-profits. A significant percentage of our graduates also are employed a judicial clerks with both federal and state court judges.
9. What are some of the most common mistakes that applicants make that hurt their chances of being accepted?
Most applicants don't make mistakes in their applications, particularly if they are true to themselves and let the facts speak for themselves. If we do see mistakes, they often arise from the notion that applicants have to "do" something in their application to make it stand out. Sometimes applicants understand this in such a way that it causes them to resort to contrivances that really only serve as a distraction. Applicants should try hard to avoid ever having an admissions committee ask the question whether to admit them "despite" something that was included in their application.
10. Can you describe the archetypal student for your school?
At Cornell, we like people who are genuinely excited by intellectual engagement but who are also willing to have some fun and not take themselves too seriously.