We posed questions to admissions officials at Northwestern University 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?
Ultimately, it comes down to the applicant's life experiences and accomplishments (academically, socially, and work-related). It is mostly about the track record. But there are some situations where noteworthy things do not necessarily jump off the pages of the application. For example, are there places you have been to, people you have met, problems you have solved, people you have helped, or challenges you have overcome that few others can claim? If so, be sure to talk about those in the essays. And because we are the only law school that tries to interview everyone who applies, the interview is an opportunity to stand out. That is where you can talk about these things and showcase your personality, motivation and maturity. Make sure that you demonstrate some knowledge of and interest in the schools that you apply to. You have to show that motivation in a job interview and the law school admissions process is no different.
2. What do you look for in the application essays? What do the essays tell you about a candidate?
The key is to focus the statement on one or two events or themes. We see the basic list of experiences on the data forms so there is no need to rehash a chronology. Instead, you should flesh out one or two items on the form or, sometimes better yet, talk about something else completely along the lines of the types of things mentioned in the previous question. In order to focus, we often tell applicants to go to the business section of their local bookstore. Typically, it will include a collection of books that provide tips for employers on how to hire and interview applicants for a job. Often in the back of those books, there will be a long list of potential questions you might want to ask job applicants, and you may find one that you wish someone would ask you—that question that you know you can nail. Use that question to tailor your essay response. Finally, because we interview our applicants, that tends to be much more important for us than the personal statement. We usually find out so much more about our applicants in those face-to-face meetings than through their essay responses.
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?
In the law school admissions process, the academic record is always going to be important, pretty much no matter where you apply. The LSAT tends to be more important because it is a standard measure that everyone has to complete, whereas grades come from all different colleges and universities, majors and professors. As a rule of thumb, though, you want to make sure that either your LSAT score or your undergraduate grade point average is at or above the law school's published medians. In most cases, one of them needs to be working in your favor and demonstrating that you are on par academically with your potential classmates. The academic record tends to serve as the initial gate. Once you have passed through, the things that make the difference for us are a good interview and some solid work experience and/or leadership opportunities that, ideally, have provided you with a chance to manage some projects and work in teams.
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?
We are unique in this area. Although there are some exceptions, we almost exclusively try to enroll students who have some post-undergraduate full-time work experience—ideally at least two to three years of it. Obviously it is very important to us and, for the college senior who is applying, the interview is the key place to offset this criterion by demonstrating a comparable level of maturity and fit for our community. There are many reasons that we like to see prior work experience but the main reason is that potential employers consistently tell us that they prefer it as well and that it makes a difference to them. In fact, they consistently mention that project management experience and ability is a huge plus for them; it is what makes their new employees stand out. Aside from that, we think of the law school experience as a 360-degree learning environment. Students learn from faculty, students learn from each other and, ultimately, our faculty members learn from our students. Moving to our preference for students with work experience has really enlivened our classroom discussions and it has greatly impacted our student culture, which is probably the most cooperative of any law school out there. No other law school takes the time to screen applicants so thoroughly for maturity, the ability to work in teams and strong interpersonal skills like we do through our work experience preference and interview process. Finally, through work experience, students often develop a much stronger framework for why they want to go to law school and the potential areas in which they may want to focus. The level of motivation and commitment goes up a notch.