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.
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?
We often are labeled as "the progressive law school." We think the main reason for that is because we are so market-focused in our approach. We spend a lot of time talking with potential employers and ask them what changes they would like to see in how law schools prepare their students and what abilities and characteristics tend to make their top associates and employees stand out. We are constantly changing and innovating as a result, and our goal is to prepare our students in a way that helps them to succeed and differentiate themselves in their post-law school careers better than any other law school. Hopefully, our recent No. 1 ranking by the National Law Journal is a reflection of this. Because of this career-centered focus, our admissions process, as well as our educational program and student culture is unique. We try to interview every applicant and we look for people with significant post-undergraduate work experience, including project management and leadership.
Our market-based focus is also a driving force behind our accelerated J.D. program, the way we infuse teamwork and group projects throughout our curriculum, and the opportunities we provide for our students to cross-train in business by taking many of Kellogg's core management classes and by offering the largest J.D.-M.B.A. program in the country and the first three-year program of its kind. Students have a wealth of experiential learning opportunities through our Bluhm Legal Clinic, which is very strong, and our international team projects course, which is entirely unique to us. Through that program, teams of students study the legal system or a human rights issue of another country and then go overseas for two weeks to conduct a field mission by interviewing attorneys, government officials and business leaders. It all culminates in a final group report and presentation. Finally, because we place so much emphasis on leadership and work experience in the admissions process, we provide our students with a lot of say in the way the school is run. We rely on their input and ideas and try to adopt them when it makes good sense strategically.
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?
In general, letters of recommendation tend to be the least important part of the application—mainly because, in most cases, they are always positive and typically pretty general so they tend not to differentiate one candidate from the next. The candidate who can buck this trend, though, can use it to their advantage in two ways: get it from the person (usually a supervisor) who is most familiar with your work and ask them to talk about specific examples from their experience with you to back up any general statements that they make. The very general recommendation from a "famous" person will have little impact and we would caution against selecting them unless they know you very well. In our case, we do prefer letters from the work environment over those from previous professors.
7. Can you give a brief description of the life cycle of an application? What's the timeline applicants should expect?
We have a rolling admissions process. Generally, the timeframe from application submission to a decision is about one-and-a-half to two months.
8. Which firms/organizations recruit heavily from your school? Which ones hire the highest percentage of your graduates?
We have a national base of firms who recruit at Northwestern and students have the opportunity to pursue employment after law school in any of the major regions and legal markets throughout the United States. We also are pretty aggressive about meeting with and marketing ourselves to the top law firms throughout the country. Nearly three-fourths of our recruiters typically come from areas outside of the Midwest, and they represent nearly all of the top 100 law firms and many of the top 200. Usually about 10 percent to 15 percent of our students also pursue judicial clerkships upon graduation.
9. What are some of the most common mistakes that applicants make that hurt their chances of being accepted?
The biggest mistake is the failed law school name merge. That is another reason why we always say to beware of the generic personal statement. The personal statement that includes "that is why I really want to attend (insert wrong law school name here)," is pretty much a kiss of death and shows a lack of motivation and attention to detail. Applicants also need to approach our interviews as if they would a job interview. They should dress professionally and refrain from any inappropriate language or bad-mouthing of others or their experiences. Finally, applicants should be very careful about using humor in their essays. They should remember that many people will be reviewing their applications and their tastes in humor can vary dramatically. For some, it might work but for others it can fall on deaf ears or even be viewed as offensive.
10. Can you describe the archetypal student for your school?
We don't know if there is an archetype student since we are trying to assemble a student body that is diverse in so many ways (geographically, by work experience, ethnicity, gender, and career-related as well as social interests). In general, the ideal candidate might have the following characteristics:
—Very strong academic credentials
—At least two years of post-undergraduate work experience in a non-legal setting with demonstrated project management and team experience
—A well-rounded set of extracurricular and community activities, including some substantial leadership
—Strong interpersonal and communication skills as shown in the evaluative interview
—Some international exposure through time abroad for work or for pleasure
—Clear motivation for law school and a legal career, including some sense of the areas within the law that most interest them
—Demonstrated knowledge of and interest in attending Northwestern Law