Monday, September 14, 2009

Law School Experience - Harvard over Yale and NYU

Welcome to the first post from ABenn, a current 1L who agreed to update Zen of 180 with her experience at Harvard Law School. While applying for the class of 2012, she sent applications to only Harvard, Yale, and New York University. She was accepted to all three, and we were interested in what kind of an application leads to that level of success, and what factors led her to choose Harvard Law.
How would you describe preparing for the LSAT, in three words or fewer?
Kind of fun
What methods/classes/tutors did you use to prepare for the LSAT?
My primary method of preparation was taking the official PrepTests, on which my scores varied between 170 and 180. I began taking the practice tests untimed, but once I was comfortable with the types of questions and had some idea of how to approach them, I timed each test.

The area where I struggled was the analytical reasoning section. I was able to get all or nearly all of the questions right only when I took longer than the allotted amount of time.

I bought the Powerscore Logic Games Bible, but the recommended diagrams seemed clumsy, and the explanations and tips did not help me increase my speed. I finally consulted my friend Mr. Bennett a few weeks before I was to take the real test. Once he showed me how to diagram the games, I saw the matrix.

Truly, I felt as if something in my brain had clicked into place to enable me to mentally manipulate time, space, Fran, George, and Harold.

I took the June 2008 LSAT and scored 177.

To what schools did you apply, and what factors led you to those law schools?
I applied to Yale, Harvard, and NYU. Each has an outstanding academic program as well as an established reputation of valuing public service and providing students with public interest opportunities. In addition, each has a generous loan repayment assistance program for public interest lawyers.

I applied to only these schools because they were my top three choices, and my LSAT score and GPA made me a very good candidate at NYU and Harvard. I should also point out that I applied early in the cycle to ensure that I would have enough time to submit more applications if I needed to.

What did you write your law school personal statement about?
In my personal statement, I sketched my intellectual and professional development, highlighting the aspects I found rewarding and those I found frustrating. Here is a sample from the final paragraph:

. . . With a law degree, I will harness these strengths for even greater purposes: to prepare legal documents that both preserve the meaning of the law and ensure its clear communication; to mediate between groups of people, between individuals and institutions, and between the public and the law; and to develop efficient, effective strategies to address—and prevent—problems. As a lawyer, when I identify errors, evaluate arguments, make connections, and communicate with others, even though the obstacles to success will be greater, the reward will be more substantial than a better book in the short term or a better scholar in the long term. It will be better lives, better policies, and, in some small ways, a better society. . . .

You’ve probably been told that you shouldn’t express a fervent desire to change the world in your personal statement, but it worked for me in this carefully supported, qualified statement. (Or perhaps I didn’t get the “Oh-here’s-another-idealistic-naïf-who thinks-she-can-change-the-world” brush-off because I’m older than the average applicant.)

What "soft factors" do you think helped your application the most?
I have a master’s degree, for which I wrote a thesis. (I also wrote an undergraduate honors thesis.) I have several years of work experience and volunteered with a community literacy program. I am also from a state that is underrepresented at most top law schools, which may have worked in my favor.
Who wrote your letters of recommendation?
My first letter writer was my undergraduate mentor—I took a class she taught, then served as her research assistant, and finally developed my honors research project under her supervision. My second letter writer was the chair of my master’s committee, from whom I had taken several graduate classes and under whose supervision I had completed an independent research project. My third letter writer was a member of my master’s committee.
How did you approach them, and what materials did you give them?
In early August 2008, I e-mailed each professor, explained that I was going to law school to pursue public interest law, and asked for a letter of recommendation. They all seemed delighted with my career change and thrilled to write for me, which was reassuring. The two professors who had been on my master’s committee requested nothing more than my résumé, but my undergraduate professor wanted to meet with me to catch up. (I had kept in touch with her for the first few years after I graduated, but I had not talked to her for some time.) She also asked to read a draft of my personal statement, so I had to hurry up and write it.

What made Harvard Law School the best decision for you? Which other law schools did you turn down, and why?
I applied to all three schools in September 2008. I was accepted to Harvard in November, NYU in December, and Yale in February. Once I was accepted to Yale, I withdrew from NYU, and I might have withdrawn from Harvard but for the fact that I had made arrangements to attend the admitted students program in March.

Thinking I was wasting my time (who turns down Yale?), I went into the Harvard admitted students program with a bit of prejudice. But . . . then . . . I loved Harvard Law School. The faculty and the administrators and the current students were smart and accessible and engaged. There was a breathtaking array of resources and opportunities, from courses to clinics to summer funding sources to postgraduation fellowships to public interest–specific career counseling. Because I didn’t know the type of public interest law I wanted to pursue, I was incredibly excited at the prospect of attending a law school where almost every path I might want to explore was well established, with the human and financial resources to help me succeed at it.

A month later, I attended the Yale admitted students program. The experience was not persuasive; I chose Harvard. There were many reasons for my choice, some of which were peculiar to my situation, but the main factor was this: Despite all Harvard’s and (especially) Yale’s protestations, they are pretty much the same. Except Harvard is bigger. Thus in almost every category, they provide equally outstanding opportunities, but Harvard has more of them, and a greater variety of them. I simply could not turn that down.

Plus, I hated New Haven.