Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Zenterview - From Third World to Harvard Law

The following is another interview with a successful law school applicant who is now part of the Harvard Law School Class of 2013.  If you are a current law school student who would like to share your application cycle or "first-class" experience, we'd love to hear from you at zenof180@gmail.com.
  • How would you describe preparing for the LSAT, in three words or less?
Intense, but worthwhile
  • What methods/classes/tutors did you use to prepare for the LSAT?
I used Princeton Review, and chose it simply because it was cheaper than its main competitor. Toward the end of the course, my practice score ranged between 160 and 165, ultimately scoring a few points above 165.

My score kept improving toward the end of the course, which shows you that dedication pays off. I felt comfortable enough with my score when the course ended that I took the February exam (to apply in the following cycle). I could probably have continued to improve the score if I had continued to study. If the score is that important to you, then you should only take the test when you are sure you have reached your "ceiling," if there is one for each person.
  • To what schools did you apply, and what factors led you to those law schools?
I applied to more schools than I should have. I applied to: Harvard, NYU, Columbia, Yale, UC Berkeley, U of Chicago, U of Michigan, Cornell, Duke, UPenn, UT Austin, Vanderbilt and Tulane. I had received fee waivers from several of them, but, in retrospect, fewer schools would have sufficed. I chose those schools based on a combination of location and reputation. I would suggest to any prospective applicant to assess their chances of getting in realistically and apply to no more than 8 schools.
  • What did you write your law school personal statement about?
I wrote my personal statement about my upbringing in a third world, developing country; how the experiences of my childhood have informed my academic and professional aspirations; and how both of these elements (the uniqueness of the country where I grew up and the life experiences lived there) are at the center of why I want to be a lawyer. That description probably does not do justice to what I think was a very compelling PS. Below is the last part of the introductory paragraph and the first sentence of the second paragraph.
My family’s economic situation improved dramatically when I was twelve-years-old, but I will never forget my humble beginnings, rooted in my parents migration from the countryside to the capital. They migrated in pursuit of their academic ambitions, which they fulfilled several years later while raising a family and struggling against impoverished beginnings. Their story is a great source of inspiration in my life. In fact, it gave me the strength I needed when I myself immigrated to the United States at the age of nineteen to pursue my own academic goals.

My interest in finding a balance between economic development and environmental protection arises from my experiences growing up in a developing country with abundant natural resources.
After introducing myself, where I come from and the stories that have shaped my personal development, I go on to speak about my actual professional and academic interests: finding a balance between economic development and environmental protection using our legal system. Because I was applying right out of college, I felt it was important to highlight the extracurricular activities and internships in which I engaged while in college that would show I had already taken serious steps toward the achievement of my larger goals. I therefore also spent some time discussing this, making sure I tied it seamlessly to the rest of the story.
  • What "soft factors" do you think helped your application the most?
I think the personal statement made all the difference for me. I made sure I wrote a compelling essay. I did not go for an intellectual discussion or philosophize about the law and society. I knew I had a different background from the majority of people applying to these schools, and I knew my numbers were at the very least fine, so I just told them who I was, where I came from and why I wanted to be a lawyer. I knew that, for better or for worse, they were going to find that appealing.

I also did not major in any of the usual suspects: Political Science, History, English or Philosophy. I was a science major, which probably helps any applicant stand out.
  • What made Harvard law the best decision for you? Which other law schools did you turn down, and why?
For me it came down to NYU, Berkeley, U of Chicago and Harvard. A piece of advice I received while applying to schools was that even though I wanted to pursue environmental law, I should not settle on a school because they supposedly have a "a very good" environmental law program. The best program in XYZ is offered by the best school you can attend. That is, it makes no sense attending a tier 3 school because they have one of the best programs in XYZ, if you could go to one of the best law schools in the country, knowing that you are going to find the same opportunities when you graduate from either school. If you choose to attend the tier 3 school but decided not to practice XYZ law, then you clearly made a bad decision.

With that in mind, I focused on reputation, faculty and location. I went to college in New York, so NYU was not that appealing, and there is a discernible difference between the influence of the faculty at Harvard and Berkeley. I find Chicago too cold, and could never spend a winter there. I applied a similar analysis when deciding not to attend the other schools to which I was admitted, concluding that Harvard was the best decision based on its reputation, faculty, location and job opportunities after graduation. I was wait-listed at Columbia and Yale, so they didn't factor in, but I know I would have chosen Harvard over either one of them.
  • What was the best piece of advice someone gave you during your law school application process?
I received many, but three stand out. They all helped in one way or another.
  1. Make sure the people whom you ask to write the letters of recommendation will do a good job. Make sure they know you well, and be sure they have only EXCELLENT things to say about you. You don't even get to see the letters, so this is one of the components of the application that is most out of your control. Develop a close relationship with professors and show them your full potential.
  2. Craft your personal statement to near perfection.
  3. Go to the best law school you can get into. (I'm not sure how I feel about this one, but I certainly heard it a lot).
  • What do you want to do immediately after law school? 10 years after?

 I will probably work for a firm immediately after law school to gain some financial stability. 10 years after law school I hope to be working for the government in some capacity.