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Miguel Zavala, participant in the King Hall Law Outreach Program, arguing in a mock trial
As part of the King Hall Outreach Program, which offers intensive law school preparation, Miguel Zavala answers the judge's question during arguments about national healthcare before an all-alumni panel of judges. (Gregory Urquiaga/UC Davis)

Assistant Dean of Admission Gives Advice to Prospective Applicants

By Kristen Mercado on December 7, 2017

As a first-generation student, I lacked family support and guidance on the law school application process, but eventually I navigated the process successfully. I am now an assistant dean of admission and financial aid at UC Davis School of Law, King Hall, and I love my career.

Nevertheless, I look back and think about what I wish I knew when I applied for admission to law school. Let me share my list, in no particular order, of six things that you should know, based upon my own professional and personal experiences.

1. Academic diversity is key

Although many law students majored in the social sciences and humanities, the legal profession — and law schools — need science, technology, engineering and math majors (STEM), too. Having students from an array of majors benefits classroom discussion, and some areas of law, like intellectual property, often require technical  and scientific backgrounds. Tech companies and the law firms that represent them actively seek law students with STEM degrees, like computer science/ electrical engineering and the life sciences. Regardless of your major, be sure to take courses to strengthen your writing, research and analytical thinkings skills, which leads me to my second point….

2. Focus on building skills rather than a specific knowledge base

Some graduate programs expect students to have an existing knowledge base when they begin; law schools do not.  A strong writer with excellent analytical thinking and communication skills makes the ideal law student. Whether you developed those skills through the study of English literature or music composition or the human genome, you can be a strong applicant, law student and lawyer. If you know your writing skills need work, take advantage of campus resources like University Writing Program courses.

3. Activities — more is not always better

UC Davis student Gilda Posada, right, helps Ricardo Pizano with screen prinking
Find an activity that stretches yourself beyond the ordinary. On left, Ricardo Pizano, 18, gets assistance from UC Davis student Gilda Posada during a Taller Arte del Nuevo Amanecer class. The TANA center in Woodland offers college students a chance to work with high school students to inspire them to go to college. (Gregory Urquiaga/UC Davis)

Unlike the undergraduate admissions process at many universities, law schools look less at the number of activities, internships, and outside interests an applicant has, and more at the substance of those experiences. Identify your passions and devote your nonclassroom time to those two or three things. Long-term investment is more attractive than a lengthy list on one-off activities. And stretch outside the legal sphere — learning opportunities can exist in many settings. Explore and challenge yourself — these are the characteristics most attractive to law schools in the application process. If you need help identifying opportunities, use campus resources like the Internship and Career Center and pre-law advice at the Student Academic Success Center.

4. Lawyers on TV don’t represent the wide world of opportunities  

We see a very small portion of the legal profession in television and movies. Most lawyers do not spend their average day in a courtroom or an expensive law firm conference room. Get a sense of the range of practice settings and legal specialties. Do your research through informational interviews with Aggies who are practicing lawyers by becoming involved in the UC Davis Aggie Student Alumni Association. Find internships and shadowing opportunities through the Internship and Career Center, and get involved with pre-law student clubs such as the Pre-Law Association at UC Davis, the La Raza Pre-Law Association or the Black Pre-Law Student Association at UC Davis.

Keep your eye out for free special events that law schools often host for prospective law students, where you can hear about the profession from practicing lawyers, faculty and current law students.

5. Your GPA and LSAT score are really important

Male student studying in a room
Intensive studying over a at least three months is required for preparing for the Law School Admission Test. (Gregory Urquiaga/UC Davis)

Your undergraduate GPA and Law School Admission Test (LSAT) score will be two of the most important components of your law school application. The LSAT is offered six times a year (beginning in 2018), and it is administered by the Law School Admission Council. By the time you begin the application process, your GPA will be relatively set, but the LSAT can be a way to make your application more competitive if your GPA isn’t showing your potential.

But, LSAT success requires serious preparation and at least three months of intensive preparation. And don’t forget there is a registration fee.

Many applicants take a commercial law school preparation course (they’re pricey, but you can ask providers about discounts at law school information fairs).  You can also structure a successful self-study program using commercial test prep books, free online resources and sample tests offered by Law School Admission Council.

Keep in mind that law schools look at your application in full — not just your score and grades. An upward grade trend can offset a mediocre or poor GPA, as can a strong LSAT score. Similarly, consistently outstanding academic performance and a strong GPA can offset a less competitive LSAT score. Remember that although law schools use these as predictors of success in law school, they are not the only predictors.

Do your research carefully to choose a list of schools where your chances of admission range from very good to ones where you have a smaller chance of admission. To do this, study the grids at the bottom of most individual law schools pages in the LSAC Official Guide to ABA-Approved Law Schools. These indicate the number of applicants with LSAT scores and GPAs like yours admitted in the most recent admission year.

6. Create a timeline for applying

Like any project, planning is key in the application process. Plan to devote at least six to eight months, including time to study and take the LSAT, prepare your personal statement and resume, request letters of recommendation, visit schools, and attend law school information sessions and other events. An extended timeline allows you to space out tasks and still leave time for the rest of your life. Practicing good time management and a healthy work-play balance in your life now will make it much easier to do as a law student and a lawyer!

By the way, we encourage students to apply to the UC Davis School of Law by Jan. 10. We accept and review applications continuously until mid-August, when the academic school year begins.

Kristen Mercado is assistant dean of admission and financial aid at UC Davis School of Law, King Hall. Originally from Chicago, she has been at King Hall since 2011. She earned both her bachelor’s and her law degree at the University of Chicago.