Advice Corner: Choosing a law school
Riley VannHLS 2L and USAF Captain
Your phone buzzes and it’s an unknown number – Cambridge area code. Immediately, your breath catches. You’ve heard that Harvard calls each applicant to admit them, but no way it's them. No way.
Heart racing, you answer it, and your admissions interviewer introduces themselves and asks how you are. You choke out a response and try to breathe…and then it happens.
“Well, I'm calling to say congratulations because...”
CUE. THE. FREAKOUT! 🤩🎉💃🍾🥳🤩🎉💃🍾🥳🤩🎉💃🍾
Honestly, champagne emoji + confetti emoji + overjoyed face + a thousand OMGs is not enough to convey how it feels when someone says, "we think you'll do great in law school and we'd love to have you."
And that's not just for Harvard! My first acceptance came from George Washington University, and a huge weight was lifted when I got that letter. It's a relief to have the first solid "yes" in your pocket (especially in a situation like mine, where the Air Force was more likely to let me attend with an acceptance). After that, every "yes" was just further confirmation that law school may be the right path after all.
Late winter and springtime is full-blown offer and acceptance season, so I want to throw my two cents into the Decision Pool. I’m drawing on my own experience as a student and a Harvard Admissions fellow, and helping tons of students decide if HLS will be a good fit. It's definitely equal parts stressful and exciting!
After getting my own call (and breathing + champagne + calling my mom + telling Facebook) I took a step back and seriously contemplated what that acceptance meant. Harvard is pretty legit, but I also knew tuition + cost of living would be around $90K a year, in one of the most expensive cities in America. Additionally, I didn't attend any Ivy undergrad; had worked for three years; and was VERY wary of a potentially snobby environment. (I am definitely a victim of "imposter syndrome" and thought for sure HLS made a mistake in admitting me). My grades and LSAT were good, but not insanely high - what if I overreached and was legitimately the dumbest one there?
That last bit may still be true, but I felt 100% confident in my choice when accepting the offer from HLS. These are the things I considered to reach that point, and what I'd suggest any future JD do to choose the right law school!
#1. Look at the acceptance deadline
I was accepted to HLS in December 2018 with an acceptance deadline of 1 May 2019. This gave me plenty of time to see which other schools accepted me AND how much financial aid would be available from each. THIS IS WHY IT'S SO IMPORTANT TO APPLY EARLY! The more "yeses" you receive, the more chance to leverage financial aid, and the more likely that you can get some money out of schools through various scholarship and financial aid opportunities. You don't have to accept before the deadline. You won’t lose your spot. I highly recommend waiting to see all your options before committing to any one place.
#2. Consider why you want to go to a certain school
Is it just for the name or News Report ranking? Or do you genuinely have a reason to choose that school? For example, I love several things about Harvard that other schools don't necessarily offer – the pro bono requirement, emphasis on guest speakers, thriving veteran community, freedom in course selection, tons of clinical opportunities, and large class size. THIS DOESN'T FIT EVERYONE. If you thrive in a ‘small school’ environment, want your class track laid out for you, or absolutely hate cities, HLS might not be the right choice. Conversely, if you're looking at a small school but loved your huge undergrad, maybe you should reconsider. Either way, this leads into #3 and #4:
#3. What's your plan for after law school?
There’s a lot to consider here, but it’s important. First, is your potential school going to set you up for the future? Do they offer programs, professionals, and classes that cater to your interests? If yes, then heck yes. If not, will it matter in the long run? For example, it didn’t matter for me. Harvard may not have one of the "leading" programs for national security, my area of interest, but I'll be practicing all kinds of law in the military (plus, HLS have some incredible experts on the subject – even if it's not a ‘program’). Also, consider that your interests may (read: probably will) change during law school. Unless you are 110% sure what kind of lawyer you’re meant to be, I’d choose a school with plenty of room for exploration. Finally, where do you want to live after law school? We all know how alumni connections work; if you want to practice in Texas but choose a school in Oregon, you won’t have the same organic network in the Texas legal world that a Texas law student may have. This doesn’t mean you can’t or won’t get a job in Texas – it just might be a bit harder. But if you know a school won't give you the connections or background you need once you're out in the real world...might be best to pick a different school.
#4. Ask yourself if there’s a better fit
Have you always dreamed of going to a certain school, and are now being swayed because you feel like you have to attend the best place you got accepted? Is the school a little too far away from home for comfort, but you’re pushing that thought away? This is where you have to really be honest with yourself. I'm all about pushing boundaries, but choosing a school because you feel like you should or have to go is not a good reason to do so. Returning to my fear of Ivy League snobbery, discomfort on campus was NOT something I was willing to endure (see #6). No matter how great an institution is, it’s not worth a miserable three years socially or mentally. Law school is hard enough.
#5. Consider the financial aspect
How expensive is it realistically going to be to a) attend the school and b) live there? First, cost of attendance – if debt is involved, what is the likelihood of getting a comfortable job straight out and starting to pay that down? Does the school offer heavy financial aid or scholarships? Figure out how MUCH debt is potentially heading your way, and ask yourself if you’re comfortable with that number. Second, cost of living - very different from, say, Boston to North Dakota. Here in Cambridge, even if you get school housing (which is a whole lottery system in itself) living is expensive. Can you make the money stretch, or would you rather be in a place where a dollar goes a long way?
#6. Schedule a visit
To me, THIS IS THE MOST IMPORTANT PIECE! It may cost a bit of time and money (and COVID has certainly complicated things) but visiting will give you a real feel for a school’s environment. I visited HLS during an Admitted Students weekends and knew it would be a make-or-break event. I wasn't willing to "tough it out" at a place where I didn't feel comfortable, confident, and supported. Luckily, the weekend was awesome; well-organized, relaxed, and very informative. Everyone on campus was nice and normal – whenever I talked to a student or professor, I felt my Imposter Syndrome melt away.* However, I know other people who went and realized Harvard really wasn’t a good fit (mostly Cali students who went, winter? Um…no, I'm going to Stanford 🥶). But that's the whole point! Though many campuses shut down for COVID, schools are posting videos tours and offering informational Zoom sessions – I definitely encourage attending whatever you can.
*I mean, it came back immediately, but the five-minute respite was very nice.
#7. Talk to real students
This is just as important as visiting (and a huge part of every school visit, if the school is genuine). Current students will tell it to you straight, no party line involved. Even as an Admitted Student fellow (basically an ambassador for the school) I won’t sugarcoat the realities of HLS. But...there's not a lot to sugarcoat! Getting a perspective from someone in the thick of it is essential to knowing what you're getting into, and I highly recommend hitting up at least one or two current students (Preferably 1Ls or 2Ls, because 3Ls truly ARE living the life at this point).
Committing to any life-changing event is stressful, and choosing a law school is no exception. I urge you NOT to pick a school based solely on (1) where you’re accepted first, (2) the school’s rank, or (3) because you feel like you “should.” Of course you want to attend the best school possible, but it's critical to ensure that school is a financial, emotional, and logical fit. So take a deep breath and enjoy each acceptance before diving into those hard questions!