In law school admissions, your LSAT score and GPA are viewed as “hard factors” because of how important these numbers are in the admissions process and how objectively quantifiable they are. However, that’s not to say that admissions officers don’t consider anything else when deciding whose application file to move to the “yes” pile. To a smaller extent, admissions committees will also take into account applicants’ “soft factors” – things like work experience, volunteer work, advanced degrees, extracurricular activities, major accomplishments, research publications, your personal statement, any other essays you choose to write, and student diversity.
How much do soft factors matter?
Law school admissions officers assess soft factors differently based on two things: 1) the strength of the individual applicant and 2) the strength of the respective school. Some individuals’ soft factors are truly outstanding – you know, the stereotypical Olympic athlete who’s also published five books and managed to run a successful startup, all at the same time. For candidates in this category, many admissions officers will put more emphasis on soft factors. (Note, however, that for most people who aren’t published, entrepreneurial Olympic athletes, softs won’t play too much of a role in admissions.)
Top law schools are also much more likely to consider soft factors than lower-ranked schools. As a general observation, the top three schools (Yale, Harvard, and Stanford) receive so many more applications than they have spots for that they turn to soft factors as tie-breakers. Don’t believe us? You’ll only have to check out Yale’s entering class profile for evidence. Their class of 2018 includes a cattle rancher, cross-country hitchhiker, chain-mail maker, and wild mushroom forager. Stanford is also known for its strong emphasis on soft factors. Other schools in the top 14 also use soft factors to evaluate candidates, but these other schools will be more predictably reliant on LSAT and GPA.
Let’s take a look at each of the soft factor categories in more detail:
A track record of responsibility and commitment in the workplace can be a real plus when it comes to law school applications. The transition from college to law school can be difficult, and admissions officers know that work experience can provide candidates the maturity, insight, and time management skills needed to make the transition well. Post-graduate experience isn’t necessary, but definitely take advantage of any college internships that you land to convey that you have what it takes to succeed in a professional environment.
Law schools want to see students who are committed to the community around them – whether that community is local, regional, national, or global. We define volunteer work broadly; you don’t have to limit your definition to volunteering at a soup kitchen. Some students do pro bono work with refugee organizations, counsel displaced populations, or volunteer for political campaigns. Remember, a coherent history of volunteerism and service is better than a list of ad hoc organizations you helped out once or twice.
Have you taken classes at the graduate level or earned other advanced degrees? Law school admissions officers will be interested to know more about your academic interests, and more schooling is never a bad thing. Make sure there’s a clear reason for how law school fits into your educational path, though; you don’t want to come off as a serial student.
Extracurricular activities are a great way to show off your hobbies and leadership skills. Getting involved in sports, clubs, and other organizations can also develop your abilities to work effectively with a team, and give you an opportunity to hone your passions. Law schools love to see students hold leadership positions (or other positions of responsibility), so choose your extracurriculars carefully. Instead of joining a laundry list of clubs, pick a few that are of true interest to you. Then figure out ways to make meaningful contributions to those activities. You’ll find that it’s easier to demonstrate leadership abilities when you have the narrowed focus to do so.
Honors and awards look great on law school applications, because they help you stand out. After all, not everyone could win first place in the school research competition, right? Be on the lookout for awards that you can apply to, but always put your best effort and work out there. You never know who’s watching – and you never know when you could get recognized!
Getting published is an accomplishment of and in itself – it takes a lot of work to get your research in good enough order to make it through the arduous peer review process. Generally, you’ll want to aim for publications in journals with high scholarly impact. A journal’s impact factor refers to the number of citations to recent articles published by that journal. Undergraduate student journals are a good starting point, but getting published by a national academic journal could provide a real boost for your law school admissions competitiveness.
Optional essays are, by definition, optional – and as a result, not every applicant is going to supply one. Taking advantage of the optional essay will give admissions officers more data points about you, and that can only help your case. (More context is better – you have very limited space to tell admissions officers about who you are!) Don’t forget that essay supplements are a great vehicle to convey any work, volunteer, or leadership experience that you have.
Law schools welcome the ideas and opinions of a diverse, well-rounded student population. It’s up to you to show how you’ll be able to contribute diversity to a law school class – whether through race, ethnicity, gender, religion, socioeconomic status, disability status, or any other category that you can think of. Merriam-Webster defines diversity as “the quality or state of being different.” Since no two people share exactly the same background or perspective, everyone is qualified to contribute to diversity. How will you convey your uniqueness to law school admissions officers? (Hint: use the diversity statement!)