When applying to law school, chances are good the competition will be strong students with impressive accomplishments. The challenge of the admissions process is to stand out.
One way to distinguish yourself is to craft an exceptional resume that eloquently tells your story.
"One hundred percent of admissions is differentiation," says Mike Spivey, founding partner of the Spivey Consulting Group, which helps law school applicants navigate the admissions process and provides guidance to law schools and other academic institutions about how to achieve institutional goals.
A solid resume gives admissions officers a strong sense of who you are as a person, says Spivey, who worked in law school admissions for more than a decade and served as an assistant dean at the University of Colorado Law School and the School of Law at Washington University in St. Louis.
Anthony Ervin, director of admissions at the North Carolina Central University School of Law, says what he looks for in law school resumes is evidence of communication skills, familiarity with the legal profession and an applicant's commitment to public service. Ideally, Ervin says, a law school resume includes relevant work experience such as an internship in an attorney's office.
Ultimately, Ervin says, the goal of a law school resume is to show you are prepared to hack it in law school and could thrive as a law student.
The biggest mistake you can make in a law school resume, Ervin says, is not putting enough effort and thought into it. Applicants who fail to invest enough time into crafting a resume are missing a significant opportunity, he says. "The resume will allow you to elaborate and show more of what you've been doing, in addition to any other supporting documents."
Components of a Compelling Law School Resume
Experts note that there is no single recipe that dictates what types of activities need to be listed on a law school resume, since J.D. applicants from a variety of backgrounds can be outstanding candidates.
Aspiring attorneys shouldn't feel compelled to precisely imitate the journey that someone else took to law school, since there are a variety of ways to wow J.D. admissions officers.
"There is no 'secret formula' or 'perfect path' to law school," Christine Carr, a consultant with the Accepted admissions consulting firm and former associate director of admissions for the Boston University School of Law, wrote in an email. "I read successful applications from bartenders, flight attendants, scientists, as well as paralegals."
Jeff Thomas, executive director of legal programs at Kaplan, says a common misconception among law school applicants is that they need law-related work experience to get into competitive law schools.
"Students really concern themselves with trying to figure out what type of stuff they've done has some sort of connection to the law, and that is entirely unnecessary," he says. "It does not make an applicant any more competitive in the process."
[Read: What Is a Good LSAT Score?]
Law schools are curious about what kind of person the applicant is, so they are searching for evidence of positive "character traits," and those qualities can be demonstrated in a variety of workplaces, Thomas emphasizes. "They're looking for leadership and perseverance and work ethic and responsibility, and so the actual construct of the job itself really doesn't matter all that much."
Victoria Turner Turco -- founder and president of Turner Educational Advising, a firm that provides guidance to college and law school applicants -- suggests that some kinds of blue-collar jobs could be very impressive to law school admissions officers.
Working through college by working as a barista demonstrates "initiative," so such work experience would be worth noting in a law school application resume, Turco says.
She adds that student athletes who compete on their college sports teams should highlight this. The amount of time a college athlete spends at sports practices is often similar to the amount of time a part-time job would require, which means that juggling this activity alongside a full course load is a significant accomplishment, Turco says.
Regardless of what a J.D. hopeful did before applying to law school, it's wise to document all of the most significant academic, extracurricular and professional accomplishments and mention any meaningful community service or volunteering, according to experts.
"In the admissions process we are looking for experiences and activities that showcase skills an applicant will need in law school such as research, writing and analytical thinking," Alyson Suter Alber, associate dean for enrollment planning and strategic initiatives with the Case Western Reserve University School of Law in Cleveland, wrote in an email. "Applicants should also focus on activities that highlight their leadership and team building experience."
Mistakes to Avoid in a Law School Resume
A lack of meticulous proofreading is a common error among J.D. applicants, according to current and former law school admissions officials, so prospective students should copy edit their resumes to ensure that the spelling and grammar is correct throughout.
A less common but severe pitfall in law school application resumes is when they either exaggerate or make unsubstantiated claims, experts warn, adding that this is a major red flag for admissions officers. Another big mistake is when J.D. hopefuls praise themselves using complimentary adjectives or when they describe themselves as possessing skills without providing evidence of those skills.
Excessive modesty can also be problematic, experts say. "The biggest mistake most candidates make in J.D. application resumes is underselling themselves," Daniel Santos -- CEO of Prepory, a college and graduate admissions counseling company -- wrote in an email. "Most individuals struggle talking about themselves and even more so writing about themselves, so it's no surprise individuals do a poor job of specifically detailing their tangible accomplishments to each organization they've worked at or been a part of."
Law School Resume Example
Below is a genuine sample of a resume that got someone accepted into a top law school. Cameron Clark -- a Harvard Law School graduate, civil rights attorney and founder of the REPRESENTED educational consulting firm -- provided U.S. News with a copy of the resume he used in his successful J.D. application.
When examining the following resume, prospective law students don't necessarily need to view it as a template to follow as much as a source of inspiration.
Clark strategically used colorful wording in his resume to elicit interest from admissions officers and spark a conversation with his law school interviewer.
He suggests that J.D. hopefuls tailor the structure of their resume based on how far along they are in their career. Individuals who do not have a significant amount of professional experience should highlight their academic accomplishments, extracurricular activities, volunteering experiences and internships, Clark says. More seasoned J.D. applicants should emphasize the professional skills they have developed that would be useful for a legal career, such as public speaking and policy analysis, he says.
"I recommend that my clients build their applications with a general understanding of the type of law they might want to practice," Clark says. "Once they have an idea, we work together to identify the academic and professional experiences that most closely align with their stated interests."
Here is a link to an annotated copy of Clark's law school application resume, with comments from the author about why he constructed the resume in this particular way and evaluations by neutral third parties about the pluses and minuses of this resume.
Searching for a law school? Get our complete rankings of Best Law Schools.