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Sweet Talk Will Get You Nowhere in Law School Admissions

Today we have a guest post from Anna Ivey, founder of Ivey Consulting.

I had an interesting conversation recently with a big-wig at an LSAT prep company. He observed that many people applying to law school are highly verbal, and one of the ways they have been able to get ahead in life was in part by sweet-talking their way around problems. These people with great verbal facility then sometimes hit a wall that is new to them: they can’t sweet-talk their way into success on the LSAT. The LSAT is cruel (and ruthlessly effective) that way.

I see that phenomenon too on the application side. Students’ expectations can get normed when, for example, enough professors bump up grades and give extensions, or administrators bend protocol, but will sweet-talking work on a law firm partner? A judge? The SEC? An admissions officer? Not so much. Sweet-talking can be a good skill to have, but it goes in the useful-but-not-sufficient bucket. Want to try sweet-talking your way around Court rules for submitting motions to the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals? Check out Rules 12 and 13 for a taste, and then read about the bench-slap here (where a lawyer lost an appeal because of improper word count in a filing).

In the application context, this sweet-talking issue comes up most frequently when people have one or more “blemishes” to deal with in their application profiles. Addendum essays that are too aggressive in their sweet-talking approach are likely to backfire. Some applicants magically have an excuse for everything, or by some alchemy they try to spin something that is uncontrovertibly a liability, a screw-up, a minus into… a plus. I’m all for turning lemons into lemonade, I’m all for grit, and and I’m all for people learning from their mistakes, but when spinning crosses a line it becomes obnoxious and off-putting. Addendum essays (and disclosure essays) are big indicators of maturity and responsibility, or lack thereof. There’s no better way to assess whether, as an admissions officer, you’re about to admit a grown-up or an extended adolescent. Mere verbal facility is not enough to get you out of some jams, and sometimes it can do more harm than good. (Side note: When I was dean of admissions, I recall a helicopter mom calling me in an attempt to sweet-talk me into giving her son a seat in the class even though he had missed the deadline to accept our offer. When sweet-talking didn’t get her anywhere, she started alternately yelling at me and invoking “fairness.” In response, I had to invoke “deadlines” and “the class is full.” There were so many things wrong with that phone call.)

So I come back to a message I put out there regularly: addendum essays are all about demonstrating judgment. In content, addendum essays are often about some lack of judgment in the past, but the way you write them (or whether you write one at all) also says a great deal about your current judgment. The bottom line is that lots of applicants have things to disclose or explain, and many of them are successful nonetheless. In those instances, much comes down to how they present themselves. If in doubt, pull back on the editorializing and take a factual approach. And if you want to make the case for a turn-around in your life, make sure you’re showing (through meaningful and consistent evidence) and not merely telling.

Anna Ivey was a lawyer and Dean of Admissions at the University of Chicago Law School before founding Ivey Consulting and assembling a team of experts to coach college, law school, and business school applicants one-on-one in order to help them navigate the law school application process.