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Beneel Babaei described getting into Columbia Law School as “an act in perfectionism.”
“There is very little wiggle room for any part of your application to be lacking,” Babaei, who graduated from Columbia Law in 2019, told Insider.
That’s because according to US News & World Report’s 2021 Best Law Schools ranking, Columbia University Law School is near the top of the food chain. It’s currently recognized as the fourth best law school in the US, trailing only Yale, Stanford, and Harvard (and tied with the University of Chicago).
With a median LSAT score of 172 and median undergraduate GPA of 3.8, the competition is fierce — but it’s not only the numbers that matter.
“Plenty of people with strong numbers apply to Columbia Law, so while they are necessary, they are not sufficient,” Timothy Knox, a law school admissions counselor at Stratus Admissions Counseling, told Insider.
Of the more than 7,000 students who applied for the class of 2020, only about 16% were accepted. Insider spoke with four of them, plus two law school admissions experts, to find out what to do — and what to avoid — to get in.
Make your personal statement, well, personal
When approaching the personal statement, Babaei said applicants should think critically about ways they can help people as an attorney and law student and make it clear how they plan to implement those efforts once they arrive at Columbia Law and beyond.
“I focused on being Assyrian American and the child of immigrants and how this has uniquely shaped my experiences,” Babaei said. “I was my authentic self by writing nothing that I didn’t genuinely mean.”
He added it’s best to avoid legalese in all your admissions-related correspondence, including your personal statement. “No one is impressed by your use of the word ‘arguendo’; they want to know who you are and why your voice is unique in a hundred-person classroom of bright young minds,” he said.
Michael Jia, class of 2019, told Insider that he had a GPA that fell below Columbia’s median admitted student GPA. His personal statement, he hoped at the time, would supplement the lower score.
“I grew up in Asia and have been fortunate enough to spend time living both in Asia and the US, kind of between two cultures,” Jia said. “Rather than list off a bunch of accomplishments I did, or how living across two cultures equipped me to be a great law student, I basically said, ‘Look, it’s fascinating to me how legal cultures can vary around the world, I’ve seen it firsthand, I want to learn more,’ which is basically how I felt at the time.”
Dyllan Lee, who graduated the same year as Jia and Babaei, also fit the profile of an applicant who felt that his grades were not as high as they should be.
To ensure that the strengths of his application outweighed the weaknesses, he emphasized in his personal statement that Columbia Law was his top choice from the outset because he’s passionate about the human rights crisis in North Korea. Through his research, Lee discovered that not only is Columbia one of the top schools for international law, but also has a Center for Korean Legal Studies.
“Once I connected these dots, it really helped me to focus the direction of my essay and communicate what sets Columbia apart from its peers for me,” Lee said. The student later learned later that one of his classmates wrote about the same topic in her personal statement.
“So no pressure to be a one-of-a-kind candidate — genuine passion and authenticity goes a long way,” Lee added.
2019 graduate Cedric Duquene said his personal statement focused on an experience in college trying to write an article on the history of translation.
“As an economics and French major, this kind of research project was very much outside of my comfort zone,” Duquene said. “To overcome these challenges, I asked for help from others around me who had experience and learned from them.”
He then mentioned the personal growth he went through as a result of that project. “Two skills in particular were how to conduct research effectively and how to tackle a completely new type of task,” he said. “The theme of the personal statement was how I typically shied away from taking risks.”
Focusing solely on achievements isn’t the right approach, Knox added.
“The personal statement is a perfect place to get personal,” Knox said. “Don’t be afraid to reveal who you really are, which can include both the good and the bad.” Having strong reasons to be in New York City helps as well, Knox added.
Be cautious about the supplemental material
Jennie Rothman, director of admissions at free platform Admit.me and a graduate of Harvard Law School, noted that unlike other law schools, Columbia Law offers an optional opportunity to submit supplemental materials. The school strongly suggests that applicants “use their best judgment” in terms of content and length — in other words, don’t go overboard by sending reams of additional content.
“Applicants should take advantage of this opportunity to add to their profile,” Rothman said. “Two good uses of this section are to include information not otherwise noted on your application (e.g., if you have an interesting hobby, skill, or talent) and to provide more information on why Columbia Law is your first choice.”
If you’re a college junior, consider applying for the LEAD Fellowship Program
Columbia Law School offers a deferred admissions program called LEAD — the Leadership Experience Admission Deferral Fellowship Program — which allows current college juniors to apply to law school instead of having to wait to apply as a senior.
Fellows are required to participate in a two-year gap period prior to attending Columbia Law, where they must “be meaningfully employed or engage in a venture, partnership, fellowship, or graduate studies,” Rothman said. “Because applicants are applying to this program with at least one fewer year experience than other applicants, only the most extraordinary applicants are typically admitted.”
Meet the early decision deadline if you’re ready
In addition to the standard regular decision deadlines, Columbia Law offers binding early decision deadlines as well.
“This is less a special challenge than a special opportunity that not all law schools offer,” Rothman said, adding that students who are certain they want to attend Columbia Law should definitely take advantage of this opportunity. This is because like most law schools, Columbia Law reviews applications in the order in which they’re received. As a result, an applicant’s likelihood of acceptance is higher at the beginning of the admissions cycle, when there are more seats left to fill.
Babaei only applied after he’d achieved an LSAT score he was fully confident in, missing the ED deadline.
“A number of factors converge to make it so tempting to rush into applying to law school, but as someone who had his sights set on Columbia Law School,” he said, “I knew I couldn’t submit my applications until they were where I wanted them to be.”
His entire application process, he said, took about a year.
As a final word to the wise for Columbia Law hopefuls, Babaei said, “Try your best to avoid Hamilton references, tempting as it may be to name drop your would-be fellow alumnus. In all seriousness, this and other references to vaguely loving New York City cheapen the application.”