Choosing Where to Apply to Law School - An Admissions Officer's Guide

Research, Introspection, and Everything Else You Should Think About
Aug 25, 2023

About the Author

David Kirschner is the associate dean of admissions, financial aid, and innovation at the University of Southern California, Gould School of Law.

Table of Contents

  1. Knowledge is Power
  2. Reflecting on Academic Strength
  3. Reflecting on What Matters to You
  4. Why it all Matters
  5. About USC Gould
  6. Apply to USC Gould

Knowledge Is Power

As the old adage goes, “knowledge is power,” and that is very true as it pertains to choosing where to apply to law school. While conventional wisdom would encourage a prospective law student to exercise due diligence in choosing where to apply, my experience has shown that far too many either ignore or don’t place great enough emphasis on this first step in the process. For those wondering why choosing where to apply is so important, the answer is simple, it comes down to options. Applying strategically will increase options as decisions start to be rendered.

Introspection – Academic Strength

I remember when I was in my early-20’s and introspection was not an easy thing to do. As a young adult it can be easy to focus on the short-term without fully reflecting on the larger picture. As a law school applicant, the more introspective and honest with oneself that you can be, the more strategically you will be able to apply. While the law school application process is certainly holistic at the vast majority of schools, numbers still matter. Numbers are an excellent starting point in building your list of schools to apply to. Thankfully, a variety of consumer information tools (including ABA 509 reports and the LSAC-ABA Official Guide to Law Schools) make accessing critical data about law schools readily available. In fact, some of these resources will even give you probabilities of being admitted at pre-selected law schools based on your own self-reported data. It is this understanding of how your profile compares to a law school profile that will provide you with an excellent starting point for the probability of being admitted at an individual school. However, you are only able to engage in this analysis if you are introspective enough to understand your own strengths and weaknesses.

Introspection – Important Characteristics

There is much more to consider than the numbers. Geography is at the very top of this list. Geography matters insofar as it relates to your preference for a rural, suburban or urban campus as well as weather (do you want seasons, or sunny and 75 degrees every day). It is worth understanding that attending law school in an urban location is normally going to incur a greater cost of living than a law school in a suburb or rural part of the country. For the most part, a big city law school is not going to adjust a scholarship offer so that your cost of attendance will be commensurate with a suburban or rural law school as schools in large urban locations often offer exposure to larger legal markets.

Geography also matters significantly when it comes to employment opportunities. Aside for a very small select number of “national” law schools, the location in which you attend law school has a strong correlation to where you will practice for your first job – and this is normally within 50 miles of your law school. So, if you have your heart set on practicing in the Northeast, then it may be certainly be worth strongly considering a law school in that region.

While most of you probably don’t have a full sense of what type of law you would like to practice, and that’s completely okay, it can be helpful to have some idea for the following reasons. If you are big law or bust, then it is certainly important to understand that large law firms tend to hire from a small number of the most elite law schools. The same goes for careers in academia and federal judicial clerkships. However, beyond those narrow segments of the legal market (which do not employ nearly the majority of attorneys) there are a lot of options wherever you choose to attend.


Why it all matters – Choices

All of the above matters because applying to the correct set of law schools will enhance your choices when it comes time to choose where to attend. My advice is that you apply to no more than nine law schools and use the following formula (feel free to modify, if needed, but make sure to keep at least one school in each category): You should apply to 3 “Safety Schools” – that is schools where based on your numeric profile and their numbers, you are likely to be admitted; 3 “Target Schools” – that is schools where based on your numeric profile and their numbers, you have a greater than 50% chance of being admitted. You should apply to 3 “Reach Schools” – that is schools where based on your numeric profile and their numbers, you are not likely to be admitted, but there remains a chance.

It will likely follow that merit-based scholarship offers at your “Safety Schools” will be largest and at your “Reach Schools” the smallest. To the extent that you may have a strong leaning towards a particular area of law, this can really matter. For example, if your heart is set on public interest work, with a lower salary, then maximizing scholarship dollars is more important, than say, if your goal is a career working in big law. However, if you are big law or bust, then it may be worth taking on extra debt at a “Reach” school to maximize your chances of a big law job.

So, by following this advice, you will have a set of options to choose from based on what matters most to you.

About USC Gould

USC Gould is an elite law school committed to academic excellence. Our success is comprised of a world-class faculty, a close-knit and diverse student body, a well-situated campus just outside of downtown Los Angeles, an interdisciplinary curriculum and a supportive alumni network, colloquially known as the Trojan Family. In recent years Gould has receive upwards of 5,000 applications for an incoming class of about 190 students with an acceptance rate of beneath 13%. Our class is consistently highly diverse, with a large percentage of individuals who are first generation graduate school students and come from disadvantaged academic backgrounds.

What David Loves About USC Gould

As a USC undergraduate (B.A. in Cinema-Production), I am a Trojan through and through. There certainly is no community like the Trojan Family. Some say we circulate cardinal and gold through the water system on campus. While I can attest that is not true, there is something in the atmosphere here that encourages alumni to give back, from day one well through retirement. Being a Trojan means always saying “yes” – often times before even knowing the question. It is yes when someone asks for an informational interview, it is yes when someone asks for a few minutes to discuss the application process. It’s all via the shared experience from being part of the USC community.

Check out USC Gould's LSData Profile

Apply to USC Gould

DavidKirschner USC Gould Admissions

David Kirschner is the associate dean of admissions, financial aid, and innovation at the University of Southern California, Gould School of Law. Kirschner earned his BA in film production cum laude from the University of Southern California and his JD cum laude from California Western School of Law. Kirschner began his career in law school admissions as an alumni recruiter at California Western School of Law before becoming assistant and then associate director of admissions at Loyola Law School, Loyola Marymount University. In his current position at USC, Kirschner is responsible for the setting and implementation of strategic goals and targets for each admission cycle. Kirschner enjoys being at the forefront of using technology to advance the strategic enrollment modeling aspect of admissions as well as the marketing piece. Kirschner has extensive experience with LSAC and other professional organizations related to legal education. Kirschner is recently concluded his second consecutive term on the LSAC Board of Trustees as the inaugural Chair of LSAC’s Emerging Markets & Innovation Committee (2019-2023). Previously, he served on LSAC’s Services and Programs Committee, Test Development & Research, and Finance & Legal Affairs Committee. Kirschner has also served on the Information Support Division Advisory Group and assisting in planning the first ever UNITE preconference in 2022. Outside of LSAC, Kirschner has served as chair of the American Association of Law Schools (AALS) Section on PreLegal Education and Admission to Law School and has been a member of American Bar Association (ABA) accreditation site visit teams.


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