#AdmissionsPros: No Shortcuts With Michelle Kim Hall
Welcome to #AdmissionsPros! In this series, admissions advisors and educational consultants offer their advice and insight on the big picture of elementary, secondary, and graduate school admissions — from extracurriculars, to essays, to, (of course) standardized tests.
Michelle Kim Hall is Director of Law Counseling at Stratus Admissions, a firm that boasts a comprehensive, team-based approach to college, business school, law school, and graduate school admissions. Michelle spoke with Noodle Pros about the importance of storytelling on law school applications, her holistic approach to admissions advising, and why it pays to do your research.
Can you tell us a little bit about your company and the services you provide?
Stratus Admissions is a full scale admissions consulting firm. We help students who are applying to college, business school, law school, and other graduate programs, including Ph.D. programs and medical school. We work with with students from across the globe; from India and Pakistan, to China, France, and everything in between. And of course many students from Canada and the United States.
What is your personal background? How did you end up in this field?
I’m a graduate of Harvard Law School, and I went on to earn my Master’s in Fine Arts at NYU with a focus on fiction writing and creative writing. Writing has always been a part of my life; I did my undergraduate degree at UCLA, where I was an English major concentrating on creative writing as well. At NYU, I taught expository writing, which had a personal essay component to it. I started working for Stratus after I got my MFA, because it was a really great way for me to bridge my legal background with my interest in writing.
Speaking to the law school application process, you really have to have a strong written component to get into your foot in the door. Because writing is such an integral part of the legal profession, you have to be able to show that you can write a coherent sentence, organize your thoughts into paragraphs, and have an idea that you’re exploring across the page. Additionally, It’s important for applicants to fully express who they are beyond their numbers; the main way to do that is through writing.
What kinds of students are you generally working with for law school admissions?
We really have a diverse range of clients in terms of ages, in terms of professions, and in terms of where they live, since our students are all over the world.
I work with some undergrads, and I work with a lot of postgrads. Law schools, particularly those top schools, are increasingly starting to look at applicants with some postgraduate experience. Typical postgrads have one or two years of work experience, but I’ve helped applicants who are going to law school as a second career, and older and more established applicants who are trying to change the direction of their careers.
Then we also work with some early college students who aren’t really ready to apply to law school, but who want guidance on positioning themselves to apply down the road. This includes looking at what kinds of courses they should be taking and what kinds of internship opportunities they should seek, thinking about test prep so that they don’t have to scramble to do tests and applications at the same time later on. Really, everything that they need to know about applying to law school, that they can be working on now.
Do you advise JD MBA applicants? How does that process work?
I do work with JD MBA applicants. I will generally have a counselor on the MBA side who we can tag team with; that way we can have experts guiding students in in both realms. And we find that to be very successful.
What are three questions that you would typically ask a law school applicant in your first meeting?
One of the most important questions, which may seem obvious, is, why do they want to go to law school? Being able to articulate that for yourself is crucial, not only because it allows you to better represent yourself to admissions committees, but also because you need to have a clear sense of why you are investing your time, energy, and money into this process. Law school shouldn’t just be something that you’re doing because you’re graduating from college and you don’t know what’s next.
Another question I ask every applicant is what particular guidance they are looking for from me. We do have set systems in place for all of our clients, but I like to meet my students at their needs. Do they want help cultivating a list of schools? Do they need the most help with their application essays? Or figuring out how to reach out to recommenders? I think it’s important to establish our goals for working together, and to determine how I can help meet those goals.
Another important question for applicants to think about at the beginning of their process is, what are they looking for in a law school? For example, I’m currently working with a client who is very interested in environmental law. I’m helping her figure out which programs have the best environmental law classes, clinics, and centers to support her developing career trajectory.
Not all applicants have a clear idea of what kind of practice they’re drawn to, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have ideas in terms of class size, location, price point. It’s important for me to know if getting loans is going to be a part of their decision making process, for example, or if financing isn’t a large concern.
Do you have a typical process for working with students?
There is definitely room for flexibility; first, we offer applicants a free 30 minute consultation, an opportunity to talk with a counselor. They figure out what the applicant’s goals are, which helps us match the applicant to the counsellor who’s going to best meet their needs.
Once an applicant has been formally enrolled in our service, we send out a pretty comprehensive brainstorming questionnaire. That covers basic information — who is this person, what’s their family situation like, where did they grow up? It also has some introspective exercises. Applicants think about key experiences from their personal lives, their professional lives, their academic lives, that have helped shape who they are, and their perspectives on the world. What have been the takeaways from from those experiences? We ask applicants to take a few days to really think about these questions, to be thorough, because that enables us to go into our first strategy development meetings and hit the ground running.
Next, I read through all of the applicant’s responses and highlight connections we could potentially make between various experiences. So, what are the common threads that are important to this applicant, and are those common threads something that we can communicate to admissions committee officers? I also think about ways that we can integrate narrative into the storytelling, to avoid a resumé and prose-type piece. We look for diverse experiences, but also consistency in terms of how interests and experiences have prepared an individual for a career.
Can you talk more about the storytelling component of law school admissions?
There is a lot of storytelling, and that’s the aspect of this work that I’m most attracted to. It’s such a privilege to hear all of the different backgrounds and all of the different dreams of these applicants. I feel so fortunate, and inspired by the people I work with! And, you know, some of these stories are hard to deal with; I’ve had applicants break down crying during intakes, or cry during an interview prep session, because these are powerful experiences they’re writing about. But I never want applicants to come across as victims; I want them to come across as people who are empowered and able to advocate for themselves.
How much help do you think students should be receiving with their law school essays? As an advisor, how much influence should you have?
Law school application essays are crucial, not only for increasing an applicant’s chances of getting into a school, but for telling the applicant’s story and highlighting strengths beyond numbers. Essays can also play a big role in shaping scholarship decisions, because while some schools have a separate scholarship application, many are evaluating the potential for merit-based funding based on initial applications and initial application essays. So it’s really important and invaluable to have a second set of eyes look over that work. You want to make sure that your story makes sense to somebody who is outside of yourself, that your words are coming across clearly. An advisor who is familiar with the law school admissions process can offer advice on how your story is resonating.
I try to be very global in my approach, and to let the applicants take the lead — especially in early drafts. I try to use marginal comments along with probing questions to get the applicant to think about their essay, and how how they could potentially make it stronger. That act of evaluating your work with an outside voice, and then going back and revising and refining, is really useful to anybody’s writing process. In a law firm setting, a first year associate would not submit a section of a brief without having had a senior associate and a partner look over that draft. So I find that the ability to evaluate feedback and make adjustments, while still maintaining your own voice and the integrity of your work, is a good skill to build if you’re interested in pursuing a career in law.
What is your perspective on LSAT test prep? How does an applicant’s LSAT score factor into the overall package?
LSAT scores are hugely important and I encourage all my applicants to invest in LSAT prep in some capacity. I think that it’s very useful to work with tutors who can focus on your particular strengths and weaknesses, and to be in a setting where you could potentially take proctored full length practice exams. I find that applicants who self study are not rigorous enough in terms of their timing and pacing on those practice tests; they’re scoring a lot higher than they end up doing on the real day, because they haven’t had that benefit of being an environment where they may be distracted by other noises, and where they aren’t tempted to give themselves a few more minutes of time to answer those last questions.
LSAT scores do play a huge role in in terms of admissions outcomes. But they’re definitely not the only criteria. I do see applicants who have high scores get turned down at schools because they don’t have, for example, the necessary work experience that the schools are looking for.
I also work with so many applicants who, despite my my emphasis on the need to really invest in LSAT prep, think that they can they can ride into law school on the uniqueness of their stories. And they’re disappointed, because those doors aren’t opening for them. So it’s really important to approach the application holistically. To think about: what is your undergraduate transcript, what are your grades, what’s your LSAT score, what are your letters of recommendation, what’s on your resumé, what are your essays? Instead of looking at any particular shortcut that’s going to get you into law school.
What is your top piece of advice for students who are applying to selective schools and programs?
You have to do your research. Know what the schools are looking for, and be able to identify why you’re attracted to a particular school. What does the school have to offer you — not just what does it have to offer every applicant? That kind of research is going to help you find the best fit. Because it’s it’s not ultimately about getting into the highest ranked program that you can get into. It’s about finding the school that’s going to support you in terms of where you want to go next after graduating. You know, law school is three years of your time, but it’s not actually the end goal.
Interested in working with Michelle Kim Hall and her colleagues at Stratus? Contact her via the Stratus Admissions Counseling website for more information.
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