Sunday, June 6, 2010

Chapter 2: Getting In

Law school dreams punctured my otherwise tranquil undergrad experience. I quieted the volume on my internal can-can’t war and began the most labor-intensive research project on legal careers possible. My search covered nearly all of the books in UNR’s Career Services Library about how to choose which professors to write letters of recommendation, how to write the perfect personal statement, and how to select the right school. Some books revealed how to overcome the epidemic of depression, suicide, and alcoholism that afflicts legal scholars more than any other professional group.

I sought anything to scare myself away from law school, only increasing my determination to apply. I rented “The Paper Chase” and mocked the main character’s floppy 80s hair style, ignoring his very real struggles with his demonic Harvard professor who bombarded him with questions in the notorious Socratic Method. Even people at the airport tired to dissuade me. One man told me about how he applied to law school, got in, stayed a very short time—then fled. At parties, I ignored dinner conversations about people who went to law school, had nervous breakdowns, and were never the same. I read Scott Turow’s brilliant novel, One L, a semi-autobiographical tale of a tortured Harvard law graduate who had taught English composition before applying to law school. He saw his highly-educated classmates’ bewilderment as they squirmed to avoid being called on in class. Horror stories about case briefing, group outlining, and final exam preparation flashed before me. I ignored them all, even the jokes from attorneys saying that if you were smart, you wouldn’t want to be a lawyer.

Don’t listen to the nay-sayers, I thought. Law school couldn’t be all that bad. Besides, what other career would bring the prestige, excellence, and money that law could? Even if the first year stressed out almost every lawyer I interviewed, most of them turned out fine once they found their niche.

The LSAT, however, should have diverted me. It contained many a bogus logic question on absolutely nothing to do with law. The better you did on the LSAT, the better you would perform during your first year of law school. The test didn’t correspond to a law student’s achievement in the rest of law school, nor did it have anything to do with a lawyer’s success after graduation.

The LSAT was a beast: a 4.5 hour test comprised half of logical reasoning, a fourth of logic games, and a fourth of reading comprehension questions. The 30-minute writing sample did not factor into the score. Law school admissions committees only wanted to make sure you could string a semi-coherent sentence together. As a writing major, I was ticked that the one thing I thought I was good at didn’t count.

One particularly bright blogger on a law-prep website I frequented, ( advised potential LSAT sufferers, er, studiers, to do this:

“When you reach a boring reading comp question, pretend you’re reading about the most fascinating subject on earth. For example, say one of the reading excerpts is about the migratory patterns of birds. Say to yourself: “Oh! Wow! I always wanted to learn about the migratory patterns of birds! Whoopee!”

As fun as it sounded to feign enthusiasm through the entire marathon of a test, I always ran out of brain power by the fifteenth question of each section. I downloaded my first practice exam for free from the Law School Data Assembly Service (LSDAS) website. The site has everything from study books and online applications, to a service that distributes letters of recommendation. I didn’t attempt to take the test in real time. I did a few questions a day instead. The result devastated me. I scored a 140, ten points below the average.

LSAT scores predominantly determined your chances of being admitted to a highly-ranked school. The highest score you could achieve: 180. If you scored a 179 (the 99% percentile of all LSAT test takers), you had a pretty good chance of getting into a Tier One school— Yale or Harvard, according to US News and Review, my favorite online rating system. The lowest you could score on the LSAT was 120. Average was 150. You would have to get at least a 149 to even be considered for admission to a third or forth tier school. If you scored below that benchmark, you might as well not bother applying.

I had no choice but to sign up for the only test preparation program in Reno: Kaplan. I charged $1,099 to my credit card to enroll in a month-long course consisting of four-hour lecture sessions, online exercises, and four practice tests.

On the first day of class, a Saturday, I arrived at the Mackay Science building on campus, only to find it vacant. I headed up the stairs to a locked classroom on the second floor. Twenty minutes passed, till another student came and hung out in the hall across from me.

“You’re taking the Kaplan course?” I asked. “It’s today, right?”

“Yeah,” she said, in a non-committal way, and looked down so she didn’t have to chit-chat.

“Where’s the teacher?” I said.

Five minutes later, he appeared, striding up the stairs in a hurried fashion to unlock the room. He had short, brown hair and wore a business suit in various shades of pale yellow, from the tie to the coat. He bore some resemblance to Noah Wiley, and might have been mistaken for attractive, until he spoke, stressing syllables in short, staccato strokes.

“Sorry I’m late. I’m dying of thirst! Does anyone know if the vending machine works?”

By now, two more students filled the room, and we stared at him blankly.

“Just a second,” he said, scurrying back out of the room.

“Bah!” we heard him exclaim from the hallway, followed by a thump as he pounded in desperation on the soda machine.

“Does anyone have a dollar?!” he asked, returning to the room. “The machine wouldn’t take mine.” He held up a pathetic, crumpled bill.

A hippie girl sitting in the front left row donated a crisper one.

When he finally settled down, he leaned against the front table and winked at the student in front. “I’m Jacob Travis Fartherlee, he said. As if his name alone should impress us. “Call me Travis.”

Apparently he didn’t want to be associated with anything Biblical, I thought as I stared at the two Kaplan books on my desk, both the width of telephone books.

Travis told us about himself—for the next half hour. He had studied geriatrics, but switched to logistics, then to law because he was such a kick-ass LSAT taker. Over the next month, we discovered he had an irritating habit of launching into 30-minute anecdotes about himself. He told us the diversions served as a reprieve from the weighty LSAT material. Travis also hit on every girl in our Kaplan class, including me. He often came up with his own hypotheticals modeled after exam questions—one in particular had to do with my mom buying my underwear. What possible relevance does that have to the LSAT? None.

In one of his many digressions, Travis said: “Some people don’t like me so much. But if a jury is full of females, I’d make ‘em like me. All my ex-girlfriends liked me.”


On another day, he felt the need to confess: “I know I come off as arrogant sometimes. I’m really quite mellow.”

I resisted smirking as I scanned to my books. Although we covered all aspects of the test during class, we never lingered on any type of question before moving on. The result was a schizophrenic sampling of LSAT questions, with no attempt at mastery. I ended up repeating my Kaplan course twice and postponing the test two times. The almighty Travis was the only teacher available. Originally I had enrolled during the summer before graduation, but at the time I was too busy focusing on my thesis. It didn’t help that I was still deciding whether or not to go to law school.

During my retake, Travis offered to give us one-on-one advice. When he met with me in the adjacent classroom, he sat on top of one of the student desks and said: “Gina, you have to stop thinking this test doesn’t matter. I know what your problem is: you’re a plodder. You just go through the questions and don’t stop to think about the answers before reading the multiple choice options.”

“Fine,” I said. I took issue with his label, but then again, I did sweep through the test despite diminishing concentration. “I do fifteen questions in a row and get them all right, but then I lose focus and get tired. I just run out of time and pick B.”

“You should complete the first fifteen questions of each section, then skip to the end and attempt the two or three easy ones. Because of the way the LSAT is scored, getting one or two more questions right could mean the difference between getting into law school or not. It’s a game.”

As much as I disliked Travis for wasting time talking about himself, he was right. The second LSAT class ended, and I still wasn’t ready. Panic time. I complained to the Kaplan manager, who offered me, of all things, a private tutoring session with Travis to make up for my poor Kaplan experience. After one session, I canceled. I just couldn’t learn from someone I didn’t respect.

And then I met Anita.

Without Anita, I never would have gained admission into law school. I was starting to think I would never raise my LSAT score above a 150.

Some people you just know should be attorneys. Anita was one of them. Her straggly black hair fell in thin curls over her large frame. She wore black pants with an elastic waist and a tee shirt with a ketchup stain from her son’s French fries. I could hear her laugh from down the hall, and she almost never stopped talking.

Anita and I belonged to Phi Alpha Delta Pre-Law Fraternity (PAD), which hosted a practice LSAT, compliments of the Princeton Review. We charged $15 to test-takers. Only five people showed up, including Anita and me. By then I had taken three or four practice LSATs in real time. As always, I spent too much time mulling over the answers before running out of time. Anita didn’t have any such problem. She finished every section with about ten minutes left. She told me after that she had enough time to hum a tune in her head and think about the boxes she had to move later that day. The family of three who occupied the upstairs rooms and lived rent-free in exchange for babysitting her two kids was moving out. Anita and I talked after the test culminated and the proctor called time. It would take two weeks for the Princeton Review to mail us our results. We promised we would report back to each other as soon as we could.

Anita’s score came back: 162.

162!? On her first LSAT! With a diagnostic score that high, she didn’t really have to study to get into law school. I told her if she wanted to go to Yale, her dream school, it wouldn’t hurt to improve her score. We quickly made a pact to study together for the June LSAT. My score had disappointed me as always: 149.

I set our study regimen. We took eight timed practice tests during the span of three weeks. I saved Kaplan’s online explanations and reviewed the answers to my tests—right and wrong, for every single question. I made crazy notes to myself in the margins of the tests in red, purple, and blue colored pencils, chastising myself for errors, marking a big “Yey!” for questions I got right. Anita didn’t need to resort to such cheerleading. She didn’t really have to review her answers since she didn’t need to gain points. Although we followed a Princeton Review study book, sheer repetition seemed to increase my scores the most. The LSAT wasn’t meant to be fun. It was designed to weed out the weak minded and the slow.

By the end of those few weeks, I had every question type memorized according to Kaplan’s labels and knew which ones I should bother attempting and which ones I should skip.

In the evenings after we finished our practice tests, Anita and I would sit for hours in my car discussing how it went. I would mostly listen to her talk about her life. Between her husband, her kids, and school, she had a lot to juggle. She didn’t waste time at all. She completed her homework, took her kids to school, made dinner and everything. And on top of that, she was going to be a lawyer.

I just had school. The LSAT mania had taken over both of us, but for Anita, the race was not as desperate.

A few days before the real LSAT, we decided to take our last practice test, the most recent previously-administered LSAT, in the same room where we would be taking the real test. We wanted to simulate the experience, get comfortable with the room, and visualize success.

I scored a 153. I don’t remember what Anita got.

I should have been happy. I passed the 150 mark, increasing my score a nearly impossible ten points. But I wasn’t happy.

“What’s wrong?” Anita asked. Her eyebrows furrowed, and she spoke as if I was a four-year old who had just fallen down.

“This means I’m not getting into Davis,” I said. I completely ignored the small victory I had achieved after a year of torturous studying and telling myself I was stupid. Davis was my dream school, but you needed at least a 160 for the admissions committee to even look at your application.

“But you got over a 150,” Anita said. “You should be happy. You’re going to get into Boyd.”

The odds of getting into my most realistic choice, Boyd, were good. Once I finally took the LSAT, I received a 152, no surprise. Test day felt like any other day because we had taken so many practice tests. Boyd’s median admittance score for full-time students hovered around a 154. I wasn’t off by much. Boyd only cost $8,900 per semester for in-state Nevada tuition—an incredible bargain—and because I planned to practice in Nevada to stay close to my family.

I had applied to six schools. Berkeley and Davis were dream schools, but basically out of the question. Boyd was my “perfect fit,” and Willamette and New England School of Law were my back-ups. I applied to Chapman as another backup, even though I didn’t really want to go there. They had an elder law clinic, which was the only appeal. The LSDAS online service, which came free with the LSAT registration, had a handy GPA and LSAT calculator that predicted which schools you would likely gain admittance to. For the most part, it was right.

By the time I had completed the LSAT, written my personal statement, compiled my letters of recommendation, ordered my transcripts, filled out my online applications, and sent in my application fees, the process was finally over.

I got into Willamette and New England, no problem, but I knew I wouldn’t attend either school; they cost too much, and I didn’t particularly want to move to Oregon or Massachusetts. “Sorry, but thanks for playing” letters from Berkeley and Davis followed, and so did Chapman’s, which came several months later because they wait-listed me.

When I received my letter of acceptance from Boyd, I stared at the white stationary with the bold, red and blue UNLV logo at the top, and grinned.

It is as it should be, I thought.

But somewhere, behind my pride, my hard work, and my head-banging stubbornness, I whispered to myself in quiet desperation: this means you really have to go.