Today’s guest post is full of invaluable information for international students planning to apply to law school. It comes to us from UM alumna and guest poster Nicole Vilches, assistant dean for admissions at Chicago-Kent College of Law, Illinois Institute of Technology.
As an international student applying for admission to a U.S. law school, you likely have a number of questions about the admissions process. The good news is that much of the process is the same for both domestic and international students. You will be required to submit an application form, personal statement, one or more letters of recommendation or evaluations, and transcripts from your undergraduate and graduate work. However, there are a few important differences in the admissions process for international students that you should be aware of, and it is also important that you begin to plan now for the visa application process. The answers to the following questions will help you to prepare for the admissions process and the start of your law school career.
Should I apply for a J.D. or LL.M. program?
The most important step to take at the start of the application process is to figure out which law degree program will best meet your needs. The J.D. is the first degree in law in the United States and typically takes three years of full-time study or four years of part-time study to complete. With a J.D. from an American Bar Association (ABA)-approved law school, you will be eligible to sit for the bar exam in any state in the U.S.
The LL.M. is a Masters of Law degree and provides advanced legal study for students who already hold a first degree in law. Many law schools offer an LL.M. program specifically for graduates of foreign law schools, which provides an overview of the U.S. legal system. LL.M. programs for foreign law graduates typically take one year of full-time study to complete.
One of the most important considerations is whether or not you wish to practice in the U.S. after graduation. Graduates of foreign law schools may be eligible to take the bar exam in some states or may become eligible if they earn an LL.M. from a U.S. law school. However, there are also many states that require a J.D. from an ABA-approved law school. For an overview of the bar exam requirements for each state, see the Comprehensive Guide to Bar Admissions Requirements published by the National Conference of Bar Examiners.
You should also consider the investment in both time and money between the two degrees. Do you need to complete a three-year J.D. program or would a one-year overview of the U.S. legal system suffice? If you hold a first degree in law from your home country, you should also check with the schools that you are considering to determine if they offer any advanced standing credits in the J.D. program for your foreign law degree. Under the ABA standards, law schools may award up to one-third of the credits required for the J.D. based on an applicant’s foreign legal study. The availability and extent of advanced standing are determined by each school’s policies and the requirements specified in the ABA standards.
When should I submit my application?
Most law schools use a rolling admissions process, which means that the school reviews applications and makes admissions decisions on an on-going basis throughout the admissions cycle. Applicants whose files complete early in the cycle will be reviewed when very few decisions have been made, while those whose files complete later in the cycle will be reviewed when most of the seats in the class have already been filled. The competition for the remaining seats in the class becomes more intense as the cycle progresses and more admissions offers have been made. As a result, it is to your advantage to apply as early as possible in the cycle. Most law schools begin accepting applications in September or October for the following year’s entering class. For best consideration, you should plan to submit your application no later than January 1st. An early application may also enhance your chance of receiving a scholarship award since the scholarship budget may be exhausted later in the process. If you will be studying on an F1 student visa, it is of particular importance to submit your applications as early as possible so that you will have time to consider your admissions offers, select a school, and leave sufficient time for the visa application process.
How should I submit my transcripts to the law schools to which I am applying?
Students (both domestic and international) who received their undergraduate degrees from a U.S. institution are required to register for the LSAC Credential Assembly Service (CAS) and submit copies of their undergraduate and graduate transcripts to LSAC for inclusion in the CAS report that will be sent to each law school to which they apply.
If you received your undergraduate degree from an institution outside of the U.S. or completed more than one year of study at a foreign institution, you may or may not be required to use CAS depending on each law school’s preference. If you submit your foreign transcripts to CAS, LSAC will forward them to the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers (AACRAO) for authentication and evaluation. The AACRAO report will be included with the CAS report sent to the law schools where you apply. Many law schools either require CAS for international applicants or will accept CAS reports.
For those schools where CAS is either optional or not required, you may be asked to submit your transcripts to an alternate evaluation service, such as one of the members of the National Association of Credential Evaluation Services. You should review the application instructions and/or contact each law school where you plan to apply to determine their specific polices for foreign transcripts. You can visit LSAC’s website for a detailed description of CAS and the evaluation process for internationally educated applicants.
Am I required to take the TOEFL and how will the school evaluate my English language proficiency?
If English is not your first language and you did not complete your education at a school where English was the language of instruction, some law schools may require you to take the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL). Not all law schools require international students to take this exam, so you will want to check each school’s requirements. You may also want to find out if the school has a minimum TOEFL score requirement.
It is also important to be aware that law schools will carefully review your entire application package to gauge your English proficiency. This includes your LSAT writing sample, personal statement, and any other supplemental statements that you submit. You should make sure that all documents that you submit are well-written and grammatically correct. It is also important to make sure that all correspondence with the school – including emails – is polished and professional. You may also want to ask your recommenders to comment on your language proficiency in their letters, particularly if the letter is from a professor who has graded your written work.
How will I fund my education?
Legal education in the United States can be expensive and federal loan programs are available only to U.S. citizens, permanent residents, and other non citizens, such as, refugees and persons that are granted asylum. In addition, there are few private loan options through U.S. lenders for international students. Therefore, it is important for you to prepare your funding sources for your three years of law school as soon as possible. As part of the visa application process, you will be required to show proof of funding for your first year of study, and the work restrictions on F1 visa holders will limit your ability to work while in school to fund your education. It is also important to be aware that most law school scholarships will cover only partial tuition and the competition for these awards is intense. Even the most generous law school scholarships will typically still require you to pay your housing, books, and other expenses on your own.
How do I apply for an F1 student visa and what should I expect?
Once you have decided which law school you will attend, you will need to obtain an F1 student visa if you are not a U.S. citizen or permanent resident. The school will require you to submit a Financial Affidavit of Support that shows that you have sufficient funding to cover the cost of tuition, fees, books and living expenses during your first year of law school. Once the school receives that document, they will issue you a form I-20 and you may schedule a visa interview with the U.S. embassy or consulate in your home country. If you are already in the U.S. studying at another institution, you generally will not be required to complete another visa interview since you already completed one prior to your initial entry to the U.S. However, you should be aware that the law school you plan to attend will not be able to issue you an I-20 until your current school indicates that you have graduated and electronically releases your Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS) record to the law school. It is a good idea to contact either the admissions office or the international student center at the law school you plan to attend as soon as possible to discuss the visa application process and any special requirements. Do not wait for the school to contact you. It is better to be proactive and get the process started as quickly as possible. For additional information about student visas, see the U.S. Department of State website.
In preparation for your visa interview, you should make certain to gather all relevant documents as well as evidence to demonstrate ties to your home country. You should be very familiar with the law program that you are about to enter and be sure that you are able to clearly indicate how a U.S. law degree will benefit you in your home country. NAFSA: Association of International Educators has a useful list of ten tips to help you prepare for your visa interview.
How will the F1 visa work restrictions impact my ability to gain law-related work experience?
As a student on an F1 visa, you may work up to 20 hours per week in on-campus jobs from the start of your studies. During the summer, you are permitted to work full-time in on-campus positions or in off-campus positions if you have received authorization from immigration or from the international office on your campus. After one academic year, you may apply through immigration for permission to obtain off-campus employment.
After graduation, you will be eligible to apply through immigration for twelve months of Optional Practical Training (OPT). If authorized for OPT, you will be able to seek employment in a position related to your field of study during the twelve month OPT period. As a law school graduate, your employment must be in an appropriate level position in a law-related field or other position that requires a J.D. You should also be aware that you may face challenges finding an employer who will be willing to hire you for only a one-year period. Once the OPT period ends, you will have a 60 day grace period during which you may remain in the U.S., but are not permitted to work. OPT may not be extended, so you will be required to leave the U.S. once the 60 day grace period ends unless you continue your education in another U.S. degree program or your employer chooses to sponsor you for a work visa such as the H-1B.
As you prepare for the admissions process, there are a number of ways to learn more about the programs and opportunities available to you. When you register to take the LSAT, you will have the option to sign up for the Candidate Referral Service which allows law schools to obtain your information from LSAC in order to send you information about their programs. This is a great way to learn about schools that you might not have previously considered.
You should also sign up for the mailing lists of law schools that you are considering as well as any schools in your local area. Many schools host programs for prospective students to allow you to learn more about their schools and the admissions process. At Chicago-Kent, for example, we host four programs for prospective students each year including a “Getting Into Law School” seminar that provides an in-depth discussion of the admissions process. These types of programs are a great way to meet students, faculty and staff, and learn more about the admissions process and the law school experience.
Finally, if you have any questions about the admissions process or the specific requirements at a school where you are applying, you should contact the admissions office for clarification. Schools are happy to answer your questions either by phone or email. Because each school has different policies, it is important to make sure that you understand the requirements at each school. In addition, remember that admissions offices are dealing with thousands of applicants, so you need to take responsibility for making sure that your application file is complete and that you have submitted all of the required application documents in a timely manner. Remember to apply as early as possible, and hopefully you will have a nice selection of admissions offers from which to choose come springtime.