In response to a good friend's request for advice for her little sister (now a senior at Harvard), I penned the following.
There was a blog thing about coming up with one's own Ten Commandments in response to the SCOTUS rulings, so let me put it in that form:
1) Thou shalt not underestimate the randomness of admissions committees.
This means that you should apply everywhere you might like to attend, but not to assume that just because a #10 school accepts you that a #20 school must. I got waitlisted at half the top 10 schools and eventually accepted to Columbia, but I also got flatout rejected by schools like Fordham and GW. Your sister's record probably isn't as weird as mine, but I think it's still worth the money to apply even to places that aren't certain to accept her.
2) Thou shalt put real effort into the essay.
With lots of very good candidates, the essay actually can make a difference, I think. The admissions committees need *something* to distinguish one person with a 3.8 GPA and 170 LSAT from a 3.7 and 175. I attribute some of my success and near-success in law school admissions to writing an essay that probably appealed to the admissions folks. (Although quite possible some of them hated it.)
3) Thou shalt consider one's interests and the schools' strengths.
I've had some people who were accepted to Columbia email to ask me if they should attend. I always tell them that if they're interested in Japan, they simply have to come here because it is one area in which we clearly excel ahead everyone else. If they're dead-set on a career in criminal law, Columbia may not be the best place for them. I didn't have much like that -- I mostly just wanted an all-around strong academic program -- but if you have certain strong preferences, you should look for schools that can meet them. My 'safety' school was the University of Houston, because even though they're not well-ranked overall, they have a good health law program and that was of interest to me.
In particular, if you aren't interested in being one of the thousands of overpaid giant firm attorneys who flood out of the top law schools every year, you should look hard at the public interest program and clinics. (I thought I didn't want to be one of those attorneys, but I suspect I've been sucked into the herd mentality enough that now I'm OK with the prospect.) If you want to go academic, Yale and the University of Chicago are reputedly especially good for that.
4) Thou shalt assess the importance of debt.
Part of the reason that people who had planned to do something else end up going into big law firms is that they have to pay off their debt. Debt comes in different sizes depending on where you go to school, because lower-ranked schools will give you big merit packages without much trouble whereas the top schools only will if they want you very badly. Almost everyone I know at Columbia has large debt loads that have at least a little influence on what they plan to do. People who went to their state schools or to schools that gave them large awards (Wake Forest would have covered 3/4 of my tuition, for example) have less debt and that sometimes means they can pursue career goals with less of a concern about paying back money.
5) Thou shalt visit the schools that accept thee.
In particular if you are the kind of person who is sensitive to your environment, it's very important that you check out where you might spend the next three years. Because grad school isn't the kind of all-encompassing cocoon that undergrad generally is, the neighborhood in which she'll live is much more important now than it was when she was in the Harvard Yard. Some people pick NYU over Columbia because they want to live in Greenwich Village instead of boring Morningside Heights; others pick Columbia over NYU because they want to live somewhere a little quieter and more affordable.
6) Thou shalt not overestimate the worth of gossip regarding the competitiveness of students at various schools.
I heard that Georgetown was murderously competitive, but a friend there has no complaints. One Columbia-admitted student emailed me saying,
I'm concerned because I've been told that the students are not very friendly, that they lead their own lives and don't hang out together, that they're generally pretty competitive with each other e.g. won't share notes or help each other study. Have you found this to be the case at all in your time at Columbia? Do you think this is the norm, and even if it is, how easy is it to avoid? Do you think it's any worse than other top schools?
I heard similar things about the top law schools generally (with the exception of UVA, where both students and profs are preternaturally laid back), but I haven't found it to be true at Columbia. The guy sitting next to me in Legal Methods -- our very first class -- emailed me his notes from the first week when he noticed that I didn't have a laptop yet, and people continue to do that when I miss class. I've found people to be very helpful, and lots of students do study groups and hang out together. On the other hand, sometimes you'll really want to get away from the law school and many people already have friends in NYC, so it is easier to have an alternative group with whom to hang out here than it might be in New Haven or Ann Arbor.
With regard to competitiveness, I think it exists, but not in a boastful or backstabbing way. I do think there's some degree of anxiety; we're all aware that we're in a classful of smart, ambitious people, and thus many people worry about "falling behind." Last semester, one kid came in wearing a suit, and everyone was very worried that he'd gotten an interview for a summer job and the rest of us were Slacking Off. No one begrudged him the interview (which turned out to be for a volunteer position, not a job), but the thought of not being on track does make many people anxious.
I got into Columbia on a total fluke, five days before orientation, so I may not be the best person to ask about competitiveness. I figure I did much better than expected just by being here and don't push myself beyond that. [Cookie Monster song voice] "B/B+ is the middle of the curve, and it's good enough for me..." I didn't put together a resume until February, only did one serious interview and decided to work for my Torts prof, who is a rockstar nice guy, good teacher and First Amendment scholar, instead of stressing for a firm job or even a top public interest placement. A summer of thinking about whether Madison had a tripartite division of rights (natural, constitutive and constitution-given) is my idea of a good time. (Another reason why I may not be representative of law students; I'm pretty much just a con law geek and have limited interest in anything useful to earning a living. Not that this is totally lazy, as I've been told that a good recommendation from someone with whom you've worked closely is helpful at clerkship application time.)
If you're an inherently competitive person, you'll probably be inclined to push yourself to be the A student; if you're not, then you'll work as hard as you need to/ are interested in working, and spend the rest of the time goofing off: there's a lot of fun and interesting stuff to do here. I deliberately limited myself to three commitments, so I volunteer to tutor kids from the neighborhood, work on the Journal of Gender & Law, and write and perform in the law revue show, but I also do a lot of random one-offs like Election Protection and the Homeless Population Estimate.
So, in short, if you want to go someplace friendlier and less competitive than Columbia, go to UVA (I'm biased, it's my undergrad institution ;-). Otherwise, I think Columbia is no worse than any other top law school in those areas, and if you are a friendly and uncompetitive person, you will continue to be one here.
7) Thou shalt ask people who are actually at the schools for their opinions.
Ask multiple people, too, and don't be shy about asking the questions that are important to you. If you want to know the strength of a particular ethnic or a religious community (we have enough Mormons at Columbia that their kids have their own playgroup), try to get in touch with someone who belongs to it. If you want to be politically involved, find out how active the relevant groups are. Honestly, just plain Googling can help, because so many law students have blogs and websites these days that you can go straight to them instead of only getting the names the admissions people dole out.
8) Thou shalt get everything done on time; yea, even early.
One of the many ways in which I've generally been undeservedly lucky in life and not had to take the consequences of my stupidity is that I ended up getting into schools even after I had pressed dangerously close to their deadlines. Applying in a timely manner is one way to show that you're really interested in a school. It also allows time for supplementing your application if it only garners a "maybe" from a school you really want to attend.
8b) Thou shalt apply 8 to making the decision on where to attend, to some extent.
Waiting a long time to make a decision can make it more difficult to get housing; Columbia only guarantees housing-on-arrival to students who accept the offer before the end of May. However, if there's somewhere you'd really like to go and you're hanging on the waiting list, stay on even as you make plans to attend somewhere else. Law schools really do use their waiting lists.
9) Thou shalt consider taking time off between undergrad and law school.
If you're losing steam during your senior year -- feeling reluctant to attend class, or to do assignments -- you might want to work before you go to law school, in order to rebuild your enthusiasm for academic life. After two years in an office doing data collection and making spreadsheets, I felt a little more motivated about sitting in lectures, writing papers and studying for exams than I did at the end of 16 straight years of school.
10) Thou shalt not hyperventilate over any of the above.
It's just law school. If you don't like where you go your first year, you can transfer. If you don't like law school, period, you can take a time-out and come back later (see Dahlia Lithwick). People get to do cool, fun, fascinating, important stuff after coming out of a variety of schools. While I can't recommend attending a school outside the top 50 if you want to work at Skadden or clerk for a federal judge, within that range are schools with alumni that go everywhere and do everything. And outside that range are schools with alumni who don't go for those particular gold stars but do the work they love. We all study the same basic curriculum and take the same multistate portion of the bar exam. If you have a choice between UVA and Michigan and you hate cold weather, by all means come to Charlottesville and don't worry about the decision beyond that.