Let's Get the Band Back Together
In addition to performing my regular, admissions dean-y duties, I get approached by a variety of media people throughout the year asking for "help." Sometimes these are authors writing books on how to get into law school. Sometimes they are undergraduate school newspapers. And sometimes it's a British educational company asking for my photo to include in one of their textbooks (true story). I won't comment on the requests I grant and don't grant, except to say that in general, I try to place at the top of my considerations whether you, the applicant, would benefit from it and ideally, whether there's an alternative way I can get the same information to you with less pressure on me.
I was discussing this issue with a few of my colleagues from Stanford, Michigan, NYU, Chicago, and Columbia earlier this year, after we all received the same FAQs from a national news magazine. (Yes, we do talk to each other -- in fact, once a year, we all get together at a snazzy beach resort and drink fruity drinks into the wee hours of the morning. What happens during fruity drinks stays with the fruity drinks, so I'll leave it at that.) It occurred to us that many of us created blogs for precisely this reason -- to get the information you are looking for to you without any intermediaries. So we decided to employ the economies of scale created by joining our blogs, and below we bring to you our collective answers to the FAQs we received. I've only posted two of our questions here; you can find our answers to the others at the Columbia Admissions Blog, the Michigan Admissions Blog, and the Stanford Admissions Blog. The panelists include Deans Ann Perry (Chicago), Nkonye Iwerebon (Columbia), Sarah Zearfoss (Michigan), Ken Kleinrock (NYU), and Faye Deal (Stanford).
I encourage you all, by the way, to visit the blogs written by my colleagues during the admissions season. For one thing, all of them have been doing this for much longer than I have, so their collective wisdom -- as evidenced by the below answers -- will be useful to you. Also, you can learn something about the "human" side of each of us: for example, that Dean Deal is a fan of Criminal Minds, but not glow-in-the-dark karma string; or that Dean Zearfoss references esoteric literary works-- as opposed to popular teenage vampire movies, as I do; or that Dean Iwerebon has great fashion sense (that's not really on her blog, but I happen to know that). It helps to know your audience when you're preparing your application, so use the resources available to you. Enjoy!
What do you look for in the personal statement?
Yale: This is the law school admissions equivalent of, "How do you know God exists?" Such a big question, and there's usually no way to answer it with enough specificity to satisfy the person asking it. But I'll do my best. What I look for in a personal statement is a sense of how the person thinks. That is, I am less concerned about someone's substantive interests - though that of course tells me a lot about the applicant and what they would add to and benefit from at Yale - than I am in their ability to analyze those interests and how they relate to their own past experiences and future goals. That's a very vague and circuitous way of saying that I am looking for someone who can "connect the dots" in their life. How do your goals and interests relate to the personal turning points in your life? Your work experiences? Your academic and intellectual journey? What questions have you sought answers to, and what questions remain unanswered? In short, your personal statement should demonstrate an ability to think critically about yourself and your place in the world around you.
Oh, and "I love to argue" is not a good theme for a personal statement.
Stanford: I try to get a sense of who you are through your own words. I've heard from your recommenders and now I want to hear about you from YOU. You all have stories to tell about growing up in a small town, about a teacher who made a big impression on you, about a life-altering event, about losing a parent, about a trip to a far corner of the world, about a work experience that has led you to this personal statement - lots of options. Decide which story you're going to tell me so that I can walk away after reading it thinking I know you just a little better. And, never forget, that good writing is essential.
NYU: Agree completely with the suggestions from Dean Rangappa and Dean Deal. You could approach the personal statement as your opportunity to have "an interview" with admissions officer. If you had fifteen minutes, what question do you hope would be asked? What story would you tell? What do you hope the interviewer would remember about you? The best statements are heartfelt, sincere, straightforward and above all, beautifully written.
Columbia: So much to say on this topic, but let I will limit my comments to the following: I agree with all of the above and would like to expand on one thing-sincerity. It is fairly obvious to us when an applicant tries to be someone or something s/he is not, which is not only off-putting, but can also cast a shadow of doubt on other parts of your application. Be sure that when you talk about future goals, e.g., saving Alaskan whales, it is because you have a demonstrated interest in doing so and not simply because you might have gone on an Alaskan Whale Watching Cruise. We really want to know you who you are and what motivates you, albeit in two pages or less. One last quick thing . . . please do not restate your résumé as that would be such a waste of a great opportunity to express yourself in a meaningful way.
Michigan: This is all completely excellent advice. I disagree with none of it. The only thing I would add is that you ought not worry about appearing exceptional in your personal statement; I talk to so many applicants who feel stymied because they have not yet won, say, the Nobel Prize, and worry that without some massive achievement to point to, they will appear wanting. Not so. The vast majority of applicants do not have the sort of life stories that generate made-for-TV movies, and that is not the standard we are applying. Be yourself, and don't worry about who you're not.
Chicago: The personal statement is the first part of the application that I review. It is where the applicant has the opportunity to really make an impression with the Admissions Committee. I don't want to repeat too much of my colleagues comments because I agree with them. However, I do want to remind applicants that this is a writing sample that you are submitting with your application. Therefore, it should be some of your best work, meaning that there should be no typos, misspellings, etc. Also, one of my biggest pet peeves is when I receive a personal statement addressed to another law school. I know it doesn't really sound like a big deal and mistakes can happen, but remember lawyers need to pay attention to the details, and this type of mistake just sets a wrong tone when I am reading the personal statement and causes me to lack confidence in the applicant.
Can you give a brief description of the lifecycle of an application? What's the timeline applicants should expect?
Yale: Oooh. I get to go first on this one, since Yale is the pariah of releasing decisions. Our admissions process takes longer than most schools, because we involve our entire faculty in the admissions process. I've described the admissions process here. As anyone who's been to law school can attest, it's hard enough to get a professor to turn in grades, let alone a stack of 50 admissions files. Multiply that by 60 and you have my reasons for wanting to fling myself out a window from about December through April. Seriously, though, while our process is time-consuming, it does ensure that every application is read very thoroughly, regardless of grades and LSAT scores, by up to 6 readers (which includes me and in tough cases, my entire admissions staff). So we don't make any decision lightly.
As a result of our process, your chances of admission are the same regardless of when you apply. Many applicants will hear within a couple of months of applying, but applicants who go through the full round of faculty review, as well as applicants who apply later in the season, may not hear until late March or early April, when most of our final decisions are made.
Stanford: My windows don't open otherwise I, too, would want to fling myself out at various points throughout the season. Learning to speed read may be a better alternative, I suppose. What else can I say that Dean Rangappa has not already mentioned? It's a long process here at SLS as well - multiple reviews, faculty reviews - so it does take time.
There is a way to make this whole process move along in a speedier fashion, but it's a way I am certain most applicants would not appreciate. Do everything by the numbers - LSAT and GPA - and pay scant attention to all the other pieces. Bypass the additional review as new materials arrive. Don't involve faculty. I'm not saying we have a perfect process by any means, but a thorough and comprehensive review does take time.
NYU: Top law schools use different admissions models. All of these processes require careful reading by experienced people. Our model is more administrative in nature than the ones that Dean Rangappa and Dean Deal reference. Part of the reason is that we have a very large applicant pool. While there is a faculty admissions committee that oversees the process and policies, the core of the review process has been delegated by the faculty to admissions professionals. We review applications in the order that they become complete, but we do not necessarily make final decisions in that order. This means that we are often able to make decisions on the strongest and weakest applications relatively quickly- sometimes within a few weeks of completion. However, many applications must necessarily be held to compare against the larger applicant pool. The sooner one applies, the sooner the candidate MIGHT hear from us. All applications received by our deadline receive a decision by late April. We urge applicants to submit their materials as early as possible to avoid delays. Unfortunately, a significant number of applicants wait until the last minute to apply and those usually experience the longest wait to hear from us.
Columbia: We too have a careful and thorough application review process. Every single application is read by at least two members of the Selection Committee, all of whom are Admissions Officers. Generally, applications are reviewed in the order in which they were completed and decisions are often made in the same manner. Ours is not a mechanical process as each reviewer brings a different approach and perspective to the evaluation. All of this is good because each applicant receives the benefit of varied experiences and viewpoints. Most candidates who complete their applications by December 31 will be notified by March, while every attempt is made to send out a decision to all applicants by the end of April, including to those that were completed after the deadline.
Michigan: Our process is quite similar to that of Columbia and NYU-the review is usually exclusively administrative, and every file is typically read by two admissions officers. Sometimes, though, we'll want additional reads to get new points of view, either by other admissions officers or by our faculty committee. And as Dean Deal and Dean Rangappa describe, involving faculty usually makes the process take a lot longer! Long discussions typically ensue. But in general, it is our goal to have decisions made by late March or early April, and we've met that goal for many years in a row. For more detail than you'll likely want regarding our admissions procedures, visit our FAQ.
Chicago: Our process is similar to Columbia, NYU, and Michigan. We review applications in the order they are completed. Even though we have a paperless process and review all of the materials electronically, it still takes time to process each application. We need to make sure we have all of the application materials before they are reviewed for a decision. Each file is reviewed by at least two members of the Admissions Committee which is made up of both admissions officers and faculty. We release decisions on a rolling basis so the sooner your file is complete the better. We also try to get decisions out to all applicants by the end of April, though this gets difficult with our growing applicant pool!
Again, check out more of our answers at Stanford's, Michigan's, and Columbia's admissions blogs!