Bad Idea Jeans: The Biggest Mistake You Can Make in Your Yale Law School Application
I've been procrastinating about writing on the blog, because the more time that passes since my last post, the more embarrassed I am to come back. "Fell off the wagon" doesn't really do justice to the THREE posts we've been able to manage this entire season -- as Craig suggested last week, "We fell off, got run over, and have been lying in a ditch since November" is a better metaphor. But, be that as it may, we're back, and will try to keep it up until the end of this cycle.
Now, though I come up with a lot of blog ideas during the admissions season, I usually refrain from writing them because they more often than not involve things one should or should not do in one's application. It seems kind of unfair to spring that on an applicant in, say, January, when their application might be out of their hands already. So I normally tuck the idea away for the following summer or fall (and then forget about it until I see the mistake again the next cycle).
I'm going to make an exception this one time because I've noticed that MANY applicants this year are applying without submitting two academic letters of recommendation. This may not necessarily be a trend; this year I changed my practice to read the letters of recommendation first, before the rest of the application...as a way of putting off the visual disaster that is the FlexApp for as long as possible (yes, I'm looking at you, LSAC). So maybe I'm just noticing it more this year. But trend or not, a failure to submit two academic references is serious Bad Idea Jeans.
I often tell applicants that applying to Yale Law School is a lot like playing blackjack. The odds are on the house, there's more than a little luck involved, but there are a few basic rules you can follow to increase your chances significantly. One of those rules is to submit two references from faculty members who have taught you in a class. Let me put that another way: Your chances of admission to Yale Law School go down drastically if you submit only one or no academic letters of recommendation. Or let me break it down even further: Your letters of recommendation will make or break your application.
[Commence mass applicant freak-out.]
I realize this goes against what you have been hard-wired to believe, namely, that your admission depends almost exclusively on your LSAT and GPA. I remember reading on some admissions consulting blog that your letters of recommendations don't really matter, so you shouldn't spend too much time figuring out who will write them (which could explain why I'm skeptical of admissions consultants). To be fair, this could be true for some law schools . I imagine that a school that admits a very large number of people might focus more on numbers, and use the recommendations just to ensure that the student isn't a serial killer or something. Well, at Yale, we like to ensure that you are not a serial killer and that you are a joy to teach.
The two issues in play here are 1) numbers and 2) process. In terms of numbers, I send the top 20% of the applicant pool on to the faculty to be reviewed. That's around 700 applications, all of which are comparable in terms of grades, scores, writing ability, leadership, saving orphans, etc. These 700 files have to be whittled down by another 75%. Process-wise, the people doing the whittling down are professors. They think everyone looks great. So how do they make distinctions among all these amazing files? They look at what their colleagues have to say about you. Do you ever wonder why someone with a 3.95/178 gets rejected but someone with a 3.81/172 gets in? It's because of comments like these (these are actual or close approximations to verbiage from LORs of students who have been accepted in the past):
"[Applicant] is hands down the single best undergraduate I have ever taught in my 37 years of teaching. Period."
"[Student A] and [Student B], both of whom I taught, are currently at Yale Law School. [Applicant] is better than both of them put together."
"At that point in the discussion I almost sat down and let [Applicant] teach the class -- s/he could have done a better job."
"Any admissions officer who doesn't admit [Applicant] is -- and I beg your pardon -- an idiot."
Over the top? Possibly. But these are the kind of subjective evaluations you are up against. Even in the screening stage, if I know that you don't stand a chance of being admitted by the faculty -- because, for example, in spite of your pretty good numbers you have offered little or no corroboration of your academic ability from professors who have taught you -- I may not send you on at all. It really depends on how good the rest of your application is (though to be honest, it's even more of a red flag if you have a straight-A average and couldn't manage to come up with two faculty references...it makes me wonder whether you are hiding something, like a serious personality defect or crippling social disorder).
If you're reading this post and realized that you didn't submit two academic references, mild to moderate panic would be appropriate. You should then try to get a second letter. If your application is already complete, it is possible -- and likely -- that your application has already been reviewed as is, but the second letter can be helpful in the event that I go back to your file for any reason or if you are placed on the wait list.
NOTE: If you DID submit two academic letters, you do NOT need to submit additional ones at this point. I'm sure some economist could graph this out for me, but there is an optimal number of LORs for Yale and it's somewhere around 2.4. This is because of the "meh" factor. If you submit two references that are stellar, and then one that is just "meh," you immediately bring down the impact of the two great ones. There are some students who manage to find three professors who knock it out of the park for them, but many fall into the "meh" trap. Unless you are absolutely certain that your third recommendation is going to be beyond amazing, just sit tight. And please don't send more than three...that's just overkill.
One final observation. I've noticed that I get mixed reviews whenever I try to give honest application tips and insider advice. For example, in a recent discussion on TLS about my post a few years ago stating emphatically that there is no correlation between when you are admitted and whether you are an auto-admit or admitted by faculty, a poster asked, "Does she really expect us to believe that?"
It's funny -- it had never occurred to me that I could use this blog as a vehicle for mass deception about Yale's admissions process. Though I can see how the image of me sitting at my desk, laughing maniacally about throwing applicants "off the trail" while stroking a very mean and fluffy cat, might fit in with your experience of the law school admissions process generally. I kind of like the image myself. Sadly, the reality is that I'm usually slogging through admissions files while eating a stale hummus wrap from the dining hall, taking occasional breaks to check email and compulsively buy Groupons. Besides, even if I wanted to, it wouldn't be a good idea for me to lie about the admissions process on a blog read by several members of Yale's own faculty. Especially after I just wrote a post entitled, "Please Don't Lie." (For what it's worth, about 20% of faculty are done reading before the winter break, so you could be an auto admit OR a faculty admit even if you are admitted in December.)
But, whatever, I'm just the messenger, people. *shrugs*