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The Process of Admissions in Law Schools

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In most cases, a school's admissions professionals will determine whether to admit you or not based upon the whole of your application folder—your job histories, educational achievements, extracurricular and community involvements, honors and awards, personal statement and other essays, recommendations, and interview evaluations. Not every admissions officer will weight the different elements in the same way, or for that matter grade them in the same way, but the process is consistent for each and every applicant to a school. While the admissions process at different schools varies somewhat, it varies much less than might be expected—partly because admissions officers at the various schools talk with one another about procedures—but probably owing more to the desire schools have to be thorough in their evaluation of candidates. Schools go to great lengths to be sure they have given every applicant a fair chance.

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Rolling Admissions

Most of the top law schools adhere to a rolling admission process, in which applications are evaluated as they are submitted. The school begins to accept applications sometime in the fall (often October 1, but occasionally as early as September 1 or as late as December 1) and will continue to accept them for several months (usually through February 1 or 15). Applicants will generally learn of the school's decision within a month or two (or three) of the completion of their files, although there is considerable difference in the speed at which various schools respond.

Note that your application will receive no attention from admissions officers until it has been completed, meaning that everything that is required has been received by the school. Thus, if your second (but still required) recommendation has not yet been submitted, the admissions secretarial staff will keep your file open until they receive the recommendation, at which time they will indicate to the admissions officers that your file is now ready.

The Standard Admissions Model

Who Are The Admissions Directors?

The Director of Admissions is typically someone who has worked in law school admissions for some years. At the top schools, this generally means someone who has had at least five years' experience as a more junior admissions officer at the same school, or an equivalent amount of time in charge of admissions at a less prestigious school.

Who Is On The Admissions Committee?

Generally, the Admissions Committee includes four to seven faculty members who have been selected either by the Dean or the Director. The appointment of faculty members to the Committee is on a rotational basis. The selected professors are most often tenured, and come from all different fields at the school. The school's admissions director may sit on the committee; if not, he or she will be utilized as a consultant to it. In addition, a number of schools now include students on the admissions committee. They may be voting members or just advisors.

How Are Decisions Made?

There are several models for making admissions decisions. One that is commonly used has the Director of Admissions be the first reader of all files. She will then immediately accept those she feels are outstanding, reject those who are clearly below the school's quality cutoff, and forward a modest number in the "middle group" to the admissions committee. The faculty members on the committee will, among themselves, come to a consensus about which of these files to admit.

A variation on this model has each of several admissions officers give a first reading to various files, with each person having the power to accept or reject the obvious winners and losers but, once again, referring those on the margin to the whole admissions committee (or to other admissions officers). In this variation, it is common for the admissions director to cast a quick glance over the various files he or she has not been assigned, just to make sure that nothing is amiss in the process.

Another approach has two admissions officers give a "blind" reading to an applicant's file, meaning that each one reads without knowing what the other officer has decided. If both admissions officers rate the applicant as an "accept," then no more work needs to be done: The applicant is accepted. Similarly, if both admissions officers rate her as a "reject," the applicant is rejected. On the other hand, if they disagree about her, or both rate her as an "uncertain," then her file will be considered further. At this point most schools have the admissions committee decide as a group.

Thus, the role of the admissions committee is typically to decide the hard cases, generally with the input of the admissions director or other senior admissions officer—or to add perspective to the reading of a file when one or another of its members has specialized knowledge that can help illuminate a candidacy.

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For example, a faculty member on the committee who has taught in Italy may be able to interpret an Italian academic record more expertly than can an admissions officer.

The Criteria

Chicago has explained what it looks for in candidates: "Our task is to select those candidates who appear to demonstrate exceptional academic and professional promise and, at the same time, put together a stimulating and diverse entering class."

Strong academic promise. "We seek indications that an applicant has the discipline and ability to handle a demanding program. The overall quality of the undergraduate school attended and its grading practices will often be important considerations in interpreting the GPA."

Professional promise, "We will review the transcripts ... to determine the difficulty of the courses taken and whether the college record has given the applicant an opportunity to demonstrate analytical skills and the ability to speak and write with precision, fluency, and economy."

Diversity among students. "We make special efforts to ensure that each entering class contains students from a variety of racial, ethnic, educational, and geographic backgrounds. Such diversity provides students with new perspectives on the law and promotes informed discussions inside and outside the classroom. We are particularly interested in receiving applications from women and minority candidates, two groups traditionally underrepresented in the law."

Other schools look for similar qualities. One easy way to learn what the top law schools want is to look at the recommendation forms they use. These typically ask a recommender to comment on specific qualities or to check boxes in a grid, indicating whether the applicant's analytical ability, for example, is in the top 2 percent, 5 percent, 10 percent, 25 percent, 50 percent, or bottom half of those the recommender has seen at similar stages in their careers. Leading schools ask recommenders to evaluate similar qualities.

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The Criteria Trade-Off

The question inevitably arises: How do admissions directors determine whom to accept, given that some applicants will have outstanding job records or extracurricular credentials but unimpressive grades and LSAT scores, whereas other applicants will have the reverse set of strengths and weaknesses? In other words, how do admissions directors trade off the different admission criteria? There is no set answer to this. There are, however, three considerations to keep in mind.

First of all, it is important to understand that the top schools do not need to make many such trade-offs. The Yales, Stanfords, and Harvards are in the enviable position of having many applicants with sterling undergraduate records, impressive work experience, and significant extracurricular achievements, which negates the need to trade off criteria.

Second, schools will weight criteria differently depending upon the applicant. For example, someone who is still in college and has had one part-time job at a restaurant can expect to have his undergraduate record, extracurricular activities, and LSAT scores count very heavily. Someone with seven years of work experience can expect that somewhat less weight will be placed on the academic measures; her extensive experience provides a great deal of information about her, making her experience a much more important indicator of her potential than it was for the man still in college.

Third, different schools will have different priorities, causing them to apply a somewhat different set of criteria, and criteria weighting, to the process. Northwestern, for instance, is taking fewer and fewer students straight from college; it values the depth and nature of work experiences more than do other schools.

The Importance of Diversity

Law schools believe strongly in the values of diversity. They feel that a mixture of races, nationalities, educational experiences, and job backgrounds in their student bodies enhances the learning process and also makes for a more attractive group of graduates, given that employers need a wide range of potential recruits. Schools express their desire for diversity partly by marketing intensively to hard-to-attract groups, partly by adjusting admissions standards for those it most desires (especially African-Americans and Latinos). Schools' desire for diversity inevitably influences how they evaluate their applicants.

Who You Are Is Important

Admissions officers have a lot of information about you when it comes time to make their decisions. Most applicants assume that the admissions process is devoted only to weighing applicants' grade-point averages and LSAT test scores and they therefore make a fundamental mistake. Admissions offices are made up of human beings, generally those who have chosen to work in a human resources capacity, and consequently they are particularly interested in admitting real human beings rather than a set of statistics. You will find it hard to gain admission if you are just so many data points on a page. Applicants, who can make themselves real, that is, human, are more likely to gain supporters among the admissions officers and committee members. You should therefore take every opportunity to distinguish yourself from the mass of the applicant pool and make your human qualities apparent. The reason it takes so much time and effort to accept or reject a given applicant is because admissions officers try very hard to understand the person, not just to glance at the test scores.

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