This is the tenth installment of our 224 part series, Better Know A Dean. Today we posted our interview with Asha Rangappa, Associate Dean for Admissions at Yale Law — The Fightin’ Yalies!
Dean Rangappa graduated from the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University in 1996, and from Yale Law School in 2000. In between, she was a Fulbright Scholar in Bogota, Colombia, where she studied Colombian constitutional reform and its impact on U.S. drug policy in the region. During her time at Yale Law School, she served as a Coker Fellow for Constitutional Law, participated in the Yale-Chile Linkage Program, and founded Yale Law School’s first theater troupe, the Court Jesters. Following law school, Dean Rangappa served as a law clerk for the Honorable Juan R. Torruella, U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit in San Juan, Puerto Rico. She then joined the Federal Bureau of Investigation as a Special Agent, specializing in counterintelligence investigations in New York City from 2002 until 2005 when she returned to Yale Law School as the Assistant Dean of Admissions, becoming Associate Dean in 2007.
AD: In preparation for this interview I’ve read through much of your blog and actually read the posts for Bad Idea Jeans twice (one time for my wife), and we were literally rolling on the floor laughing. So, I’m glad you have a sense of humor since I try to channel Stephen Colbert when conducting my interviews with admissions deans; therefore, my first question has to be this:
AdmissionsDean.com – a great place to get information on law school admissions, or the greatest place to get information on law school admissions?
AR: I’m not really sure. You’re relatively new and I have to admit that I haven’t spent a whole lot of time on AdmissionsDean, but the site’s layout is great and from what I have read, the content and information seems sound. If it’s OK, I wouldn’t mind reserving my final judgment until I see how you continue to build the site and, more importantly, how prospective students adopt and use it.
AD: OK, I see. I’ll just put you down for “greatest place to get information about law school”?
AR: Well, that’s not really what I was trying to say. I was…
AD: Aside from being hilarious and witty, your blog posts are extremely informative and really give readers a glimpse into your decision-making process. What prompted you to start the 203 blog?
AR: Well, we noticed that it was a trend among several law schools to create a blog and it seemed like a great way to be able to give a lot of information that, maybe 10 years ago, students would have gotten at LSAC Forums and law school fairs. In recent years, however, we noticed that students are turning more to the Internet to get information about law school admissions. So, we wanted to create a blog with a great format that people wanted to keep coming back to. Therefore, our intent was to personalize it as much as possible. To do that, we created different columns that the people in the admissions office write. For instance, I have a column on the blog called “Ask Asha” and I named it that because I really wanted readers to feel like they can reach out to a real person who will, in turn, answer their questions personally as opposed to receiving a form letter response from a faceless being at some large institution. So, I hope that that comes through with my posts.
AD: Do you attend LSAC Forums and law school fairs?
AR: I don’t personally attend every law school forum anymore. The recruiting season is so busy and so compressed that I just can’t be at every single event, but we do always have a YLS representative in attendance — usually someone from the admissions office and/or a second or third-year law student who can answer general admissions questions and also give insights about student life at Yale.
AD: From your experience, is there an etiquette that should be observed when approaching the Yale table at a law school forum or fair? Have you ever seen someone blow their chances because they made a poor impression when meeting you at one of these events?
AR: We’re not really taking names of people who approach us at our table and then making secret files on those people when we get back to the office. For that to happen, someone’s behavior would have to be really egregious and offensive. But at the same time, you can make a really good impression. For instance, you can have a really good conversation with a person at our table — whether it’s me or another Yale representative — and we might decide to take note of you because we liked your demeanor or, more often, you asked some really thoughtful questions.
So, I guess that there is a proper etiquette prospective students should follow. I think a good rule of thumb is that before you approach a table, do some research on the school and if you have some specific, substantive questions about the school that are NOT answered in the Viewbook, then feel free to ask them so you can get that piece of information which might help you make your decision.
AD: Since applicants can find out so much information about the schools that might interest them online before arriving at a forum, what real benefit can be gained by attending one?
AR: You’re right, so much of this information is already out there. Between sites like yours and our blog with columns that provide the perspectives of not only admissions officers like me, but also students who are currently attending Yale — pretty much all the information anyone could possibly want to know about most schools is already being covered elsewhere and is readily accessible. So, honestly [laughing], I don’t really know why someone would want to attend a forum, except that they are really simply a remnant of a past time when students got all their information (and applications) at law schools forums. When I was applying to law school, you either had to write to the law school specifically to request an application or their materials, or you had to go to a forum or a fair where they would be to collect them. That was a time before blogs, discussion boards, chat rooms, AdmissionsDean.com or whatever, so it really was useful to go to these events and see someone face-to-face because that was probably the only interaction you were going to get with a law school. So, again, why would an applicant attend now? I really don’t know.
Now, recently we’ve increased our outreach — both physical visits and online webinars — to individual undergraduate colleges and universities because we realized that most of the time people had questions that were specific to their school or situation and it made sense to go to those students and talk with them directly at events set up by the college’s pre-law advisor. The webinars in particular have really allowed us to reach a lot of prospective applicants. Yale has not been immune to the downturn in the economy that we all experienced this year and, as a result, we had our travel budget cut. However, I’m proud to say that by setting up webinars like we did at so many undergraduate schools this year, we were able to actually connect with more students this year than in years past.
So, I guess, perhaps if we are not coming to an applicant’s undergraduate school either virtually or in person, then maybe a forum or a fair is a good way to meet with a Yale representative. But then again, you could always just logon to our blog and Ask Asha (or someone else) a question you might have about our admissions process, life at Yale or whatever.
I would say, though, that if someone attends a college or university that we are not currently visiting — and they are not in close proximity to a forum or fair where that we might attend — then that person should approach their pre-law advisor and ask them to contact us to schedule something. We work very closely with undergraduate pre-law advisors in an effort to help them best accommodate their students. Even if there isn’t enough interest at a particular college or university to warrant a visit — say only one or two students are interested in learning about Yale Law School — we’ll work with the pre-law advisor to set up a conference call to make sure we answer those students’ questions.
AD: You’ve had a pretty amazing academic and professional career. After graduating from Yale Law School in 2000, you were a law clerk for Hon. Juan R. Torruella, US. Court of Appeals for the 1st Circuit in San Juan, Puerto Rico (not a bad gig!) and then joined the FBI as a Special Agent focused on counterintelligence investigations in New York City from 2002-05. What made you make the move to come back to Yale to become the Associate Dean of Admissions?
AR: It was a number of different factors. I would have loved to stay with the FBI longer — it was a great job and I often think I might go back. There was a confluence of factors, the first being we wanted to start a family. You see, my husband is an FBI agent as well and having two agents as spouses creates a lot of scheduling conflicts and is not very conducive to starting a family. So this opportunity presented itself and I love the Law School and New Haven. When I was hired, the dean at the time was Harold Koh who had been my professor while I was here and I thought it would be a great way for me to give back. So, there were a lot of different factors that came together at the right time, and I decided that the opportunity to come back and work at Yale was one I could not pass up — even if it meant giving up an amazing, exciting job with the FBI.
AD: It’s been almost a decade since you walked Yale’s hallways as a student. What are the biggest changes you have noticed at the law school (or New Haven) since you were a student? And what aspects of Yale remain timeless? Speaking from personal experience, I was in New Haven last spring for the first time in about 15 years for dinner with one of your professors, and I was blown away. It was so…
AR: Hip? I know. I love this city. I was very skeptical when I came to New Haven as a law student, having come from Princeton for undergrad — and as part of the rivalry between those two schools there are a lot of rumors and scary stories about New Haven. But I came here and really fell in love with the place. It’s a great town that is small enough to have a community and places where “everyone knows your name”, but also large enough to have some of the best aspects of a big city, like the theater, top-notch restaurants, art galleries, Shakespeare plays on the green — it just doesn’t end.
Now, when I was here as a student, we didn’t have the whole shopping area on Broadway and a lot of New York-quality restaurants opened up while I was gone offering every kind of cuisine you can imagine — this city is really amazing. So for people who feel that Yale’s location — New Haven — is a turnoff for them, I really encourage those people to come and visit. For too long, Yale has been branded a “great school in a not-so-great neighborhood,” and if you come and see it for yourself you’ll agree with me that that characterization is complete unfair.
As for the law school, we’ve had a lot of changes here too. For one, our faculty has gotten bigger, so we have more people teaching more subjects. In terms of student life, there just seems to be a lot more going on now than while I was here. It seems like every day there’s a different lecture, activity or talk — everything from a wine tasting along with a discussion led by a lawyer who specializes in wine law, to massages for students during exams, to intellectual talks and…
AD: Whoa! Whoa! Back up a second. Massages for students? Are you being serious?
AD: For real?
AD: [Long pause]. Only at Yale…
AD: Or is that true? Have you heard of other law schools offering massages to their students?
AR: [Still laughing]. I don’t think I’ve heard of other schools doing that, no. But getting back to other non-spa related aspects of life here, I’d like to emphasize that we constantly have great talks and people are always coming in to bring a new perspective to our students. For instance, Dean Post is a huge movie buff, and he likes to do a movie night every few months. Actually, tonight there’s going to be a movie night where he’s going to do a private screening of the movie “Doubt” at the Whitney Humanity Center. Following the film, Dean Post is going to lead a discussion about the film.
So, while there was a lot going on while I was a student here, I would say that everything has just exponentially increased to the point that I really don’t know how students here are able to keep up with everything.
AD: I guess those types of activities, or that sense of community, is easy to achieve at Yale because it is such a small school.
AR: That’s absolutely right. It’s a lot easier to pull off massages for students or movie nights with the Dean when you have an entering class of 190 than when you have an entering class of 575. And remember, the second part of your original question was “what aspects of Yale have remained timeless?” That’s the piece of it for me that has remained timeless — the intimacy and the connection between the students, and between the students and the faculty. I don’t know of many places where the dean of the law school is really likely to know the names of all his or her students. You really can only achieve that sense of community by attending a small school like ours. That’s the special part of Yale that I think is timeless and is something to cherish and preserve.
Also, I should emphasize the sense of community that exists between our students. I went to an undergraduate university where a lot was made about “community” and everyone was like “Rah, Rah Princeton.” And when I decided to come to Yale I certainly wasn’t expecting to forge the same deep relationships and bonds with my fellow classmates that I did as an undergrad. However, I can honestly say that the relationships I formed in law school were probably deeper than those in college, and that’s really something rare at a professional school — particularly a top-tier law school. The collaboration between students and the mutual desire between classmates to see each other excel and achieve their full potential is what, in my mind, most stands out about Yale, making it such a special place.
AD: Do you think that there is less a less competitive atmosphere here because Yale Law students are so desirable in the legal marketplace that they pretty much know they’ll have a job regardless of the grades they achieve? Let’s face it, if students aren’t competing for jobs, it probably makes them less likely to razor blade pages out of the books in the library in an effort to gain a competitive advantage over their classmates?
AR: I think there are a number of factors going on. First, and perhaps most significantly, we don’t have a traditional, stratified grading system with associated GPAs and class ranks. We have what some have called a “virtual grading system” where the first semester is simply “credit/fail” — and everyone gets “credit” — and after that we have a system that is: “honors, pass, low-pass, or fail” which for any student who attends class and is even slightly motivated will translate into an “honors/pass” system. We don’t have curves for how many honors can be given out so ours is a system where students aren’t competing with their classmates, rather they are challenging themselves to master the material and there is very little concern about how you are doing in relation to the rest of the class. You are learning for yourself and not because you are going to end up above or below some curve. So our students have a mindset that they will really get out of the experience what they put into it, an attitude which we find motivates students to learn far more successfully than some arbitrary grading curve. The lack of formal grades and a strict grading curve is very liberating for our students — they are now free to learn the material for the sake of learning it and not because they are looking to achieve some letter grade in the class that will somehow give them a later advantage over one of their classmates. So, as a result, student are able to work together in study groups, share outlines and they don’t have to cut pages out of the books in the library to make sure someone else fails, because in order for them to succeed someone else does not have to do poorly.
Another thing I’d like to point out with respect to how students get along here relates back to our small size. When students are looking at outside opportunities after law school like jobs and clerkships, we’re starting out with a small body of students who are already extremely diverse with respect to their goals, interests, and passions. So, again, they are not really competing with each other when they go after these employment opportunities because there are so few Yale students to begin with. For example, when I applied for my clerkships, I’m pretty sure I was the only student in my class who applied for a clerkship in Puerto Rico.
AD: Puerto Rico was a very smart move, by the way.
AR: [Laughing] I know, it was a great clerkship! But seriously, there were only 180 of us and there were some who were interested in going back to Ohio or Tennessee, and some were interested in pursuing BigLaw jobs down in New York, Washington DC, or Chicago. So everyone had their own career paths they sought to pursue and you didn’t have this huge rush of people all competing for the same job.
Finally, a lot has to be said about the fact that students here are encouraged to pursue whatever path they want and, of course, it helps that our graduates have a multitude of opportunities available to them as a result of our generous loan forgiveness program (which I personally was on when I was in the FBI). So, if I don’t want to work in BigLaw or pursue a clerkship, then I don’t have to do it — this is very liberating indeed. Students here are really able to ask themselves what they really want to do and think outside the box without any pressure for conformity. And whatever your choice, your classmates here tend to be very supportive because, like I said, your decision to do something different is not a judgment of whatever choices they might have made.
AD: Yale Law has a pretty distinguished list of alumni. Two of the past six US Presidents, the current Secretary of State, and three of the nine sitting Supreme Court Justices are all graduates. Given Yale’s track record, there’s a pretty good chance that you have reviewed the application file of at least one future leader of this country – do you feel any pressure?
AR: Well, fortunately, I feel very little pressure because our entire faculty participates in the admissions process. So, while I’d like to take credit for all the “good ones,” that really wouldn’t be fair.
Generally, the way it works is that I do the initial review of each application and at that point I have one of three options: (1) directly admit the person, (2) reject the person, or (3) to send the applicant file on for a faculty review. We have 60 permanent faculty members, and all of them participate in the faculty review process.
So, if I decide to send an applicant on for a faculty review, that person’s file goes to a faculty committee made up of three professors. Each committee receives about 50 files, which the professors will then individually read and score. It’s also important to note that the system is anonymous so the professors who make up the 3-person committee are unaware of who the other two faculty members are. Professors are then asked to score applicants on a score of 2 to 4 with a score of 4 being the highest — and they have a curve so that they can only give so many 2’s, 3’s and 4’s. And, you have to remember that these are already files that have been pre-screened by me so they really are a very competitive bunch to begin with.
Each reader is free to use his or her own criteria. They can give weight for some things and discount for others and do whatever they want to do to come up with their ratings system. After a file has gone through three reads, the file comes back to the admissions office and we add up the scores. Applicants who receive a cumulative score of 12 — which means they got 4’s from all three readers — are extended an offer of admission. Generally, even applicants who receive a score of 11 — which is a 4, 4, and a 3 — are also admitted. Then, from the remaining scores we create a wait list from which some people may be released.
AD: Roughly how many applicants receive an automatic admit from you and how many applicants do you pass along for faculty review?
AR: I admit roughly 50-80 students a year directly. So let’s say in the end we extend about 250 offers of admission — I’m making the decision to admit anywhere between 20-30% of those students. The remaining 70-80% — the bulk of the students admitted — are admitted by the faculty. In terms of the percentage of the entire pool of applicants who are sent to the faculty, I would say it is about 20%, which means that we have a lot of applicants who are flat out rejected after my initial review. But look, our applicant pool is around 3,500 students, so it still means that about 700-800 files go on to get reviewed by faculty — and those, again, are the most competitive files.
The luxury we have is that we have more qualified people who apply to us than we can take and we really could fill our class 3-4 times over — we just simply don’t have the room to do so. So, at some level, the distinctions we’re going to be making between applicants are highly subjective because we’re seeing a lot of applicants with great scores. The idea is that we have 60 different perspectives offering their opinions on whom we should admit and on whom we should pass. This helps us arrive at the final 200 or so people we choose to admit.
Now, sometimes I’m torn about whether to send an applicant along for a faculty review. When this happens, I first ask the other two people in my office — Yale’s Director of Admissions and Director of Recruiting — to take a look at the file and offer their thoughts. So, realistically, some applications actually receive up to six different reads. I really do my best to make sure that each application is thoroughly reviewed before any decisions are made and, most importantly, that our “first cut” is not based on scores and numbers alone.
AD: YLS sometimes gets a bum rap for being “too theoretical”: Yale Law students might have heated classroom debates about whether property exists at all, while students at other law schools are busy covering easements, the rule against perpetuities (ok, let’s hope not!), and takings law. Yale’s reputation for being heavy on theory and lighter on rules-based teaching sometimes concerns applicants who want to enter BigLaw rather than being brilliant academics. How do you respond to these concerns?
AR: There are several misconceptions, and while I believe that characterization is an overstatement, to the extent that it may be true that we do focus heavily on legal theory here at Yale, why should that be a turn off for students intent on entering a traditional law practice? As our former dean, Dean Koh, used to tell students: “You can learn the rules, but the rules are going to change.” So, memorizing a bunch of black-letter rules is not very helpful if tomorrow all those rules suddenly change. It’s not enough to simply memorize rules; rather, you need to understand the reasoning behind the rules, their current effect on people’s lives and, most importantly, what effects you can expect to see if those rules were to change. That’s what “legal theory” is all about — understanding the conceptual framework in which the law exists. And when you understand that, then you are much better equipped to go out and vigorously represent your clients in practice because you are not simply limited to knowing the rules. Instead, you can actually understand how a set of rules applies to a particular case and recognize those circumstances — and there are many — where a rule’s application would not necessarily further its original purpose. This is the moment a lawyer changes from someone who simply follows the law to someone who advocates for changes to the law. This is what it means to be a lawyer. Therefore, if you understand the context in which laws exist, you’re actually better equipped to practice than if you’re not. Consequently, understanding (and mastering) legal theory is not only applicable to academics, but it equally relevant (and important) to practicing attorneys.
Also, to the extent that Yale students do learn legal theory, I don’t really think that that experience is unique to Yale. I would be very surprised if you went to any of the top-ten law schools and you weren’t challenged to learn and understand legal theory. I simply cannot believe that — especially with our immediate peers — we teach legal theory here at Yale, but if you drove two hours north all of a sudden you’d just be memorizing code. I don’t think that’s the case at all, particularly because we do produce so many academics, most whom teach or are deans at the top law schools. So, to the extent that Yale graduates enter academia and are really influencing legal education, the way the law is taught at Yale must — by natural extension — affect the way that law is taught elsewhere, simply because we do produce so many professors.
AD: You’ve noted on your blog that in your downtime you’ve been known to “troll through some of the discussion boards out there” and see what people are posting. Do you have any favorite sites you like to scour?
AR: I generally like to snoop around in top-law-schools.com and sometimes in LawSchoolDiscussion.org. Of course, once the conversation starts to become a bit more robust on AdmissionsDean.com, I’m sure I’ll probably sneak by for a peek at what people are saying here as well.
AD: In your “trolling,” have you ever been able to identify an applicant – or at least wanted to – because of a post he or she made?
AR: My answer would be “no comment” except to say that people should be very careful what they decide to write on a discussion board. Remember, I was an FBI agent, so I suggest that we just leave it at that [laughing]!
AD: What are the some of the biggest misconceptions (or flat out lies) you’ve seen posted on discussion boards about Yale Law?
AR: I’ve read a lot of misconceptions about how and why we select people. I really try to be as transparent as possible about our admissions process. One main point to take home from this interview is that we do not have a uniform policy that we are only going to admit an applicant with a certain profile, because there is a group of 60+ people deciding whom to admit and they all have different preferences and different things that they deem important.
This means that we really do we love all kinds of applicants, and everything in your application will be taken into consideration. By contrast, the bad news for some applicants is that we don’t really have a profile that allows you to check off a bunch of boxes which would help you determine whether you are a better or worse candidate than somebody else. So, I am really frustrated when I read that “Yale only takes future academics” or “YLS only wants people interested in human rights” — it’s simply not true because we have so many different types of professors reading files (from corporate law, to bankruptcy, to criminal law) and obviously they take an interest in building a model class for themselves which, in turn, will make their job of teaching a lot easier later on.
AD: Yale Law has maintained the #1 spot in USNEWS’s rankings since they began in 1989? First, how do you feel about the USNEWS rankings? And second, how much stock do you think applicants should place in them?
AD: Ugh? You really want me to put you down for “Ugh”?
AR: Yes, feel free to put me down for “Ugh.” Look, I think that applicants should review the rankings for whatever objective — and by objective, I mean factually verifiable — information they provide. So, for instance, if an applicant is really interested in the number of volumes in a law school’s library, then USNEWS will report that and I think it’s fairly safe for an applicant to rely on that information. But, of course, all of the relevant information that USNEWS provides like median LSAT, GPA, URM admits, etc. can be easily found on individual law school websites (or aggregated in places like AdmissionDean.com).
But what applicants have to understand is that USNEWS’s attempt to do more than simply report factual (verifiable) data — when they use that data to try and “rank” schools — is where they fall short. USNEWS uses a formula to come up with its rankings and their formula may not be the same as what all applicants find important. USNEWS’s formula gives weight to certain things that may or may not be important to an applicant. So, prospective students just need to understand what the rankings are and how certain data points are weighed. If those things match up, then I’d say the rankings are a good tool that might be meaningful for that applicant; however, more often than not, USNEWS’s formula will not be in line with the interests of a vast majority of applicants. This is why I think the rankings are an unreliable tool for most people.
AD: You are not the first admissions dean we heard who made that complaint so one of the things we did in the “Researching Law Schools” section of AdmissionsDean.com is allow applicants to manipulate the ABA data and create their own rankings using different weights for up to five different data points. So, for instance, if someone is interested in small class sizes at schools in the northeast that have high bar passage rates in their primary jurisdiction, they can search for and rank those schools based on those criteria.
AR: I think that’s fantastic. A tool like that which can be customized depending upon a user’s personal preferences – that’s something that’s a very important for prospective students. I also noticed that you do have a reference for a lot of the different rankings out there and, again, while they provide limited information they do have some utility — more information is always better than less.
AD: As a follow-up, do you feel any angst in early April when USNEWS releases its new edition… perhaps cringing at the thought that this might be the year YLS slips to #2?
AR: Me, personally?
AD: Sure, you personally and even Yale, institutionally?
AR: I personally don’t really feel that much pressure because, again, the formula that USNEWS uses factors many things that are out of my control — so much so that the “admissions” piece of it doesn’t really affect the overall ranking that much. For instance, I don’t have any control over our bar passage rates, reputation surveys, and/or the amount of money spent by the school. The truth is that while I always try to admit the best possible class I can, the way the USNEWS ranking is currently formulated, what I do has very little impact on the final result. So, no real pressure here!
Now, I guess I would be lying if I said having a big “#1” next to the name of my law school doesn’t really matter to me, but my point is that we don’t let that number define us as an institution. We are not doing things institutionally — and definitely not anything in the admissions office — in order to manipulate that ranking. So, if USNEWS changed their formula tomorrow and weighted something differently and we ultimately fell down to #2 then OK, I guess we’re #2 in their eyes. The new ranking would simply be more reflective of the data points that USNEWS ultimately decided to weight. I think that the vision that the dean has for Yale Law School is not going to change based on whatever USNEWS ultimately decides to do.
AD: Tell us a little about the “Options Within The JD Program,” such as the student-directed programs and the independent and group-reading programs?
AR: Yeah, we have a lot of options for students to direct their own courses of study. The primary way is that we have two writing requirements for graduation and these tend to be independent research projects that are done under the supervision of a faculty member. Those papers can be on any subject the student chooses and they can include grants for research and travel, and a lot of students do take advantage of those resources.
To the extent that we don’t offer a course in a particular area where a student might have an interest, we have these things called “Reading Groups” where a group of students can get together and create a 1-credit course complete with their own syllabus based on readings, cases, invited speakers, etc.
AD: What are some of the topics that students have used as the basis for a Reading Group?
AR: Animal Law and Adoption Law are two that immediately come to mind, but we have a bunch of other examples listed on our website. Typically, the topics tend to be ones that Yale does not expect to bring in a faculty member with expertise in that distinct area to teach any time soon. But there are enough faculty members here who probably touch on related topics that they can help students put together courses on those discrete topics.
AD: How big do these Reading Groups tend to be usually?
AR: Anywhere from 8 to 18 students — so relatively small groups.
Finally, we also allow students to take up to 12 units outside the law school — at any professional school or department at the University — and count those credits toward their J.D. So, to the extent that a student is interested in an interdisciplinary education like Law & Public Health, they can take classes at the School of Public Health and count those units toward their J.D. Now that’s up to 12 units of graded credit (including two semesters of language study), which means that law students can audit as many classes as they may like, anywhere in the University.
AD: Yale’s website and brochures boast about the law school’s remarkably low student-faculty ratio of 7:1 and an average class size of 20 students. Does this generally apply to traditional first-year classes like Contracts and Torts, or are there larger sections of students for those core subjects?
AR: The way it works is that our first-year students are required to take one term of our core first-year courses — Civil Procedure, Contracts, Torts, and Constitutional Law — and one of those courses will be conducted in what we call a “small group,” which is a seminar consisting of about 15-17 students. So, Yale 1Ls are guaranteed to have one of their first-term classes held in a small-group setting that is under 20 students — which is a great way to get to know your professor and your fellow classmates. The other three courses are going to range in class size from about 30 to 80 students. So even in your first term, students can expect only about one “large” class that will have approximately 80 students which, when compared to most of our peer schools law schools, is not really all that “large.”
AD: There’s no doubt that YLS gets some pretty remarkable applicants and most have earned extremely impressive LSAT scores and GPAs. Although your Viewbook is pretty clear that “there is no cut off for grade point average or LSAT score,” I was still surprised to learn that someone with an LSAT score of 154 was admitted to the class of 2011; this person is clearly an outlier, but what type of “soft” factors are you looking for when someone falls below YLS’s median LSAT/GPA? I know this might be difficult to answer, but could you elaborate on what things do you look at when deciding whether someone can achieve academic/professional excellence at YLS (besides LSAT/GPA)?
AR: Yeah, so you had asked me before what things irked me about the discussion boards and this touches upon that — we don’t have a set profile for an ideal candidate to Yale. As you point out, you clearly do not need to have a certain GPA or LSAT to be considered by us. While it’s true that the majority of our students are going to be in a particular range — and you can look at our Viewbook for those stats — when you look at the entire range from low to high you do see people who we admitted with a 154 LSAT score or a 3.5 GPA — students who are not anywhere near our median numbers for LSAT and GPA.
My feeling on the LSAT is that students first need to understand what the LSAT hopes to achieve; it’s supposed to be a way to predict how successful a student will be during the first year of law school. It simply allows admissions officers to get a sense about how well you’re going to do if they let you in. That’s all. My personal feeling is that a student’s entire application informs their LSAT score rather than the other way around. By this I mean that the LSAT is a one-day test, and while it is a piece of information about an applicant, it doesn’t tell the whole story. If it did, we would simply ask for your LSAT score and that would be it. But we are fortunate to have a lot of other pieces of information, like your past performance in terms of undergraduate GPA. We can see what people think of you as a student from your letters of recommendation. We read your own work from your essays and your LSAT writing sample (and yes we do read it!). So we have a lot of other pieces of information. So my feeling is that when an entire application is extremely compelling, it can overcome a less-than-stellar LSAT score. If all the other pieces of evidence point to the fact that someone is going to be a great law student, then I’m probably going to give the applicant the benefit of the doubt.
So, for example, I recently read a file of a former military officer and combat veteran who had amazing experiences, a very compelling essay, astounding references, a great academic record but a not-so-great LSAT score, in part, because he took the test between deployments to Iraq. I’m willing to overlook this person’s less-than-desirable LSAT score because I don’t want to miss out on the chance to have this person attend our school. Now, I’m not saying you have to be a Purple Heart recipient for your LSAT score to be thrown out, but that’s one example of where I’m not so blinded by the numbers that I am unwilling to dig deeper and really see what this person has to offer.
Now, I will say that if you have a weak LSAT score you’d better “BRING IT” in all other parts of your application if you’re going to overcome that weakness. Such an applicant needs to craft the entire application so that that one number is going to matter less. And I think that the LSAT is the one part of the application that you can do that with. As you can imagine, it’s harder to overcome a lower GPA since you had four years to pull that number up. Not to say that it doesn’t happen, though. You’ll see on our range of GPAs that we admitted people with a GPA far below the median because, perhaps, they got a C- in Organic Chemistry their freshman year when they thought they wanted to go to medical school. A low grade or two will definitely drag down an applicant’s GPA — so we are looking at the whole picture in an effort to understand who you are likely to be as a law student.
AD: Your Viewbook is clear that YLS does not have an early action/early decision, that it respects the schools that do, and that it requires students who have been accepted to a binding ED program to withdraw their applications at YLS. Have you ever caught applicants who did not live up to this obligation… and, if so, how did you learn about them?
AR: During my time here, we have not found someone who did not live up to that obligation.
AD: In addition to the personal statement, YLS requires its applicants to complete an open-topic, 250-word statement that helps you and faculty readers to get a sense of an applicant’s writing ability. Since 250 words is a very short piece and Yale applicants probably carefully proofread the essay for grammar or typos, I’m sure that the topic an applicant chooses can really make or break this part of the application. Do you recall any topics that really stood out to you – both from creative applicants who successfully embraced this part of the application, or others whose submissions belonged on a “Bad Idea Jeans” commercial?
AR: [Laughing] You would think that grammar and typos weren’t an issue given the caliber of the people who typically apply to Yale, but sloppy writing is one of the biggest deal breakers for our applicants. I’m constantly shocked and amazed — particularly when you compare a candidate’s numerical profile to their writing samples, and I see really bad typos and grammatical errors and I’m not really sure what to make of it. I was telling my Director of Admissions just the other day that I think I’ve read at least 15 applications this season (which is a lot since given how many I’ve read so far) where the applicant doesn’t know the distinction between “pour” as in to “pour a drink,” and “pore” as in to “pore over documents.” It seems like sloppy writing has become an epidemic! I’m almost tempted to send out a Tweet saying: “if you’re using the word ‘pore’ as in you ‘were poring over your research materials,’ please make sure it is spelled P-O-R-E.” So, as you can tell, those kinds of senseless and careless errors really do drive me crazy.
In terms of topics chosen, there are no topics that are the “right” topics, but there are certainly topics which can be considered the “wrong” topic. For instance, a “Why Yale” essay, while flattering and shows that you have done a lot of research to come to the conclusion that Yale is the right place for you, is not all that useful to us. Seriously, 250 words of why Yale is the best and the classes or professors you want to take when you come here, does not really showcase your writing and analytical skills — which is what we’re looking for. An essay like this simply wastes one opportunity an applicant has to put himself or herself in the best light.
Another wasted opportunity is when use the 250-word essay as an addendum. We have no restrictions on allowing students to add addenda if they feel it is necessary to, for example, explain the C- you got in Organic Chemistry during your freshman year.
AD: So the military officer’s low LSAT score was explained in an addendum.
AR: Correct. You wouldn’t want to waste the 250-word essay on something you can explain elsewhere. We’re asking for an essay, and we want it to be an essay.
Finally, topics worthy of mention in a “Bad Idea Jeans” commercial include: when applicants try to be too clever or funny. Perhaps students are inspired to go this route because they see from my blog that I have a sense of humor. But I’m writing a blog for hip, aspiring law students, not for potentially cranky law professors who probably take themselves very seriously. So know your audience – and if that’s really the direction you want to take the essay, PLEASE let many people read it and make sure that they think it’s at least as funny as Ask Asha [laughing]! Also, people who write poetry or a fictional piece — I just don’t get that and that’s definitely a “Bad Idea.”
I guess the last thing to say about the 250-word essay which really doesn’t relate to the topic choice, is don’t go over the 250-word count because that’s just not following directions. In fact, I do know at least one professor who physically counts the number of words in an applicant’s essay and will stop reading at the 250th word.
AD: Can you offer applicants any guidance when choosing whom to ask to write their letters of recommendation? I know that you specifically ask for two professor letters, but what if someone has been out of school for a number of years?
AR: Academic references are going to carry the most weight. Period. Particularly if you have a weaker part of your application, you really need to have phenomenal academic references who are willing to vouch for your performance as a student. If you’ve been out of school for a few years, I would suggest going back to your college professors and seeing if anyone would be willing to write one for you. If you think you’re going to be out of school for a while before you apply to law school, then plan ahead and get some professors to write you letters of recommendations now and place them on file with your undergraduate institution or set up an LSDAS account and let LSAC store them for you for up to five years.
I think only as a last resort — you’ve been out of school for 10 years, none of your college professors remember you, etc. — only then should you seek out employer recommendations that will speak to the kinds of things that an academic reference will. So, you’d want your employer to address writing and analytical skill, your intellectual curiosity, etc. Obviously, the closer they can be to the legal field, the better it will be for you. So if you’ve been a paralegal in a law office or worked for a judge, then that might be helpful, again, as a last resort.
AD: Your Viewbook says you are allowed to submit up to four letters. What do you recommend, should someone want to submit two additional letters?
AR: Students should only submit additional letters if the additional recommenders know them well and are going to rave about them; additional letters which are short or perfunctory don’t add anything and can even take away from their application. If you’re going to submit a third letter and you have a choice, say, between an academic reference and a partner at the law firm where you’ve been working — go with the academic reference. The only exception would be if the partner is a Yale Law School alum or someone who has taught here. If the potential recommender has some intimate knowledge of Yale as a former student or lecturer, then a letter from them can carry some weight because although they may not be looking at you from an academic perspective, they have a frame of reference that allows them to compare you to the kind of students who are here. Otherwise, frankly, non-academic references for the third or fourth letters are not all that insightful.
AD: Yale does routinely take a handful of transfer students. What are you looking for in an ideal transfer?
AR: It really depends. We are looking for students who performed extremely well at their current law school.
AD: Do you dip into the second or third tier to find these students?
AR: Sure, of course! The truth is that the more rigorous and competitive the law school is, the more leeway a transfer applicant might have in how well they perform. So, for example, if someone is transferring from Harvard, we don’t really expect them to be #1 in their class — my guess is that person has other opportunities at Harvard they are not willing to pass up. But, if the applicant is at a lower-tier law school then we really need to see that they have excelled there. Quite honestly, in addition to their 1L GPA and class rank, it’s going to be the references they receive from their professors at their current law school that will really carry the most weight.
AD: Is the application process similar to the regular application process? Do Yale professors help select transfer students as well, or do you make the final call?
AR: It’s actually very different from our normal review process. In our transfer process, the entire committee consists of myself and one faculty member. I will still review all the files and then make a cut. Once I’ve made the first cut, though, I sit down and review the remaining files with the faculty member. So the transfer process is much more centralized than the normal review process.
AD: Do you receive a lot of transfer applications?
AR: Not really, especially when you compare them to the number of regular applications we receive. I think it’s safe to assume that someone who finishes at the top of their first-year class from any law school in the top 100 would be a very competitive candidate, but class rank alone is not going to get a person admitted. I cannot emphasize enough how much weight the professors’ letters of recommendation carry with me and the faculty member who will review the transfer application. What your professors say about you really counts a lot because the faculty member I’m working with probably knows the recommender personally and trusts their opinion. You know that the legal academic community is not a large community and so, speaking honestly, we would probably offer a transfer spot to someone who is a little lower in the class but who has two law professors who write over-the-top recommendation letters for them, instead of someone who is #1 in their class and the recommenders simply say “hey, this person got an A in my class, so they must be smart.”
So your 1L class rank is somewhat comparable to your LSAT score. The former tells how well you did in law school where the latter is used as a predictor of how well you will do in law school — but neither, standing alone, tells an applicant’s whole story. The letters of recommendation that a transfer applicant receives from his or her professor really help us complete the picture and see what this student is capable of and what they can really bring to the YLS community.
AD: How do transfer students usually do once they get to Yale?
AR: They do great.
AD: You really have gone above and beyond with this interview, and I really do appreciate you taking the time to answer my questions — especially since you’re in the midst of your busy season. Thank you again for agreeing to do this.
AR: It was really my pleasure. Good luck with the website, it really does seem like a good idea — although I’m still reserving judgment on whether I would characterize it as “the greatest place to research law schools” [laughing]!