This is the fourteenth installment of our 224 part series, Better Know A Dean. Today we posted our interview with Michael States, Assistant Dean for Admissions at UNC School of Law — The Fightin’ Tar Heels!
Michael States is a graduate of St. Louis University School of Law and has worked in law school admissions for more than a decade — first at John Marshall School of Law in Chicago, then at Hamline University and, most recently, at UNC School of Law in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. In addition, Dean States is currently a member of the Law School Admission Council’s Finance and Legal Affairs Committee and a presenter for the Council on Legal Education Opportunity’s (CLEO) Achieving Success in the Application Process program.
AD: Dean States, thanks so much for taking the time to talk with us today.
MS: Not a problem, it’s my pleasure.
AD: Dean States, a big reason we do these interviews on AdmissionsDean is to give prospective applicants a psychological profile of the admissions deans at the schools they are applying to. In order for our users to get a real idea about who you are, I’d like to take a novel approach and start off your interview with a very basic word association test. Are you game?
MS: Sure. Bring it.
AD: UNC Law has made great strides in improving its USNEWS Rankings — in fact, you’ve actually jumped 10 spots from #38 to #28 in just the past three years. What factors do you attribute to such a dramatic improvement in the school’s ranking?
MS: Well, it’s tough since a lot of the rankings have to do not only with what you are doing, but also with what other schools are doing. I can really only speak about what we are doing here at UNC. For instance, at North Carolina we are fortunate in that the University has invested a lot of resources in the Law School, so that certainly has helped. We’ve also added new faculty members here, which has reduced the student-faculty ratio. We’ve made additional changes such as adding members to the Career Services team. The work that they are doing has helped our students find employment — both at graduation and nine months out. I think that all of these factors have contributed to the improvement we’ve experienced over the last few years with respect to the USNEWS rankings. Quite honestly, we’re not doing anything all that different — we’re just focused on improving the fundamentals of the Law School. I think that focus, and the positive changes it has helped us make, are being reflected in the rankings.
AD: Since UNC is jumping up spots in the rankings, it means that other law schools are either maintaining the status quo or falling in the rankings — is this because they are failing to focus on the fundamentals?
MS: Oh no, that’s definitely not what I’m saying. The reality is that every school in the country — for good or for bad — is focusing on this and…
AD: By “this” do you mean the USNEWS rankings, the fundamentals of their law school, or both.
MS: Both. Both. And, in particular, where they intersect with one another.
AD: As a law school admissions dean, how much emphasis do you recommend prospective students place on a school’s USNEWS Ranking?
MS: I often tell applicants that focusing exclusively on the USNEWS rankings may actually hurt you — oftentimes you may choose a school that is not best suited to you. Obviously, when you dig down and look at the components of the rankings, each of those components has some importance and value. So if you’re looking at individual components such as the percentage of graduates employed nine months after graduation, or a school’s bar passage rate, then those things can certainly be helpful when making a decision on where you may want to attend. But if a student has two options — say one school is ranked #19 and other is ranked #16 — and he or she decides to attend #16 strictly based on the ranking, the student might be overlooking the fact that #19 was the perfect law school for them based upon any number of other factors. That’s why I often encourage folks to look at all the other things they want in a law school besides rankings and see which school meets those criteria. Let’s face it, you’re going to spend a lot of money and three years of your life at a law school and you want to make sure that it is a place where you’ll feel comfortable, where you’ll fit in, and that you’ll be able to achieve the things you want to achieve upon graduation. So that’s why it’s important to look beyond the rankings and not simply choose the law school that is the highest ranked law school you got into.
AD: I agree. I’m not sure whether you’ve poked around our site, but in case you haven’t, the backbone of the Researching Law Schools section of AdmissionsDean is a database that contains the most recently released ABA data for each law school. One of the functions we’ve created allows students to manipulate that data and create their own rankings using data points that may be important to them. So, for instance, say a user is interested in law schools with small class sizes and high bar passage rates in the Southeast — they can manipulate the data and our database will rank the schools using just those criteria.
MS: Yes. I really think that’s what applicants need to do. They really need to create their own, personalized rankings. They need to create a spreadsheet that lists all the things that they may be looking for in a law school and then, as they begin to investigate particular law schools, the school that meets most (if not all) of the criteria on that list is probably the place they want to end up attending if given the choice, regardless of the school’s USNEWS ranking. That is the place where they will go and probably do well, get the support that they need and, presumably, make it easier for them to find employment at graduation.
AD: I agree. And something that folks don’t necessarily consider when choosing the right law school is the geographic area where they may ultimately want to practice. So, for instance, if an applicant really wants to practice in New York City or Washington, DC, and she has a choice between School X and School Y, she should investigate where grads from those schools wind up working. It might be the case that School Y — a lower-ranked, regional law school actually has a larger alumni network in a particular geographic area than School X, which has a much higher ranking. That’s something else that doesn’t get captured at all by USNEWS.
MS: Yes. I definitely think that is true.
AD: Did you happen to see the recent ABA Journal article citing the study that found that how well you do in law school in terms of grades is often much more important than how highly ranked your law school is.
MS: Yes, I saw that.
AD: Conventional wisdom has always said that to prosper, you need to go to the best (often highest-ranked) law school you get into. This study seems to say that what really matters is how well you do once you’re there — regardless of where you go. What are your thoughts on that?
MS: The study is correct in that what traditionally projects your early career path is how well you do during your first year of law school. 1L grades typically lead to academic honors like law review and/or journal participation, and play a major role in determining the job you get during the summer after your first year. When students return in the fall of their 2L year, they will begin interviewing for summer associate programs that take place — the following summer. Students need to be able to demonstrate they excelled during their first year and also show that another legal employer previously hired them — building a record that future employers can now review. So, yes, first-year grades have traditionally been very important when deciding the initial trajectory of a student’s legal career.
At North Carolina we definitely stress the importance of first-year grades and the importance of doing well during the 1L year. In fact, we consistently try to impress upon folks the importance of focusing on academics above pretty much anything else, because many firms want to see people in the top 10%, 15% or 20% of the class. Those 1L grades are going to be critically important for students who hope to compete for jobs with large firms. I mean, now that we are in this new job market or “new economy,” or whatever you want to call it, the rules have changed. First-year performance is really critical. That is certainly something that we consistently stress to our incoming students — the importance of getting the best grades you can during the first year.
AD: I guess another effect of that study regarding grades might have some people reconsidering a scholarship opportunity from a lower-ranked school where they feel like they can perform better, rather than paying sticker price at another school simply because it has a higher USNEWS ranking.
MS: Yes, that might be something we will see applicants considering in the upcoming admissions cycle. But even now, admissions officers are seeing people paying a lot more attention to the total cost of attendance and really doing the math to determine what the final cost of a law degree will be. For instance, applicants have begun taking a long hard look at budget items above and beyond the mere the cost of tuition — they’ve been investigating things like how much it is going to cost to live in a particular city, how much they need to budget for books, etc. and, after arriving at the whole number, THEN subtracting any scholarship money that a school may be offering. After running the numbers this way, many students find that a school that offered no scholarship at all is still the most financially attractive choice at the end of the day.
AD: Can you describe a situation where that would be the case?
MS: Sure. Say for instance an applicant is choosing between two schools and all the things on their personal rankings for a law school are available at both schools. Now, the applicant must decide whether School A or School B is going to be the better value. Say that School A does not offer a scholarship and School B gave the applicant a $5,000 scholarship. Oftentimes what happens when you look at the total cost of attendance for each school — tuition, room and board, books, transportation, etc. — School A might cost $30,000 a year and School B will cost $45,000. And so, even though School A didn’t give a scholarship at all, it will end up costing the applicant far less — 33% less actually — to attend School A. In that situation, it is clearly in the student’s best interest to attend School A because they will have a lower debt load and that lower debt load will give them greater freedom after graduation when deciding where to work and what type of career path to take.
We are seeing more and more applicants doing this type of analysis and making these calculations before deciding where ultimately to attend because — correctly — most students are trying to determine now what they can do to reduce their debt load upon graduation. The legal profession isn’t recession-proof as it was once thought to be. Up until recently you never heard of lawyers having trouble finding jobs, losing jobs or firms closing. Before this recession, there was always work for lawyers, which is why people traditionally chose law school in a bad economy because they knew that there were going to be jobs waiting for them when they got out. That certainly is not the case any more, especially with respect to jobs that pay $150-160K upon graduation. So students are planning ahead of time to make sure that they don’t have to depend on getting a high-paying job in order to service their educational loans. Does that make sense?
AD: Yes, absolutely. Okay, shifting gears. In the past you have served as a presenter for the American Bar Association’s Council on Legal Education Opportunity’s (CLEO) Achieving Success in the Application Process program. What advice do you typically give during your presentation to assist CLEO attendees in the law school application process?
MS: The reality is that the advice I give to CLEO attendees is the same advice I give to any law school applicant. In these times when it is becoming more and more competitive to get into law school, the importance of following the directions on the law school application is critical. If you are given three pages to write a personal statement, don’t take four. An applicant might think: “It’s only one extra page, so it’ll be OK.” Not true — applicants must follow the directions they are given. If the school says you can send two letters of recommendation, send two — don’t send an additional one. Those seemingly small details are more often than not making the difference. There are more people applying and law schools can afford to be more selective from a very highly qualified applicant pool. For instance, we are seeing people applying to law school now that have other qualities besides academic aptitude that schools might find attractive, such as work experience and other post graduate degrees…
AD: Recent college graduates are competing against some guy who might have just gotten laid off from Goldman Sachs…
MS: Right. Right. So, not that the recent college graduate should be overly concerned that they don’t bring that type of life experience to the table, but they are competing against someone who has a bit more work experience and who is probably used to following or taking directions. Whereas the 20-year old student right out of college is going to have to do things that demonstrate that kind of maturity and one of the first things they can do is follow the application directions exactly. Don’t ask for exceptions to the rules. Those types of things, at least for me, are becoming more and more important. In reality, lawyers could potentially lose cases if they fail to follow certain procedural rules — the smallest of directions. So the importance of doing that is something that I’ve found myself focusing on lately.
Understand, we are not trying to hide the ball. In fact, I always tell people that the easier we can make the application process for you, the easier it is for us to do our job and assess the criteria you’ve sent us. So that is a major theme I tell folks — the importance of following directions.
AD: Do you think that in this age of “helicopter” parents there has evolved a generation of young adults who haven’t really had to follow directions before because someone else has been holding their hand, or more often, doing their work for them?
MS: [Laughing] It’s a great question and that raises a great point because that’s another great way for applicants to demonstrate that they are mature enough to handle the responsibilities of being a law student. By that I mean they should take control of the application process themselves. I’ve been telling applicants at this stage — folks who are typically 21+ years old — there’s no reason for your parents to be doing this for you. They are adults who are seeking to enter a profession of adults. So the applicant needs to be the point person who checks to make sure that the things that were supposed to arrive at the law school have arrived on time. If there are questions about financial aid, the applicant should be calling to ask those questions instead of a parent. Applicants are doing themselves a great disservice by asking — or letting — their parents to call the law school; I say “letting” because I’ve found that in a lot of instances I’m not even sure the applicant knows that the parents are calling the law school.
AD: [Laughing] Oh God!
MS: [Laughing] Seriously, you’d be amazed at the number of times when parents say: “My son or daughter doesn’t even know that I’m calling, so if you wouldn’t mind not telling them.”
AD: Oh, come on! What’s your response when that happens?
MS: [Laughing] Well I’m certainly not going to tell them anything about the applicant’s file because their son or daughter has rights that we respect. So we start off by telling them that, and advise them that if there are questions about the file then the applicant needs to call us himself. Generally, parents understand but there certainly are a few who don’t understand and usually say that since they are going to be paying the tuition bill then they should be entitled to whatever information they are looking for. But once we politely explain again that the applicant has rights that we have to respect, then the parents are usually okay with that.
But, as I said before, I always tell students that making sure we hear from you with questions or issues surrounding your application is another important way you can demonstrate that you’re mature enough to handle the responsibilities you will face in law school. It’s probably the case that we will look more favorably on an applicant who is involved in handling their own application, instead of one whose parent calls constantly or, in extreme cases, actually shows up on behalf of the student…
AD: What? Are you kidding me? They actually show up?
MS: [Laughing] Oh yes — I mean schools all over the country can tell you these stories.
AD: So, let me get this straight. Are parents showing up before the applicant has been admitted, or after they have been accepted and are coming to orientation?
MS: All of the above [laughing]. All of the above.
AD: I find that really shocking that an applicant would want (or allow) that! At some point a person reaches an age that they want to jump out of the nest. I’ve got three kids of my own — my oldest is eleven — and I can’t wait to push them out of the nest! I can’t imagine micromanaging their lives when they are 21- or 22-years old. I fully expect that by that time, I’ll have had enough!
MS: [Laughing] Well, one would hope! As a parent, at some point you have to let them go out into the world and hopefully you gave them the tools to find their way and when they do, they will end up better people than when they left — because of the instruction you gave them early on and because of the freedom you gave them to make their own mistakes. But continuing to make phone calls, send emails, or show up on their behalf is probably not the best way to prepare them to be strong individuals.
AD: OK, I’ve been to Chapel Hill many times so you don’t have to sell me on what a great city it is, but for our readers who haven’t visited, how do you think a student’s law school experience is shaped by UNC’s location in Chapel Hill?
MS: One of the things we tell our students is how important it is for them to be students of the University and not just the Law School. And what that means is that if you are going to attend UNC Law, you should take advantage of everything that Chapel Hill — and the region — has to offer. I think our location allows our students to get away and decompress — to do something other than being a law student. So that when you come back to your studies after a weekend away or a semester break, you come back refreshed and are able to focus on your studies. If you like to attend basketball games, the theater, whatever your “thing” is, you’ll probably find it here or pretty close by. I mean you have the beach two hours to the east, the mountains two hours to the west and we’re not that far from Atlanta or Washington DC. I think Chapel Hill’s locale makes it the perfect place to begin law school and to begin a legal career.
AD:UNC’s website includes a list of Top 10 reasons for choosing its law school. One reason on that list is Carolina Law’s focus on practical skills. When I was in law school — and I assume that the same is true when you were at St. Louis — the focus was on learning legal theory; legal practice skills were something that folks picked up on the job. What is driving the growing trend towards offering students a way to develop practical skills while still in law school?
MS: Well, the legal employers are asking for it — even demanding it. Look, it takes time to develop practical skills and, as the old saying goes, “time is money.” So the fact is that employers are now demanding that the folks they ultimately hire come to them with a practical skill set that is at least partially developed. Students are demanding a more practical experience as well. I don’t know if you’re aware of the study that was done by a group of professionals together with the Carnegie Foundation For The Advancement of Teaching that studied how well professional schools mirrored the actual professions they taught. That study found that there needed to be a greater connection between legal education and legal practice. Actually, one of the lead authors of that study is Professor Judith Wegner who teaches here at UNC Law. She even co-authored a book that documents her findings entitled: Educating Lawyers, Preparation For The Profession of Law. Since one of our professors wrote this book, of course we were going to take a very hard look at the issue — but in all honesty, law schools all over the country are addressing this problem right now and finding ways to better prepare their students for practice.
AD: How does UNC help students develop these skills? What opportunities does the law school offer its students to build practical skills?
MS: Well, there are obviously the clinical programs and we also have an extensive externship program with 50+ placements that allows students to go out into a workplace environment and learn practical skills as they work along side practicing lawyers.
AD: This is available to 2Ls and 3Ls, right?
MS: Yes, those programs are available to upperclassmen who receive credit for their participation. First-year students have the opportunity to participate in the Gressman-Pollitt Appellate Advocacy competition. The competition focuses on both oral and written appellate advocacy skills — awards are given for things like the best oral advocate as well as the best written brief. And that’s an opportunity for our 1Ls to begin developing these types of practical skills as early as the first year.
AD: That’s great, because many schools only open these types of moot court competitions to upperclassmen.
MS: Yes, I know. The Gressman-Pollitt competition is a great way for first-year law students to really see how the theory that they are learning in the classroom intersects with how law is practiced and applied in the real world. Very cool indeed.
AD: There have been a lot of people commenting about the dismal state of the legal hiring market who have questioned the value of getting a J.D. right now. How do you answer critics who say it doesn’t make economic sense to attend law school right now?
MS: Look, for some people it may not make sense. It goes back to what we were discussing earlier: people need to do their own personal cost-benefit analysis and figure out whether it is going to make economic sense for them to go to law school.
But people who make a blanket statement that it doesn’t make sense for anyone to go to law school right now — I certainly disagree with that. I think that each person who is considering law school needs to sit down and decide whether the economics of law school justify the decision to go.
For some people who may want to practice in a particular area, taking on the debt of law school loans might not make sense for them. But for others who want to pursue a particular career path and a law degree is the only way they can do it, then for those folks a law degree is a good investment. It all depends on what you are hoping to do with your law degree. That’s why making wise choices and asking the right questions up front — before you start law school — is so important.
AD: I’m assuming that like other schools you have seen a spike in the number of applications this admissions cycle?
MS: Yep. They went up by about 6% in the 2009-10 admissions cycle.
AD: Do you have an idea as to why applications are still up if there are folks out there saying that law school is not a good investment?
MS: [Laughing.] Well, you obviously have a bunch of people who disagree with that statement, so that has to be one reason. Secondly, I think that some people are thinking that because the economy is not in a great place right now — perhaps they cannot find a job — that they will “hide out” in graduate or professional school with the hope that two or three years down the road the economy will pick up and they will be more marketable with the benefit of that additional degree.
And, you also have the type of person who always wanted to go to law school and now, because of downsizing or whatever, they are in a position to go. There’s also the person who thought, “I’m going to work for two or three years after graduation before going to law school,” and now they find that the job isn’t there. For these types of people who always felt law school was part of their grand plan, this economy may have just forced their hand a bit and nudged them in that direction this year.
AD: One more question about the economy. I’m not sure if you saw the recent New York Law Journal article that talked about New York law firms seeing the need to increase summer associate class sizes next summer and visiting more law schools this fall to participate in the on-campus interview process.
MS: Yes, I did see that article. I think that is a good sign.
AD: Are you seeing effects of this on the ground at UNC? Has the number of firms scheduled to visit UNC increased this year?
MS: I really can’t answer that — I just don’t know. It would be better if you asked that question of our Career Services folks. They would be in a better position to answer that question than me.
AD: Fair enough, let’s turn to your area of expertise. Given your experience, I expect that you have read tens of thousands of law school applications. In your opinion, what makes for a really great personal statement?
MS: There are two things that I think folks need to think about. First, answer the question that has been asked. Many applicants know that they are going to be asked to write a personal statement and they try to write one essay that they can then use for most — or all — of the law schools to which they apply. People need to be very careful with this strategy. For instance, UNC is a school that asks very particular questions of its applicants, so we can tell pretty quickly whether you have read the question and written a response tailored to us. So that’s the first thing — answer the questions asked of you.
The second thing, which is just as important, is what I call “writing in your own voice.” This means that when I read that personal statement, I should get the sense that I’m having a conversation with you. The application is asking you a question and really good personal statements allow me to imagine the applicant sitting in front of me and answering that question as I read his or her response. You’d be surprised how many applicants write a personal statement that is not in their voice — they write something that they think the admissions committee wants to hear instead of giving a truthful, honest answer to the question presented. The most effective personal statements are those that come from that place of truthfulness. This is so important because the personal statement is the one place in the entire application process where the applicant is able to give some real insights into who he or she is as a person.
AD: Can you offer any guidance to prospective applicants about topics or things they should avoid when writing their personal statement?
MS: I don’t know that there is any particular topic someone should avoid. But I would say that since it’s a personal statement, some folks make the mistake in making it too personal [laughing].
AD: [Laughing] Do you have an example?
MS: [Laughing] Ummmm, not one that I’m really comfortable sharing. But I guess if your looking for an example — although this is not a specific one — here’s what I’m talking about. Someone might write about something traumatic that has happened in his or her life and they give such clear and distinct details that you as a reader feel uncomfortable. I can understand the applicant wanting to talk about such an experience because it somehow shaped them, made them who they are today and maybe even provided them with the motivation to go to law school. There is a certain level of detail that you can give that can provide the reader with your perspective. However, you shouldn’t go into such great detail that you place the reader in the uncomfortable position of feeling like they are in the middle of you life. There is a definitely a line that applicants need to respect when writing a personal statement.
So in terms of how you write it, there are some things you may want to avoid. But in terms of topics, I don’t think that there is anything that you should avoid discussing — particularly if you are writing about things that shaped you into the person you are today. People will sometimes ask me if they should write about their religion, sexuality, political ideology — well, absolutely! I would definitely encourage that, since those are exactly the type of things we are looking when we are trying to put together a diverse student body. And we won’t know about any of those things unless you tell us.
AD: And all those differing views coming together make for a better classroom experience.
MS: Absolutely. Without question.
AD: How much weight do you give to LSAT score in determining a candidate’s chances for admission?
MS: We look at the LSAT score in combination with the applicant’s GPA. For us, those two items — the academic components of a candidate’s application — are equally important to everything else in the file. So, the personal statement, which demonstrates not only who you are as a person, but also provides a good sample of your writing ability — that’s important to us. The letters of recommendation that speak to your skills and abilities — that’s important to us. The resume that you write that describes what you’ve been doing and the experiences that you have had – all those individual components are important to us. They are important to us because the admissions committee has the luxury of making choices of who to admit or deny based upon any of those things.
So I often tell people don’t fail to give us information in your resume. For instance, we’re fine with someone submitting a 2-page resume — we’re totally okay with that if you’re giving us relevant information that will help us evaluate you as a candidate. With regards to letters of recommendation, make sure they are personalized to you and not simply some form letter used by the recommender. What I love to see is when a recommender obviously took the time to craft a letter that really explains who this person is. I love to read things like, “I could always count on ‘X’ to speak up and contribute to the classroom discussion, even when nobody else would.” That gives me real insight into what type of student you will be when you come to UNC.
AD: What specific advice would you offer our readers who may be juniors or seniors in college who are considering law school in the next year or so? What can they do now that will make them more competitive candidates?
MS: Juniors and senior year in college — particularly junior year — is a time that you can get involved in your campus community. Find something else that you are passionate about besides going to class and hanging out with your friends. Make sure you get involved. You’ll be surprised how this type of campus involvement can create real relationships with professors or supervisors that can then lead to very strong letters of recommendation which may speak to your leadership abilities, communication skills, how well you work with others, or whatever it is about you that makes you special.
Junior year is also the time when you need to begin, in earnest, thinking about and researching which law schools you may want to attend. Attending LSAC recruiting events — if you haven’t been doing that as a freshman or a sophomore — is something you should definitely be doing during your junior year if you are serious about attending law school.
When you are choosing your classes at the end of your sophomore year, you should consider choosing classes that might allow you to forge deeper relationships with faculty members. This will be particularly helpful when you need to decide who to ask for a letter of recommendation. If you have a professor who has taught you several times — someone you’ve had two or three classes with — that person is in a much better position to speak about your abilities as a student than someone you have only had one class with. The better a professor knows you on a personal level, the more comfortable he or she will feel writing you a strong letter of recommendation. This is really important.
Finally, you really need to get serious about taking the LSAT during your junior year. That is the point when you are starting to plot out your strategy for taking that test. You first want to decide when you’ll be taking the LSAT and then work backward to determine when you’ll begin prepping for it and when you’ll study to insure that you are in a position to do as well as you can do on that test.
AD: Does your advice change for non-traditional students — particularly with respect to letters of recommendation? I’m assuming that the strongest letters you receive are those from academics — professors who might have had the applicant in a classroom setting. What if the applicant has been out of college for a number of years and doesn’t have a close connection with his or her old professors?
MS: First off, I’m actually trying to come up with a new word for “non-traditional students” because, in reality, when someone says, “I’m a non-traditional student,” what they really mean is “I’m an older student” — and that’s becoming more and more traditional.
But, the answer to your question is that often it will depend on the individual applicant. For some older students, an academic letter may not be the strongest letter. For the 20-year old who is just graduating, their job for the past four years has been attending college and going to classes, so a letter of recommendation from a faculty member is really akin to a letter that talks about how well that person has done at his or her job.
Likewise, for the person who has been out of the school for five or ten years, the letter from an employer or supervisor is going to speak to how well that person had performed their job during that time. Hopefully, the employer will speak about skills that the applicant has developed which would ultimately transfer over to law school and signal that the applicant has a potential for success once they arrive here. So for an older student returning to law school, an academic letter of recommendation may not be all that applicable and, in fact, at UNC we don’t even require an academic letter of recommendation if the candidate has been out of undergrad for more than one year.
AD: For the college junior or senior who plans to attend law school a year or two after graduation — would that person be wise to collect academic letters before they graduate and place them on file with their undergraduate school’s registrar?
MS: Yes, absolutely. I would suggest that during their senior year they get letters from faculty members. Then the applicant can actually store those letters with the Law School Admissions Council after creating an account with them. Those letters will then be kept by LSAC for a 5-year period.
AD: Financial aid packages are often the deciding factor when people choose which law school to attend. What factors do you consider in determining financial grants and scholarships?
MS: For the vast majority of our incoming students that qualify for a partial scholarship, the two factors we look at are grade point average and LSAT score. That’s pretty much what determines who is eligible for a “merit” scholarship.
Now, we have another level of merit scholarships — our full tuition scholarships — for which we look not only at a candidate’s GPA and LSAT score, but also at his or her resume, the letters of recommendation, and the personal essays. We’re looking at everything because there is an interview process as well; so the entire application file serves as serves as a screening tool to determine who we will ask to interview for that type of scholarship. The interview then becomes a large part of the calculus in determining who will be offered a full-tuition scholarship.
AD: How many full-tuition scholarships do you award every year?
MS: Usually anywhere between 3-7 students every year receive a full-tuition scholarship.
AD: And the other merit scholarships you award are partial scholarships?
MS: Yes, like I said the vast majority of the scholarships that we award are partial scholarships. They cover anywhere from 25% to 75% of a student’s tuition.
AD: Does the law school ever offer scholarships to 2L and 3L students who may not have qualified for a scholarship as a 1L, but who have done very well during their first year?
MS: Yes, we do and we will typically try to reward those students who did not receive any scholarships for the first year, but who wound up among the top 10 students in the class. We try to at least reward those students for their academic performance as 1Ls. So, circling back to what we were talking about before with regards to the importance of first-year grades — doing well as a 1L can not only mean improving your employment options, but it can also translate into real dollars in the form of 2L and 3L scholarships.
AD: What is the idea behind offering these scholarships to 2Ls and 3Ls? Is it that you don’t want them to transfer or is it that you simply want to reward students for doing well?
MS: We’ve actually always tried to reward students who have achieved academic success during the first year, but received no money from us up front. But, I have to say that the transfer part of it is something that we’ve begun thinking about more these days. If students who are seeking to transfer for financial reasons — whether it’s because they want to go back home or whatever — for those folks who perform well academically, if we can lessen the financial burden by awarding a scholarship, we will definitely try to do that.
AD: In terms of the partial and full scholarships, does UNC place any conditions on those? Does an applicant have to maintain a certain GPA or else risk losing their scholarship?
MS: No. Although some schools may do that, we do not. If you are awarded a scholarship, you can count on that scholarship being there all three years so long as you remain in academic and behavioral good standing at UNC.
AD: Does UNC offer applicants any need-based scholarships?
MS: We do, depending upon the resources that are available. So, that’s all conditioned upon how well our endowments are doing and how much our donors are willing to give. When those resources are available to us, we certainly do award strict, need-based scholarships. And in fact, some of the endowed scholarships for second- and third-year students are actually based strictly upon need.
AD: Can we talk briefly about the waitlist? What’s the latest you’ve ever waited before inviting a student off the wait list?
MS: The first day of orientation right up until the first day of classes — but we will not go beyond the first day of classes.
MS: Yep and that’s not unusual for us. The school has a target for the number of people that it wants to enroll every year and my job as Assistant Dean of Admissions is to make sure we reach that target — no more, no less. So, sometimes we get to orientation and we’re expecting a certain number of students to arrive and we discover that three of them are missing — this is when I get on the telephone and try to track these folks down…
AD: You want to determine if they had a car accident on the way to campus or if they are just not planning to show up…
MS: We track these folks down and find out what their intentions are. Are they simply caught in traffic or did they decide to forego their deposit with us, seek a deferral, or even accept a last minute wait list offer from another law school? In fact, just today — a week before orientation — three admitted students notified me that they have decided to defer law school for a couple of years so that they can work and save some money. This puts me in the position of having to fill those spots.
Notwithstanding a student’s reason for failing to show, if it looks like someone is not going to show up, then we will look to the wait list. Once we decide to go to our wait list, we will examine the demographics of the group that has shown up and try to determine who we want to add in order to best round out the class — do we want to add another resident, non-resident, an older student, etc. When selecting waitlist students we try to meet the goals we had set before the admissions cycle began with respect to the makeup of that particular class.
AD: It’s not my intention of opening a Pandora’s Box for you, but I know that some folks might read this part of the interview and think to themselves that requesting a last minute deferral — a request that probably sends your office into a tail spin — is an option that is actually available to them. How open are you to last-minute deferrals?
MS: You’re right, that is the last thing I want an admitted student to request. Ideally, I want to walk into August knowing that my class is set and that everyone who has accepted our offer to attend actually attends. So, if someone wants to defer at the last minute you have to have a pretty compelling reason for requesting a deferral — a really good reason. And, if we offer someone an invitation to attend off the waitlist, those folks are not allowed to defer.
AD: Do you have any tips for someone who is currently on the wait list for whom UNC remains their first choice? Is there something other than stalking you, sending you flowers, etc. that can improve their chances for an invitation?
MS: [Laughing] Well, our wait list works differently than some other places and by this I mean that we don’t simply add people to our wait list, we make you an offer to join our wait list. If you accept that offer to join our wait list, then we give you the option to submit an additional letter of recommendation and, for students who are still in school at the time, to provide us with an updated undergraduate transcript that shows their final grades. Hopefully, this transcript demonstrates a trend toward improvement and not a severe case of senioritis. We also allow these applicants to submit a “statement of interest” which is an essay written from the perspective of someone who knows that they are on the wait list and seeks to explain why they still want to attend UNC.
AD: Ok, so when you invite someone onto the wait list, you provide that person with an opportunity to demonstrate why UNC remains her first choice as well as an opportunity to make herself more attractive to you, right?
AD: So, once an applicant is on that list, and they have jumped through all the additional hoops you’ve established, what can they do to improve their chances of getting an invitation to attend? Or, is there anything that can be done at that point?
MS: Yeah, well, the other thing that we allow students to do is tell us exactly how long they will want to be on our waitlist. For example, when we invite someone on the waitlist, we allow them to choose either a date in mid-July or the first day of orientation as the deadline for us to contact them with an offer of admission. Again, that doesn’t determine whether they will get off the wait list, but at least as we get later into the process we are only looking at folks who have indicated that they want to remain on the wait list until — in this case of this year — August 25th. So, the first thing someone can do is tell us that they will entertain an offer from us up until the very last minute.
Aside from that, there really is not anything additional you can do because our wait list is not ranked. As I explained before, the way we decide who to invite off of our wait list is that we look at the class of people who have indicated that they will attend and then use the wait list to try and fill in any spots that would round off the class. So, for example, typically 70% of our incoming class will be residents and 30% will be non-residents — if we look at the number of seat deposits or commitments that we have and it looks like we are not going to hit those targets, then we will look to the wait list and determine whether anyone on that list can make up the difference.
AD: So you are not looking strictly at whether or not the person is going to accept your offer if you extend it.
MS: Well, yes, later on that does factor into our decision about who to ask, so long as they meet the other criteria we are looking for.
AD: Ok, I think I get it.
MS: And so if we’re looking at our class at a particular time during the summer and we’re at 65% residents and 35% non-residents, then I know I need to add some residents. And, if it looks like we are 70% men and 30% women, then I need to know that I need to add residents who are also women. When this happens, I may then look to see if the pool of resident women come from undergraduate schools we typically draw from, but perhaps don’t already have someone from — then the question becomes: “can we add resident women from those schools?” So, again, we use our waitlist to affect the profile of the class we are looking to bring in, instead of simply taking people in order to fill empty seats.
AD: Transferring after the first year has become a game for students — and big business for law schools who seem to be soliciting and accepting more and more transfer students. How many students has UNC lost as transfers to other law schools? How many students do you typically accept as transfers?
MS: I’ll start with the second question first. We only end up losing about two or three students per year to another law school. Typically, we lose these folks for family reasons like I need to be closer to my aging parents, their fiancé is in another state or their home state where tuition might be less expensive– I mean, even with the great value we have here at UNC, for some non-residents it might be less expensive if they are able to receive in-state tuition at another law school.
AD: Interesting, wouldn’t a 2L be able to qualify for in-state tuition in North Carolina? Couldn’t they simply become a North Carolina resident?
MS: The short answer is yes, but it’s much more involved than what you may be thinking. You see, North Carolina is different from other states who may simply require that the student live within the state for a set period — a year, 18 months, whatever — before allowing them to be eligible to pay in-state tuition.
To qualify as a North Carolina resident, there is a dual threshold that you need to meet. First, you must by physically present in the state for a period of 12 months prior to the term you are looking at. That’s the first criteria.
The second criteria is that you must provide compelling evidence to the residency committee that you intend to make the State of North Carolina your place of permanent domicile when you graduate. So it’s a lot more than simply demonstrating you have lived here for a year.
AD: Are folks able to make that showing? Do you have many people who qualify for residency?
MS: Oh, sure. [Laughing] North Carolina is a great place to live and it doesn’t take people to long to recognize this! I would say that about 20-25% of the people who apply will be granted residency because they are able to prove that they really do intend to make North Carolina their permanent home after graduation.
AD: OK, so what things do you look at when deciding whether to admit or deny a transfer student?
MS: In terms of admitting transfer students, again, we’re a little bit different in that we actually have a priority system in place when deciding who we will extend an offer to. The initial threshold we look at is whether or not the transfer applicant has demonstrated that he or she can handle the rigors of a law school education here at Carolina Law based on their past law school performance and their past academic performance. So, even at the transfer stage, we’re continuing to look at an applicant’s undergraduate GPA and LSAT scores.
AD: Really? Because many schools don’t do that — they simply look to how well you performed as a 1L when deciding whether you have what it takes to succeed as a transfer student at their institution.
MS: Yes, I know. But our transfer rules are listed on our website and you had to have been “admissible” to UNC originally. That does not mean that you needed to be “admitted” — being denied does not keep you from being a transfer student — but the person who had a GPA and LSAT score that was not competitive at all for UNC as a 1L will probably not get admitted as a transfer student.
So that’s the initial threshold. After that, what we’re looking for when deciding to admit a transfer student is whether they have a compelling reason to be at the University of North Carolina. So, for example, if your spouse is in the military and they were transferred to an installation here in North Carolina and you would like to join them, then that’s a compelling reason for us. If your spouse works at a company that either transferred them to, or offered them a job in, North Carolina, then that is a compelling reason for us. If you have parents or close family members who are ill and live in North Carolina and you would like to come here to be closer to them, again, this is a compelling reason for coming here. Those are really the top three situations we look at when deciding whether or not to admit a transfer student.
If we make it past that pool of people — and for the past three years we have not since we only take between 5-7 transfer students and those 5-7 spots were taken up by applicants who had one of those compelling reasons for transferring to UNC — but if we make it past that group of people without filling our 5-7 spots, then the next group of folks we’ll consider are North Carolina residents who are attending an out-of-state law school and who can also articulate some reason why they want to be at UNC. For some it might be that they just got engaged and their fiancé is living in Chapel Hill, or they know that they want to practice in North Carolina after graduation and their current school simply does not offer the same career placement options, those types of things.
The last pool of transfer applicants that we will consider, but we almost never get to because the transfer spots get filled by the time we get to these folks, are people who are at a law school in North Carolina already and you are trying to transfer to UNC. Again, we almost never take someone in this pool of applicants and — while it’s not technically impossible to transfer to UNC if you are currently a 1L at a law school in North Carolina — quite honestly, we have a presumption against admitting transfer students from other law schools in North Carolina.
AD: So, the UNC basketball fan who is attending Duke but has developed a rash because he or she can’t stand being there — that person is out of luck?
MS: [Laughing] Yes, pretty much. But in all honesty it’s less often those folks from Duke seeking a transfer to UNC, but we do see our fair share of applications from NCCU 1Ls. But since these three schools — UNC Law, Duke Law and NCCU Law — are in such close proximity to one another, we have established an inter-institutional agreement that allows our students to take courses in each others’ curriculum. So, for instance, if some class is not offered at NCCU but is offered at UNC, an NCCU student can attend UNC and gain that knowledge. For this reason, though, it is pretty clear that there is not a compelling reason for a transfer.
AD: Well, it’s good to hear that Carolina Law gives such deep thought to admitting transfer students since, as I’m sure you’re aware, there are definitely some law schools out there that are purposely taking a smaller first-year class with the intention of admitting a larger number of 2L transfers who will pay “sticker price” to attend that school.
MS: Yep, it certainly appears that there are some law schools out there that have that mindset.
AD: Dean States, I have to thank you very much for taking so much of your time with this interview. I genuinely appreciate your candid responses and you donating over an hour of your time to our readers.
MS: You’re very welcome. It’s been my pleasure to talk with you and I hope this interview proves helpful to applicants in future admissions cycles. Take care.