The Official Admissions Blog of Columbia Law School

Q&A with Law School Deans

Posted on May 21st, 2010 by Nkonye Iwerebon

About a month ago when a colleague from another school approached a number of others and me to conduct a mini-forum on frequently-asked questions, I confess that I was less than enthusiastic.  The timing conflicted with our various events and deadlines, and, as admissions officers, we answer these questions time and time and time again . . .  sometimes in our sleep.

However, the round-robin approach to answering the questions seemed brilliant; the true genius of this project, as you will see, is that you can quickly compare responses by Deans of Admissions from several different schools—namely Chicago, Michigan, NYU, Stanford, Yale, and, of course, Columbia. In Commentaries, we have responses to two out of the nine questions, but to see the rest you must visit the blogs of Michigan, Stanford, and Yale.

This really was a wonderful experiment in working together as a group to serve our prospective students.  In addition, it was particularly reaffirming for me because it is apparent from the responses that many of us share similar philosophies regarding admissions, even if we express or execute them differently.

Enjoy reading and best of luck in the admissions process.

Nkonye Iwerebon
Dean of Admissions

What’s the typical or expected amount of work experience from an applicant?
Jump to response.

What do you look for in recommendation letters? Does it help to have a recommendation from a famous or important person?
Jump to response

What’s the typical or expected amount of work experience from an applicant?

Columbia: Approximately two-thirds of our successful applicants have been engaged in some kind of work or graduate school program for at least a year after receiving their Bachelor’s degree or an equivalent foreign degree.  However, our Admissions Committee really has no expectation that an applicant will necessarily present either work experience or a graduate degree, and that ratio is more a reflection of the characteristics of our applicant pool than a preference for work experience or graduate degrees by our Admissions Committee.  Still, positive work experiences and strong graduate school performances that further demonstrate the presence of one or more of the qualities that we seek in every applicant, e.g., a strong work ethic, leadership, strong writing, and problem solving skills, are viewed positively by the Committee.  In some instances work experience or a graduate degree may also enhance an application by presenting the Admissions Committee with an opportunity to include novel expertise or an experientially informed perspective in the Class that would enrich the law school experience for other students and the Faculty, and which might not otherwise be present.  In summary, work experience is not expected of any applicant, but such experience can be additive and may improve a candidate’s prospects depending on the circumstances.

Michigan: Michigan too has approximately a two-thirds/one-third split between people who have spent time after getting an undergraduate degree either working or doing other graduate work and people who have come straight from undergrad, and likewise, that ratio mirrors the typical proportions in our applicant pool.  We value work experience for all the reasons Dean Iwerebon has set forth—but it is certainly possible to present a very interesting application and record based on activities in which you have engaged during college!

Chicago: At Chicago, we too have a typical or expected amount of work experience and we don’t have an expectation that an applicant will have such experience.   As my colleagues Dean Zearfoss and Iwerebon have indicated our pool follows the two-thirds/one-third split.  And this is further reflected in our applicant pool.  We value the work experience, but it is taken in context with the rest of the application materials for the individual applying.  Other applicants may highlight some of the activities on campus which will also be of interest to the Admissions Committee.

Yale:  We don’t expect or require any specific type or amount of work experience – you should apply to law school when you are ready.  Choosing to spend some time working is both a benefit and a burden.  The benefit is that you have the opportunity to present a richer application, since you have real-world experience to draw upon in preparing your essays.  As Dean Deal would say (I’m now adopting her puzzle analogy), you have acquired more puzzle pieces, which can present a clearer picture of who you are and what you are interested in.  With that said, the burden is that the longer you have been out of school, the more I expect you to have a well-articulated reason for why law school is the obvious next step.  Sometimes it’s clear – maybe you’ve spent a year or two as a paralegal, or working as an assistant in a DA’s office.  But if you have spent four years as a screenwriter in Hollywood, or you are a doctor in your mid-40s now changing careers, you’re pretty interesting but you also have some explaining to do.  So if you do take some time off after school, take a moment to think in advance of how this will connect to your long-range goal of attending law school.

Stanford:  Our split is just slightly different than what my colleagues offer up about their schools – roughly a quarter of the class will come directly from college.  Dean Rangappa was right …it’s about puzzle pieces for me.  Someone who has spent time out in the real world has more puzzle pieces.  It doesn’t always translate into an offer of admissions, but we do have more to consider as we make our way through your application materials.  Don’t get me wrong, though.  Putting time between your undergraduate work and law school shouldn’t take place just for the sake of putting time between your undergraduate work and law school.  There has to be a thread connecting things.  You have to be coming to the process now for a reason and not just because time has passed.  Let me add, too, that you should not be discouraged by our 1/4-3/4 split.  If you are a senior in college and thinking about law school and you are raring to go, more power to you.  We appreciate and we value the perspective that a younger student brings to the classroom.

NYU:  My colleagues have provided a very thoughtful discussion on the question of “work experience”.  About 30% of our entering students come directly from undergraduate school, but many of those have worked during summers and sometimes during the academic year.    This year, due to factors that had a serious impact on the economy, we observed an increase in the number of applications from current college seniors, many of whom, in another economic climate, likely would have taken some time prior to applying to law school in order to work.  Unfortunately, the range of opportunities for recent college graduates has declined significantly and has accelerated the timetable for some of these candidates.  This is cyclical and likely to change as the job market improves.  In terms of admission, it is not a matter of preference for the right kind of job after college, and we certainly do not require work experience in a legal setting.  Law students come from a variety of backgrounds and experiences.    A candidate who has a robust post-college resume may be in a more competitive position than a candidate who has a similar academic profile, but all things being equal lacks this particular attribute.

What do you look for in recommendation letters?  Does it help to have a recommendation from a famous or important person?

NYU: Most of the letters of recommendations we receive are extremely positive.  However, the most helpful letters to an admissions committee are from recommenders who are able to address the candidate’s ability to succeed in a rigorous academic environment, be an active, engaged participant in an academic community, and show evidence of good character and integrity.  Substantive letters from persons who have taught the candidate in advanced coursework are particularly welcome.  Specific examples of the quality of the candidate’s work provide additional evaluative context.   We appreciate letters from recommenders who are able to compare a candidate’s intellectual abilities etc.  with others that the writer may have recommended to us in the past.  As far as letters from VIPs – usually I appreciate these because I am able to add the signatures to my autograph collection that I will sell some day on ebay when I am ready to retire.  Seriously, letters from VIPs have a positive impact only if the writer shows that the candidate supervised the candidate’s work in some professional setting.

Columbia: I completely agree with Dean Kleinrock, especially regarding the autographs.  Recommendation letters present a unique opportunity for a candidate to provide independent verification of his/her intellectual and other abilities by a third party and, as such, are most useful when written by people who have been in a position to evaluate the candidate’s work, whether academic or professional.

Michigan: Somewhere along the line, someone told me it was wrong to sell the autographs, and I now realize I have I have wasted a golden opportunity. When we get a recommendation letter from someone who is famous, we will often communicate nicely with the letter writer in a way that goes above and beyond how we communicate with the rest of our recommendation letter writers—but getting a letter from someone famous does not result in a different outcome for the person being recommended.  We look at the letters for all the substantive reasons already set out by my colleagues.  I will add that while it is particularly helpful to get at least one academic recommendation letter, we recognize that can be difficult or impossible for people who have been out of school for a chunk of time.

Chicago:  In letters of recommendation the Admissions Committee is trying to get additional information regarding the applicant from outside sources.  These letters are important as they can provide some important insights into the applicant’s capabilities.  The LORs should be from people that truly know the applicant and has supervised their work.  Also, we prefer to have at least one academic and it doesn’t have to be from a well known professor.  I attended a large university and didn’t have a lot of contact with the professor for the class, so I got a LOR from the teaching assistant who handled the discussion section of the class and graded the exams.  This individual could speak more to my improvement during the class.  These types of letters are more helpful to the committee as they are evaluating the applicant.  So I have to agree with my colleagues that a letter from the famous person is just helpful if they know your capabilities and work performance or if one collects autographs!

Yale:  I don’t have much to add here than what my colleagues have already said.  I will say that at Yale it is extremely important to have at least two academic references, even if you have been out of school for a while.  Since most students are admitted through faculty review, it is important to demonstrate your academic promise and what you would be like as a student in the classroom.

As for important people, we can tell when the VIP writing on your behalf is doing it as a courtesy, and when they really know you personally – usually the former letter is short and perfunctory, and the latter is longer and more details (and signed in actual ink as opposed to a stamp).   But even when the letter is personal, I would say the only time such a letter has carried any weight is when the person is an alum of our law school and has compared the applicant specifically to the type of people we normally admit.  In other words, a detailed letter from former President Bill Clinton which says, “Jane is one of the most impressive people I have ever met and is easily the equal of any of the classmates I had when I was a student at Yale Law School,” will likely carry some weight.   (NOTE:  I’ve never gotten such a letter from President Clinton.)  So unless the VIP went to Yale, s/he knows you extremely well (preferably in an academic or professional capacity, rather than as a family friend), and was impressed enough by you to write an over-the-top letter, don’t bother.

Stanford:  I agree completely with Dean Kleinrock’s assessment.  You know, most people, in general, don’t write letters anymore unless they absolutely have to in cases like ours.  It’s a lost art so I am particularly pleased when I come across letters that are thoughtful and detailed.  I especially like the letters where the writer compares the person in question to other students he/she has sent my way in the past.  Not only does it provide context, but it shows me how seriously the recommender considers his/her task at hand.  Letters from famous people?  The only thing that matters to me is how well someone knows the applicant and whether they can add something substantive to the review process.  We’ve all got some mighty fine autograph collections, but many of those letters have value only in the signature and not in what was actually written.

To read more Deans’ answers to common admissions questions, visit the respective blogs of Yale, Michigan, and Stanford


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