Finding the Perfect Fit

Author: 
Robin I. Mordfin

Applying to law school no longer involves sitting down with a 2,000-page copy of Barron's Guide to Law Schools and a pad of paper and creating a wish list. Today, aspiring law students gather information from a huge variety of electronic sources, including blogs, websites, podcasts, and discussion boards. Before they even download their online applications, many have already learned about the accessibility of faculty, practice area-specific course offerings, and judicial clerkship placement at hundreds of schools. From the applicant perspective, things have changed. Prospective students are much savvier, and far better informed-or think they are-than ever before.

But inside the Admissions Office at the University of Chicago Law School, many things remain the same as they always have. Naturally, the Law School has moved much of the information that used to be in print onto the web, and new communications and marketing technologies-chats, tweets, Facebook pages-are used to reach out to students. But the essence of the admissions process works much as it has for decades.

"We read every application thoroughly, and then we often read them again," explains Jayme McKellop, Associate Director of Admissions for the Law School. "Usually, at least two of us read each application in its entirety. We do not ignore any application because of an LSAT score, a GPA, or any other criteria."

Which is how the Law School has always worked. While some law schools may have formulae that simply admit or reject students based on their LSAT score and GPA, the Law School considers every application. These days, there are a lot of them. The Law School received nearly 5,600 applications this past year for spots in the Class of 2013.

The process is so careful and individualized because the admissions staff is looking for more than pure numerical excellence. As similar as law schools can look from the outside, it turns out that they are quite different from each other, and finding the right fit between student and law school is a crucial factor in whether a student will have a good experience. "We are a unique and special place," explains Karla Vargas, Director of Financial Aid at the Law School. "Is everyone who applies here right for the school? No, of course not. But we get more and more outstanding students applying each year. It is our job to figure out whether they are right for the school, and just as important, whether the school is right for them."

This was an excellent year in the Admissions Office. Yield-the number of students who accepted initial offers in the 1L class-was up an extraordinary 25 percent over the year before, with both fewer offers extended and more offers accepted. Applications were up more than 3 percent, with an acceptance rate of 15 percent, down from 18 percent last year. The incoming class will be more diverse than any in the Law School's history-35 percent of the 1Ls will be students of color, and, for the first time, 10 percent will be African American.

The entering class is more academically qualified and interesting than ever. For example, just listing the median numeric credentials of this class will make most alumni shake their heads. As of August 1, the Class of 2013 boasts a median LSAT of 171 (98th percentile) and a median GPA of 3.78. These numbers have held steady now through two admissions cycles, and the GPA number has increased a great deal in only a short time-the median GPA of the Class of 2011 was 3.68. At Chicago Law, of course, numbers aren't everything-the entering class also comes with a wealth of experience. Fully two-thirds of the entering class will come in with post-college work experience or graduate education. They come from 36 states and 102 undergraduate schools. They include Teach for America and Peace Corps alumni, military veterans, professional artists and musicians, athletes, and Eagle Scouts.

It is hard to know exactly why this admissions cycle turned out so well for Chicago Law, but a few things surely helped. This April saw record attendance at Admitted StudentsWeekend, which has always been a reliable way to get admitted students to sign on the dotted line. New technologies were used to reach out to potential students, and several student organizations helped recruit admitted students who might be their future members. The Admissions Office also has some fantastic new staff members, and the Law School students who helped with the admissions process were particularly instrumental. And the Law School's rise to number five in the US News & World Report rankings-which occurred shortly after Admitted Students Weekend and before the response deadline-certainly didn't hurt.

"Our Student Admissions Committee this year was exceptional," says Ann K. Perry, Assistant Dean of Admissions at the Law School. "They were very enthusiastic about everything."The students agree. "It was a great experience," says Ben Schuster, '10, who was on the Student Admissions Committee. "It was a lot of fun talking with prospective and admitted students, hearing their questions, describing life at the Law School. I really enjoyed it."

Using student organizations to recruit is not a new idea, but the combination of enthusiastic students and easy electronic outreach has made it a potent tool.This year, for example, the members of the Black Law Students Association (BLSA), under the leadership of Malaika Durham Tyson, '11, reached out to admitted African American students individually. BLSA members offered to answer questions and talk about their experiences-and came out in force for Admitted Students Weekend. Similar outreach efforts were made by the Latino/a Law Student Association, the Asian Pacific American Law Student Association, OutLaw (the LGBT student group), the Dallin Oaks Society (the Mormon student group), and the Law Women's Caucus.

Alumni also get involved. Alumni Admissions Committee volunteers are matched with admitted students to answer questions about the Law School. "Every year, when we survey our admitted students, several say that their conversations with alumni were the determinative factor in the decision to attend Chicago. Our alumni are one of our strongest resources," McKellop notes.

Last-but certainly not least-the faculty get involved in recruiting. Dean Michael Schill traveled coast to coast to seven Wine Messes for admitted students, making surethat they all knew how much the Law School-and its new Dean-wanted them to join our community. Several faculty members sent individualized emails to admitted students and engaged in further communications with them answering questions about the Law School. "I routinely hear from admitted students that they are pleasantly surprised to hear from some of our most popular professors. Students enjoy this interaction as it reinforces the accessibility of our faculty," says Perry.

Reaching out to admitted students to answer their questions and show them what Chicago Law is really like  is one of the most important things the Admissions Office does. The Admissions Office maintains a dedicated, password-protected page on the website for admitted students, which provides a plethora of details on events and information available to them, including Admitted StudentsWeekend, a guide to Hyde Park, an Admitted Student Handbook, video tours of the city, a slew of FAQs, and-new this year-online chats with Law School faculty, staff, and students.

"The chats were very successful," notes Perry. "Everyone involved really enjoyed them and we put a lot of useful information out there." Chats were held weekly from February through April, and included discussions with Professors Lior Strahilevitz and Tom Ginsburg, former Dean of Students Michele Baker Richardson, the associate dean and a director from the Office of Career Services, various students, and others from the school. Topics ranged from financial aid and fellowships to student organizations, curriculum, and judicial clerkships. "One of the advantages of the chats," notes Vargas, "is that we can make sure the admitted students are getting accurate information and the right answers to their questions."

In the Internet age, countering incorrect impressions is becoming an even more critical part of the responsibilities of the Admissions Office. With so many independent law-school related message boards, websites, and chat rooms available, many potential students are gathering erroneous information.

"It is one of our significant challenges," McKellop says. "Rather than emailing one of us in the Admissions Office, or reading our website, students often rely on inaccurate information from anonymous sources." Such incorrect information can include how and why students have been admitted, data on scholarship awards, student life, and job placement. The list goes on and on.

Changes in personnel and even in physical space have helped the Admissions Office rise to this challenge. Vargas arrived at the Law School in February with more than five years of law school-specific financial aid advising experience. Her ability to talk one on one with applicants and guide them through the complex processes has greatly improved the Law School's ability to get students to matriculate. The new Student Services Suite in the library has a lovely waiting area where prospective students can peruse Law School materials, talk to current students, and generally be made to feel welcome. Kevin Petty, the new Admissions and Financial Aid Coordinator, and Stacy Glover, the veteran Admissions Coordinator, serve both as welcoming faces and friendly phone voices to thousands of inquiring applicants and admitted students every year. "Kevin and Stacy make all our applicants feel that they are being treated like people, rather than numbers on a file," says Perry. "Their unflappable nature makes our extremely busy office run smoothly."

This personal attention is absolutely necessary for dealing with today's prospective students. "Applicants have very different expectations than in the past,"McKellop continues. "Students no longer send in their applications and simply wait for decisions to come in the mail. Recruiting admitted students requires a thoughtful communication plan and individualized conversations. Applicants want consistent and prompt interaction. They can watch their application move through the admissions process with our online status checker. They can see when their application has gone under review.We tell them when to expect the next round of decisions through our Twitter feed. They want up-to-the-minute information, so we work hard to give them that."

Not surprisingly, students have greater concerns about funding their legal education and are more reluctant to take on debt in light of the changing legal market. "Another difference is that they negotiate more," Vargas notes. "Now when an accepted student gets a financial-aid package-and everyone gets some package that enables them to pay to attend the Law School-some students will counter the offer by showing us what they were offered from other schools."

Still, as the application process has evolved, some things the Law School has offered to admitted students for years are just as valuable as ever.

"Admitted Students Weekend is great," Schuster says. "Not only is it fun, but once you get students here they want to attend this school. Once they see the facilities, the students, how friendly everyone is, and how great the community is, it's really persuasive. A lot of good things separate the University of Chicago from the rest of the law schools."

Financial aid plays a big role in admissions, as it has for decades. New programs to alleviate debt for students seeking to work in public interest and government jobs, such as the Heerey Fellowships and Hormel Public Interest Program, encourage an ever-wider variety of students to choose Chicago Law. Beginning in the fall, the addition of the new Rubenstein Scholars program will greatly increase the Law School's ability to attract the very best students.

So while many aspects of the admissions process continue to change from year to year, the basics remain the same: Consider every application, find students who will thrive at the Law School, and give applicants the information they need to make the best possible decision. The staff of the Admissions Office does an exemplary job in these areas, and, as you would expect, they do it in quintessential Chicago Law style.

"I don't think this happens at other law schools," Schuster notes. "But you see Ann Perry and her staff in the Green Lounge, or some other part of the Law School, every day talking to students. The Admissions Office isn't just about getting students into the Law School. They are a vital part of our school and everyone feels that way."

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