Podcast (accepted-admissions-podcast): Play in new window | Download | Embed
Subscribe: Apple Podcasts | Google Podcasts | Android
Kristin Theis-Alvarez, Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid at the UC Berkeley School of Law, shares her insider perspective on the recent decision to withdraw from US News Rankings and describes how students can demonstrate the Berkeley ethos to secure a spot in this prestigious program. [Show Summary]
Thanks for joining me for the 504th episode of Admissions Straight Talk. Are you applying to law school this cycle? Are you planning ahead to apply to law school next year or later? Are you competitive at your target programs? Accepted’s Law School Admissions Quiz can give you a quick reality check. Just go to accepted.com/law-quiz, complete the quiz, and you’ll not only get your assessment but also tips on how to improve your chances of acceptance. Plus it’s all free.
I’m delighted to have on Admissions Straight Talk, Kristin Theis-Alvarez, Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid at the University of California Berkeley School of Law. Dean Theis-Alvarez earned her BA in Rhetoric and Native American Studies from UC Berkeley and her JD from Stanford Law, graduating from Stanford in 2000. She has been with Berkeley Law in different roles since 2007 and became Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid in 2018.
In addition to her duties at Berkeley, she’s a member of the Board of Trustees and Chair of the Diversity Equity and Inclusion Committee for the Law School Admissions Council.
Can you start by giving an overview of the more distinctive elements of the Berkeley Law JD program? [2:08]
It’s a little bit challenging to encapsulate them, but I will try to hit some of them and I imagine through the rest of the questions, others may emerge.
I like to start with the first year because frankly, it’s a point of distinction between us and a lot of our peer schools. We are firm believers that there are a lot of law schools that give a really great education and it becomes more about fit and where you want to spend three years as well as what in particular you want to get out of it.
One of the places where we are different is in what we will allow people to do in the first year. You may have this idea that all of the curriculum in the first year is set and you just sort of suffer through it and then you get to do fun stuff in your second and third years. That’s the case probably in many places, but certainly not the case at Berkeley.
We made a really distinct choice, many years ago that if we’re going to recruit, and we do like to recruit students who have a strong track record of engagement, then we should allow them to be engaged and to do what they care about most. That shouldn’t take away from, but augment their experience. We will allow people to join any of the journals except California Law Reviews as first-year students.
We’ll allow students to get involved in our pro bono program, which has a number of distinct aspects, but the most well-recognized is the student-initiated legal projects, which are hands-on legal work, supervised by attorneys and community partners. First-year law students are actually doing things that make a difference like representing someone who is in the process of seeking asylum. There are over 40 of them this year.
We also let people try out for the competition team. If you’re someone who’s really passionate about moot court or mock trial and you plan to be a litigator and you want to keep doing that, you can do that in your first year.
Similarly, the curriculum is actually not nearly as fixed as it used to be. We went through curricular reform a few years ago, and we made the decision to remove property, which is typically one of the core required courses, not only as a first-year requirement but as a graduation requirement.
We also took a unit from torts and reduced it by a unit to add a unit, which sort of equates to hours in legal education to the legal research and writing program so that people were getting more practice, developing more skills, and having more examples of their writing also to enter the employment market with. Functionally, that means that there are three required courses in legal research and writing in the fall. Then in the spring, there’s only one remaining required course, plus written and oral advocacy.
Many students would choose to take constitutional law, which is a graduation requirement, but even if you do, you still have remaining units to take an elective and frankly, you could take two or three depending on the number of units. That has really opened things up. We had a lot of interesting conversations about it, but I do think it speaks to the fact that we like people who are highly specialized. These are people who want to go into patent law and don’t need to wait out for the first year to get involved in the things that they care about. They’re also people who are creative explorers looking to put together different aspects of the curriculum and have them be informed by one another from the very beginning.
Beyond that, I mean I think there’s an incredible breadth and depth of curriculum here. The faculty actually enjoy teaching, which is hard to express and sometimes sounds like a little too muchmarketing. I think Dean Chemerinsky, is a really great example of someone who’s an incredible leader and thinker, but also who loves to teach. He teaches constitutional law every spring to first-year students and usually teaches either criminal procedure or first amendment law in the fall to 2Ls and 3Ls. That really sets the tone.
The only other thing I’ll say is that I think that the education, curriculum, and opportunities at Berkeley really emphasize experiential education and interdisciplinary education. Beyond the pro bono program, we have 14 clinics, six in-house, and eight in the community. We have a really robust field placement program that includes opportunities to go to the Hague for a semester or Washington D.C. or something along those lines. You could also do it part-time and locally while taking classes. It’s sort of infused. There are all of these places you can really take what you’ve learned in the classroom and practice it in some way.
We really fundamentally believe that most of the complex legal problems in the world are not going to be solved by a single discipline if that makes sense. It makes sense to build yourself a set of courses that include environmental law and racial justice and criminal law and international law. There are problems that are cross-national, complex things like immigration driven by global climate change. Those are the kinds of thinkers that we hope to enroll and then that’s the kind of education that we hope to provide.
Does the flexibility in the curriculum enhance students’ abilities to get internships between the first and second year? [7:09]
Potentially. We have a very strong law and technology or intellectual property program, for example. We’re adjacent to Silicon Valley, and also there’s a huge biotech hub in San Francisco and in the East Bay. So if there’s a firm that knows they’re looking to hire people who are going to be patent prosecutors or something along those lines, then they’re very interested in getting their hands on those students quite early. It does help that the students have had some intro to IP, patent, or something else that they can take in their first semester before they go off into a law firm to learn how to be a summer associate, which is a unique experience unto itself.
Can you touch on the grading system which is supposed to enhance collaboration and cooperation and create a positive culture at UC Berkeley Law? [8:36]
Yeah, it is fairly different. There are some other schools that have their versions of alternative grading, which I would broadly describe as just non-A through F’s.
You’re still getting evaluated. I sometimes say we give out grades, not hugs. You actually do get feedback. It’s still on a curve but the way that it works is that it’s not tied to the A through F system. So you’ll never have a GPA or a class rank. But essentially the top 10% of any given class will get an HH, which is high honors. The next 30% will get an H, which is honors, and then the remainder of the students will get a pass. It is possible to get a restricted pass or a low pass or a non-pass. It’s extremely unusual but it does exist.
There is accountability. I have some theories about this and sort of its effect on culture. I don’t know that it changes the culture in the way people think it does. Somehow people think, “Ah, I don’t have to worry about grades. I’ll just be nice now.” I don’t think that’s how it actually works. People worked really hard to get here, and they don’t stop being people who are very interested in working very hard and doing really well. Obviously, there are a lot of benchmarks along the way. Things like summer jobs and clerkships, and all of those kinds of opportunities that people are fairly focused on.
I think if you get into Berkeley, you get into a lot of great schools, usually. There’s a lot of overlap with many of our peer schools. As I mentioned in the beginning, I think it comes down to fit. So if you’ve had an experience where you were at an extremely competitive undergraduate school and you think, “Well, I’ve done that, I don’t particularly want to do it again.” One of the variables you start to look at is the culture and community variable, which is really best understood if you go to visit, rather than listening to anyone like me talk about it.
But if that is important to you as you weigh it against things like net cost or placement or bar pass or something else, then you choose based on it. If you choose based on it, you typically hold it as a value so it becomes this shared value of collaboration. We pick Berkeley for a different experience, therefore we work hard to create a different experience. There’s not a lot we as administrators could do to make people be kind.
I try to pick kind people when I’m admitting them, but it’s sort of a self-reinforcing system. What I will say about the grades is that you still will spend most of your time in the library, but you have space to say, “Well, I’m not so worried about how I’m going to do in torts. It creates a little bit of breathing room. Or people can say, “I’d like to join a journal because I’d like to work on the citations part of this and I think it’ll be helpful in my career search, et cetera.” Or “I’m not enjoying much at all about the first-year curriculum, but I came here to do workers’ rights and labor work and so I’m going to get involved in some of those projects through pro bono and it’s going to remind me kind of my why. So when I’m struggling in a particular class or just with law school and why I chose to come.”
You were quoted as saying that removing the test requirement could actually increase disparities in law school admissions. How do you see that happening? [12:50]
If anyone can’t fall asleep at night, they can go read the comments of the American Bar Association. One of them was co-written by me and a colleague at the University of Wisconsin.
It’s 19 pages long because I approached the question of whether we need a test and what the role of the test is with an attempt to be open-minded about it. Frequently we get cited as people who are opposed to getting rid of the test. People assume that somehow we’re out here on a campaign for the law school admissions council and for the test. I spent a lot of this summer frankly just doing independent research because the reality is I hadn’t thought a lot about it. I actually have a high school senior going through the college application process right now, and we’re dealing with the question of what it means to go test-optional. It’s been an interesting time. I did a ton of my own research and then wrote this lengthy memo with footnotes and all.
What really became problematic for me, as someone who reads thousands of applications every year, is that a lot of people are making rules who don’t actually do this work. One of the things that became true for me, and the research seemed to bear out is that there’s just as much disparity in GPA. That disparity in GPA is compounded by limited access for some people to more elite institutions. You get the double whammy of a GPA that might not be an exceptionally high GPA and a GPA that might not be high or is high at an institution where there’s the likelihood of bias in terms of people’s sense of the reputation of that institution.
There is research that shows that the students who were admitted test optional for undergrad were not more racially diverse, or maybe just slightly for some groups and that actually there were fewer people admitted who were low-income and first-generation college students. It actually hurt some people while maybe just slightly helping some other people. Then there’s emerging research that maybe the attrition rates and graduation rates might not be the same.
I worry a little bit about that suggesting something around mismatch, which I really struggle with. My interest is more from a reader’s perspective. We’re doing a holistic read. There are only two places where there are numbers. One is the GPA and one is a test score. If you remove test scores from the equation, I don’t know that schools are, at least initially, going to be very adept at figuring out how to do something like score personal statements or score interviews or add numbers back in, which is helpful when you’re dealing with an applicant pool of my size and creates a sense of reliance on undergraduate GPA.
That’s affected by so many things and becomes really problematic, especially as you put the questions of prestige together with the questions of performance. I was just telling someone as I was reading binding early decision applications, that this is what people don’t understand. At some schools, there were as many people, or more, admitted because of their test scores as there might have been who were not admitted because of their test scores.
I had someone apply from a small Christian college in the middle of the country. I don’t know much about it. I looked at the transcript really carefully. I read the letters of recommendation really carefully. I still was sort of not sure exactly what it meant. I’ve never seen an applicant from the school. They had an exceptionally high LSAT score. So the first and fundamental question of whether I think they could be academically successful through the combination of their performance at undergrad and LSAT, I felt fine about that. Then I moved on to things in terms of other qualifications. And that going away is going to be a challenge.
From my perspective, and I’ve also read thousands of applications at this point in time, are there definitely times when the test is going to be the piece of evidence? What if somebody worked their way through undergraduate college? Even at a public Ivy. They’re going to have struggled with some grades. But if they have the time or they focus for a little while on the test, they might test great. [17:47]
When we talk about applications, I say that applicants perceive this as a three-part test, which is, “Do I have a good enough LSAT score?,” “Do I have a good enough GPA?,” and “Do I have good enough extracurriculars?” which is not at all the endeavor that we’re engaged in. The first question is, “Do we think you can come and do the work?” The next one is, “What will you contribute beyond being a good student?” And the third is, “Are you a good fit for our institution?”
We’re very careful then to say, even with GPA, it’s much more complicated than that. It’s the academic record or history as an indicator and predictor of future success. GPA is nestled in a collection of factors that include rigor, study, age of grades, major obligations outside, division one athletes, full-time employees, people who are single parents, people who are reentry students, and so on. Also, the explanations people provide are important. They had a medical emergency. They had a death in the family. There’s all of the juicy context.
There are other kinds of patterns. They have a high GPA, but they took two classes pass/fail every single semester. There’s just all kinds of possible stuff. People somehow don’t think that’s true for the LSAT. Of course, it’s true for the LSAT. It’s why we have a prompt to say, “If you don’t believe that your test scores are indicative of your potential, tell us why. What should I be relying on instead in your record?” There are multiple test scores and patterns of cancellation, but now there are things that we don’t see which are problematic like the use of score preview, test prep programs, et cetera. And that can be trickier.
I watched the debate at the American Bar Association Council when they were discussing this and someone raised the issue of, “Why do we need to do this?” We raised this in our memo. Why do we need to do this when any school could just decide to weigh the test less? We’re told to use a test, but we’re not told how to use that test or how much importance to give it. So a school that really wants to radically depart from this idea of being driven by tests or that is really disturbed by what is a demonstrated score gap for racial minorities could simply say, “We require the LSAT per the ABA standards and we just don’t give it a lot of weight.”
The reason people don’t do that, which is a segue into your next question, I think largely has to do with US News & World Report. There was this strange piece of that conversation where someone said, “Well, maybe this will change” because they were referencing the changes the schools had announced that they weren’t going to participate in US News & World Report. It seems very strange to me to change something about the admissions process and requirements that schools and admissions professionals are saying is helpful to them because we don’t like the behavior of a third party and the influence of the third party on the schools themselves and the pressure it creates for us to emphasize something we don’t think should be emphasized.
Part of why I think it’s exciting to see schools depart from US News & World Report is because it’s taking what we have griped about for years and actually putting it out into the world. I think if we do more of that, there’s a way to keep test scores a part of the process, but lead courageously in terms of how we treat and regard those scores. But we are where we are. I’m a realist. We have two years to figure this out. The new rule, assuming it gets through the state council house of delegates will be implemented in application season ’25-’26.
Berkeley Law is no longer participating in the US News rankings. I gather you’re celebrating the fact that you won’t have to fill out those rankings reports. Are there any misgivings? [22:04]
Yeah. I just got a week of my life back, but that was not the motivation.
We can’t control what US News & World Report does, and I think they have already said pretty clearly in public that they’re going to continue to rank schools. We’re a public institution, so a lot of our information is public. In fact, we are going to form a committee to think about how we can represent on our website using some public-facing dashboards and other tools, a lot of this information, because we agree and feel that the consumer information is important and that ABA 509 reports are helpful, but it might be useful to visualize that data in a different way. It could be useful to provide more data than we would otherwise provide elsewhere.
Most of it’s going to be available. I think there are some schools right now that maybe would withdraw if not for the fact that they think the thing that helps them the most is per pupil expenditures, which is probably the only piece of data US News & World Report really can’t get its hands on without the school volunteering it.
If you’re a school saying, “Our reputational ranking and all these other things are not so great, but per pupil expenditures are exceptionally high, that’s what has pushed us into the top 20.” I can understand some real reticence to leave. Ultimately, I think ours was not a decision, and I’ll speak for myself, but from my perspective, I was an advocate for non-participation, and it was a decision that didn’t have to do with strategy.
I think if we had gone down the strategy wormhole of, “How does this help us? How might this hurt us? What are our peers doing?” then we’re still living in a world where rankings reign supreme and I’m still waking up in mid-March going, “Oh my gosh. I’m going to live and die by what someone on a website thinks of my school,” which is just silly. Part of it was this desire to not be in that world so much anymore.
We are ranked by many entities that are not US News & World Report. There are rankings on specialties. There are rankings for people who have blogs. There are rankings for people who are consultants. There are just so many ways and that’s always going to be true. But we are imbuing this particular ranking with some special significance because we’re volunteering data that wouldn’t otherwise be available and then we were railing against it or sort of complaining about it. That just seems absurd, frankly.
We didn’t make a forever decision. I don’t know how other schools have thought about that. I still personally have an issue with the fact that the methodology is entirely opaque, that the only way we can see and reverse engineer what analysis was applied is by purchasing for a fee, the full data set, and that it changes from year to year. To me, if you’re providing a tool to help people really understand clearly with transparency how to compare schools, you would need to keep the methodology stable for chunks of time and see how schools perform against that methodology.
If you change it every single year, it doesn’t actually do that anymore. I would personally love to see a commitment to make the methodology more transparent and then to hold it stable for a period of time and convene a group of deans or leaders in legal education to help inform changes periodically every three or five years to that methodology to reflect a changing environment.
I’m not going to get what I want, just to be clear. Nobody is asking me either, so that’s totally fine. But it’s been really fascinating. I really applaud the deans at Yale and at Harvard as well for going out front on this issue. We were the third school. There have been many schools that have followed both public and private. But I do think that our colleagues at those schools recognized they were in a unique position and took the initial step. Yale has never not been number one. It’s absurd if US News report suddenly ranks them 12. So I just want to give credit where credit is due. That foresight in leadership has really been transformative.
Someone asked whether or not we thought somehow this was a negotiation tactic. I actually don’t think that US News & World Report cares a ton about law schools, but it would be really problematic if undergraduate institutions or business schools chose not to participate as those schools draw from a more international audience. I think to the extent that anyone is worried that it might become a cross-discipline trend, that’s what’s likely to bring folks to the negotiation table and not just us drawing the line in the sand.
Considering the formal application deadline is February 15th and it’s now January, is it too late to apply? Are applicants at a disadvantage applying closer to the deadline? [28:30]
It’s a great question, and a question I get all the time. It’s directly related to an understanding and misunderstanding of what rolling admissions mean. We are a school that employs rolling admission, which is to say we don’t wait until February 16th to crack open 6,000 applications and try to read them in the next four weeks. We start reading them as they come in and we start making decisions as they come in.
I think people are right to suspect that as a pure numbers game, their “chances” look worse in February. Picture the lines on a graph. In September, we have very few applicants, and all of those 800-900 spots that we’re going to offer. Over time we start filling those seats. Then the line for applicants isn’t a straight line up, it’s more like a bumpy line that has a lot to do with LSAT administration and score releases. What is absolutely true is that we get a spike at the end of the cycle as people approach the deadline. If your odds are 100 apps and 800 spots in September, that looks pretty good. If your odds are 2,000 apps and 100 spots in February, that doesn’t look so good.
We would be terrible at our job if we said, “We have an application deadline on February 15th, but we’re just done admitting people on January 15th,” or something along those lines. We know that there are good applicants that are coming. We know that there are people for whom something happened in their test administration in November and they really feel like they need to take the January test to show us what their true ability is. We know that there are people who don’t have access to the same kind of pre-law advising that explains some of this to them and the benefits of applying early. We absolutely have space in the class in February. It would also be very silly of me to admit someone who I didn’t think was a great person for Berkeley, simply because they applied in October or to deny someone who was amazing simply because they applied in February.
When you zoom out to the 10,000-foot view, there is an impact. When I am in a given person’s application, there isn’t an impact. If I read someone who got assigned to me on the 15th and I was reading them on the 20th and I knew we have no space but they were amazing, I would say, “Well Dean Chemerinsky, we’re going to be a person over.” Because we’d want them. So in that sense, I don’t think people need to stress about it impacting them directly.
In the world of law admissions, there are only so many things that people can control. You can’t control what you did as an undergrad and what your LSAC or GPA are but you can control when you apply. What we tend to tell people is that because that’s something that you can control and because there’s at least the potential for a little bit of benefit earlier in the cycle, we encourage you to apply at the earliest point at which you have your strongest application prepared. That’s the general advice.
The second part of this question we get is if we’re going to run out of money. We do both initial gift aid offers and a process called reconsideration. Even if you didn’t get an initial gifted offer, it wouldn’t be because of the time you applied, but if you did, you could still request reconsideration, which doesn’t open until mid-March after our admit weekend. That’s a separate set of money and we plan for this phased approach. There are absolutely scholarships available to someone who applied on February 15th and got admitted.
Who should apply via the binding early decision program? Does it have a higher acceptance rate than a regular decision? [32:33]
It’s a timely question as we sent out decisions yesterday. Our binding early decision program requires some things. It requires you to apply by mid-November. It requires you to have taken an LSAT or a test no later than sort of October so we can get your scores in. It requires you to write an essay describing why you applied to Berkeley. It requires you to sign a binding early decision agreement signifying that you actually understand what you’re entering into, which is to say that if you are accepted, you are firmly committed to attending Berkeley and you must withdraw your application from everywhere else where you’ve applied even if you haven’t received a decision.
On the flip side, I feel really strongly that one of the more inequitable things in admissions, in general, is binding early decision programs that take a fair number of people, particularly at the undergraduate level, but do not offer non-loan financial support at that time.
When I launched this program a few years ago, we launched it with a $25,000 scholarship award. We didn’t just make that number up. $25,000 per year, or $75,000 total, was the number tied to the average award of anyone admitted the previous year. I could say with a straight face that you were not at a financial disadvantage. You were guaranteed, in fact, what had been the average award for any student. Sure, you’ll never know whether you might have gotten a larger award but we’re not trying to trick people into committing because I think they need the benefit of the admission. This year we upped that to $30,000 because last year’s average scholarship award was closer to $29,000. Because we’ve tied those two together, we made that adjustment.
Is that award regardless of need? [34:35]
Yes, and people can apply for need later in the spring and we will increase awards.
To answer your question of who should apply, people who know that Berkeley is absolutely their first choice. They don’t need to know if they got into other schools. They don’t need the option to stay closer to home. They don’t need a full ride or aren’t counting on one. I tend to think of it as people who would come to Berkeley for nothing. The fact that they can come to Berkeley and get a $90,000 scholarship spread over three years, they’re over the moon about that.
I don’t think that most people can apply by an early decision and say, “Oh, I’m just so relieved to be done on December 6th and I don’t need to know whether if I would’ve gotten into those other 15 schools and I don’t need to know if I would’ve gotten a full ride somewhere.” I think we’ve built a great program and I also think that you should approach all binding early decision programs as an applicant with a lot of skepticism about whether it’s the right thing for you. You’re giving something up when you are committing so that’s a really important consideration.
To answer your question about admit rate, it varies. I don’t have a set number that I must or may not admit. We’ve admitted between 35 and 60. It just depends on the caliber of the applicant and not on a fixed sort of number in terms of how many people we’re trying to enroll through that program.
Last year the number was lower than the overall admit rate, which was 12%. We took only 35 last year and I think the admit rate was about 10%. This year the admit rate is about 13.5% because we took a larger group although we also had 100 more applicants than in the past. It varies, but it’s about the average admit rate plus or minus a percentage point on either side.
Berkeley Law accepts the LSAT or the GRE and occasionally the GMAT. Approximately what percentage of the applicant pool is applying with the GRE or the GMAT? [37:29]
Oh, it’s small. This cycle is the first time we’ve accepted the GRE with no questions asked.
We took the GRE in the past as a pilot program like we take the GMAT. Because the numbers are so small, it’s hard to study how those people have actually performed. We only accepted the tests from people who were applying to a joint degree program or who had taken the test in the last few years for the purpose of applying to another masters or PhD program.
That kept the numbers very, very small. I can’t tell you this year how many people will apply with the GRE. I expect it to be more. We are going to have to look back at the cycle and crunch the numbers. Right now my eyes are seeing a lot of GRE score reports, but it’s also because we’re requiring you to send the GRE score report even if you have an LSAT. If you took the GRE because they were required for the ABA to report the scores of people who took either or both tests even if we didn’t use it for admission.
I’m seeing a ton of them, but if they’re applying with LSAT, we really consider them LSAT test takers. There will be a little number crunching that has to be done and the question of how many people were GRE applicants versus how many people were GRE plus LSAT applicants is unclear at this stage.
One of the things that’s fascinating is proponents of the GRE, or just maybe of expanded test options. They don’t think the LSAT is the end all be all in a variety of ways. I think there are some applicants who think, “I’ve heard the LSAT is really hard. I took the GRE. Well, maybe that’s better.” What’s fascinating is that the LSAT is just a score across all of the three sections that are scored when you take the test.
With the GRE, we get subsection scores. There’s actually much more data for us which could be good or not good for someone. I could say, “I’m not so worried that you didn’t score in the 97th percentile in the quantitative section, but I’m pretty worried that you only scored in the 50th percentile in writing.” Suddenly I know that as opposed to the LSAT writing sample, which is unscored. There are some interesting pros and cons at work and it has been fascinating to see more data.
Do you have any suggestions for how applicants should choose which test to take and submit? [40:15]
My general advice right now, and obviously, this advice is only good from 2023 to 2025 is that I would take the LSAT, if it were me or if I were advising my kid. The plain reality is that not all schools accept the GRE and far fewer except the GMAT. If you’re making a pure choice, unless your list of schools is exclusively GRE-accepting schools and unless you feel like you can get your hands on some data that helps you understand how your GRE score compares to people who’ve been admitted at that school with a GRE, which is also elusive, I think that you’re wise to take the LSAT. It’s just more portable.
You could apply to a bunch of schools and then think, “This seems like a competitive cycle. I might want to apply to a few more schools.” There are things you just can’t know. And if there are those few schools that don’t take the GRE, then you’re signing up for the LSAT in January or in March. That can be really problematic.
What’s your number one tip for the personal statement? [41:27]
I’m going to say: keep it personal.
Don’t write about a student in your second-grade class that you’re teaching. Tell your story. I am not especially interested in a description of where you are right now and where you plan to go. You should think about the personal statement as more like a proxy for an interview.
I’m very interested in you telling me something about your journey to this point and with a certain amount of momentum, that feels like you going to law school is the necessary and inevitable conclusion of that tale. Tell me how you grew up, why you care about the things that you care about, the way that you see the world, and how that lens has been shaped by personal experiences. People can talk about their childhood. People can talk about something they did in college. People can talk about work, but ultimately we’re trying to learn more about you.
The metaphor I sometimes use is rounds of interviews. The first interview for a job is to look at your resume. Does this person seem qualified? That’s not your personal statement. That’s other aspects of your application. And then I invite you in for an interview in my office, and you’re wearing a suit, and it’s very formal. I have your resume and I am sort of checking if you have the skills. There are some generic questions, but if you got over that hurdle, the next thing I’d probably do is try to set up an hour where we could meet for coffee, or you could meet with me and my team for lunch. In that moment, you would not probably be dressed in a suit, nor would I, and we would be talking about very different things. “Where did you grow up? What interests you about this? I’m just so curious about how you came to want to work in admissions. Tell me more about that.”
That’s the conversation that I think the personal statement is attempting to simulate. If you are extremely business-like and it’s not particularly personal, you’re really operating the space of that in-office interview. I just don’t get to know you as well, and it would be unlikely if I were selecting someone for a job here that I would pick the person who I didn’t know as well.
I sometimes refer to admissions deans as the keepers of the culture. We’re responsible for 85% of the people in the building so we really care about knowing who you are in some way. We don’t have interviews, at least not at this time. This is it. This is your shot. If there’s something that you need to say, say it.
Do you encourage applicants to submit addenda and are there any addenda that you prefer to see? [45:12]
I would maybe break the group that you’re referencing up into two or three categories. One would be optional statements, and for us that’s the why Berkeley statement and the diversity statement, which is what you will contribute in terms of diversity. Those are very helpful as supplements to your personal statement.
Your personal statement should be the foundation and everything else is helpful information that surrounds it and enhances or deepens our understanding of some elements of it. I really enjoy reading either or both of those. Our personal statement is up to four pages, which is fairly unusual. I will say that there are people who will write a four-page personal statement that does the work of also answering the questions of why Berkeley and what will they bring in terms of diversity and how is that shaped their viewpoint in their personal statements. That’s why they’re optional. It’s not a strict requirement, but especially if you’ve written a shorter personal statement that you’re maybe using for more than one school, I would encourage you to write the optional statements.
There are required addenda for character, fitness, and prior matriculation. There is also an optional addendum that asks, “If you don’t believe that your academic record GPA or LSAT scores test scores are indicative of your potential for success, please tell us why and what is.” Then there’s just the world of broad addenda, which is things I didn’t ask for, and you want to send me. If you think about it that way and you narrowly constrain addenda as things I didn’t ask for, but you want to send me, that list is probably pretty short. I don’t actually really want to receive your honor thesis or your photography portfolio or something along those lines that’s just not going to be helpful in my analysis.
But I do think that if there’s something that we should know, especially when understanding something related to your work experience or lack thereof, your academic history and your test scores, then you really should find a place to put it. In all likelihood, that’s an addendum that is not taking up space in any of your other statements.
Do you like to see work experience that is closely related to law working in a legal office or legal clinic? [47:41]
We like to see experience. I have no preference for it being law-related. I think there’s a tendency to think that being a paralegal or doing an internship at a law firm is somehow going to be the cherry on top of your application, and that’s just not the case. Oftentimes, when you’re at a law firm, what you’re really doing is very mundane and not very interesting work whatsoever. Other times it might be quite dynamic and interesting.
Fundamentally, we really do like people with experience. I don’t care if it’s experience accrued in undergraduate. There’s no requirement that it be a postgraduate experience. Have you been busy? What do you do with your time? Is it leadership? Is it campus involvement? Is it helping your family run a business? What, beyond being a student, do you do?
That kind of goes to that second question I referenced. What will you contribute beyond being a good student? For a lot of people that is post-graduate experience. Sometimes that’s also in getting a master’s degree or getting a teaching credential. Sometimes it’s people who have traveled, taught English in another country, or just taken a break from law school.
Mainly, I’m very interested in knowing that the class is going to be full of people who have a track record of engagement and who are the kind ofpeople who will take action.
That’s kind of the Berkeley ethos, the” let’s do something about it” attitude. Demonstrating that you’re someone who has had that draw to do something is helpful. You could be a 20-year-old undergraduate who fulfills that, absolutely and you could be someone who has been working in organic farming and community organizing for three years and has realized that the way they want to make a change in the world is to get a law degree. That’s also very reasonable.
You have a JD so you obviously applied to law school. What would you today tell your applicant self if you could? [50:23]
That’s a good question. What I often say when asked what I would tell people that I didn’t know at the time, but really worked out for me, was to not listen to people who tell you that your chances are non-existent or that you have no right applying to that school.
I had the benefit of ignorance. I just applied to the schools that I thought I would love to be at. I liked what they offered. Their faculty seemed great. Their programs were a good fit for me and I went for it. It worked out fine. I just think there are so many people now whose lists are constrained by their perception or other people’s perception of whether or not they can be admitted.
If I had to tell myself something back then, it actually probably would’ve been not to be just as interested in schools around ranking as frankly, I was, which is ironic. We do grow and change, Linda.
It’s like me telling people who were stressed about jobs, “I promise you your first legal job will not be your last legal job. You’re not signing a contract forever.” So I had some options and I chose the school, which was a great school, but a school I think at the time that was number two in the country. I had a really lovely time, but also many things about legal education have changed.
There were very few people that grew up in a very low-income household, which I did. I didn’t really think about that as a variable. It was a little bit challenging for me to suddenly be in an environment with people who were third-generation graduates at the school. There were some variables I wish I had thought about and sort of kicked the tires a little bit more around what I was looking for. Part of that, to be clear, was my own lack of experience, ironically. I applied to law school at 21 and went directly from undergrad.
The advice I would give to anyone now would be to take some time off. Law school will still be there. You’ll only be a better applicant for waiting a little bit. But I didn’t ask some of the questions that I now try really hard to counsel people to ask even if it means they don’t pick Berkeley. Who do you want to be around for three years? What kind of environment are you looking for? Where do you see yourself ultimately ending up, et cetera.
It felt very strange to even contemplate at the time saying no to a school that was that school. That probably is true for a lot of people now but I had many other really good options and I think had I made a less reflexive or automatic decision, I might have had a different experience.
Is there anything you would’ve liked me to ask? [54:03]
Your questions are fantastic.
I think one question that should get asked more in general is, “Are your students happy?” I cannot say that every student at Berkeley is…I mean, it’s also finals and it’s a terrible time to ask. Nobody is happy right now. But I think that we, as an industry, produce far too many unhappy attorneys. There’s a study that said something like 70% of attorneys wouldn’t recommend the profession.
I think if we figured out a way, whether it’s through rankings or elsewhere, to think about how we determine whether students are happy, even if things are really hard and they’re challenged, that we would be better served not just as legal educators but as members of the profession. This is an incredibly important profession and it requires a certain amount of stamina, and stamina can be fed by anxiety or joy. I think we should work for it to be fed more by joy.
Where can listeners learn more about Berkeley Law? [55:32]
I would go to our main website, www.law.berkeley.edu and poke around to see what we have to offer.
- Berkeley Law Admissions
- Are You Ready for Law School? (Accepted’s Law School Admissions Quiz)
- 5 Fatal Flaws to Avoid in Your Law School Application Essays
- How to Get Into Georgetown Law | Accepted
- Duke Law Interview with Dean Mark Hill
- UVA Law interview with Dean Blazer
- USC Gould Law School Interview with Dean Kirschner
- UCLA Law School: How to Get Accepted