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Hear about possible changes to the law admissions process and how to get accepted [Show Summary]
Mark Hill, Assistant Dean of Admissions at Duke Law, has worked in admissions for twenty years. In this episode, he shares his thoughts on how law schools will be affected by a potential recession and the possible elimination of a test requirement. Mark explores how applicants, especially those hoping to get accepted to Duke, should handle the shifting landscape.
(Please note: Between the recording and publication of our interview, Mark Hill was promoted to Assistant Dean of Admissions at Duke Law. The recording has his old title; the show notes reflect his new title.)
Interview with Mark Hill, Assistant Dean of Admissions at Duke Law [Show Notes]
Thanks for joining me for the 481st 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 an assessment but also tips on how to improve your qualifications and your chances of acceptance. And it’s all free.
I’m delighted to have an Admissions Straight Talk, Mark Hill, Assistant Dean of Admissions at Duke Law. Mark earned his bachelor’s degree in Cultural Anthropology from Duke, and then later earned a master’s in Higher Ed from Northwestern, where he also served as Assistant Director of Admissions. In 2002, joined Duke Law as an Admissions officer. Since 2013, he has served Duke Law as Senior Director/Assistant Dean of Admissions.
Can you give us an overview of the more distinctive elements of the Duke Law School JD program? [2:21]
The way that I think about it, there are two elements that characterize Duke. One is that we’re among a handful of really top-tier national law schools with students who come from all over and have really great job prospects all across the country. Most of our grads don’t stay in North Carolina. They’re looking elsewhere. There’s a handful of law schools like that.
The other thing that makes us distinctive is that we have a relatively small class size. We’re in a smaller city and so we’re a smaller school. We can really give individual attention to students. We help everybody who comes here craft their own course through the opportunities at Duke to get to where they want to end up.
Because it’s a smaller school and a smaller city, we really attract folks who are intending to be full-time law students. They’re focused on engaging with one another and with their professors. I suppose it’s not for everybody, but for people who want that kind of full-on focused experience, it can be really great.
I’ve often mentioned a couple of distinctive dual degrees. We have two JD/LLM degrees that can be completed in the three years that it would take to do a JD so they don’t add any additional time. You can get a really good concentration and an LLM focusing either on international and comparative law and all the spectrum of the things that means from public law to finance and corporate transactions. The other one focuses on law and entrepreneurship. Maybe you want to be a lawyer who works in the startup space or who works with venture capital. Maybe you have entrepreneurial ideas of your own. Maybe you just want to work for law firms that help provide legal services to those kinds of companies. The JD/LLM in law and entrepreneurship is a great thing there. Those are Duke-specific dual degrees. Of course, we have dual degrees with graduate programs like JD/MBA but I like to mention those as things that are particularly distinctive about Duke.
This part of North Carolina has a lot of tech and startup activity because of Duke, UNC, and North Carolina State which are three major research universities in this area. A lot of big tech companies are actually moving in here like Google, Apple, and Meta. It’s a natural fit not only because there’s a growing demand for lawyers with those skills across the board but also because Duke is in a really good place to help our students connect with some experiences in that realm.
Is the dual degree three years or is there an additional year required? [5:26]
You do them both in three years. One component of it is a summer experience that happens in the summer after the first year of law school. The international LLM students will go to the Netherlands and study at the University of Liden. We help them line up a placement with a public interest or organization or law firm outside of the U.S. Similarly, there’s a startup boot camp for the LLM/LE students either here in North Carolina or sometimes a Silicon Valley program. That’s part of the way that you get some additional academic credit and it allows you to complete the degrees in three years with no additional time on the back end.
In the second year of the combined degree program, do students go for a typical internship? [6:12]
During the pandemic, we saw a surge in applications to all law schools. This year, the LSAC overall applicant volume is down about 11.3% from last year, but still up a little bit, 3.4% from two years ago. What is Duke law experiencing? [6:19]
Pretty much the same. We saw a very significant increase in applications for the 2020-2021 application cycle. This year is down a bit from that peak, but still considerably higher than where we had been running pretty steadily around 5,000 applications, more or less, for the years before that. We’re down about 10-15% from that incredible peak previously, but that still was a very strong applicant pool, not only in terms of numbers but quality as well.
Obviously, there’s a lot of talk right now about recession. Do you believe that if a recession hits, it will affect the law school application numbers? How is law school typically affected? [7:32]
I’ve been at Duke for 20 years this fall, so I’ve seen several cycles. A lot of times graduate school applications are a little bit countercyclical. When the economy is bad, people are graduating from college and think, “Well, I’m not going to get a job right now. Maybe I’ll get some additional qualifications and try to ride this out.” In the 2008 recession, we saw there was an initial increase in applications to law school and then people realized that it actually was also affecting the legal employment market. There was sort of a lag and then a decline after that. I hope it would be the same thing this time around. What we saw was that Duke graduates, and I think graduates from most of the top law schools, still had good job prospects. Even in the downturn, the kinds of law firms that hire our students were still interested in hiring them.
I think our students did a little bit better than the overall job market in the previous recession. We also have great career service folks to help guide them through that process. That’s another example of where being at a school that’s able to pay attention to you as an individual is going to be very helpful.
Duke accepts the GRE and the LSAT, approximately what percentage of the applicant pool is applying with the GRE? [9:32]
This is only the second year for us of accepting the GRE so it’s a relatively small number. It’s only about 3-4% in the last two years of our applicant pool who have applied with GRE scores. Correspondingly, it’s a relatively small number of our offers of admission. It’s been less than five enrolling last year, and probably the same this year as well, who only have GRE scores.
It’s still relatively new for us and a pretty small part of our process. We’re still learning how to evaluate those scores. It presents the results in a different way where you actually have the subsection scores and have to think about, “Well, what does it mean if there’s this big split between the quantitative and the verbal section?” whereas with the LSAT we are more used to thinking about those things rather than just getting an aggregate score.
We did a lot of thinking with our faculty and the admissions committee to determine if it made sense for us to do this. Other schools were starting to accept the GRE, but we didn’t want to do it just because other schools were doing it. We thought a lot about it, and we wouldn’t have done it if we weren’t confident that the GRE could give us useful information that we could make good decisions with.
How should applicants choose which tests to take and submit? [11:40]
I think it depends on their individual circumstances. For us, and for most law schools, we really do know the LSAT better and just feel more comfortable interpreting those scores. But like I said, we never wanted there to be a strategic advantage in choosing one over the other. If you take some practice tests, which one fits with the way that you think about things and the way that you would approach the test? How much time do you have to prep?
I was actually talking to a prospective student the other day who was saying she was planning to take the GRE, and I was just curious because I haven’t had a chance to talk to a lot of people and I asked how she made that decision. One of the things she stressed was flexibility. The LSAC has done a great job in increasing the availability of the LSAT, the number of times you can take it, and the ability to take it from home. GRE does still offer more flexibility there to take it on your own schedule and that may be appealing for some people. But I think the decision ought to be more based on the individual applicant’s sense of what’s going to fit their timeline best and their testing abilities best and less of a strategic thing about what we’re looking for.
I think one of the things that a lot of schools thought about, and we did as well, is if you are applying to a dual degree program like a JD/MBA while you’re already in a PhD program and have a GRE score. It makes sense if you’ve got a score already to not to take another test just for the sake of that.
If the ABA were to leave it up to schools, whether to require a test or not, do you see Duke retaining the testing requirement, issuing waivers, or making the test entirely optional? [13:44]
Of course, we’re thinking about it. It’s a relatively recent development. I think there still is value in tests. Not just as another hoop to jump through, but I think about how many times we see people who maybe weren’t in a good place when they started their college career and are able to present a test that gives us more grounded confidence that they’re ready to perform well in law school, as opposed to just them saying, “Hey, I know I could do better.” Presenting a test gives us the ability to say there’s a specific reason that we might feel this is somebody we want to admit.
There are a lot of cases like that. I don’t think we would want to go without that. I think we would want to give some flexibility to people if they felt comfortable that their record was strong and said what it needed to say. There are some people who aren’t good test takers and are otherwise really great, and they’ll be glad not to have to do it, but I know there are people because I’ve seen them and we’ve admitted them and we’ve graduated them and they’re great, who really will benefit from another opportunity to say, “Look, my college grades aren’t fully representative of who I am right now.” And I wouldn’t want them to lose the chance to do that.
I hope that we would be able to manage this transition, whatever guidance or instructions we’re given by the ABA, in a way that lets us use the information we have to make good choices and bring people to Duke who are going to do well and make contributions not only to our law school community but to the legal community at large. It’ll be interesting to see what happens.
Can you review Duke’s regular decision and early decision options? [18:02]
This is pretty similar to what people may be familiar with from applying to college. For regular decision, you apply, we’ll review your application and give you a decision. We work on a rolling admissions basis. It’s not necessarily a set timeframe, but we’ll give you a decision at some time after your application is complete without waiting for one date in the spring to release everyone’s decisions. I think that’s one of the big differences between most law schools. For our early decision, we have two rounds of a binding early decision application. As with many colleges, this is early decision, not early action. You’re saying, “If I’m admitted to Duke, I will enroll. I will withdraw my other applications. I won’t submit any more applications.” If you’re admitted, you’re definitely coming to Duke. For folks who really want to be here, that’s a helpful thing.
Sometimes people might want to think about showing that level of commitment and interest. It removes the ability to compare scholarship offers from other schools. I think it’s always important to say that for us, everybody goes through the same scholarship review process. Being on that committee, I know that people admitted early decision received the same scholarship award that they would have received had they been admitted regular decision. But the’re admitted and whether they like that scholarship award or not, they’re still committed to coming to Duke. It removes the chance to say, “Well, this other school gave me more money.” You have to be prepared to take whatever is offered. That’s really important to consider because obviously, the cost of law school is something that is rightly on most applicants’ minds. It should be, if not.
I think about the college admissions process for my colleagues in Duke’s undergraduate admissions office. They probably take at least half of their freshman class through the early decision application. There’s a real strategic sense that for college applicants, you have to be early decision somewhere. I don’t think it’s nearly as big a part of the law school process. Certainly not for us. It averages maybe 15 or 20%.
Do the different application rounds have different acceptance rates? [20:29]
One of the things that I saw when I actually crunched some numbers on this is how highly variable it is. It really just depends on who applies early decision in a given year, but the criteria are the same. Early decisions really are not as much about comparing to the overall, but asking, “Is this somebody who we think we want to admit?” Overall, we have a target class size, we’re hoping to enroll about 220 students but I don’t have a sense going into the year, how many will be admitted through early decisions.
I think what often happens with people who apply early decision is we might look at them and say, “This is somebody who looks pretty good.” Usually, the people who choose to apply early decision are solid but not at the very top of our applicant pool, because usually those folks know that they’re going to be competitive at a variety of schools. Most of the time, people who are applying early decision are people who are solid students but want to maximize their opportunities and give themselves a little bit of a boost. We know that they’re committed to coming and that they’re really interested in Duke. They’re going to be enthusiastic community members. We might go ahead and admit them. That would give somebody the push to be admitted rather than be put on the waitlist.
That’s sort of the place where it makes a difference, but there’s a lot of variation. Maybe it’s because I read them all at once, but I think there’s a fair chunk of people who apply through early decision because they think it’s going to work a miracle for them even though they’re not competitive candidates.
At Duke Law, is full-time work experience a nice to have, or really important to the admissions committee? [23:17]
The way that it works out is usually that somewhere around a third of our class has just graduated from college. 30 or 40% have spent a year or two doing other things before they start law school. There’s a long tail of people with more substantial careers. That’s the way it works out. We’re not trying to produce those results. That’s just sort of a function of the applicant pool. There are plenty of great folks who are graduating from college who are really thoughtful about their interest in a legal career and confident in where they’re going. They have been involved in their college communities, maybe they haven’t had full-time employment, but have had internships or volunteer experiences such that we really feel comfortable knowing that they know how to work with other people and that they’re going to do well.
One of the things that we think about is not only are you going to engage with your classmates but how are you likely to do in a job interview when you have on-campus interviews? How are you going to do when you have that opportunity? Do you know how to collaborate with other people? That’s one reason that we began requesting when people submit two letters of recommendation, at least one of them does come from a non-academic source. We definitely still want to hear about people’s classroom performance. But if possible, we really like to hear about how they do outside the classroom.
I think that often people who have taken that time to do things before they start law school have benefited from that. They’ve learned some things about themselves. They’ve gotten some life skills. It’s definitely not a must-have. We really take each application and each candidate on their own terms, but more people than not, are getting some experience after they graduate from college. My advice is always that people should think carefully about that. It really should be a specific decision to go straight from college to law school. That shouldn’t be the default.
In terms of work experience or extracurricular experience, do you prefer to see something that’s closely related to law or just something that is meaningful and makes a contribution? [25:58]
We’re not specifically expecting everyone to have had focused experience in the legal world. It makes total sense that lots of people who are thinking about a legal career will have done that. I’m interested in hearing what they’ve learned from that. What did they do? How did that help to shape the direction they think they’re heading? But there are plenty of folks who have had interesting experiences in other disciplines and have realized how that touches on legal issues. We see it a lot at Duke because we have a pretty strong curriculum and faculty in environmental law. You think about the people who have been environmental science majors and have had those kinds of internships. Maybe they’ve worked in that field before they thought about a legal career but they’ve started to see how environmental regulation has been important to the things that they care about. That can work really well.
I also don’t want to discount people who just take a little while and try a bunch of different things before they figure out what direction they’re headed. Maybe all of the pieces don’t fit together in that nice sort of single stream but hopefully, by the time they’re applying to law school, they’re able to pull some of those threads together and say, “Well, I’ve done these different things and this is how I’ve gotten to this point now.” Sure, lots of people will have law firm experience or work in DC or state house legislative work but it’s certainly not a requirement or an expectation.
Should applicants, either in the personal statement or the optional essay, address their interest in attending law school and Duke specifically? [28:09]
I’d love it if they did. Our optional essay one specifically asks that question whereas the personal statement leaves it open. I think more so, somewhere in the course of an application, I really hope to get some insight into why you’re thinking about a legal career. Maybe for some people, that’s going to be much more detailed and fully developed than for others. Tell me why you’ve decided to do this rather than applying to my colleagues across the street at the public policy school or not going to graduate school at all. Why this is the path that you’re following?
Because you have other optional essays you’re able to go in other directions as well. That’s not necessarily the only thing that you’re going to talk about in the Duke application. Some people are applying to ten or fifteen law schools and they may not have delved too deeply into the specific offerings, so hopefully, even if people haven’t seen how those things connect at the time that they apply, if we admit them and have some conversations with them, they’ll find where those things connect.
I would caution people from feeling like they have to have that piece of it in there. Don’t just go to the website and choose a class and a professor where it’s obvious that it’s not super woven into the rest of what you’re talking about. If it’s natural for that to come out, as you write your personal statement or the optional essay, then do it. We’d love to hear it, but don’t feel like you have to force it.
Are there any guidelines on how long essays should be? [30:30]
As long as it needs to be and no longer. Two pages are usually where personal statements end up. That’s fine for the optional essay as well. Don’t write more than you need to write, but I wouldn’t ever want to put a hard and fast page length or character limit and prevent somebody from telling a story that’s more complicated. The important thing is that we want to hear what the applicant has to say about their experiences and what they think we need to know. Sometimes that is more involved. I wouldn’t cut that off, but I would think carefully about how you can say it succinctly because we are reading lots of applications and lots of essays. If I am engaged and interested in what I’m reading, I will never notice how long it is.
Read sample successful law school application essays >>
Does Duke law find addenda useful? [31:41]
Definitely so. The one thing I almost always say when people ask about the biggest mistake I say it’s leaving unanswered questions in an application. If there’s a class or a semester that has some anomalous grades compared to what else we’re seeing, I can make some guesses about what might happen but I shouldn’t have to do that. It doesn’t have to be a lengthy labored explanation. It doesn’t have to be more detailed or more personal than you’re comfortable with. I’ve seen people who have had very difficult personal and family situations and sometimes, I don’t know quite as much about that, but just enough for us to say, “Okay, I understand what was happening there.” I can put that in context.
If there’s a gap in your resume some more details can help us understand. We are well aware that we have been living through a pandemic for the last couple of years and are going to continue to see the effects of that both academically and in terms of the opportunities that people have had for professional experiences. You can give us a little bit of information about that if it’s been a significant effect. I understand that there was a year or a semester or two when most schools went to either required or optional pass/fail grading and things like that. We understand that and we remember it.
What other factors, if any, do you weigh in addition to the test score and GPA? [34:39]
I always like to point out that even those numbers have a lot of qualitative evaluation that goes into understanding what they mean. Beyond that, the things that we have available to us are basically the resume, the essay, and the letters of recommendation. We’re interested in thinking about how people will connect with our community and where they’re going to find opportunities to make a difference. We look at how they’ve been involved in the communities they’ve been part of before. In college, are you able to find things that you care about and put yourself into them in enough depth to make a difference? That could be law-related or it could be something else altogether.
We’re thinking a lot about people’s ability to connect and contribute to a community and their personal qualities. Like I said before, are we going to enjoy being around them? Are they going to have something interesting to say to their classmates? Are employers going to think this is somebody they’d like to hire? That manifests itself in lots of different ways. Not everybody has been president of an organization.
I always tell application reviewers when I do training that we have to remember that there are people who have the luxury and privilege to be able to take unpaid internships on Capitol Hill in the summer. There are people that have to work during the summer or even full-time during the school year. Their resumes are going to look very different, and that’s not a negative. Those are people who show tremendous work ethic and time management. We’re learning different things from that, but that’s not to say that’s not something that we don’t value and see as someone who we think could be a really valued member of our community.
The other thing I’ll say is that the writing is the chance for us to hear an applicant’s voice. It’s a judgment thing, how much they write and what they choose to write about. I like it when I get a full, well-rounded picture of students. The personal statement is required but the two optional essays, and they are truly optional, give you opportunities to present different facets of your experiences and interests. Those are often the people I feel like I know much better after reading an application. I think an applicant is doing a service to themselves to think about how they want to provide that information.
Then recommenders just give us that third-party check on what’s going on. Sometimes they are better advocates for the applicant than the applicant is for themselves. Sometimes they’re not the best writer, and I try to be aware that that’s not something you can hold against the applicant but it gives us a sense of how you’ve done in the classroom, how you engage with your classmates, if you had a job or an internship, and how you handled that kind of professional setting.
I can get a decent sense from glancing at a transcript and a test score of somebody’s academic ability, but they are very, very different when you dig into the other parts of the application. That’s the most interesting and the most rewarding part of it. That’s where people look different and can rise above the pack or not really do themselves as many favors.
How do you view applications from students who’ve had academic infractions or perhaps have a criminal record? [38:56]
A lot of that has to do with how they present that information and to some extent, what the infractions are. In my experience, when we see somebody that we have some concerns about, it comes from feeling like they’re not being fully honest and trying to minimize and deflect responsibility for what happens. People make mistakes. Many of them are quite minor. You don’t always know how to handle being an adult. All kinds of things happen that are minor. Some things are more significant, but especially very minor things. I might have driven above the speed limit once or twice. And if you just say, “Here’s what happened, I understand that it was a mistake and it’s not a pattern,” that kind of disclosure is totally fine. That’s not going to be any speed bump at all. It’s different when people seem like they’re trying to deflect or minimize, especially when it’s a school sanction and we have a letter from the school outlining what happened and it doesn’t quite match up.
We take cases of academic dishonesty more seriously. But again, that’s not something that’s insurmountable. Or even more serious criminal charges. If we feel comfortable that at this moment, you’ve recognized the error of your way and that you’re going to be a productive member of our communities as some event, it’s certainly possible to get past that. We just take them as they come. The really important thing is people need to be honest and upfront about their disclosure. Don’t make us wonder is there something more here that we need to be digging into.
Does Duke law consider update letters from applicants who have something significant to tell you after they submit their application and before hearing back from you, or perhaps if waitlisted? [41:40]
Sure. Any additional information that people would like to have considered is definitely welcome to add to the file. We love to have them by email. Sometimes people will call me up and want to talk about things. I can talk to you, but I’m not the only person who needs to know this information so just write it down for me. Sometimes they’re significant things like if a grade has changed or they get an internship. We’d love to hear that. We’ll always add things to the application file and consider them as part of our review.
Right now, we’re in the middle of waitlist season and receiving information from applicants. If somebody is on the waitlist, I hope they will check in with us. I would love to hear substantive updates if they have them. People who are graduating from college may have received honors or have summer plans that they didn’t know about when they submitted their application. We say in the information we provide to folks who are on our waitlist, even if it’s not a specific piece of news, just checking in every now and then to keep on the radar and allow us to know that they’re interested is actually very helpful. I encourage applicants to use judgment. Don’t check in with us every day, but periodically, even if you don’t have anything specific to say because if it’s two weeks from now and we have the chance to admit people from the waitlist, we’re much more likely to consider folks who we know have recently touched base with us. The people who we haven’t heard from since February or March, who knows what’s happened to them? Substantive updates are helpful for waitlisted applicants but also keeping the lines of communication open too.
It’s a very fluid position on the part of law schools, but also on the part of the applicant. Everybody has their own timeline for how long they can hang on and be considered on a wait list before they say, “I have to put down a deposit on an apartment. I have to bow out just for my own mental health. I need to commit to what I’m doing in the fall.” Some people will want to do that in April. Some people will wait until August before they do that, but I don’t know for any individual person. Knowing if somebody would be willing to consider an offer of admission is really helpful for us.
What is a common mistake you see applicants making during the application process? [44:23]
I said before, leaving unanswered questions so I won’t repeat too much of that.
One lesson that I learned very early on in my professional career before I was in higher ed at all that I think about is that everybody that you interact with in the admissions process is getting an impression of you. When you come to our office to take a tour, the person who is sitting at the reception desk is getting an impression of you. Sometimes, I’ll come out after a tour and go, “Hey, what did you think of those people?” The same goes for email communication. It is in some ways an informal medium, but know who you’re talking to and be polite and respectful of their time. I try to be when I’m communicating with prospective students or admitted students and returning the favor to us is nice to do.
Where can listeners learn more about Duke School of Law? [47:03]
Sure, https://law.duke.edu/ is the website. The admission subsection there has all the details about how to apply. The only other thing I’ll direct you to is the section called Areas of Focus, which is a nice hub of all the faculty, courses, and news for our corporate law, criminal law, environmental law, and law and technology areas.
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- Duke Law Areas of Focus
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