Hear what it takes to get accepted to USC Gould School of Law [Show Summary]
USC Gould’s Associate Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid, David Kirschner, shares how students can get accepted to this top-ranked law school.
Interview with David Kirschner, Associate Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid at USC Gould [Show Notes]
Thanks for joining me for the 456th 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 program? Accepted’s Law School Admissions Quiz can give you a quick reality check. Just go to accepted.com/law-quiz and complete the quiz. You’ll not only get an assessment, but also tips on how to improve your chances of acceptance. Plus it’s all free.
For today’s interview, I’m delighted to have on Admissions Straight Talk, David Kirschner, Associate Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid at USC Gould School of Law. Dean Kirschner earned his undergrad degree at USC in Political Science and Film-Production. He then earned his JD at California Western School of Law. He has been in law school admissions since 2006 when he joined Loyola Law as Associate Dean of Admissions. In 2011, he became Director of Admissions at USC Gould, and in 2016, he became USC Gould’s Associate Dean and Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid.
Can you give us an overview of the more distinctive elements of the USC Gould JD program? [2:06]
Certainly. I think one of the elements that certainly differentiates us a little bit from some of our peer schools is our small size. At beneath 200 students, at least that’s our goal each year to bring in a first-year class of no more than 200 students, it lends itself to a very collegial and collaborative learning environment where students, not only get to know their faculty members well, but they also get to know one another very well and support one another. I think that small size is a great facet of a Gould education. I like to say small size does not mean small opportunity. As a relatively small law school, we’re set in the heart of a major top-tier research university that sits at the heart of kind of the de facto and default capital of the Pacific Rim, which is Los Angeles.
There’s no shortage of opportunity. There’s no shortage of individuals to learn from. Not only do we have a great full-time tenured faculty, but we’re also able to draw from a pool of incredibly talented practitioners in Los Angeles who serve as adjunct faculty, and teach some of the more niche style upper-division courses. Students not only have the ability to learn from experts in their fields who publish in research and present, but then also learn particular areas from practitioners who are doing things every day. I really think it’s that combination of small class size, a collegial and collaborative environment with all of the resources that a university like USC offers, as well as a world-class city like Los Angeles.
In preparing for the call, I saw that the first year is a very much standard curriculum and the second two years are entirely elective. Is that right? [3:53]
That’s quite accurate. In the second and third years, there are a few requirements. There’s an upper-division writing requirement and there are certain classes where the material is tested frequently on the bar that students choose to take but those bar classes are not required.
There’s tremendous, tremendous flexibility in the upper-division.
How has COVID affected the curriculum and experience at USC Law, and what do you think is going to stick? [4:29]
It has impacted things in so many ways. I think one of the lasting impacts will be flexibility. I don’t necessarily see any significant short-term impacts on the curriculum. As you probably know, and as some listeners may know, legal education has looked remarkably similar for quite a long time. Of course, there’s been the advent of clinical learning and hands-on learning in recent decades. But by and large, black letter law courses are always going to be taught in the first year. Black letter law, contracts, torts, criminal law, and civil procedure. There will be a wide variety of electives in the upper-division years.
I don’t necessarily think COVID, in the short term, is going to change what the curriculum looks like, but I do think law schools have been forced to be nimble and flexible in how they deliver education as well as both co-curricular and extracurricular opportunities to students. It’s not easy to say that COVID will have some lasting positive impacts, but certainly, it has forced law schools to be much more nimble than we’re accustomed to.
In talking to other professional programs, one of the silver linings, if you will, of COVID has been that schools discovered they could bring in speakers without bringing in speakers. They could just Zoom them in. [6:13]
We certainly have. It has given the opportunity to bring together a series of speakers who may be in Miami, New York, Washington, DC. You’re absolutely right. On the admissions front, I think we’ve also learned that we can reach prospective students in much greater ways than we could prior to the pandemic. It’s not easy for someone to jump on an airplane and travel from New York or Chicago. We’ve become quite adept at creating engaging virtual opportunities. They’re not only one-time deals, but we’re also able to put them on our website and individuals can view them on-demand. I think you’re absolutely right about that and it has allowed for more flexibility in offering events.
I will also say Grubhub has become a great friend of our administration and student body. One of the jokes that law schools always make, and it’s certainly true, is that a student can get a free lunch almost any day of the week by attending a meeting. Well, we didn’t want those free lunches to go by the wayside.
Last year saw a surge in applications to all law schools. USC’s median LSAT rose to 168 from 166 for the 2019 entering class, and its average GPA is now 3.82 from a 3.8 in 2019. What do you see in your crystal ball for this cycle? What are you experiencing at this point? [7:48]
I’ve been doing a lot of polishing and looking into that crystal ball lately. I think we’re at a point in this cycle right now where if history is a guide, we’re pretty close nationally to about 60% of the pool, if not slightly more being in. At Gould, based on our timeline, I’m pretty comfortable knowing we probably have about two-thirds of our applicant pool in at this point. I think it’s safe to make some educated, maybe slightly more than educated guesses at this point about what the cycle’s going to look like.
2021 was a unicorn. I think that’s the best way that I can describe that cycle. There were so many factors that came together to create a year-to-year increase in applications, both in quantity and quality that we had never seen, frankly, and that we may not see again anytime soon. So, short answer, 2022, I believe, will look more like 2020. Off of the highs of 2021, as you established, but stronger than 2019. I think, nationally, the trends are that overall there will be a decline in applicants this cycle. I would suspect probably somewhere between 6% to 10%, if I had to guess today, that’s the kind of decline we’re going to be looking at.
I think it’s important for people to keep in mind that, that is off of a record-setting pool last year. We’ve also seen marginal declines in LSAT scores, but again, off of a year last year where there were numbers of test-takers scoring above 170, a volume there that we had never seen. Again, a unicorn is the best word for what we experienced last year. Now, interestingly, at Gould, our pool is down roughly in what the national pool’s looking like. We’ve been consistently down about 8% this cycle, but the quality of our pool is stronger at all quartiles on both grade point average and LSAT. We’re looking at a stronger applicant pool than we had last year.
Let’s turn to the application. USC Gould accepts both the LSAT and the GRE. Do you have any preference for one over the other? Are you finding that both tools are equally predictive of future success in law school? Do you have enough data to even make that statement? [10:49]
That’s a good question, and I’ll try to keep the answer brief because there’s some nuance to the answer that’s only recently become apparent. On the data piece, at this point, we don’t quite have enough data to assess how strong the correlation is between GRE scores and law school performance. We’re getting there. Our current 3L class will give us our first real opportunity when they graduate to dig into that correlation.
As far as, do we prefer one over the other, if you had asked me this prior to November, I would’ve said that we prefer the LSAT. This is for the simple reason that when we report to our accrediting body, the American Bar Association, there are specific rules about what we have to report. They had told us if an incoming student has taken both the LSAT and the GRE, we only report the LSAT score. That effectively required that we used the LSAT for anyone who had taken both. In November, at one of the ABA meetings, they revised Standard 501 and Standard 503, which address standardized tests. Those standards previously specifically called out the LSAT as the only test the ABA granted reliable. That now includes the GRE. So, a lot of us are speculating that we will no longer have to treat the LSAT as the only test of record for a candidate who has taken both the LSAT and GRE. That may give more flexibility. My personal belief and I know a lot of my colleagues will agree, is that the LSAT remains the gold standard in admission testing and will be the predominant test, at least in the short term.
There are years and years of studies that correlate LSAT performance to first-year law school performance. LSAC has devoted a lot of resources to partnerships with groups like the Khan Academy, to enable free LSAT prep. As a candidate, I would say to figure out what test works best for you, and also note the GRE has math and the LSAT doesn’t. For me, math was never my strong suit, so that would drive my decision.
Roughly, what percentage of your students got admitted with the GRE? [13:50]
The numbers with a GRE on a percent basis have been in the neighborhood of 2% to 3%. As far as enrolled students, it’s single digits in each of our last few classes with the GRE.
Is full-time work experience a nice-to-have or closer to an unofficial requirement? Where on the continuum does USC Gould fall? [14:20]
Certainly much more towards the nice-to-have side of the continuum. Amongst our peer group of schools, we tend to have one of the younger average ages in our incoming class. For a while, it had been 24. The last two years it’s been 25.
Work experience is certainly nice to have because I think for most people it just gives them more to talk about and adds more substance to the story. An application is an opportunity for an individual to tell their story and work experience gives more story to tell. For individuals, if there are things they want to do that aren’t necessarily work, but travel, volunteering, maybe other commitments they need to attend to, once one starts law school, that kind of sets in motion a pretty fixed path of what the next 20 or 30 years of their life may look like. So I always say, there’s no better time to do and experience things than potentially once you finish your undergraduate studies and before you start law school.
We certainly like to see it, but then again, there are a good number of individuals in our first-year class who are what we call K to JD, right? So, basically kindergarten through law school without taking a break.
Do law firms like to see full-time work experience in the people they hire on the other end? [16:00]
That is a good question, and I would defer most to the great people in the Career Services Office. Anecdotally, from what I know, some areas like STEM backgrounds or experience in an engineering or science-based field can be incredibly attractive for law firms looking to add to their patent-trained attorneys.
I think beyond that, the good news, especially for those without work experience, at least on the big law side of things is it’s first-year grades that really are going to carry the most weight at the end of the day.
Do you like to see applicants with law-related work experience like working in a legal office, or legal clinic? [17:01]
No, not necessarily. At law school, we will teach you the law and we will teach you how to be a lawyer. It’s really hard to learn those skills before coming to law school. I think the one scenario where law-related experience could be really helpful is for someone who maybe isn’t quite sure if law school is for them. Not so much to learn how to be a lawyer, but to ensure that being a lawyer is something that a prospective student can see in their future.
From what I’ve seen at Gould, we have very few students who struggle academically to the point where academic disqualification becomes a reality. Of the handful that I’ve seen that happen to, in my 10+ years at Gould, it’s predominantly students who don’t really know why they’re in law school and can’t articulate where the passion is to become a lawyer.
What factors, other than the LSAT and GPA, are you weighing and considering as you admit students? [19:46]
I would not sit here and pretend to say that the numeric factors aren’t important. As you mentioned, film was one of my majors, so I like to use the film analogy. How I think of it is the LSAT and the GPA, they frame the review of the application. If I were looking for a viewfinder, that tells me where do I need to zoom in? Where do I need to zoom out? Where do I need to focus? What’s going to fill the frame? Those numbers are incredibly useful in framing the review of an application. The LSAT and GPA may lead me to ask certain questions that I will expect to be answered throughout the pages of the application.
If there’s a GPA that starts out really poorly, and there’s a dramatically increased trajectory, I’m going to want to know why. If there’s a particular semester, where a historically straight-A student has Cs, and maybe a D, I want to know why. As an applicant, I think self-reflexivity is so incredibly important because you can’t anticipate those questions unless you take an honest look at your materials. Again, that’s one of the reasons those numeric factors are important. As an applicant, if you can anticipate those questions that the admissions committee may raise, then you use all of the other pieces of the application to paint the full picture of that story of who you are as an individual.
At the end of the day, I’m primarily asking two questions when I’m looking at an application. Number one, we are a professional school, we’re an academic program. Is this an applicant who appears to have the capability to be successful in a highly challenging program? That question is, in many ways, predicated on the LSAT and GPA. But that one question’s not enough because we receive applications from far more applicants where we could say yes to that question, than we can admit.
The second question becomes, is this someone who would add value to our community? That’s where the more subjective factors – the personal statement, the letters of recommendation, the resume, any addenda – are so incredibly important as part of the holistic review process.
We do not encourage our clients to do this, but I have seen applicants who had a dip in grades, or they started off poorly and it’s like their whole application is geared to justifying or explaining away that weakness. Would you recommend more that context be provided in an addendum and the rest of the application be more focused on their strengths? [22:22]
You hit the nail on the head. I think the personal statement should be a positive reflection, not the opportunity to make explanations, and the addenda are absolutely the appropriate area of the application to do that.
USC’s personal statement reads, “We are particularly interested in how your background, academic or otherwise, has led you to your decision to study law. This is not the place to repeat items on your resume.” So you’re looking for “Why law?” and the sub-question might be, “Why you?” [24:05]
I think if you’re going to sum it up in two words it would definitely be “Why law?” Here’s the key though, Linda, here’s why. That’s what we want to know. What someone thinks they want to do as a lawyer may change. In all honesty, I can’t tell you how many incoming students come to us at USC where we’re adjacent to Hollywood and they have stars in their eyes wanting to practice entertainment law. And then they end up doing something else, which is totally okay.
The “what” may change, but hopefully the “why” doesn’t. If you can articulate the why in a personal statement, number one, that tells me that this is a well-thought-out decision. And number two, it tells me that, when the going gets tough, and it does get tough for everyone at some point in law school, if you can remind yourself of the why, the why that hopefully won’t change, you’ll be able to persevere through the tough times.
Can you give some tips on how to include experiences in the personal statement without merely repeating the resume? [25:58]
That can certainly be a tough skill and a delicate line to walk. I think, at the end of the day, it comes down to if the experiences that an applicant talks about in their personal statement are supportive of the overall theme rather than the overall theme itself. For example, if someone talks about this tremendous desire to use the law to advocate for social justice and in the public good, we hear a lot of that. I always think it’s much more effective if an applicant can give me an example of why. Why do you want to fight for social justice? Why do you want to fight for the public good?
It’s much harder to believe that if I see nothing on your resume that you’ve ever done any kind of community service or volunteer work. It’s much more believable, say if you’ve been a court-appointed special advocate. Maybe you’ve worked in the CASA program, or you have volunteered for JusticeCorps, or been a fellow with the Peace Corps. If you can point to those things, and certainly if it’s integral to who you are, then it should be in your personal statement. Rather than you just going paragraph by paragraph and expounding upon what’s listed on the resume. If anything, I hope what I’ve just said makes the point effectively that the application, in its entirety, is all pieces to a story. We’re not looking at one piece in a vacuum from the rest of it. If you’re going to talk about wanting a career in public service, then I do expect to see somewhere else in your application that you’ve dedicated at least a few hours of your time to that.
What makes for effective and ineffective addenda for addressing, let’s say an academic weakness or diversity elements? [28:18]
As far as addenda addressing weaknesses goes, I actually think that can be pretty formulaic in order for it to be effective. Number one, it needs to be explanatory, not excusatory. If I’m hosting an information session on the application process I will say for an effective addendum to talk about weaknesses, whether it be academic or standardized test score, or even conduct related, tell us what happened, why did it happen, and what have you done to ensure it’s not going to happen again. One, two, three. Get in, get out, leave us reassured that this will not be a problem that’s going to repeat again in the future. That’s it.
How about applications from students who have an academic infraction or perhaps a criminal record, a misdemeanor of some kind, is it basically the same formula? [29:19]
It is a very similar formula, right? One of my biggest pet peeves on conduct issues, especially if it’s criminal conduct is someone citing the penal code. I am going to look it up and you just made my life a little bit harder, so I’m not going to be too thrilled. If I see someone just cite a penal code and not tell me what it is immediately, I think, “Oh boy, this must be something really bad.” Be transparent. If there’s a conduct issue, be transparent and show genuine remorse for it.
That’s really key. We all make mistakes. I think we’d rather be judged by how we respond to those mistakes than by making those mistakes in the first place. I’ve been doing this long enough to know when remorse is genuine and when someone is just sorry because they were caught. That’s pretty easy to figure out. More serious conduct issues are certainly not a bar to gaining entry to law school, but with more serious conduct issues, more time between the conduct and the present day certainly helps and seeing that that individual has either been gainfully employed or involved in the community or has done something so that it gets to that recency effect in an application. You want your most recent current foot forward to be strongest.
Does Gould School of Law consider update letters from applicants who have something significant to tell you after they submit their applications and before hearing back from you? [31:13]
If an applicant has not heard back, we do specify that it needs to be significant, but we will accept an update if it is something significant. We don’t allow updated personal statements. If you’ve proofread it for the 10th time and find an error that you didn’t catch, you can’t resubmit a written statement because you caught a mistake. Mostly where we see that is with resumes, awards, achievements, and jobs. If there’s a significant new award, achievement, or job, then we certainly would like to know.
What is a common mistake that you see applicants make during the application process? [32:01]
It’s something I’ve touched on a little bit before. It’s an applicant who hasn’t taken the time to assess their strengths and weaknesses for each law school that they’re applying to. Our incoming class profile is what it is. We are an incredibly competitive law school to gain entry to. We certainly admit applicants with numbers below our medians but I think the common theme with those is they’ve shown the self-reflexivity to understand what the weaknesses are and how they can use their strengths to compensate for those weaknesses.
We certainly admit applicants with a 3.4 or a 3.5 GPA, but if an applicant applies to us with a 3.4 or a 3.5 and says they had a spectacular undergraduate career and finished at the top of their class, that’s not somebody we’re likely to admit.
On a more specific level, it’s not following directions. Then it’s arguing. So, it’s asking us a question and then arguing with us when we respond. I’m always like, “Okay, well, if you’re arguing with me about your application, what are the faculty going to think about you in the classroom?”
Do you have any advice for wait-listed applicants? [33:49]
For waitlisted applicants, follow instructions. I know for us, when an applicant is put on the waiting list, we send an electronic confirmation form asking if they’d like to remain. If you’d like to remain on it, respond to that immediately, because those who don’t respond aren’t considered. Then to the extent one can remain flexible on the waiting list, remain flexible. When it comes time to admit off the waiting list, I don’t control when we do that. Generally speaking, what the law schools ahead of me in the pecking order do dictates when I go to my waiting list.
Flexibility, patience, following instructions, staying in touch with us periodically. We do tell applicants, you’re welcome to periodically follow up with us, but that certainly does not mean daily or even weekly. It means when an update is merited.
What about reapplicants? [35:06]
Reapplicants are not all that uncommon for us. I think the key for a reapplicant is to show growth. Again, it gets towards that understanding, that self-reflexivity, if the outcome wasn’t positive in a prior year, take that as a sign that you can bolster something on your application. The easiest way for a negative outcome, if you’re a reapplicant, is to submit the same exact application again. That’s a mistake. The reapplication should show growth. If someone can successfully show growth, then certainly the outcome may be different.
Do you give feedback to rejected applicants who want to reapply? [35:54]
We make it a policy not to give specific reasons for why a decision may have been a denial. What we will do, at the end of a cycle, and we tell applicants this, if you want to talk about the process, generally, we’re happy to do so once we’ve gotten through the busy season of review. May 1st, June 1st rolls around, and again, with everyone being comfortable using Zoom these days, you don’t even have to come into our office to talk.
What advice do you have for applicants planning to apply this cycle, presumably by the April 1st deadline, and then for those planning ahead to apply next year or later? Does it make sense to apply after the priority deadline? Do you still accept applicants? [36:54]
We certainly will accept people after the priority deadline. I wouldn’t have a final April 1st deadline if I wasn’t holding out a small number of spots for students. That said, statistically speaking, the odds of being admitted, if your application comes in after February 1st, are very slim. I think slim to none is a fair assessment, but they’re slim. They’re slim because I just don’t think it’s ethical to accept an application if there’s zero chance that a seat will be offered. Part of the reason that we offer April 1st was kind of an advent when the LSAT started being offered more than four times a year. We wanted to give a little more flexibility given the fact that the LSAT is basically offered every other month at this point.
For those thinking about the next cycle, certainly try to meet our February 1st priority deadline, if not sooner. One piece of advice that I was given when I was applying to law schools, I still think is true today: while there’s no cutoff or no magic date, I do think that the Thanksgiving holiday remains a really good touchstone if you want to be comfortable that you’re going to be in the earlier part of the application pile. So Thanksgiving is a good touchstone to keep in mind.
What would you have liked me to ask you? [38:38]
That’s a good question. Maybe why I still do this after 15 years?
I think law school remains fundamental to the foundations of the society that we live in. Decision-makers in most rooms have law degrees, and as a society there’s a long way to go before the room of decision-makers is reflective of what society as a whole looks like. The only way to get there is for law schools (and law school isn’t even the start of the pipeline) to ensure that there’s a critical mass of individuals reflective of society at large. At Gould, we’re very cognizant of that responsibility that we have and we’re trying to help create a profession of lawyers that are more reflective of what society looks like.
It’s also the fact that getting into law school can have a life-changing impact on so many people. People who may come from less privileged backgrounds, parents who may not have graduate or professional degrees, a legal education from any law school, not just a top tier law school, but in particular, a legal education from Gould can certainly change the trajectory of one’s life. Some of these stories that really keep me doing this are those alums of ours, who I’ve stayed in touch with over the years. They’ve told me just how it’s not only changed their life, but it’s changed the lives of their families and they’re able to offer things that they didn’t have as a child. That’s why I still do this.
Where can listeners learn more about the USC Gould? [40:47]
We have a lot of information available on our website. The pandemic has forced us to be even more informative on our website, so that can be reached at gould.usc.edu. We have a lot of great information there. Then for more fun, interactive content, we have a very active Instagram account. That is @uscgouldadmissions. We have student takeovers on our Instagram account. We also do quizzes, trivia, a lot of fun content on our Instagram account.
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