So you want to attend UVA Law? Here’s what you need to know [Show Summary]
Are you interested in a top law school located in a beautiful city at a historic university? UVA Law, founded in 1819 by Thomas Jefferson, may be just the one for you, but it has only a 9.7% acceptance rate. Our guest today, Assistant Admissions Dean Natalie Blazer, will tell you what the admissions committee at UVA Law is looking for.
Interview with Natalie Blazer, Assistant Dean for Admissions and Chief Admissions Officer, U. of Virginia School of Law [Show Notes]
Thanks for joining me for this, the 468th episode of Admissions Straight Talk. Are you applying for law school? Are you planning ahead to apply next cycle or the year 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 will not only get an 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, Natalie R. Blazer. Dean Blazer is not only the Assistant Dean for Admissions and the Chief Admissions Officer at UVA Law, she’s also an alumna. She earned her bachelor’s at Boston College and then attended UVA Law. Following law school, she clerked at The Hague, worked in a Manhattan law firm for six years, and then worked in law school admissions at Columbia Law and Georgetown Law before returning to UVA as Assistant Dean for Admissions.
Can you give us an overview of the more distinctive elements of the UVA Law School JD program? [2:04]
Most people probably know UVA Law is a top 10 law school. It’s actually the number one public law school in the country. It’s something that we are very proud of. I think you can get a great law school education at any top law school, but what sets UVA apart from most is the experience that you have here. We are consistently ranked number one for quality of life, classroom experience, and faculty. I think all of that goes to our community and our culture.
Law school has a reputation of being extremely cutthroat and competitive, especially when you get to the higher level of law schools, but that’s not the case at UVA. When I think about what truly sets us apart, it is that experience that you have here. It’s the colleagues that you have, the supportive nature of the community, the faculty accessibility and outreach that you have, and the supportive administration.
Seeing it from the administrative side versus the student side, I do see how much hard work and effort goes into making sure students have an amazing experience here. Obviously, our career outcomes, the actual academics, all of that goes without saying. When I think about what really distinguishes UVA from some of our peer schools, it is the atmosphere here. It’s that community culture.
The 2020-2021 application cycle saw an unbelievable surge in law school applications. On March 28th of this year, the overall applicant volume was down roughly 11.5% from the last year, but up 6.6% from two years ago. What is UVA experiencing in terms of application volume? [4:10]
Pretty much exactly what you just said. I know that our peer schools are in the same boat. Usually, national application trends are exactly what we’re experiencing at UVA. If you were to just take out the 2020-2021 cycle, we would be on a steady uptick, applications going up, up, up for the last several years. The last cycle was certainly an outlier. While technically, yes, applications are down this year, really they’re up in terms of what we can come to expect. We’re still up, as you said, depending on the day, somewhere between 5% and 8% over two years ago.
UVA accepts the LSAT, the GRE, and the GMAT, but requires applicants to submit all scores for the GRE and GMAT. Do you have any preference for one test over the other? [5:42]
We really don’t have a preference. We are still getting used to the GRE and GMAT, frankly. The LSAT has just been historically the law school admissions test so that’s what I’m most familiar with. However, it’s been about three or four years now that the schools have accepted the GRE and GMAT, so we are getting more used to it. It’s still a rather small minority of applicants.
How many applicants apply to UVA with a GRE or GMAT? [6:08]
I would say 10% of applicants. A lot of people apply, and they have an LSAT and a GRE or an LSAT and a GMAT. What I want people to be aware of is that because the Law School Admissions Council is the organizing body that puts your applications together and sends them along to law schools and because they administer the LSAT, if you have any LSAT on record, we will see it. You can’t just pick and choose what to send to us.
But, if you don’t want to send us your GRE or GMAT, and you already have an LSAT on file, we don’t need to see that. We, frankly, won’t know that you’ve taken it. If you are someone who has no LSAT, obviously we do need the GRE or the GMAT, but we really don’t have a preference. They’ve been shown to correlate to the first-year performance roughly the same.
I don’t know if anything official has come out about that, but based on my experience and the studies that I have seen, they roughly correlate the same. We don’t perform any sort of equivalency. There are a lot of tools online and people will say, “Oh, I got this score on the GRE, which equals this score on the LSAT.” It really doesn’t work that way. We really aren’t getting in the weeds like that. I would counsel prospective applicants to look at what our median LSAT is. Look at what percentile that is and aim for roughly those same percentiles on the GRE or the GMAT. It doesn’t need to be completely comparable, but that’s just to have a ballpark in your mind.
Are most of the users of the GRE or GMAT dual degree applicants? [7:51]
Not necessarily. I do think that’s a nice option if your other degree requires a GRE or a GMAT and you can just take one test. But, I think there’s still a little bit of a barrier to entry with the LSAT. Just as a way of background, the reason law schools started accepting the GRE and GMAT was to widen and broaden the applicant pool. We thought it would get more STEM people and more non-traditional applicants. That really did bear fruit. I do think for whatever reason, some people don’t want to take the LSAT regardless of whether they’re pursuing a joint degree or not. For someone who is pursuing a joint degree, the GRE or GMAT is a great option.
For students who haven’t taken any test yet, how should they decide which one to take? [8:55]
It was almost simpler in my day when you really only had one option. Familiarize yourself a little bit with each of the tests. At the end of the day, I see people who have submitted an LSAT and a GRE or an LSAT and a GMAT or a GRE and a GMAT, and guess what? Nobody is getting the 99th percentile on the LSAT and 80th on the GRE. You’re going to perform roughly the same across all three tests in terms of percentile.
They are not that different, so I don’t think it’s going to be a make-or-break moment. What I will say is you have to do your research because if law school is your goal, not every law school, even, today, in 2022, accepts the GRE or GMAT. If you’re trying to apply to a broad range of schools, LSAT could still be your safest bet. But, if you know for a fact that all of your schools you’re applying to accept all three tests, just familiarize yourself with each of the three and maybe take a practice exam or two. Maybe it’s possible that one of them will resonate with you more. I wouldn’t agonize over it. I do know the GRE, historically, was more available, but now that we have the LSAT-Flex which can take be taken remotely, they’ve really narrowed the gap in that sense.
Is the GRE still more widely accepted than the GMAT among law schools? [10:35]
That is correct. I think the GRE was the first alternative test to be adopted. Now, the GMAT is in there as well. I will tell you that, of the two alternative tests, we see far fewer GMAT than GRE.
Can you review UVA’s regular decision option and binding expedited decision option and share the major differences between them? [10:59]
Our binding expedited decision, or BED as we call it, is a slightly different version of a lot of other schools’ early decision option. We don’t call it “early decision,” because there’s actually no earlier deadline. You can apply binding any time throughout the cycle. The keyword in there is expedited. If you apply through this option, you will get a decision from us within 21 business days of your application going complete. In 21 business days, you will hear a decision whether that is: admit, waitlist, defer to the regular pool, which I’ll talk about in a second, or a denial.
For somebody who knows that UVA Law is their first choice, who will be 100% prepared to commit to UVA Law if admitted before seeing any financial aid package because that won’t come until much later, I think binding is a great option. It takes the guesswork out of your candidacy for us. We know you’re interested. We know you’re coming, so binding can be a great option for someone like that. If you are deferred from binding into the regular pool, all that means is, basically, it’s as if you never applied binding. It’s as if, now, we’re reading you as a regular applicant, so if we were to admit you, you’re no longer bound.
If you are admitted through the binding option, you do need to withdraw all other applications from all other law schools, and you have to pay your seat deposit at UVA within about three weeks. Again, it is a great option for somebody who’s sure UVA is where they want to be. There’s no earlier deadline. You can apply anytime up until right before our priority deadline.
Does the binding expedited decision have a different acceptance rate than the regular decision? [12:57]
I actually crunched these numbers last year because somebody asked me that in a Q&A, and it’s actually almost identical. The acceptance rate among just the binding expedited applicants is almost the exact same as within the regular pool. I get this question a lot because people think it’s “easier” to apply binding, and it’s really not. It’s a much smaller pool, and if you’re a strong applicant, you’re basically telling us right off the bat that you’ll come. People don’t realize that a huge part of what we do is discerning who’s actually interested in us. Somebody that we would not otherwise admit is not getting admitted just because they apply binding.
Are applicants who apply through the binding expedited decision process at a disadvantage in terms of financial aid awards, having made that commitment? [14:16]
That’s a great question. They have to commit before they know whether they’re getting any financial aid. That’s obviously not an option for everybody. The reality is the vast majority of law students are taking out loans. That’s kind of the way it works. I, myself, financed my entire law school education on loans. I was prepared to do that. Times have changed a little bit. I think people expect to be given money to attend graduate school.
You are still eligible to get a scholarship if you apply binding. I don’t want to use the word leverage because at UVA, we really do not negotiate scholarships, but you have zero leverage at that point because you are committed to UVA. We tell people very straight forward that we don’t match scholarship offers from other schools. What you get is what you get, but if you got something bigger at another school and you applied regular, you have the option to go to a school where you got more money. That’s what I sort of mean by leverage. You’re keeping your options open because you can go somewhere that gave you a scholarship. If you apply binding, you don’t have that option. By the time you’re committed, by the time you understand what your financial aid package is, it’s too late. Again, you could still get a scholarship. You’re just not going to have the option to go take your second choice school if they give you more money because all those applications will have been withdrawn.
[Check out: How to Pay for Graduate School]
Is full-time work experience a nice-to-have at UVA or really important to the admissions committee? [16:07]
It’s definitely not necessary. I’ll start by saying that. You are right that these days, about 20% of our incoming class is coming straight through from undergrad. 80% of the class has at least one year of work experience or spent time in other graduate programs. This is really reflective of the applicant pool versus any preference on our part. Back when I went to law school, probably about 50% of the class was coming straight through from undergrad. That was just a different time. I graduated from law school in 2008, just in time for the recession. I think every class since then has gotten a little bit more out of school, just because I think maybe people viewed it as more competitive, and they needed work experience to up their chances.
I have a few thoughts on this. First of all, it’s not necessary. You can be a super strong applicant coming straight out of undergrad. You can have great internships over the summer or during the year. You can have a thesis that you wrote. You can be a very well-rounded, strong applicant coming straight through. I tell people if you’re sure that law school is what you want to do and you don’t feel the need to wait, then don’t wait. I didn’t wait. I went straight through, so I certainly get that. Now, people who have worked are obviously bringing a lot to the table and they are probably going to enjoy law school more because they know what the working world is like. It doesn’t need to be legal-related experience. As long as you’re doing something productive and something that’s adding value to your own learning and education, I think it’s great.
We don’t need anyone to be a paralegal at a law firm before they come to law school. Certainly not. If somebody is, that’s great. That experience probably confirmed for them that law school is what they wanted to do. A side note on that, if you are someone who’s unsure that law school is for you, that is when I recommend having some law-related experience because it’s much better to find out before you invest that time and money to know that maybe it’s not what you want to do. Conversely, you could realize that this is really what you’re passionate about, and you go to law school that much more dedicated.
Do law firms seem to have any preference in terms of hiring or internships for people who have work experience before law school? [18:53]
When we are admitting people, if they don’t have significant work experience, we are being very careful in the interview to suss out whether they are ready to be put in front of a legal employer.
If somebody’s 21 or 22 years old, we need to make sure that in six months or a year from now, they’ll have professional skills and will be ready for this level of employment. I think if we do our jobs correctly, employers won’t even necessarily know the difference between someone who’s three years out and someone who’s coming straight through.
Of course, a lot depends on what the experience pre-law school was. We have a lot of military folks. We have people who have very high-up jobs in the government. It’s possible that could influence an employer’s decision. But, really, when you’re getting to the level of legal hiring, they’re looking at your first-year grades. They’re looking more at what you’re doing in law school. They will see your resume, so it could definitely be valuable to them what you did before. But, hopefully, if we’ve done our job, even if you’ve come straight through, you are, by no means, at a disadvantage in the hiring process.
Do you like to see some experience that is closely related to law? [20:20]
As I mentioned before, it could be nice to see because you get the sense that someone knows what they’re getting into. You get the sense that this is a considered decision, and they’re not just applying to law school because they don’t know what else to do. If somebody has been a paralegal at White & Case for two years and they’re applying to law school, I think they know what a lawyer does. If somebody has never had any sort of professional-level job, maybe those skills won’t be there. Maybe they are kind of flailing around and don’t know what to do next.
Sometimes I get asked if applicants should leave non-legal work experience on a resume. They had to work through school or had to work to support their family during the summers. I say, absolutely leave that on. I like to see people who have had to put themselves through school. It shows character. It shows grit. It shows determination. I, personally, was a waitress in college and I had to support myself. I love to see that. Not everybody can afford to take these unpaid internships on the Hill. We want those people who can’t afford to do that, and who maybe had to work a service job over the summer or work as an RA, for example, during college. Maybe those paying jobs prevented them from getting some fancy internship. It doesn’t matter. I see that as life experience and work experience that will serve that person in law school and in their legal career.
Can you share what you’re looking for in the personal statement? [22:43]
We definitely encourage people to write about things that we wouldn’t otherwise know from reading their file. One of the biggest mistakes I see is someone just regurgitating or rehashing their resume. If I’m reading your personal statement, I already read your resume, so I don’t need to hear that you went to Duke, and then you got an internship on the Hill, and so on. Use this time to tell me something I don’t already know. Use this time and space to show off your writing skills. Writing is hugely, hugely important for law school. Your skills need to be at a certain point before we can admit you. Yes, it is broader than just, “Why law?”, but even if it’s not explicitly in there, I should have a great sense after I read the personal statement of why you’re going to law school.
Sometimes we get these amazing, creative writing type essays that are very well written, but I have no idea from that or from anything else in the file why this person is going to law school. Unfortunately, I can’t spend the time to interview that person and find out. The interview is not an investigation. It’s a further understanding of what I already see and like. Don’t assume you can just explain yourself away in an interview.
First of all, not every school even interviews, but we won’t even get you to that point if you haven’t done a good job of demonstrating why law school makes sense for you at this stage of your life. Again, the essay does not need to read “I want to go to law school because…” but through what you’re explaining and the stories that you’re telling, we should have a good idea.
Do you have any guidance for addenda? [25:20]
Addenda are tricky. There are a few different types. One is a diversity essay. These are fairly common. If you’re somebody who has not already talked about your diversity in your personal statement, we always welcome you to tell us more about what makes you diverse: how you would contribute to a law school environment, your different view on the world, how you have gotten to this point. We encourage people to interpret diversity how they want, within reason and with respect to what diversity is and why it’s important. People can also talk about their diversity in their personal statement and kind of get that done all at once, but it’s not necessary.
The second is a “Why UVA” essay? We get these from time to time. They’re not required, but some people do like to send an essay telling us why they want to come to UVA, specifically. I like to read these. It helps me understand somebody’s interest. They’re by no means necessary. I do think if there’s nothing in your application that indicates to me that UVA is of interest to you, it might be worth explaining why because I otherwise might not know.
The other addenda are more practical addenda. If you’re addressing LSAT history, if you’re addressing a GPA that you think is not reflective of your capabilities, and, of course, we have the mandatory addenda if you have any character or fitness issues in your file.
Regarding the LSAT and GPA, I tell people to be careful with these. If you’ve taken the LSAT five times and your scores are all over the place, don’t send addenda saying “I have severe test anxiety.” I don’t know what you think you’re going to be doing in law school, but it’s taking a lot of exams. Telling me you have severe test anxiety does not give me a lot of confidence. The same way that taking the LSAT 10 times to get the score that you want also doesn’t give me confidence. You don’t get to take your constitutional law exam 10 times. You get to take it once. If you get called on in class, you don’t get to redo your answer 10 times. Just be careful with what you’re explaining and what you’re telling us in these addenda.
The same applies for GPA. I see a lot of people saying they went through a trauma or they were sick or they switched majors. It’s okay if there were some extenuating circumstances that make your GPA not reflective of your abilities, but just be careful about making too many excuses. I would much rather see somebody own up to what happened and take responsibility.
Furthermore, don’t spend so much time on your weaknesses. You should be highlighting your strengths in the application, very quickly acknowledging anything that you think deserves to be acknowledged, and then putting it in the rearview. We don’t need to hear the whole saga.
Remember that real people are reading your application. I went through things in college, too, but I still had a certain GPA, and I certainly didn’t make excuses for anything. Just be careful. Again, anything that would not be otherwise obvious from the application that really was extenuating, definitely take the moment to explain it, but just don’t go too far.
We’re not trying to punish anybody for any sort of academic history, but your job with the application is to provide us with enough information that tells us that if we bring this person to UVA Law, they will do the work, and they won’t struggle. No matter how much we like their writing or their resume, we cannot bring anyone here that we don’t think is going to thrive and succeed and be able to keep up with the work. If all we have is your GPA and a bunch of excuses, we think this is going to also be what your law school transcript looks like.
What other factors do you consider beyond LSAT and GPA? [30:32]
We have thousands of applications with scores that we like and GPAs we like that we can’t admit. For me, the writing really gets me. A strong writer who really writes about something memorable. It doesn’t need to be one of these creative writing things or something so shocking. They don’t have to try to stand out necessarily but people do stand out with their writing skills and by telling us who they are, and making us want to know them more in an interview.
A professional-looking resume goes a long way. Something that’s easy to follow. These days I see a lot of colors, photos, and icons. I just encourage everybody to do a standard resume.
Letters of recommendation, especially lately, have been really blowing me away. If you can find two or three great people who can really write detailed letters for you because they actually know you, those can really make a difference.
In the actual application itself, we ask for people’s activities: their hobbies and interests. This might seem like a throwaway sort of question in the app, but it’s really not. That’s because at UVA, we really care about our community and how well-rounded people are. This is not a school where someone will come, go to the library, study by themselves, get a job, and leave. It is really an experience so we like to read about people’s community service, what hobbies and interests they have, and what activities they’re engaged in.
In addition to the LSAT and GPA, all these other factors just paint a picture of a person who we would want to get to know better in an interview and somebody who we think is going to contribute here.
What role do interviews play in the admissions decision and what can applicants expect during the interview? [33:20]
For us, interviewing is really about getting to know a person a little bit better and seeing what kind of personality someone has. Sometimes people look great on paper, and it does not translate in person. Sometimes, someone really outperforms their file. Getting to know someone, even just on Zoom for 20 minutes, makes an enormous difference. We can ultimately tell if they’re going to be employable and if they’re going to be a good community member. The application has to get you to a certain point, but if you are invited to interview at UVA, that means we are seriously considering you. We have a tiny, tiny staff. We do not have time to interview people that we are not hoping to admit.
A trend I’ve seen lately, and I don’t know if this is a COVID Zoom consequence, but I see a lot of people reading from paper. They’ve tried so hard to prepare in advance and they’re reading from a screen, or they’re just kind of robotic. They’re not having a contemporaneous conversation. It’s really unfortunate because those people don’t get admitted under any circumstances. My interviews are not hard. I’m just trying to get to know you better and understand why you’re going to law school. If you have to read from a piece of paper to answer those types of questions, it’s not a good sign. People who are applying to law school are applying to be trusted advisors and counsel to people in extremely significant life situations and decisions. If you can’t carry a conversation and answer questions, it just does not bode well.
My advice is to work on those skills and treat an interview request from UVA Law as your time to shine and to seal the deal, if you will. We’re not trying to trick you. I’m not going to ask you any math questions. It’s really just to gauge your personality. It’s a chance for you to ask me questions. Remember you need to decide which law school is right for you as much as we want to decide who’s right for us. An interview is a really rare and wonderful opportunity to get to talk to somebody who works there or who has gone there or both.
We interview throughout the whole cycle. If we turn to the waitlist later in the year, we also will interview off the waitlist as well. It technically is a year-round thing. We try to get interviews over with by now, but they will pick up slightly in the summer.
Are Zoom interviews a COVID accommodation or is that how it has always been at UVA? [36:16]
I think long ago they were in person. The truth is we are admitting people from all over the country. It’s just not practical. I sometimes am doing eight or ten interviews in a day. I don’t have time to do them in person. Zoom, I think, is really here to stay.
We didn’t used to always interview everybody. It’s very time consuming especially when you’re short staffed but it’s worth it. Like I said, even those 20 minutes really help us get to know someone better.
Does UVA consider update letters from applicants who have something significant to tell you after they submit their application and before hearing back from you? What about waitlisted applicants? [37:12]
Yes. In both cases, yes. If you’re somebody who has submitted your application in September and now it’s January, and you haven’t heard from us, first of all, don’t worry. Again, I don’t know how much I can harp on this. We are very short-staffed. I promise we’re reading your file. If I didn’t have to read every single file multiple times, we could get you a decision within two weeks but I don’t think you want that. I think you want people who are taking the time and attention with the files.
Every single file goes through me, so if you haven’t heard in a few months, absolutely, send us a note. Just say, “Hey, I submitted a few months ago. I’m still extremely interested in UVA. I appreciate the time and energy that this process takes, and I’m by no means trying to rush you, but I just wanted you to know I’m here. By the way, I retook the LSAT in December and I have a new score. You should have seen it in my file already but I just wanted to draw your attention to my new score.” Or something like, “I applied three months ago and am still patiently waiting. I recently got a promotion at work, and now my responsibilities are X, Y, Z. Not only am I submitting an updated resume, but you will also be receiving an additional letter of recommendation.” All of that is great. Fair game. Perfect.
Also, those things that are not technically in your application, but something like the way that you have interacted with my office plays a role in your decision. I’ll just put that out there. On the flip side, when people come to visit and they’re amazing, respectful, and appreciative, that helps them too. It can help or hurt you. I want to remind people that. The way that you would email me or speak to me should be the exact same way you’re speaking to our receptionist and our students and all of that.
What would you have liked me to ask you? [41:14]
One thing that I will just say, because it’s how I’m feeling in this moment and it’s coming full circle to what we spoke about at the beginning, is how amazing the UVA community is. We are coming out the other side of COVID. We don’t have masks anymore. We don’t have any restrictions. Student life really feels back to what it was. I just can’t tell you how much it has reinforced in our community what an amazingly special place this is. I came right before this from doing a Q&A session with a whole mix of people, admitted students, waitlisted students, and people who haven’t gotten a decision yet. Our students met with them, gave them a tour, and just seeing everybody engaged and out and about was an amazing feeling. We were able to have a huge admitted student event a couple of weeks ago with 300-400 people here.
Visiting a school is one of the most important things you can do because I have heard time and time again about the feeling people get when they come here. There’s just no replacement for that. My very first year in this job was completely remote. We had no visitors. I didn’t even really come to the office except to sign things. It was very difficult and not getting to bring people to this beautiful place, not just Charlottesville itself, but our law school grounds was extremely difficult. I just am feeling, now, in this week, how grateful I am that we’re back to how it used to be because it makes a huge difference.
Where can listeners learn more about the University of Virginia School of Law? [45:09]
I think the best resource is our website at law.virginia.edu.
I really encourage people to also check out our YouTube page. I have heard from applicants that this is really what put UVA on their radar. We have so many classes that have been recorded uploaded there. You could basically observe a law school class online. You can see speeches from our Dean. You can take a virtual tour. We have students leading virtual tours.
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