Interview with Brigitte Suhr, international lawyer, former admissions reader and current Accepted law school admissions consultant [Show summary]
Accepted consultant Brigitte Suhr brings a wealth of law school admissions knowledge to today’s podcast. As an application reader at UVA School of Law, Brigitte read more than 2,500 applications, so she knows what works and what doesn’t. She shares her insight during this podcast.
Find out what a UVA law school application reader looks for [Show notes]
Our guest today, Brigitte Suhr, earned her BA from UT Austin and her JD from UVA. She then went on to travel the world as an international lawyer, working for Human Rights Watch, the International Criminal Court, and other foundations and NGOs. For approximately two years prior to joining Accepted, Brigitte worked as an application reader for her alma mater, UVA School of Law, and in that capacity reviewed over 2,500 applications. She was the one recommending admit or deny. Let’s find out how she made those recommendations.
You’ve had a fascinating career working in international and human rights law around the world, why did you decide to become an admissions reader at UVA? [2:04]
I had worked for many years at an international level and had to step back for family reasons. I started my own consulting company working with nonprofits and foundations. As I was building that up I had the opportunity to work with UVA and thought it sounded like fun and a great way to get back in touch with my alma mater. Now I am busier, but didn’t want to leave admissions completely behind, which is why I became an admissions counselor.
When you were reviewing applications for UVA Law, did you have a particular bucket of applicants that you reviewed? [2:53]
I typically reviewed applicants who were below the median in both GPA and LSAT or above in one and significantly below in the other.
When the numbers were low, what made you decide to say yes? [3:12]
That’s when other factors come in. The personal statement is really important, the reasons why (for example why was a GPA so low), and do they convince me that they are capable of doing well in law school and being a good lawyer.
How did you go through the application? Those that came to you were already behind the eight ball, right? [3:57]
Yes and no. When you think of a school as selective as UVA, it didn’t take much to be in my pile since the medians were so high – you could still be in the 90th percentile and be in my pile. I read the application from top to bottom, however it came from LSAC. Typically first was info on activities and service, then the personal statement, everything but the transcripts and LORs. The second attachment had those items. Essentially, I started building my impression from their own submissions, then I would go to the LORs.
What made a personal statement tell you that its author deserved your vote and recommendation? [6:01]
A personal statement could capture my attention if it was a really interesting story, extremely well written, or both. Sometimes it was less that it was groundbreaking but obvious the applicant was a good writer, observant, and astute. Other times a personal statement or addenda provided the why for issues in the transcript. That works best when you have a way to show you truly overcame it.
What about addenda addressing a weak GPA? What made for a good one? A bad one? [8:02]
The ones that are good identify what was going on in that person’s life during a dip – eating disorders, undiagnosed ADD, parental situation, working fulltime, freshman lack of focus, etc. Oftentimes kids are on their own for the first time, and things do happen. Write about the circumstances persuasively and don’t get dragged down. Bad addenda typically should have not been done at all. If you are above the median, don’t do it, because it is attracting attention to something the admissions committee otherwise wouldn’t notice. Bad ones also do things like blame the professor, blame someone else, or don’t take responsibility for the GPA, like, “I was partying too much and didn’t take my college degree seriously.”
Did an addendum attempting to provide context for a below-median LSAT ever work? [12:48]
Those are much harder to have something worth saying. Every once in awhile if a student points out a below median LSAT, but then they went to a highly selective college and did very well, it is worth saying that the LSAT may not be representative of their abilities but the evidence suggests they would do well in law school. Obviously, this only works if you have a high GPA. Everything adds up in a negative way if you have a low GPA as well.
If applicants had academic infractions or a criminal record, were they toast? [13:48]
Also with this there is a huge range of what works and what doesn’t. There were ones where I thought wow if you ever have this problem this is how you talk about it, and others where I thought, please don’t say that! Minor infractions like traffic, beer in the dorm, had little influence. DUIs are more serious, though I might overlook it if there was just the one in your entire life. Shoplifting was a heartbreaking one for me, though again a huge difference between a 13 year old and 22 year old doing it. Context and detail are important. Violence is hard, but one of the best addenda I ever read was an applicant who had made a drunken violent mistake, one time in their life. People do deserve a second chance, so again, context and detail really matter.
How should people from well-represented groups approach writing a diversity statement? [15:43]
It depends on the prompt. Some schools have the prompt, some disallow it, and some are open. It depends on what you have to say and how you say it. I have read some very interesting statements from non-underrepresented groups that highlight something interesting you bring to the classroom, or a personal experience that’s caused you to see the world in a distinct way. One thing I saw a lot was that people raised in dual cultures almost always had something interesting to say, bridging two cultures, languages, etc. Some of my favorite essays were written by them. This essay again is as much how they say it as what they are saying.
How do all the components of the application fit together? [17:14]
If you decide to write the personal statement about something that could be considered diversity-related, don’t write the diversity statement. Don’t write it, because I don’t need it – essentially I’d be reading the same info twice. Make sure the personal statement, diversity statement, and addenda have different content and complement each other.
Did you like to see a sense of direction in the law in the applications that you reviewed? Or a Why UVA section? [19:32]
That definitely mattered to me. The why law aspect is certainly important – you need to let people know why you want to go, especially if your resume does not read law. You don’t have to say exactly what you want to do (but if you do know, then state it), but you must show a compelling reason to go.
What do applicants frequently just not understand about the law school admissions process that they should really grasp before they start applying? [21:57]
Applying to law school is something that takes time and needs attention given to each of the primary pieces of the application. Usually when you are applying to law school your GPA is either set or reasonably set, but think about how your LSAT piece looks, is it what you want it to be? If not, can you take it again? What can you do to maximize each bucket while also thinking about the whole? What am I saying? What am I leaving out? The time piece is really important as well. With rolling admissions it does make sense to apply early, and starting the process early is important, too, because it is time consuming and requires a lot of careful thought, so rushing is not good.
What are the most common mistakes to avoid in law school applications? [23:51]
Some are careless errors of typos, bad grammar, repetitiveness, but coming across attitudinal can be a problem. At UVA we ask about activities and service, and one applicant took issue with the question. That was very strange. Sometimes the wrong essay is attached – “This is why I want to go to Duke.” Not a great look!
What do you wish I would have asked you? [28:38]
With regard to the “Why X law school,” it’s useful if reasonably well done, sincere, and researched. If it’s a cut and paste from the website that doesn’t help. It isn’t required by any stretch, but I did like them, and sometimes read breathtaking ones. I would always make a note of it if there was something interesting said. In terms of overall advice, I would say, start early, be thoughtful, and be careful.