Interview with Alissa Leonard, Director of Admissions and Financial Aid at the Boston University School of Law
Published January 2010
Top-law-schools.com appreciates Alissa Leonard, Director of Admissions and Financial Aid at the Boston University School of Law, for kindly taking the time to answer the following questions.
The Admissions Process
TLS: What does the admissions process consist of, and how is an application rated?
We have a rolling admissions process which means that we begin to review applications and make admissions decisions beginning in late fall and continuing throughout the spring. You can see from my answer to question number 2, that we review each application in its entirety and do not use numbers to form any sort of composite rating. Thus, while we attempt to make decisions on individual applications in the timeliest fashion possible, the time required for each application varies. As much as we would like to evaluate applications in the order in which they are received sometimes that is not the best approach. Our process allows us to extend the review of an application where appropriate or to put aside an application for additional review later in the season once we know more about the rest of the applicant pool. We had a large increase in application volume of 29% last year and so far this year we are seeing an increase as well. In light of these increases it is necessary for us to proceed with decisions slowly. Please see my answer to question 2 for a discussion of how we think about each application.
TLS: Realistically speaking, how large a part of the admissions process are factors other than a candidate’s GPA and LSAT scores? Of these non-numerical factors, are there any that particularly pique your interest (military service, corporate work experience, Teach for America, etc.)? Can you give examples of what you see as excellent, good, and mediocre non-numerical attributes or accomplishments?
We read each application in its entirety and holistically. That is, there is no combination of GPA and LSAT that necessarily results in admission or denial, and, in fact, the weight of these numbers in any particular application will vary according to how much and what other kinds of information are in the file. A look at our admissions statistics from previous years will give you some idea of the GPA and LSAT numbers we are looking for, but every year we admit a significant number of students with numbers well below what you might expect and deny some applicants who have numbers higher than our medians.
You ask which non-numerical factors are most valued, but there is no simple answer to that question. There is an infinite range of experiences that an applicant may have had, but even two applicants who have had the same experience may have reacted to and grown from that experience in radically different ways. We are not so much looking for particular experiences as for people who have demonstrated abilities and capacity for growth and a background that will enable them to contribute positively to the life of BU Law and to the legal profession. BU Law’s founding commitment to diversity of all kinds, starting in 1872, continues to inform our admissions decisions today. We encourage each applicant to share with us how they might contribute to BU Law’s learning community. It would be nice to be able to boil that down more for you, but each application really does make its own unique case for (or against) admission.
TLS: Do you have any advice for students preparing to apply to law school? What about for admitted students to prepare for their first year at BU?
The best advice, obvious as it may seem, is to work hard in school, pursue your passions rather than the things that you imagine will look good to an admissions officer, and cultivate strong, genuine relationships with your professors or other people who will be in a position to write letters of recommendation for you.
Once admitted, you should pat yourself on the back and come to law school well rested and eager for an intellectual adventure and lots of hard work. Professors assume no prior knowledge of law or the ways of law school. There are, of course, various mini-courses out there pitched by private companies to prepare you for law school, but we have no opinions or recommendations with respect to those programs. In fact, an introduction to the study of law by a faculty member is part of our orientation program for first year students.
TLS: What do you consider to be the most important factors an admitted applicant should examine when choosing which law school to attend?
Every student will have to decide this for her- or himself. For some, geography is of paramount importance, perhaps because of family considerations. For others, all that matters is the prestige level of the school. We advise that a good look at the career prospects of graduates is a better indicator than any of the artificial rankings out there. Sometimes, the choice is just a matter of gut feeling about where you will feel the most comfortable for the next three years. Of course, we think that being in the best young person’s city in America and learning from the best teaching faculty in the country should draw everyone to BU. But the admitted student is the only one who can decide what is most important.
TLS: How does BU view multiple LSAT scores?
We base our decisions on the highest score, but we do see all scores. So we encourage applicants to offer a short explanation if they have multiple scores with a large (more than 8 points) discrepancy between them. In most circumstances we are not concerned by cancelled test scores or test absences. It is never wise to take the test while sick or before you are well-prepared.
TLS: In what circumstances should an applicant include an addendum to explain his or her low GPA or LSAT score? What should this addendum include?
I always tell applicants that “life happens” and when some life event has interfered with academic success or test performance there is no reason not to include an explanatory addendum. When we read an application we are trying to make sense of your story. A short explanation of a few sentences is all that is necessary to alert us to an illness, a family crisis, or some other factor that affected academic performance or test results. If the transcript in question is uniformly weak and you feel that there is a reason that would not impact your performance in law school then that is also worth an explanation. Students who have a history of poor standardized test performance should explain that in a short addendum. Some of our applicants will include SAT score reports to substantiate the claim of poor test taking. While, this isn’t necessary it isn’t a bad idea to tell us if you scored poorly on the SAT but then subsequently outperformed those expectations as an undergraduate.
TLS: The number of applications to law schools in general increased last application cycle and many expect that growth in applications to be even more pronounced this upcoming cycle. Is BU Law expecting and making preparations for an unusually high number of students applying in the 2009-2010 cycle?
We experienced an unexpectedly large growth in applications last cycle. Early indications are that there will be another jump in applications this year. We are prepared for this increase and expect, as always, to process applications and update applicants in as timely a way as the various contingencies of any admissions process will allow. By this I mean that especially in the beginning months of the application season, in the face of increased applications, we can’t with any certainty predict the nature of the applicant pool. That means that we will not act quickly on some applications—not because we do not appreciate the applicant’s desire for a swift decision-- but because we are judiciously setting aside for re-review some portion of the applicant pool for when we have a better understanding of the range of applicant’s in this year’s pool. While I know this can be frustrating for the applicant, I hope that you will view it as an indication of how thoughtfully and carefully we go about the serious business of trying to build the most talented and dynamic class possible.
TLS: Unlike many schools, Boston University does not have an Early Decision or Early Application option that many students use to demonstrate their high interest in a school. What’s the best way for a particular student to get the message across to the admissions office that BU is his or her #1 choice?
Early in the application process, a savvy student can demonstrate a preference for BU by including in the personal statement such things as the reasons why they might want to study with particular Boston University faculty members, BU curricular offerings that are particularly appealing, personal ties to Boston, etc. A strong demonstration that BU is an applicant’s first choice can be one helpful factor for an applicant. However, our experience shows that an applicant may in fact change his or her mind or even have written the same thing to more than one school! Thus, as a general matter, we admit applicants regardless of where we imagine they might matriculate. Later in the application cycle when there is a waitlist, students who are serious about attending BU Law frequently show that interest by keeping us up-to-date on their activities through periodic emails.
TLS: What percentage of students receives scholarships of any kind and what methodology determines to whom scholarships are awarded?
We are fortunate to have a very generous financial aid program. Approximately 60% of our JD students receive scholarship assistance from the School of Law. Most scholarships are awarded to students in their first year and renewed during their second and third years; that is, in general, the award you are offered with your admission is the award you will have for each of your three years. We have scholarships that are awarded solely on the basis of academic merit and students do not need to apply for these awards. Other awards are determined by a combination of financial need and academic merit and students need to apply for these awards. I always remind students that they can’t qualify for these grants if they don’t apply! Applying for financial aid is an important step in making sure that you will benefit from all of the resources available to you. Our Public Interest Scholars program is designed to provide significant financial support to a number of our students who have demonstrated their desire to pursue a career in public interest law. More details about our financial aid programs can be found on our website.
TLS: Will the current state of the economy affect the distribution of merit scholarships?
We do not expect that the economy will affect our distribution of merit scholarships. However, we do expect that the economy will have an effect on the number of students who demonstrate financial need. Since our scholarship aid is awarded on a rolling basis as students are admitted, applying early for both admission to BU Law and for our need based financial aid will be critical. You can apply for financial aid before you have received a decision on your application. Then, when you are admitted, we will be able to expedite the review of your financial aid application.
TLS: Do applicants, especially those with numbers that fall below BU’s medians, increase their chances of admission by applying early? Is there anything that an applicant whose numbers are below your medians can do that would increase their chances of acceptance?
Any applicant that applies early increases his or her chance of admission. We use a rolling admissions process which allows us to begin sending out decisions in early December and throughout the winter. If you apply right at the deadline of March 1st there are fewer spaces left in the class than there were several months previous. That said, an exceptional candidate will still be admitted even though he or she did not apply until March.
As to applicants whose numbers are below our medians, remember that the meaning of a median is that half of the class is at or below that number. See some of our answers above for discussions of what makes a difference in an application besides the numbers.
TLS: Do you have any general advice regarding personal statements for applicants who want to maximize their chances?
The most critical attributes of an effective personal statement are that it be very well written--concise, easy to read, engaging—and that it clearly explain something important about who you are. For some reason, this year we are seeing many longer personal statements—some running well beyond the suggested 2 pages. Although we read each essay in its entirety it rarely helps an applicant to write so much. I recommend staying within two pages.
TLS: Could an applicant significantly improve his or her chances of admission by drafting a personal statement specifically for BU, as opposed to a general personal statement that briefly mentions BU, if at all?
Certainly, a personal statement that fits the criteria mentioned in my answer to question 12 will be even more appealing if it includes a genuine explanation of why BU Law excites and interests the applicant. But a statement that is artificially manufactured for BU just for the sake of flattering the admissions committee will be seen through very quickly and, worst of all, will probably bore its readers. Again, it is far more important to write well about an engaging topic than to try to push this or that magic button.
TLS: Do you come across personal statements that actually hurt the applicant’s chances? If so, what are some traits of these statements? Are there any clichés or pitfalls an applicant should avoid? How often do you find statements that really stick out from the crowd and what do these statements consist of?
Personal statements do sometimes hurt an application significantly. As implied above, this usually happens when the statement is not well written or seems artificially concocted to say what the applicant thinks the admissions committee wants to hear. An honest, well written, concise essay is the key. Several pitfalls to avoid include concluding the essay with the sentence, and “this is why I want to attend HLS” because I am at BU Law, not HLS. Additionally, typos and grammatical errors do not strengthen the application but detract from it. Being yourself is key. We want to understand how you think, what excites and drives you, and why you want to attend law school.
Letters of Recommendation
TLS: Applicants often have difficulty choosing and approaching potential recommenders. Can you offer some general advice regarding letters of recommendation?
The best recommender is someone who can speak both to your academic talents—your analytical abilities and your capacity to write well—and to your personal character. Often, such a person is a professor with whom you have worked fairly closely. We understand that frequently an applicant’s best option is a teaching assistant or an employer who knows the applicant well in at least some though not all relevant respects. It is more important to get a letter that will be positive, relevant, and detailed than to get a letter from someone of high status (an eminent alum, your Senator) who cannot write anything but a brief paragraph offering a general endorsement of your application. Letters from relatives and family friends—however important they are—are also not helpful.
TLS: Does the admissions committee come across letters of recommendation that actually hurt an applicant’s chances of admission? If so, what sort of letter should be avoided? How often do you find letters that really stick out from the crowd and what do these letters consist of?
On rare occasions, a letter will actually be negative about the applicant. More often, a letter will simply say or imply that the recommender just does not know the applicant well enough to provide a sufficiently detailed letter to be useful. It is important, when asking for a recommendation, to ask the recommender if he or she feels that they can write you a strong letter. Strong letters, as stated above, speak both to your academic talents—your analytical abilities and your capacity to write well—and to your personal character, and they do so by reference to specifics (papers you’ve written, contributions in class, accomplishments outside the classroom, etc.). Professors understand the importance of strong letters and often spend significant time building a case for admission of the applicant. They do this by providing detail about the applicant’s quality of mind, of his or her class participation, of his or her written work. Faculty often drop in comments that they wrote on thesis papers or other papers to demonstrate the specific context and experience with the student. It is also extremely helpful to us when faculty are able to say that they have seen the applicant grow and develop over time.
Undergraduate & Graduate Education
TLS: How much will an upward grade trend positively influence the likelihood of admission?
It is impossible to quantify the answer, but we certainly notice upward grade trends and give them positive weight. A downward grade trend should be addressed in an addendum because that will raise questions.
TLS: Do you consider the relative prestige or rank of an applicant’s undergraduate institution? What about the relative difficulty of an applicant’s undergraduate major?
Both of these are factors are carefully considered, but again they are assigned no determinate weight. Rather, they are among the many factors that go into developing a well rounded picture of the applicant.
TLS: How do you view graduate degrees and do you take graduate GPA into consideration?
Graduate degrees are always positive factors since they demonstrate accomplishment and often a relevant sort of intellectual development beyond an undergraduate education. GPA is of course relevant. Often academic recommendations from graduate faculty are very helpful to us.
TLS: What is the typical size of the BU waitlist, and how deep do you usually go into the waitlist to admit students?
Unfortunately, there is no “typical” size of the waitlist, or any reliable number of students we take or don’t take from the list. It would be wonderful for us if the dynamics of admissions allowed us to predict these things with perfect reliability. But the reality is that these numbers vary quite a bit from year to year as the national pool of applicants changes, as other schools’ admissions decisions change, as the economy changes, etc., etc. Understanding that this is a stressful time for applicants we try to keep waitlisted applicants advised of our intentions as the summer progresses.
TLS: Once on the waitlist are there any steps one can take to increase their chances of getting off the waitlist?
Convincing demonstrations of your readiness to commit to BU if you are admitted from the waitlist are always helpful, though we can never promise that any one person or any significant number will be admitted from the waitlist until the decision to admit is actually made. We encourage waitlist applicants to keep us up-to-date on their activities, recent grades if applicable, and their interest in coming to BU Law if admitted.
TLS: How many transfer applications does BU Law typically receive, and what percentage are offered admission?
The number of transfer applications to BU Law varies from year to year. For the Fall 2009 transfer cycle we received 125 transfer applications. We accepted 25 of these applications. The number of spots available to transfer students varies year to year as we are not looking to increase the size of our class, but to fill spots created by students taking leaves of absence, going to study abroad programs, and transferring to other law schools.
TLS: What are the main factors taken into consideration in reviewing a transfer application?
The most important factor in reviewing a transfer application is performance during your first year in law school. Successful transfer applicants have typically performed in the top 20% of their law school class. While undergraduate records, LSAT scores, and experiences prior to law school are still a part of the evaluation, exceptional performance in your first year of law school can make you competitive as a transfer student even if you might have been less competitive as a first year student. If you are thinking about applying to transfer you should also know that you will need a strong letter of recommendation from a law school professor who has taught you during your first year. The primary factor weighed in evaluating a transfer application will be the first year law school performance.
The USNWR Rankings
TLS: Whether it’s for good or for bad, a lot of applicants take a close look into the US News and World Report Law School Rankings and possibly even factor those rankings into their decision making process. Does this pressure the admissions office into being maybe more numbers driven than they would like to be?
Almost every law school at or near our level feels some pressure to improve its admissions statistics every year. But BU Law—and we certainly hope this applies to all other law schools—realizes that we cannot continue to provide a great education if we look only at the numbers that U.S. News cares about. Whatever U.S. News does, we will continue to pursue our core mission of enrolling classes that are strong on numerous dimensions and providing them with a great legal education, even if we cannot avoid feeling rankings pressure at the margins.
BU Law School Distinctions
TLS: What do you feel students enjoy most about the Boston University School of Law?
The best person to answer this question, of course, is not the Director of Admissions, but current students. I strongly encourage you to visit the school and speak with any student you encounter. In the meantime, here’s what one just-graduated student said in answer to this question when I asked him:
“Of all the great things BU Law has to offer, I feel students would say the most enjoyable part of their BU Law experience is our amazing faculty. Not only are our professors among the nation’s top legal scholars, they’ve consistently been honored for their excellence in the classroom. Our professors engage in the academic lives of their students. They are invested in making sure our students learn and understand the material. Our professors make themselves available to their students. All of our professors have an open door policy and hold office hours each week. Our students will tell you that professors often stay after class to answer questions and discuss the material presented during the lecture. No asked question will go unanswered at BU Law.
“Our professors are passionate about the law and they want to share that passion with their students. Professors go out of their way to involve their students in their work. Every year, professors will take on a number of current students as research assistants. If you look at any of our professors’ publications, you’ll always see at least one or two students mentioned in the dedication. What’s even more notable, however, is the number of professors you’ll see credited in the dedications of our students’ publications. Our professors nurture and support students and encourage them to pursue each student’s own passion in the law.
“As with any institution, our professors are experts in their fields and outstanding teachers in the classroom. However, what truly makes BU Law unique is our professors’ commitment to the BU Law community. Our professors form the bedrock of the BU Law community. You’ll find our professors at many of the numerous events that happen at the tower every week, sometimes as audience members, but often times as panelists or presenters. You’ll find them out to lunch or dinner with current students and alumni. You’ll find them running in the BU Law 5K, auctioning off themselves at the annual Public Interest Auction, and traveling with students to do public-interest work around the country.
Our professors are involved and invested in the BU Law community, which makes the law school a more enjoyable place for everyone.”
TLS: What is the chief critique that current students would have about the law school and what is being done to address this concern?
I am always happy to report that the students’ chief complaint has to do with the somewhat old building we are housed in. I say I’m happy to report that because, while the building is not a particular selling point, it is perfectly fine. So if that is the thing the students regularly think of when asked to come up with negatives, then we’re doing awfully well in all the areas that matter most. Moreover, we are constantly improving the physical facilities as well. As one just-graduated student (see question 25) says, “the ‘tower’ is constantly evolving. Every year, we improve the space to best suit our students’ needs. Last year, we added a new reading room, increased the space dedicated to student lounges, and improved the printing services in the tower.” Other improvements have been made in each of the last few years and will continue to be made in the coming years.
TLS: A lot of students who are looking for a law school in the Boston area will inevitably arrive at the choice of Boston University vs. Boston College. In what areas is BU different and distinguishes itself from the school across town?
Boston University School of Law and Boston College Law School are two very different institutions, and choosing between them is a very personal choice. I would encourage prospective students to visit each school, take a close look at the programs that each school offers as well as the setting in which each school resides, and talk with as many students, faculty, and administrators as possible. Ask them and ask yourself, what are each school’s strengths and weaknesses? Which school’s programs and curriculum best align with the prospective student’s interests? What is the reputation of the faculty? What are the placement statistics at both schools? Is that prospective student looking for an urban (BU) or suburban (BC) experience? These are all important questions to consider when deciding between BU Law and BC Law.
TLS: Is it a good idea for students who may wish to practice in smaller legal markets such as those in the Midwest or Northwest to attend BU instead of more regional schools? For example, if a student wants to practice in the state of Washington, would it make sense to go to a more prestigious school such as BU instead of the more local but lower-tier Seattle University Law School?
As with so many of these questions, there is no simple answer. A school of BU’s reputation will, in general, open more doors than a good but lower-ranked school. Thus, should you change your mind about where you want to practice—a common occurrence—you might regret choosing not to go to a school that maximizes your prospects in a national market. On the other hand, if you are absolutely certain that you will want to practice in Washington, you may well attach great importance to the logistical hurdles in, for example, securing an internship in your first law school summer or interviewing with those smaller firms or public interest organizations that cannot send interviewers to the important eastern schools each fall. For the typical student in your position, we would expect the wise choice would be to attend BU, take advantage of the very fine career support that our Career Development Office offers to students who seek jobs in every corner of the country, and be prepared to work at your job search just a little harder than the locals no matter where you end up wanting to practice. But, again, your particular circumstances will have much to say about this decision. I would encourage you, once you are admitted to some schools, to talk to the career professionals at those schools and then determine the best fit for you.
TLS: What type of debt and employment situation is the typical Boston University law student going to be in after graduating near the median of his or her class?
Debt loads at graduation vary widely, but the average is about $100,000, which is pretty consistent with debt loads at our peer schools. Historically, the great majority of the graduating class has been employed at graduation, certainly including those around the median GPA. But it is most important to recognize that, for most graduating students, GPA does not determine that much about employment. While there are some jobs that go almost exclusively to those with very strong grades, students “near the median” and students more generally (96% of the Class of 2008) find employment in a very wide variety of settings—not just law firms but also in public interest organizations, government, business, and elsewhere—and in many geographical areas and at the full range of salaries. The employment situation for most students will be determined as much by the diligence of one’s job search and careful use of the services of our career professionals as by the single dimension of GPA. Finally, of course, it is critical to understand that the fallout from the economic downturn is not yet fully understood. The shape of the legal profession and the nature of career-building may end up largely unchanged as we come out of recession, or strategies that have been very reliable for many years—e.g., counting on good grades to get you a good job at a big law firm—may prove to be much less effective than they have been in the past. Our career office is keeping a close eye on any changes that might be underway and will work closely with our students and alumni as any changes work themselves out.
TLS: Do you have any additional, general advice that you would like to offer applicants who are reading this interview before putting together applications for the Boston University School of Law?
I think these questions have been pretty comprehensive. Much more information can be found on our website at www.bu.edu/law and we are happy to answer individual questions by email or phone. I wish the best of luck to all of those reading this.
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