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Interview with Asha Rangappa, Associate Dean of Yale Law School

Published July 2010

Introduction

Top-Law-Schools.com would like to thank Asha Rangappa, Associate Dean for Admissions at Yale Law School, for taking the time to answer our questions!

TLS: Since becoming Associate Dean in 2007, you have reached out to the pre-law community in a significant way. The insightful (203) Admissions Blog has been a highly transparent and vital source of information for many applicants, and your responses to specific questions from the Top Law Schools forums members show that Yale really does try to communicate with its applicants on a more personal level than most other law schools. How do you think the use of modern media has shaped Yale’s applicant pool, and have these new mediums affected Yale Law’s admissions process?

Dean Asha Rangappa: I wouldn’t say that our use of new media has changed our admissions process; I’ve tried to be very transparent about how our unique system works and that’s remained unchanged for a long time. The idea for the 203 Blog came in response to the feeling among applicants with whom I spoke that what happens on the other side of the application is a black hole. I wanted to provide a window into how we approach and review applications. The response has been overwhelmingly positive, though we occasionally get the applicant who is miffed that our blog is not more “official.” But that’s the point: by being informal, humorous, and sometimes brutally honest, I hope that students can get some information that will be more useful to them than the standard admissions spiels. I hope the blog has encouraged some people who might not have otherwise considered Yale to apply, and offered tips to applicants on things they can do (or not do) to improve their application and their odds of getting in.

TLS: Although you’ve only been working at Yale Law School since December of 2005, you’ve helped maintain Yale’s reputation as the best law school in the country (and perhaps the world). As one TLS user put it, “How is YLS striving to improve, or is it waiting for everyone else to catch up?” As Associate Dean (and gatekeeper of sorts), what future plans do you have to ensure that the school remains at the forefront of legal education? Are there any big changes in the works?

AR: There’s a lot more that goes into maintaining a law school’s edge than admissions (though that is one part of it). We have a number of faculty and administrators who are constantly reviewing our curriculum, hiring faculty, and adding new programs. My part in the big picture is to make sure that we consistently admit the most diverse, interesting, and talented class possible, and that’s what I hope to keep doing.

Admissions

TLS: Yale Law School is known for the truly comprehensive nature of its admissions process; thus, by virtue of being less formulaic, this process generates a lot of speculation! What are some of the biggest misconceptions about the YLS Admissions process?

AR: The biggest misconception is that we base our admission on numbers alone. I am amazed that this misconception persists, given that there are sites like LSN that show that we do turn down people with 180 LSATs and 4.0 GPAs and take people with lower tests scores and GPAs instead. Hmmm. Why would this be the case? Well, because we read the applications! We have too few spots to just bring in the people who happened to score well on exams and standardized tests. We use these numbers to be confident in an applicant’s academic potential – we don’t want to bring someone here who can’t handle the work and will struggle – but beyond that we want people who are interesting, multi-faceted, intellectually curious, and will be great lawyers and representatives of YLS. Numbers don’t tell you about these things.

TLS: How important is the difficulty or prestige of one’s undergraduate institution in the admissions process?

AR: We do take into account the difficulty and academic rigor of a student’s undergraduate curriculum. Some schools – for example, the U.S. service academies – are notoriously difficult and have strenuous physical requirements alongside the academic ones. A student whom we admit from such a school might have a lower absolute GPA than someone I admit from another school that might be less difficult academically. We have to look at a student’s performance in context. We also value institutional diversity, and like to bring in students from a variety of undergraduate schools. So, if you look at our website, we have students from Scripps College, Bob Jones University, and the University of Pittburgh, for example, in addition to the “typical” schools you might expect, like Harvard, UVA, and Berkeley.

TLS: Similarly, to what degree is the difficulty of an applicant’s major taken into account? YLS has the highest undergraduate GPA standards in the country – would an applicant be given a bit of leeway if they majored in something like electrical engineering or physics?

AR: We do take the major into account, but even so, it’s important to remember that within a certain major, say Physics, there are going to be a lot of applicants who also have high GPAs. So while it’s something I will consider, I wouldn’t say that students from hard sciences get a “pass” on the GPA while humanities majors don’t. But I am aware that students who major in the hard sciences are less likely to have boosted their GPA with gut (easy) courses than students who have majored in liberal arts.

TLS: How much of a role does work experience play in a student’s admission? Are applicants who come straight from undergrad slightly disadvantaged in the application process?

AR: There is no direct way that students are disadvantaged coming from undergrad (as in, I don’t hold it against them). However, it does seem to me that on average, students who have spent some time out of school tend to have greater self-awareness and life perspective than someone who has remained in the bubble of school their whole life. So, often these students tend to have more mature, sophisticated personal statements that can give them an advantage in the admissions process. Of course, it all comes down to the individual student, so you can’t generalize, and we do take a significant portion of our class straight from undergrad.

TLS: How are graduate degrees treated in the YLS admissions process? Is there anything in particular that you look for when interpreting graduate degrees (publications, good grades, etc.)? Do unfinished graduate degrees signify a potential lack of commitment?

AR: Graduate degrees just give me more information on a student’s academic potential. For example, if I have an applicant from a school I don’t know much about – and therefore I’m not sure how challenging the curriculum is – a great graduate record can help me be more confident that that student can handle YLS-level work. Conversely, a student who does really well in undergrad but has an average graduate record might make me wonder whether this person kind of coasted on easy classes as an undergrad and may not be prepared for more abstract thinking and discussion.

As for unfinished degrees, yes, they can be a red flag, and it’s something that applicants should address in their personal statement or an addendum. Generally, I am less skeptical of someone who leaves a graduate program within a year – I can see how you might think it’s what you want to do as an undergrad and then you get there, and it’s not what you expected – because that kind of person strikes me as someone who is more in tune with what they want (or don’t want) and can recognize it quickly. I am more wary of students who go through several years of a grad program, then decide to switch gears…I wonder if the person is kind of lost about what to do and is going to law school as a way out.

TLS: Many TLS readers are interested in the transfer process at Yale. While there is obviously no "typical" profile of an ideal Yale transfer applicant, what are some tendencies that a successful transfer applicant is likely to possess?

AR: Our transfer process is much more straightforward than our regular admissions process in that it is centralized and focuses heavily on first year grades and law school recommendations. Generally, transfer applicants to whom we offer admission are in the top 1-10% of their law school class and have very strong, detailed recommendations from their first year professors.

TLS: How significant is it that a transfer applicant would have initially been a “competitive” Yale applicant at a 0L? Does Yale accept transfer applicants who wouldn’t have otherwise been “in the running” originally?

AR: Generally, the competitiveness of a transfer applicant as a 0L is not a big factor in transfer admissions. This is primarily true for the LSAT: a low LSAT score may have disadvantaged an applicant as a 0L. But since the LSAT is a predictor of law school grades, and in the case of transfer we have the actual grades, we don’t need to rely on the LSAT as a proxy. We definitely admit students as transfers who would not have been in the most competitive subset as 0Ls.

TLS: For better or worse, the U.S. News rankings have a significant effect on students’ perceptions of different law schools. Are these rankings even on your radar, considering Yale’s utter domination of all other schools regardless of the metrics employed by any given ranking system? (Well, almost any rankings system…)

AR: No. It’s nice when anyone says we’re #1, but we don’t try to manipulate the admissions system to accord with some magazine’s formula. We just admit the best students in our applicant pool each year, and then let the chips fall where they may.

TLS: I know many applicants would love if you could share some light on the infamous 250 word essay. Are there any topics that applicants should avoid? How do you suggest students approach the brainstorming process?

AR:”Most students really do well on the 250 word essay. I have some tips on my blog on this topic, but I would just emphasize here that please, for the love of God, do not write poetry for your 250. Or for any other part of your application, for that matter. Really. Don’t.

Academics

TLS: Yale Law School is known for its incredibly low student-to-professor ratio. How do you think small classes help students develop intellectually and prepare for life after law school?

AR: Well, small classes foster more (and deeper) dialogue, which I think helps students master a subject better. Students in smaller classes get more one-on-one interaction with professors, which in addition to helping them refine their ideas, gives them an opportunity to have very personalized references. All of these things benefit students in their professional careers.

TLS: Why might a student pursue a joint degree at YLS? Applicants have often been warned that obtaining a joint degree can actually diminish job prospects, as it gives the student a specialization that might turn off prospective employers. Do you think this is true?

AR: Hmm. I’m not aware that a joint degree can diminish job prospects, unless you’re talking about someone who takes several years after law school to finish a dissertation or something – that might be a turn off to law firms, who really want to take students coming out of school. But usually people who write dissertations end up in law teaching anyway. So no, I don’t think a joint degree can harm a student, at least I haven’t seen this happening at Yale.

But I do think that students increasingly want to do joint degrees, and sometimes I question why they are doing them. Certain degrees make sense to me – a joint JD/MBA, for example. Others – like a joint JD/PhD in Math – make less sense to me. It’s important for students to realize that you don’t need to accumulate degrees on your resume. Doing so without a real purpose can be very costly both in terms of time and money (and can make you look unfocused). Especially at a place like Yale, where you have tremendous flexibility to take courses at any school or department in the University, and thereby get a truly interdisciplinary education, joint degrees may not even be necessary. Your J.D. will go a long way on its own.

TLS: Yale Law School has nine different journals (according to this page). How do you think the school’s journals help shape the academic life on campus? Do students find that working on one of the journals is a big part of the “Yale experience”? How difficult is it for a student to become a member of the Yale Law Journal or any of the other journals?

AR: The journals are one part, but not the defining part, of the academic life at the Law School. For students interested in academia, or in what goes into publishing legal scholarship, they are great. Except for the Yale Law Journal, all of our journals are non-selective so students can just walk on. But a lot of students aren’t interested in academia and legal scholarship, so there are tons of other ways to explore academic interests, like reading groups, student organizations, and the Law School’s centers and programs.

TLS: Is the Yale Law Journal significantly harder to get accepted to than the other journals on campus? How often do transfer applicants make it onto the Law Journal?

AR: The Yale Law Journal is the only selective Journal we have. Since Yale doesn’t have grades, it is not a “grade on” system. Basically rising second year students take a blind-graded Bluebook (editing) exam, and then submit a writing exercise. Approximately 60 students a year are selected for the Journal.

Keep in mind that since membership on the Journal is not linked to grades or class rank, it does not have the same significance as it does at other law schools. Many students self-select out of trying out for the Journal, either because they’re not interested or because they’re more interested in a specific subject matter covered in one of the other journals (the YLJ is general, so it covers a lot of area of law, while the other journals are focused on a particular subject, like Human Rights or Law and Technology). Students who elect not to be on the Yale Law Journal, or any law journal, can still get great jobs and clerkships. So Yale really allows students to think about whether they want to work on a journal, rather than implicitly forcing students to follow a rigid path.

TLS: Some critics claim (and thus, some applicants wonder) that Yale’s curriculum may be too theoretical and doesn’t have enough “hands-on” practical teaching. What would you say to these claims? Are these critics just jealous?

I’ve addressed this in my blog, but I’ll just reiterate that we have the greatest access to clinics – which offer the most practical experience you can get – of any law school. This is because we open our clinics to 1Ls, and they can appear in court in their first year as well. So it is not unusual for a student to have had real courtroom experience by the end of their first year, which is not typical anywhere else. About 80% of our students participate in a clinic before they graduate, so the majority of Yale graduates have worked on real legal cases (as in drafting motions and briefs and arguing them themselves, not writing memos for other attorneys) in some capacity by the time they graduate, which again is pretty atypical.

I don’t think critics are jealous, just that they are misinformed. Keep in mind that this model is so different from most law schools that it’s hard to wrap your mind around it if you didn’t actually experience it yourself. I mean, we had two second year students brief and argue a case before the Connecticut State Supreme Court – and last spring the decision came down and they won. These students have changed the constitutional meaning of the state right to education, which will significantly impact children all across the state. This kind of student-led litigation just doesn’t happen at most law schools.

Critics may also be misled by a red herring, which is Yale’s representation in legal academia. Yale graduates are disproportionately represented on law school faculties, particularly at the top schools. So people conclude that all we do is churn out law professors. We are very proud of our tradition of producing legal academics, but you have to look at this achievement in context. Roughly 13% of each graduating class is in academia five years after graduation. That is a lot more than any other law school. But, that still leaves over 80% who are practicing “real” law. The overwhelming majority of Yale Law School graduates are practicing attorneys, usually at top law firms, federal government agencies, and major non-profit organizations. So the idea that Yale doesn’t teach students to practice is just flat-out wrong.

Student Life at Yale

TLS: Although New Haven isn’t a huge city by any means, it seems to have a great selection of different restaurants and activities for students. Do you think students are generally satisfied with the night life and general social atmosphere at Yale? Do students ever complain about being bored? Do they even have time to be bored?

AR: I think students are generally happy in New Haven. There are a lot of social outlets, including restaurants, theater, and bars. Most students don’t complain about being bored because usually they are very involved with law school-related activities.

TLS: What are some of the more popular student organizations on campus? Do students generally find time to join one or two clubs during their first year at YLS?

AR: I really can’t name one or two clubs that are most popular – the great thing about Yale is that students are really free to explore their own interests, so you won’t find any two law students doing the same mix of things. It really depends on the student. I would say that most students do join at least one or two student organizations during their first year.

TLS: What would you say students enjoy most about being at Yale? Conversely, what are some of the more common complaints from YLS students?

AR: The refrain heard most from YLS students is that they love their classmates. Students here become very close to one another, especially within a class, and really rely on their classmates for academic, social, and professional support. These bonds really stay with you forever – I am approaching my tenth reunion for my law school class, and I feel as connected to my classmates now as I did then, and we still help each other out whenever we can.

I don’t know if there are any major complaints from students. Sometimes students want a particular subject-area gap to be filled, which is harder at a school like Yale because we have a much smaller faculty than most schools. Fortunately, our independent writing requirements, student-led reading groups, and opportunities to take classes elsewhere in the University help to compensate for any gaps that do exist.

TLS: For that matter, what would be your chief criticism of Yale Law, and what is being done to address this concern?

AR: I honestly don’t have any criticisms. Sure, we can always improve in some areas, just as any law school, and we are always striving to do so. But overall, I don’t think you can get a better law school experience than at Yale. As an alumna, I only have regrets about courses or clinics I didn’t take when I was a student (usually because they weren’t available when I was here). I really envy the opportunities available to the incoming students nowadays.

TLS: What advice can you share about keeping a good work / life balance in law school and in the legal profession? And on a more personal note – how did you enjoy your time in the F.B.I.? Would you recommend the agency as a career path for upcoming J.D.’s?

AR: My advice to staying balanced in law school is to constantly reflect on what it is that you want to do. Don’t conform for the sake of conforming – whether it’s your choice of summer job, the decision to do a journal or clerk, or what you do after graduation. If you go off the beaten path, people may react poorly but that’s because the legal profession is one where often people are looking for others to validate their own choices. When you follow your heart, and do something different, your peers may find it threatening.

I went off the beaten path by joining the FBI. I will say that not a single one of my Yale Law School classmates blinked an eye or offered anything less than their full support. Yale is unique because the level of intellectual freedom it offers means that there really is no set path for people to follow, so no one feels threatened when you choose to do your own thing. This is atypical, though, of most law schools, and if you’re not careful, you may end up doing something you really don’t love to do. And that can lead to a lot of unhappiness.

Employment

TLS: If any school is in the position to weather the recent economic downturn, it’s Yale. How are job prospects looking for current students? Was there a noticeable decrease in employment opportunities; if so, what is the school doing to address these shifts in the job market? Can second year students still generally find law firm employment via OCI?

AR: We are fortunate that while the economic climate affected Yale students, it did so to a much lesser degree than at other schools. So, instead of having eight law firm summer offers, students might have had to choose from three. We’re lucky that even as they slim down, employers are very eager to hire Yale students. Further, since we are small and (as I noted above) students follow unique paths, they usually aren’t competing against each other for the same job opportunities. This means that generally speaking, if there’s an opportunity available, Yale students are in a very good position to get it.

TLS: Are there any particular types of job that YLS students tend to gravitate towards during their 1L and 2L summers?

AR: Most 1L students (about 80%) take advantage of our generous Summer Public Interest Fellowships (SPIF) and work in public interest jobs – generally federal government and nonprofits – for their summer job.

The same percentage of 2L students will go through OCI their second summer and work at one or two law firms. However, a small number of 2L students will get SPIF funding to work in a public interest job again.

TLS: Do you think transfer students are disadvantaged at all when it comes time to find employment? How about those with lofty goals of academia or competitive clerkships – will a year at a previous institution serve as a blemish on their resume?

AR: I don’t think transfer students fare any differently than regular Yale students in finding jobs. Since we take people who performed extremely well at their 1L law schools, they usually have a bunch of distinctions from that law school on their resume, which only boosts their application. Former transfer students include attorney David Boies – who argued Bush v. Gore and has a very high-profile practice in D.C. – and current Yale Law professor Claire Priest, so I think transfer students at Yale can confidently set and meet very high goals for themselves.

TLS: Yale Law School is famous for producing academics; according to data compiled by Larry Solum and Brian Leiter, the school has a much higher placement rate than even Harvard and Stanford. Why do you think Yale is so excellent at creating law professors?

AR: For one thing, we have a very low student-faculty ratio, about 7-1. That means that students interact with faculty one-on-one on a regular basis. This facilitates the exchange of ideas, and also gives students the opportunity to see the life and mind of a law teacher up close…which might give them insight into a career option they never considered before.

Second, we have two significant writing requirements, each of which is done with close supervision of a faculty member. Again, this allows for a student to refine his or her idea and produce a substantial piece of legal scholarship before s/he graduates. Many students publish their work in a legal journal by graduation as well. This gives them a practical insight into what would go into becoming a law teacher and also a leg up in the actual job market, since having published work is essential on this track.

Finally, we offer tons of support to students interested in law teaching. From our Law Teaching Series for current law students to our Moot Camp for students entering or already on the job market, Yale really takes a proactive role in helping to place students in academia. That’s why we not only place more students overall (percentage-wise), but we place them in mostly top law schools.

Parting Words

TLS: Dean Rangappa, thank you for taking the time to answer a few questions about Yale Law School. Do you have any parting words of wisdom for applicants next cycle?

AR: Relax! The law school admissions process is extremely stressful, but while it seems huge, there are also more important things in life. Most applicants I see are students who, even if they don’t get into Yale, will get into very fine law schools. Stay confident in this fact, and take the time to enjoy what you are doing now – whether it is savoring the last year of college (trust me, a decade from now you will give anything to be able to have just one day of it back) or getting everything you can out of the job you are working in before you enter the fast-paced world of law school. Everything will work out fine in the end.







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