Interview with Faye Shealy, Associate Dean of Admissions at William & Mary Law School

Published October 2009

Top-law-school.com appreciates Faye Shealy, Associate Dean of Admissions at William & Mary Law School, 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?

All of the information used to complete the application is used in the review and decision process. Factors used in making decisions regarding admission include: (1) the applicant’s general academic ability based upon a careful examination of the undergraduate (and graduate, if any) transcript, including factors such as the grade-point average, the quality of the school attended, the difficulty of the major or department in which the degree was earned, the hours spent on outside employment or other time-consuming extracurricular activities, and the length of time elapsed since graduation; (2) the applicant’s capacity for the academic study of law based largely upon the LSAT score and writing sample; and (3) other relevant personal qualities and characteristics of the applicant, including factors such as the location of the applicant’s permanent residence, the applicant’s career goals, ethnic status, cultural, economic, and educational background and experiences, moral character, leadership qualities, commitment to community service, ability to undertake independent and creative research, and communication skills. The applicant should discuss his or her own characteristics and qualities in the personal statement required as part of the admission process and should seek to have those persons writing letters of recommendation discuss such factors. There is no mathematical rating. We have a whole file review process resulting in subjective evaluations.

TLS: How do you view applications for Virginia residents? Do Virginia residents receive a boost over out-of-state applicants?

Location of the applicant’s permanent residence is one of the many factors considered. Given our lower in-state tuition, we tend to have a higher yield among Virginia admittees than among those from out-of-state.

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.)?

No mathematical formula is applied. The reasons why some candidates are selected over others and the weight that appears associated with the factors varies from application to application. Some candidates find success in the admission process because of outstanding public or military service, some have impressive experience with a record of success in the workplace, others may have been selected from a group with similar UGPA and LSAT because they were president of their student body or received national recognition for achievement in debate or a community project. The reasons for selection are thus numerous and intertwined. We remain mindful that law school is an academic environment and prior performance in an academic setting is relevant and important.

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 William & Mary Law School?

Sure. The decision to go to law school should be made for the individual. Do not go because of family pressures or expectations or to fulfill the dreams of others. While the decision to go to law school is a personal one, attending will be faciliated by support from family and friends. Do be thoughtful of those you expect to support your schedule and plans. Have realistic expectations and know what you are getting into. Law school is very intensive and three years of your life. Prepare for the LSAT adequately. If you are interested in spending three years in law school, invest the time to prepare for the LSAT. It is true that candidates may retake the test. However, poor performance on an initial test is a confidence breaker for many and may create a barrier for maximum success. Take each part of the application process seriously. The competition will be putting their best foot forward each step of the way. So should you.

We do not recommend any particular readings for admitted students. There are quite a number of books that attempt to prepare students for their first year of law school; however, we cannot gauge their utility. Based on our experience, we do not think that incoming students need to do any advance studying for law school. Seek opportunities to meet with attorneys and perhaps “shadow” them to learn about the daily activities of an attorney.

TLS: What do you consider to be the most important factors an admitted applicant should examine when choosing which law school to attend?

The “right” law school for each applicant is an individual choice and is dependent upon what is important for that individual. There is no one factor or short list applicable to everyone. The curriculum offerings and related programs will be a factor for the few individuals with very narrow and defined legal interests. Geography will be a factor for those with families or responsibilities in a specific area. Total cost (tuition plus living/travel expenses) should be an important factor for students without significant funds. For most, the “right” law school will offer the caliber of degree they seek from an appealing institution with an experience that clicks for them in terms of comfort level – where they believe they will be happy and most productive and obtain the best education they can receive with their highest performance. Visiting the schools will be helpful in making the “right” and “best” decision for the individual student. Law school is a significant investment and three years on one’s life – choose wisely!

TLS: How does William & Mary view multiple LSAT scores?

William & Mary uses the high LSAT for multiple test-takers when computing class medians, etc. as directed by the ABA. We review and consider everything in the applicant file and that includes each individual score.

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?

Addendums are helpful in addressing any deficiencies and aberrations in academic performance and test results. Statements on reasons the candidate chose to retake the LSAT and their view of the test results can be helpful.

Financial Aid

TLS: What percentage of students receives scholarships of any kind and what methodology determines to whom scholarships are awarded?

William & Mary offers a range of merit and need-based scholarships. For the 2009-10 academic year, 67 percent of the Law School student body received some form of financial assistance. Academic achievement is a primary consideration along with the many other factors used in our admission selection process. Donor criteria are used in awarding endowed scholarship funds. We have prior editor-in-chiefs of the William & Mary Law Review who created a scholarship to be awarded each year to the editor-in-chief of that scholarly publication. We have alumni who created a scholarship for students raising a family while in law school, for a student with military service, and other special criteria.

TLS: Will the current state of the economy affect the distribution of merit scholarships?

We anticipate awarding more financial aid to students entering in fall 2010 than we did in fall 2009. We will use the same broad measures of merit to determine the identity of recipients and the size of awards.

Applying Early

TLS: Do applicants, especially those with numbers that fall below William & Mary’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?

The application date is not a criterion. However, early applications facilitate the flow of work in the admission office and may result in an earlier decision. An A+ effort for each part of the process is needed when applying to top law schools. Competing applicants are putting their best foot forward. This is not a time to be modest. Admission officers need to know all the strengths the applicant can bring to the school and it behooves you to be detailed and proactive. Highlight your strengths and provide evidence that you should be one of those selected for success in law school and contributions in the legal workforce. You can always add to your file while you are awaiting your decision. An additional semester’s grades, an additional recommendation, an additional honor, etc. will always be considered.

Personal Statements

TLS: Do you have any general advice regarding personal statements for applicants who want to maximize their chances?

Poor writing skills, grammar, spelling and typographical errors affect the review of one’s personal statement. For the reviewer, it is difficult to get beyond these deficiencies when evaluating an application for admission to a professional school. Remember that applicants have multiple proofreading opportunities prior to submission of their personal statement and writing samples. It is necessary to take time to identify what you wish to communicate in your personal statement and it is critical to focus on format and structure in addition to content. Develop your ideas or theme well and do not try to be something or someone you are not. This is not the place to try to be funny or a poet unless you are naturally so.

TLS: Could an applicant significantly improve his or her chances of admission by drafting a personal statement specifically for William & Mary, as opposed to a general personal statement that briefly mentions William & Mary, if at all?

Yes and many do! In fact, we have a question in our application that encourages responses specific to William & Mary that is in addition to the personal statement. All law schools seek explanations of why their law school is of special interest to an applicant. Talk about programs that interest you and how you can contribute to those programs.

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?

Unfortunately, some applicants fail to take the personal statement seriously and submit poor efforts. A few candidates make the mistake of using the personal statement to repeat information located in other parts of the application. A few statements are obviously insincere or contain false information. Some candidates are “creative”. Over the years I have received personal statements in the form of music, poetry, obituaries, collages and puzzles. My advice is not to do anything in the application process for admission to professional schools that should not be done in the application process for professional employment.

Letters of Recommendation

TLS: Applicants often have difficulty choosing and approaching potential recommenders. Can you offer some general advice regarding letters of recommendation?

I encourage young individuals to make a goal of maintaining relationships with at least two individuals throughout their adult life that can serve as recommenders. Admission officers tend to give greater weight to individuals like professors who have some knowledge of an applicant’s academic skills and potential. Make personal contact when in need of a reference or letter of recommendation and communicate the exact purpose, contact/address and date needed. Assist the recommender in providing a substantive recommendation by providing an updated copy of your resume and transcript(s). Be sure to thank recommenders for providing an important favor.

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?

Applicants occasionally make the mistake of thinking the title of the person making the recommendation is more important than the contact. General letters from individuals that do not know the candidate or do not take the time to write meaningful and substantive letters are of little value.

Undergraduate & Graduate Education

TLS: How much will an upward grade trend positively influence the likelihood of admission?

Upward grade trends are the norm and not the exception. The transcript review at William & Mary focuses more on the course selection and rigorousness of the curriculum. A semester or year of downward performance is reason for an addendum addressing poor performance.

TLS: Do you consider the relative prestige or rank of an applicant’s undergraduate institution?

Yes. The school attended, the major and the academic transcript are important parts of the application review.

TLS: Do you consider the relative difficulty of an applicant’s undergraduate major?

Yes. The relative difficulty of the major is a factor. We seek diversity of undergraduate schools and majors and would not benefit from a class of students from just a handful of institutions or a class that have all studied in one major.

TLS: How do you view graduate degrees?

We value graduate work. Unless the candidate has performed poorly, a graduate degree is a plus. However, the majority of our students is admitted and enrolls in law school without graduate degrees. Seven percent of the 2009 entering class had earned master’s degrees in accounting, archival management & library science, art history, business administration, humanities, history, management, music theory, philosophy, psychology, public international law, sound design and special education. One member also has earned a PhD. in philosophy.

TLS: Do you take graduate GPA into consideration?

Yes and the expectations are high. It is unusual to see grades other than As and Bs on graduate transcripts. Unlike undergraduate GPAs, where we obtain a great deal of information from the LSAC about the mean of the individual’s school and the patterns over the student’s academic career versus the overall pattern, we do not receive that information at the graduate level.

The Waitlist

TLS: What is the typical size of the William & Mary waitlist, and how deep do you usually go into the waitlist to admit students?

There is no typical number of applicants on the waitlist. The number is based on the strength of the applicant pool. The total number should not discourage those who find themselves on the waitlist. We conduct a second review of all waitlist files so every applicant has a chance of being considered again for admission. Consequently, we look for applicants who have expressed continued interest and have supplemented their files to reflect their particular desire to attend William & Mary Law School.

TLS: Once on the waitlist are there any steps one can take to increase their chances of getting off the waitlist?

Yes! Be sure to respond to our inquiries asking if you wish to remain on the waitlist. Take the opportunity to advise us of your continued interest and where William & Mary stands on your priority list. Supplement your file to keep it up-to-date and strengthen it with additional letters of recommendation, your final transcript if we don’t have one already, additional awards or new recognition that you have received. Summer work experience and/or activities may also be helpful. Make sure your file is as strong and up-to-date as possible.
 
Transfer Students

TLS: How many transfer applications does William & Mary Law School typically receive, and what percentage are offered admission?

Over the last three years, William & Mary Law School received approximately 100 applications for transfer admission. We have admitted, on average, about 10 percent of these students.

TLS: What are the main factors taken into consideration in reviewing a transfer application?

Academic performance during their first-year of law school is a very important factor. The other information required to complete the transfer application is also used in making transfer admission decisions.

The USNWR Rankings

TLS: What is your opinion of the US News ranking of law schools in general and the ranking of William & Mary Law School in particular? Have rankings influenced admissions decisions as a whole to become more numbers focused?

The US News rankings have a number of well-known weaknesses, e.g. that those making the peer and judge/lawyer assessments do not have sufficient knowledge about most law schools, or the multiple problems with measuring student quality in only two dimensions (median LSAT and UGPA). Despite these (and other) problems, it does contain useful information. We do worry that many applicants seem to base their decision solely on schools’ ranks, and might ignore a marked personal preference for Law School B simply because Law School A has a marginally higher rank.

William & Mary Law School Distinctions

TLS: Can you describe the general culture of William & Mary Law School?

William & Mary has balance. Law school inherently brings pressure and demands different from other jobs or most educational experiences. W&M provides an environment where being a law student can both succeed and have fun. The experience is competitive without being cutthroat. Students know that their educational experience is enriched by those around them but what’s remarkable, especially in the context of law school, is the emphasis on collaboration. Professors and classmates motivate students and they work hard; however, they are also quite willing to help each other as needed. There may be a certain degree of cultural taboo at W&M over being too aggressive or competitive with peers. This turns the pressure down significantly and makes our students’ experience generally much more pleasant than at a typical law school. Students are competitive to be sure, but most of that competition is internal. The culture here emphasizes working hard, doing your best and getting the most out of your education, but not at the expense of others. Everyone knows that everyone else is working hard, but it’s unspoken. Students manage to have a lot of fun as well. There is always something going on and everyone is always invited.

TLS: What do you feel students enjoy most about William & Mary Law School?

The answer varies depending on the student, but the most common answers are collegial atmosphere, effective and caring professors, strong Office of Career Services and excellent study space and resources. It may sound trite, but responses I have received from new students in response to this question are that everyone at William & Mary Law School, from the upperclassmen to professors to the administration to the library staff is unbelievably helpful. Many students admit weighing options between higher ranked schools and were swayed towards W&M because unlike the law school stereotype, everyone wants you to succeed and thrive here. It is a highly academic environment, without the intense stress that is often associated with law school.

TLS: What is the chief critique that current students would have about the law school and what is being done to address this concern?

The economic downturn has made our students much more conscious of the cost of their legal education and, relatedly, the size of the debt loan that they will face after graduating. The fact that our tuition is low relative to most comparable law schools, however, makes this less of an issue at William & Mary than it is elsewhere. That said, we understand the impact of the economy on our students, and we plan to increase our financial aid budget in 2010-11.

TLS: Why should an applicant choose William & Mary over other top law schools such as UVA School of Law and Washington & Lee University School of Law? What makes William & Mary attractive to a candidate that wishes to get into biglaw?

William & Mary offers an excellent (some say equal or superior) education at a much lower cost. The academics and intellectual rigor are still top-notch but the quality of life and community is significantly better. We honestly believe that most law students will have a more productive and enjoyable law school experience in a small town instead of a big city. Not only is being in a small town very conducive to law school life, but it also means that the students rely on each other more than at larger schools or cities. Classmates become support networks, social network and – your community. People that decide to come are here because they want the top academic environment within a very special community. The practical advantages of William & Mary Law include a grounding in the practical skills that first-year associates at a big firm need to obtain and keep their jobs, a strong alumni network and an established Career Services Office with connections at big firms all over the country.

General Advice

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 William & Mary Law School?

Think!

Start building your case for law school in your mind and in your life as early as possible. Build a record of involvement. Volunteer service, employment, internships are helpful evidence of well-rounded experiences and preparation for legal education and the legal profession. Of course, remember that law school is an academic experience and that legal jobs are cerebral. Building an academic record to be proud of and investing preparation time ahead of the LSAT to perform at your highest level will be assets in the application process and in life. Good Luck!