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Interview with Richard Geiger, Associate Dean and Dean of Admissions for Cornell Law School
Published September 2008
How would you describe the ideal candidate for Cornell Law School?
Our ideal candidate should be someone who revels in ideas, but who also connects those ideas to day-to-day realities. We look for people who are active learners and who engage the world around them; people who not only create an agenda, but then do everything they can to make it happen; people who understand or are open to the notion that reasonable people sometimes may disagree. These traits are good proxies for the intellectual and interpersonal tools that define successful law students and leading members of the legal profession.
How would you describe the candidate for whom Cornell Law School is the ideal law school?
Cornell is perfect for someone who values the collegiality and ready faculty access of a small law school, combined with the resources and diversity of a major research university.
What does the admissions process of Cornell Law consist of, and how is an application rated?
We have always used what some schools now call “full-file review”. This means that every part of the application is reviewed and taken into consideration during our selection process. This is nothing new to us. We have always done it because our general goal is to find students who will thrive both academically and as individuals in our community. Because law school applicants come from all walks of life and have very different academic and personal backgrounds, to do anything else would not give us the background we need to make good decisions.
Does Cornell Law have an approximate hierarchy on what is most valuable for admissions: GPA, LSAT, etc?
It’s never as simple as a number and it’s different in different situations. For example, if someone has already shown that they are a great student through their work in a rigorous academic setting, the LSAT will be less important to us. On the other hand, if someone wasn’t the greatest student when they went to college ten years ago, we’ll be more interested in other indicia of probable academic success, like success in a job, a major accomplishment, or a high-end LSAT. We’re basically looking at everything that will help us predict an applicant’s ability to thrive academically and as a member of our community.
Is there any advantage to applying to the early admissions program?
The main advantage is that if an applicant gets into their dream school, they can instantly stop worrying and get on with the logistics of attendance. Unlike in the undergraduate situation, there is no selection edge that goes along with applying early decision/admission.
Many schools have adopted the policy of considering an applicant’s highest LSAT score when rating his or her application. What is Cornell’s view on multiple LSAT scores?
The American Bar Association, as part of its accreditation function, now asks law schools to use the highest LSAT score when computing their entering class LSAT median (and 25th/75th percentiles). This doesn’t affect how we review files, it only affects how we report to the ABA. If a person has taken the test multiple times, we look at all the scores and try to assess which is the most representative. If an applicant gives us reason to think a particular score is unreliable, we will take that into account. Remember, an LSAT score (despite appearances) is not some precise radar-like measure of an applicant’s ability to succeed in law school. It’s actually fairly mushy. Score differences of as much as 5-6 points don’t really make a big difference in the predictive validity of the test for any given individual.
How much will an upward grade trend positively influence the likelihood of admissions?
(Laughing): a positive trend is always better than a negative one. But seriously, (and I know you may be tired of hearing this) it depends. We need to know what’s behind the trend. Was it because the applicant started taking easier or fewer classes? Was it because the applicant changed schools? Etc. Clearly if it reflects harder work, more focus, more maturity, or more facility, we’re going to view that in a positive way.
In what situations should an applicant include an addendum to explain periods of sub-par academic performance?
I’d recommend including one for any period of obvious underperformance that can be explained by some external factor, like sickness or some other personal circumstance.
Applicants often wonder whether poor grades in their last semester after an early offer of admission could lead to the revoking of the offer. Can you shed some light on this matter?
We wouldn’t do that unless it involved an issue of academic integrity, like an F received because of plagiarism. In cases where we need more evidence of an ability to succeed academically or where the applicant is making the case for giving positive weight to a strong upward trend, we’ll sometimes wait on a decision until we receive more up-to-date grades. So applicants who haven’t received a decision should always provide grade updates as they become available.
Some undergraduate institutions or majors seem to be known for inflating or deflating their students’ grades. Is this possible inflation or deflation taken into consideration by the admissions committee?
It’s hard to do this in a formal way. The Law School Admission Council gives us information that allows us to see a particular institution’s grading curve for graduates who have applied to law school, so we can usually get a rough imputed institutional “class rank” for applicants. However, when it comes to particular majors, we usually don’t get much hard and reliable information, unless it’s from a department whose grading curve is so out of line with the rest of the institution that its graduates would otherwise be disadvantaged.
How do you evaluate the transcripts of applicants from lesser-known or lower-tier undergraduate programs? Perhaps a weighting system and/or putting more weight upon the LSAT?
We take every applicant on his or her own terms. Our sense is that there are strong students everywhere and our job is to identify them. As you can probably tell from my answers to the other questions, we strongly resist formulaic approaches to this kind of issue because they don’t account for the massive number of variables that can be involved in evaluating an applicant’s potential.
The personal statement seems to be the part of the application that a student can most independently influence. Can you offer students any advice regarding writing the personal statement?
I always advise students to treat the personal statement as if they were being offered a half-hour interview. You aren’t going to be able to cover everything, so pick something about yourself that you would want the interviewer to remember and that isn’t obvious from some other part of your application. Also, resist the urge to resort to contrivances that you think will help you stand out from the crowd. For example, don’t write your personal statement in rhyming couplets, or present yourself as a restaurant menu. You never want to make the reader of your application decide whether to admit you in spite of your personal statement.
How do you view personal statements that briefly mention Cornell Law, but could be sent to other schools with a few adjustments?
I don’t have a set view on it. If it’s a good personal statement, it will be good regardless of whether it mentions our law school. The same would be true if it’s a bad personal statement.
Could an applicant significantly improve his or her chances of admission by drafting a personal statement specifically for Cornell?
I don’t think so. A specific connection with our law school is not really what we’re after. We’re looking to get to know more about the person who’s applying so we can make an informed decision about his or her potential.
What is the admission committee’s view on diversity statements?
We have offered the option for many, many years. Remember, we’ve always been a so-called “full-file-review” school and are, within reason, looking at the fullest possible range of information in making our decisions.
Letters of Recommendation:
Applicants often have difficulty choosing and approaching potential recommenders. Can you offer some general advice regarding letters of recommendation?
If you are still in school or are a recent graduate, get letters from teachers who know your work the best. Give them a copy of your resume, and maybe even of your transcript. They often don’t have the full context of your situation. Also be sure to give them plenty of time. If you’ve been out of school for awhile and recommendations from teachers are a challenge, try to get recommendations for people who know your work well enough to be able to relate it to your odds of success in a rigorous academic environment.
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?
We definitely see these every year. If a recommender tells you they can’t write you a recommendation, or would prefer not to, don’t insist!!! You really wouldn’t believe what can happen.
International Law Program and Joint Degree:
Cornell puts a lot of emphasis on the strength of their international law program and also the joint J.D. and Master en Droit. What is the acceptance rate of Cornell Law School students who apply for this program and what unique opportunities are available to them?
This unique program will receive around 100 applications from U.S. applicants in a typical year. We’re able to admit 2-4, depending on the year. Acceptance requires not only a strong academic and personal background, but also fluency in French. This is because after two years at Cornell, participants in this program spend the next two years at the University of Paris I (Pantheon-Sorbonne) in French law classes. At the conclusion of the degree, participants have the academic credentials necessary to become members of the Bar in both the U.S. and in France. This is just one of the very large number of opportunities to study overseas offered by our international legal studies program.
Because Cornell Law School stresses their strength in international law, does the Cornell admissions process taken into account whether an applicant says he or she wants to do international law when applying?
It’s true that we’re known for our strength in international legal studies and comparative law, but we’re also known for the richness and breadth of our overall curriculum. Whether or not an applicant is interested in international law, we still use the same standards that we apply to every applicant.
What are the advantage and disadvantages to being approximately 200 miles from the major legal center in the country?
The good thing is that we’re just a 4 hour drive from NYC. The bad thing is that we’re a 4 hour drive from NYC. We have a lot of students who consider themselves “city people” and are worried about what it will be like in Ithaca. I can assure you that they have no problem adjusting. Remember, Cornell University has 19,000 students, a very large number of whom are graduate and professional students from around the world. In that kind of environment, there is always something to do and/or a group you can relate to. More importantly, our “city people” graduates routinely end up telling us that since law is essentially an urban profession, they really appreciate the opportunity they’ve had to spend several years enjoying Ithaca’s non-urban lifestyle before re-engaging urban life as a lawyer.
Given Ithaca’s reputation for being somewhat isolated and quiet, what does the law school do to ensure that the students have activities to participate in outside of the realm of law?
I addressed the the size and diversity of Cornell University in a previous answer. This definitely spills over to the city of Ithaca, which is constantly rated as one of the most desirable and interesting small cities in the country. So, the law school doesn’t have to do a lot to ensure that students have a life outside the walls of the law school. It happens naturally because the opportunities are there and because we admit students who will definitely take advantage of those opportunities.
The law school ranking by US News:
Since 1996, US News has ranked the Cornell Law School Program from as low as thirteenth to as high as tied for tenth with the latest ranking being twelfth in the nation (tied with Duke University). What is your opinion of the US News ranking of law schools in general and the ranking of Cornell Law School in particular? Have rankings influenced admissions decisions as a whole to become more numbers focused?
I try to think of the U.S. News rankings much like I think of the LSAT score. It’s ok as a rough guide, but unfortunately, it is scored in such a way that it is viewed by applicants and others as if it had scalpel-like precision. When an applicant chooses a law school based on the fact that it is ranked one or two spots above another school that would better fit their needs, that choice is a bad thing. The U.S. News ranking is simply not that precise. I was the Dean of Admissions here before U.S. News started doing rankings, and I definitely remember feeling more flexibility to take academic risks on promising applicants who, for example, had found themselves late in life or who hadn’t had all the advantages that most of our applicants have had. The U.S. News rankings have changed that somewhat. Unfortunately, what they have influenced much more are educational decisions being made by the academic leaders of some law schools. Many Deans are now fairly unabashed about “gaming” the rankings through actions that are rankings-driven at best and ethically bankrupt at worst.
Many applicants view the waitlist as dreaded territory. At Cornell, how likely is it that a waitlist spot will turn into an offer of admission?
One thing about our waiting list that is different from most is that we offer interviews to everyone on the list. This gives us a real close-up view of the people on the list and this enriches our decision-making. For the last several years, our yield on initial offers has been very strong, which hasn’t left much room for applicants on our waiting list. This isn’t something we try to make happen, but sometimes it does. The anecdotal evidence at Cornell is that students who come in off the waiting list often do very well.
How does Cornell view letters of continued interest (LOCI) that are sent to the admissions committee by applicants on the waitlist?
We prefer applicants who stay active in the process. If we don’t hear from someone after they’ve been placed on our waiting list, we make an assumption that they’ve decided to attend elsewhere.
What do you look for in transfer students? Is academic success in the first year of law school the only important factor?
First year academic success and a couple of strong recommendations are the main factors. But, we’re also interested in other aspects of the applicant’s background that will make him or her a valuable member of the community.
As you probably know, many law school applicants are members of various online-communities that are dedicated to the law school admissions experience. There are plenty of rumors on these forums, including that of TLS, about admissions officers monitoring the activity of applicants on the forums. Can you shed any light on this matter?
I think admissions officers check out the chat rooms. My sense is that it’s not so much to monitor particular applicants (the participants are virtually always anonymous, right?) but to gather intelligence and to make sure that false or misleading information is being handled appropriately.
Do you have any general advice to offer to TLS site readers regarding success when applying to law school and/or while in law school?
First, before attending, take whatever time you need to make sure that law is the right choice for you. If that means taking some time to do something else, do it. Law school will still be there when you’re ready. The last thing you want to do is start law school and then spend the first few weeks second-guessing your decision. Second, resist the gimmicky stuff you hear from some law schools about how they are different from everyone else. If they really are as different as they claim, that’s probably not a good thing for their students’ long-term status in the profession. Third, try to stay true to the main reasons you decided to pursue a legal education in the first place. In the whirlwind environment of law school, it’s pretty easy to get caught up in group-think and to lose sight of your main motivations. Sometimes this happens consciously, which is fine. But if it happens unconsciously, you may end up feeling unfulfilled.
Note: TLS also has an exclusive profile of Cornell Law School.
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