Interview with Dean Jason Trujillo of the University of Virginia School of Law
Published July 2009
The Admissions Process
TLS: What does the admissions process consist of and how is an application rated?
Each file is read at least twice. The first reader makes a recommendation and the admissions committee reaches a decision after a second read of the application. I review every file before issuing a decision. We do not use a formal rating process.
TLS: Does UVA have an approximate hierarchy on what is most valuable for admissions: GPA, LSAT, etc?
Law school is primarily an academic enterprise, so there is no question that the LSAT and GPA are important. Between the two, it depends on the applicant. To give you an extreme example, if someone is applying for admission after being out of college for 20 years, you can be sure that we will discount GPA and will be looking more at the LSAT and work experience.
Each year we make offers to people with lower LSATs, but who have proved themselves through their academic performance. We also make offers to many people with very solid LSATs but lower GPAs for one reason or another. They might have majored in the hard sciences or engineering, they may have been a college athlete, or had to work to put themselves through school. All of these factors can contribute to a lower GPA.
Conversely, we have some applicants who have very good numbers, but do not put the care into their application that one might expect, or they may have a lukewarm letter of recommendation. Particularly with nonresident applicants, where we have nearly 33 nonresident applications for every nonresident seat in the entering class, that is going to put you on the wait list.
TLS: UVA received more applications for seats in the Class of 2012 than for any previous class. Do you expect this increase in applications to continue?
We received a record 20 percent increase in applications this year which brought us to a new high of nearly 7,900 applications. It is hard to think we could go much higher, but anything is possible.
TLS: How do you view applications from Virginia residents? Do Virginia residents receive a boost over residents of other states?
There is no particular “boost” given to residents. But residents have mathematics on their side. We receive over nine nonresident applications for every resident application – people are really shocked by this figure. Yet nonresidents get only 1.5 seats for every resident seat in the entering class – 60 percent nonresidents to 40 percent residents. I often joke that getting in as a nonresident is ridiculously difficult (for nonresidents) rather than just being plain hard (for residents).
The next follow-up question I normally receive is whether the enrolled residents have lower numerical indicators than the nonresidents who matriculate. The answer is no. The medians between the pools are not statistically distinguishable. The reason for that makes sense when you think about it. Thankfully, there are a large number of bright recent college graduates interested in law school throughout the Commonwealth, but particularly a large number who move to and work (and live) for a year or two in and around Washington, D.C. The smart ones live in Arlington or Alexandra and become residents.
TLS: UVA seems to have less of a minority student population than other similarly regarded law schools. To what do you attribute this? Does the admissions committee make an effort to recruit minority students to the law school?
Not being in a major city is a challenge in recruiting minority students. I can think of my own experience in choosing law schools some 12 years ago. I was all set to attend a law school in New York City. It was close to home for me (I was from Bergen County, NJ); all my friends were going to school in New York. I had family living in Manhattan. But I chose Virginia because I thought I could have a better quality of life in Charlottesville. The students actually seemed happy and I wanted to be a part of that. I thought as long as a law school could send me back home, it didn’t really matter what city my chosen law school was in. The best thing we can do is to demonstrate to minority students that they can find a home at Virginia Law and succeed here.
TLS: Beyond numbers, how does UVA determine who are the "best fit" applicants?
I put a lot of emphasis on letters of recommendations. You’d be surprised how many very solid applicants are wait-listed because of a letter of recommendation that gave me pause. Being brilliant is one thing, but if your recommender says you have trouble being patient with people who disagree with you, or is at best lukewarm, you are going on the wait list.
TLS: Are students who apply early in the cycle at an advantage over applicants who apply later?
Definitely. There is no question that you want to apply when no offers have been extended than when several hundred offers have been extended.
TLS: Will applicants hurt their chances of admission by taking the LSAT in February?
Yes. We did take a few students who only took the February LSAT but they were really superb. By the time the results of the February LSAT are released we might have already extended 85 percent of the offers we are going to extend.
TLS: How would you describe the ideal candidate for UVA Law? [Note: this may just be a re-phrasing of “beyond numbers, how does UVA determine who are the “best fit” applicants?]
There is no “ideal” candidate, but if I had to choose it would be someone who is very strong academically, who has contributed to the communities in which he or she has been associated, has displayed intellectual curiosity, and has performed well at the activities or jobs they’ve undertaken. I look for people who are going to add to the environment here and who I think I want wearing the Virginia brand out there as a lawyer.
TLS: How much will an upward grade trend positively influence the likelihood of admission?
That can help. It is far better than a downward trend. If you have a lower-than-average GPA, but it looks like 3.1, 3.5, 3.8, 3.9, I think that’s a good sign that we are catching someone on the upswing. On the other hand, if someone has a 3.9, 3.8, 3.5, 3.1 and does not have a good explanation, that is going to be a concern.
TLS: If an applicant has a period of sub-par grades on his or her transcript, does writing an addendum to explain these grades help?
Yes, you always want to eliminate questions in the file reader’s mind.
TLS: Are there other situations in which an addendum may be helpful?
Addenda to explain periods of time where an applicant is not in school and not working are helpful. Again, you want to eliminate negative inferences in the reader’s mind.
TLS: Do you consider the relative prestige or rank of an applicant’s undergraduate institution?
I do not look at rank or prestige at all. I do look at the LSAT College Mean for the school and the relative grade inflation at that school.
TLS: Do you consider the relative difficulty of an applicant’s undergraduate major?
We do the best we can because this is not on the LSAC Report. Engineering students typically have lowers GPAs than do liberal arts majors. But we do not have data on different majors at different schools. That is where detailed letters of recommendations are particularly helpful. If an engineering professor writes that while the overall GPA at the university is 3.4, in the School of Engineering it is a 2.9 that can put an applicant’s GPA into better perspective.
TLS: How do you view graduate degrees?
Graduate degrees are nearly always a positive factor in the admissions process.
TLS: Do you take graduate GPAs into consideration?
Not as much as undergraduate GPAs because we do not have very good data on GPAs from various graduate programs as compared to undergraduate GPAs. We rely heavily on letters of recommendation from professors in graduate school to give us an idea of the applicant’s work.
TLS: What is UVA Law’s view on multiple LSAT scores?
We will look at all of an applicant’s LSAT scores.
TLS: Is a high LSAT score achieved on the second or third try viewed differently than a first-attempt high score?
Many applicants submit an addendum explaining why we ought to put more weight on one or the other score (not surprisingly, it has always been the higher score so far) and we often do focus more on the higher score with such an addendum.
TLS: Could an applicant significantly improve his or her chances of admission by drafting a personal statement specifically for UVA, as opposed to a general personal statement that briefly mentions UVA, if at all?
We do have many applicants who draft very generic personal statements, and that can be fine. But we do have people stating they want to be at Virginia Law for a particular reason, and that can be persuasive. It need not be in the personal statement though, and can instead be part of an addendum.
TLS: Do you come across personal statements that actually hurt the applicant’s chances? If so, what are some traits of these statements?
Yes. If they are poorly written, bland, contain spelling or grammatical errors, or otherwise show a lack of care, that is going to hurt.
TLS: Do you have any general advice regarding personal statements for applicants who want to maximize their chances?
You want to make sure your personal statement gives us something we cannot find elsewhere in your application. We do not conduct interviews, so use the personal statement as a substitute. Tell me something about yourself that you would want me to know if you had 10 minutes with me.
TLS: Since UVA doesn't have an optional "why UVA?" essay, what are some good ways applicants can indicate a strong interest in UVA?
Applicants can and do submit “why UVA” essays all the time. We just do not specifically ask for them. I also get a number of “why X Law School” essays all the time, where X is (accidentally) not Virginia Law. That is a sure way to get yourself wait-listed or rejected.
Letters of Recommendation
TLS: Applicants often have difficulty choosing and approaching potential recommenders. Can you offer some general advice regarding letters of recommendation?
It is far better for someone who knows you well to write on your behalf rather than someone “important” who doesn’t know you as well.
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?
Yes. Some letters are lukewarm, or say something along the lines of “brilliant, but lazy,” or “has trouble expressing his viewpoint in a non-confrontational manner” – that is going to be a mark against that applicant. I think applicants would be surprised at how many people are put on the wait list or even rejected because of a letter of recommendation that gives me pause.
TLS: Do applicants, especially those with numbers that fall below UVA’s medians, increase their chances of admission by applying Early Decision?
Yes. If we are going to “reach” for someone, it will often be through the early decision process. Virginia is, for some applicants, truly their dream school and they apply early decision. If I can make that person’s dream a reality, I will strive to do so.
TLS: How does applying early decision affect one's merit scholarship prospects?
I treat the ED applicants the same as if they applied regular decision. If I did not, word would spread pretty quickly and I’d expect far fewer ED applicants the following year. Some who apply ED and receive scholarship assistance are quite shocked. For example, I gave $20,000+ scholarships to two ED applicants and they were quite surprised.
TLS: Will the current state of the economy effect the distribution of merit scholarships?
No. We knew we had to cut costs, but in the end we have decided to save money in other areas such as admissions-related travel, and printing and brochure costs, and mailing costs. We do very little via paper these days and you can save an amazing amount of money by communicating electronically. It is also shocking how much you can spend on travel. But we have left the scholarship budget untouched which is what most applicants would prefer, I think.
TLS: What is the typical size of the UVA waitlist, and how deep do you usually go into the waitlist to admit students?
We typically make at least several hundred wait list offers. In the years that I have been doing this, we have filled zero to more than 20 percent of the class via the wait list. So literally in some years I have made zero wait-list offers and one year I made 92. It’s crazy. You just can’t predict it and you have to be prepared. We try to release people from the wait list quickly when it become obvious we will not be able to offer them admission.
TLS: Once on the waitlist, can one take any steps to increase their chances of getting off the waitlist?
If it is a year we are taking zero or close to zero, there is not much you can do. We are just going to choose who we want to choose. During the year I took 92 people, I have to admit I took a real careful look at the people who told me that they could commit on the spot. If you are admitting that many people, you can provide real value if you know this and express to us that this is where you want to be and can commit without reservation.
TLS: How many transfer applications does UVA Law typically receive, and what percentage are offered admission?
We receive over 200 transfer applications yearly. We accepted 20 last year but will likely be slightly fewer this year.
TLS: What are the main factors that are taken into consideration in reviewing a transfer application?
Class rank and the relative difficulty of the school is the most important factor by far. If you want to transfer to Virginia, you should be working as hard as you can at your present law school. LSAT and undergraduate GPA are discounted in favor of your law school performance. It is a good way for someone to get a fresh start.
The USNWR Rankings
TLS: What is your opinion of the US News ranking of law schools in general and the ranking of UVA Law in particular? Have rankings influenced admissions decisions as a whole to become more numbers focused?
I think that ordinal rankings such as U.S. News create meaningless differences that are not relevant and mask substantive differences that are relevant. For example, does it really matter if one school is reporting an employment rate of 99.7 percent and another is reporting one of 99.4 percent? What is that? One person in a graduating class? That seems a little silly to me.
I would think alumni giving matters in law school rankings, but it is not included, unlike in undergraduate rankings. Strong alumni participation in annual giving demonstrates the vibrancy of the alumni base and satisfaction with the law school experience, and is a sign of good career services prospects. Virginia Law’s alumni giving rate has been over 50 percent for several years. I am not aware of another law school that has a higher giving rate.
If admissions decisions were being driven by the rankings, we would shrink the size of the 1L class and increase the size of our transfer class because transfers are not counted by U.S. News. In fact, we are doing the opposite. Our transfer class two years ago was 42 people, last year it was 20, and this year will likely be slightly fewer.
TLS: Any additional, general advice that you’d like to offer applicants who are reading this interview before putting together applications for UVA Law?
Apply early, put thought and care into your application and select the authors of your letters of recommendation carefully. I would also strongly encourage applicants to visit the schools in which they are interested. There is only so much you can get from a Website and perhaps even less from a brochure. Visiting classes and talking to current students informally will really allow you to evaluate a law school. We offer tours and class visits daily while class is in session. Law school is very much about “fit.” It was important to me to find a law school where I would have the opportunity to grow, succeed and become a part of a warm and vibrant community. I would encourage all applicants to do the same.
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