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Interview with Josh Rubenstein, Assistant Dean for Admissions at Harvard Law School
Published August 2010
Dean Josh Rubenstein: Thanks for having me. You’ve really done a great job pulling together a community of engaged law school applicants and I’m really excited to get a chance to answer their questions.
TLS: Obviously, being accepted to Harvard Law School takes a special kind of person – could you elaborate on what an “ideal” candidate’s application might look like? What qualities might he or she possess?
JR: Our Admissions Committee looks primarily for two things – the ability to thrive academically and the capability and desire to have an impact in a chosen field. We really want people who are going to become leaders in their fields and who are going to generate new and innovative ways to solve problems.
There are no specific application elements that you need to use to demonstrate these qualities; however, the best applicants tend to use each application component in concert to convey a coherent story about who they are, showcase their capabilities, and persuasively explain what motivates them to pursue this path.
I would also say that it is important to highlight your strengths. One of the worst mistakes an applicant can make is to try and fit a mold for what he or she believes is an “ideal” candidate and, by doing so, neglect what makes him or her unique. Each applicant has a distinctive profile containing strengths and weaknesses – an applicant stands out because of his or her unique contours, not because of how well he or she fits some idealized profile.
TLS: Realistically, how important are factors other than a candidate’s GPA and LSAT during the admissions process? What can candidates do to stand out, and make themselves something more than mere statistics?
JR: It’s important to remember that GPA and LSAT are just two of many components in the admissions process. While we are fortunate to have the luxury to pick from among many candidates with strong academic credentials, other application factors play a HUGE role in our decision-making process.
Each year, many candidates with “lower” GPA and LSAT scores are offered admission and many candidates with near perfect numbers don’t receive a spot in our class – remember, we’re not only looking for academic superstars, we are also looking for students who are driven to and capable of making an impact. An impressive GPA and LSAT score do not necessarily indicate the presence of the drive, motivation, and determination necessary to achieve success. The non-quantitative components of the application, primarily the resume and personal statement, are thus an extremely important opportunity to highlight these other critical traits. Similarly, letters of recommendation are a great window into how your words translate into action and how you are perceived by people who interact with you on a day-to-day basis.
The key advice here is to invest the time and energy into making your application a coherent and compelling representation of who you are. If you feel that you’re weak in a particular area (GPA, LSAT, experience, etc.), figure out how to demonstrate that your performance in that area isn’t representative of your overall capabilities.
TLS: Is there any real advantage to applying early at Harvard?
JR: There’s probably a slight advantage to applying earlier in the application cycle. As I mentioned, we have a rolling admissions process so we’re reviewing applications and making admissions offers as the applications come in. We try to keep the bar pretty consistent throughout but I think that, at the margin, it’s just a little bit easier to get admitted early on in the process when we have a whole class to fill than later in the process when only a few spots remain.
TLS: What kind of emphasis does Harvard place on the quality and prestige of an applicant’s undergraduate institution? Do students with a degree from an elite school like Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Stanford, etc. have a distinct advantage?
JR: Great question.
First off, we take students from an incredibly wide range of undergraduate institutions, perhaps the widest range of any law school. There are 157 undergraduate institutions represented in the 1L class alone; over 280 schools are represented in the student body. So there is absolutely no requirement that you come from a particular undergraduate institution.
We really only consider the quality of an applicant’s undergraduate institution as part of our overall evaluation of an applicant’s likelihood of succeeding academically at Harvard. Assessing the rigor of a particular institution (and of particular majors and courses within that institution) helps us to put an applicant’s performance into context and to better understand how it might translate into success in law school. Generally speaking, however, applicants that we admit are usually students who would be academically successful at any undergraduate institution, so the school itself doesn’t end up being a huge factor. Doing well at whatever school you attend positions you well for admission.
TLS: Can you give any advice to older/non-traditional applicants about what you like seeing in an application?
JR: First, I’d note that older applicants are no longer “non-traditional,” at least at Harvard. Over half of this year’s entering class has taken at least two years to work or advance their studies before attending law school. Nearly three quarters of the class has taken at least a year. In general this experience provides a significant advantage to applicants as they can both showcase their leadership skills and demonstrate their ability to contribute to the Harvard community in a unique way.
I’d offer “experienced” individuals the same advice that I give to all of our applicants – it’s absolutely critical to invest the time to create a compelling and coherent application that highlights how previous experiences, academic and otherwise, position the applicant to thrive at HLS. If you do this, regardless of your background, you should be in great shape!
TLS: What kinds of things can “sink” candidates with both high GPAs and LSATs, causing them to be rejected at Harvard?
JR: This is a great question, because high GPAs and LSATs, while nice, really only get you so far.
One of the most common mistakes I see is where an applicant thinks their stellar scores and grades will guarantee admission and then fails to put together a compelling and cohesive application. Regardless of your numerical credentials, if a reader doesn’t walk away from reading your application with a clear understanding of who you are and why law school makes sense for you, it’s unlikely you will be admitted.
Typos, misspellings, and other grammatical errors are pretty detrimental as well. These are fundamental skills for lawyers and not paying attention to these details could indicate that an applicant may not possess the skills or ability to succeed as a lawyer. Proofread your personal statements; don’t just rely on spell check.
TLS: How does HLS view international applicants who have already completed their LLB? Are their GPAs and/or LSATs evaluated any differently?
JR: As with any applicant, we look at all prior academic work to aid us in assessing the academic potential of an applicant. LLB work has the potential to be especially useful as it relates to the study of the law.
TLS: How does Harvard treat other graduate degrees? Could an exceptional graduate degree GPA help compensate for a less-than-stellar undergraduate transcript?
JR: As I mentioned earlier, we really only consider your previous academic performance in order to gain an understanding of how you might perform at HLS. To that extent, an applicant’s performance at the graduate degree level may be relevant to our determination of an applicant’s academic potential and likelihood of success at HLS.
TLS: Does Harvard really just average LSAT scores and leave it at that, or is it a more holistic evaluation?
JR: Our practice is to look at each score individually and evaluate LSAT performance in the context of all available information. If there’s something relevant that we should know about a particular test score (e.g. illness, test center distractions, etc.) definitely tell us – it’s always helpful to have more information.
More generally, we don’t spend much time focusing on the LSAT score in and of itself. We find it tends to be more useful as a confirmatory data point rather than as a stand-alone indicator. For example, a high LSAT score is very helpful if your overall GPA is on the lower side but your performance has steadily improved – in this context, the LSAT score helps us to understand what you’re capable of when you’re at your best.
TLS: What advice do you have for writing a strong personal statement? Standing out in Harvard admissions can be tricky – what can an applicant do to really wow you?
JR: Ultimately, the personal statement is a chance to tell us more about you in a way that isn’t reflected in the other elements of your application. Let us know how your broad range of experiences, coursework, and extracurricular activities fit together and how they will allow you to make a unique contribution to the Harvard community. Let your personality and writing style shine through and tell us what we should know about you.
Read over your personal statement with a critical eye when you are done and ask yourself if it’s an accurate portrayal of who you are. Does your voice come through? Or is it just a laundry list of your achievements? When we read a personal statement, we are looking for a person, not a set of accomplishments. Also, don’t take for granted that the person reading your application is familiar with your point of view, so take the time to paint at least some broad strokes that provide context.
Finally, just another reminder that typos are extremely detrimental to your application. Proofread, proofread, proofread.
TLS: Are there any tropes or clichés you’d advise avoiding?
JR: Everyone is different, so I don’t encourage the use of “successful admissions essays” type books. What these books sometimes neglect to mention is that those essays were likely successful because they were a good fit for a particular applicant in the context of his or her overall application. Squeezing your experience and background into someone else’s structure is a bad idea – not only is the tactic easily recognizable (we read those books too!), but it also keeps you from figuring out the best way to tell your story.
Your personal statement should also not be a resume in prose. We’ve seen what you have done; this is your opportunity to tell us how that experience changed you, how you were affected, how you grew, or what you learned. That being said, we often see personal statements that are overly dramatic or contrived. Save the melodrama for reality TV and focus on being authentic and realistic.
Finally, because of the limited space available in the personal statement, this is not the place to explain away anything on your application. Focus on positives and use other spaces (e.g. addenda) to explain if necessary.
TLS: Some applicants are invited for a short phone interview (or “JR1”, as TLS members call it on the forums). What do you hope to learn from an applicant during the phone interview? Can you offer any advice on what sorts of things make for a good interview?
JR: Yeah, there seems to be a lot of anxiety around phone interviews, but it really shouldn’t be that stressful. I’m just trying to learn a bit more about who the applicant is, why they want to come to law school, and why they think Harvard might be a good fit for them. It’s also a good chance to learn how someone interacts with other people.
Generally speaking, do a little prep work (e.g. know why you want to come to law school generally and Harvard specifically) and think through some interesting things about yourself that might not jump out from your application. Otherwise, just be yourself and let your personality shine through.
TLS: Can you share the percentage of the total applicant pool that is offered phone interviews? Once an applicant has a phone interview, is admission his/hers to lose?
JR: This year it was somewhere between 1,000 and 1,200 – approximately 15%.
The import of the interview really varies from candidate to candidate. In some instances I have a strong inclination about a candidate before I get a chance to speak with him or her. In other situations, the candidate may be “on the bubble” or I may have a specific question. And in some cases, I am just interviewing to get a sense of what an applicant is like overall. It never ceases to amaze me how candidates who have similar quantitative scores vary dramatically in other aspects of the application, so I am often interviewing to get a sense of what else an applicant has to add to the class.
TLS: Is there any way for an applicant to overcome a low GPA and/or LSAT by writing addenda explaining extenuating circumstances? What kinds of situations would you say merit explanation?
JR: Absolutely – this type of thing happens all of the time.
In my mind, the key is to explain not only what happened, but also why it happened. If you had a rough start to college, tell us why and what has changed since then. If your grades are great but you struggled with the LSAT, talk us through what the issue is and what you’ve done to try to overcome it.
TLS: How realistic is a desire to transfer to HLS? About how many transfer applicants does Harvard accept each year?
JR: Very realistic – in recent years we’ve accepted somewhere in the range of 40-50 transfers each year.
TLS: What makes a successful transfer application? What kind of class rank does Harvard look for? Other than achieving strong 1L grades, what can a transfer applicant do to maximize their chances at acceptance?
JR: Much of what makes for a good transfer applicant is similar to what makes for a good entering class applicant – a strong history of academic success coupled with a demonstrated ability to have an impact in your chosen field.
Beyond that, transfer applicants have the unique opportunity to prove that they will perform to a high level in a law school environment. This means not only academic success during the 1L year, which is important, but also involvement outside the classroom and the ability to build strong relationships with law school faculty. Strong recommendations and solid involvement in student organizations or clinics can go a long way toward convincing us that you’ll make a positive contribution to the HLS community.
TLS: Does Harvard ever accept transfers from Tier 2 schools, or is it simply too difficult for these students to stand out against applicants from higher-ranked schools? Some have speculated that successful HLS transfer applicants need to have originally been “competitive” Harvard applicants as 0L’s.
JR: We accept transfers from a wide range of schools – certainly well beyond what some would consider the top tier. While it generally helps to have been a “competitive” applicant as a 0L, it’s certainly not required.
TLS: So just to be perfectly clear, there is no merit-based aid at Harvard, right? Could you explain the reasoning behind that?
JR: This is a conscious decision by the law school based on our philosophy that we want to make Harvard Law School financially feasible for every single admitted student. Harvard Law School does not award “merit” scholarships because those scholarships would necessarily reduce the resources available for need-based aid and significantly increase the debt burden of every financially needy student. All the financial aid that a school offers, whether merit or need-based, essentially comes out of the same pool of available funds. Schools that award merit-based scholarships are using their financial aid resources to meet recruitment goals in a way that diminishes the aid they can offer to students with the lowest resources. At HLS, we feel that a need-based aid system is the best way to ensure that every admitted student has an opportunity to attend.
TLS: How satisfied are students with their need-based aid?
JR: Students often find that need-based aid from HLS is more generous than need-based aid from schools that award merit aid for the reasons described above. Our goal is to be transparent and equitable in how we award aid and that is only possible through a need-based system. We hope and believe that most students appreciate that.
TLS: Did Harvard’s recent endowment losses cause any significant decrease in the generosity of the financial aid office?
JR: On the contrary, HLS has increased its financial aid support by over $2.5M from pre-recession levels during this time of greater need. The increased financial aid funds have resulted in more need-based grants, more Low-Income Protection Plan (LIPP) funds, more Summer Public Interest Funding (SPIF) money, and more postgraduate public service fellowships.
TLS: HLS seems to really pride itself on LIPP – what makes it such a special program, and so different from LRAPs at other law schools?
JR: Our Low-Income Protection Plan (LIPP) is the most flexible Loan Repayment Assistance Program of any in the country. It doesn’t require that you commit to a minimum number of years in public service to receive and keep your LIPP benefits, you don’t have to repay your loans on an artificially extended term, and it doesn’t limit coverage to public service jobs. Many other schools have programs with one or more of these limitations, and sometimes many others. These limitations reduce the cost of the program for the school, but also reduce the options available to graduates. LIPP is a career choice program that aims to provide HLS graduates with the broadest set of options possible. More information about how LIPP compares with other LRAP programs is available here: http://www.law.harvard.edu/current/sfs/basics/publicservice/lipp.html
TLS: How are Harvard students faring in this economy? Can you share the most recent post-graduation and summer-associate offer statistics? Has there been an increase in the number of firms signing up for OCI as the economy begins to show signs of recovery?
JR: Last year, 95% of our students had secured jobs by graduation – that number is almost identical to most of the last ten years, despite the fact that graduates were facing one of the worst legal hiring markets since the Great Depression. I think the takeaway from that statistic is that, particularly in a tough economy, HLS students and alumni are particularly well positioned to receive job offers – in some ways, the downturn in legal hiring is really showcasing the strength of the HLS brand. We are fortunate that we have never had a shortage of employers looking to hire HLS students and alumni. That is reflected in the increase in the number of employers recruiting on campus this fall. We are anticipating between 5-10% more employers recruiting through OCI this fall and we expect similarly strong employment outcomes for our students.
TLS: This was your first year as Dean of Admissions at Harvard Law; do you feel like you’ve made any striking changes or brought a major shift in ideology to admissions at HLS, or are you mostly sticking to the tried-and-true methods? Obviously, Harvard has a longstanding tradition of excellence!
JR: We obviously don’t want to mess with aspects of the admissions process that have yielded such great students and alumni in the past. That being said, there are a couple of things that we are interested in trying to do a bit differently going forward.
First, we are increasingly interested in applicants with meaningful work experience. We love talented applicants that apply directly from college, but we have also found that applicants who take some time to work before attending law school often have a better sense of what they want to do with a law degree and they end up being more involved students who are tremendous contributors to the HLS community.
Additionally, we are really focused on creating a personalized admissions experience for every one of our admitted students. I think the best way to discover if Harvard is the right place for you is to talk with people here who share similar interests. As such, we are investing a tremendous amount of time in trying to link each admitted student up with faculty, students, and others at Harvard who can help them get a sense for what this place is really about.
TLS: How do students seem to like the new grading system?
JR: The transition to the new grading system has not been without a few bumps in the road for students who entered under the old grading system and were used to that system, but for new students, the feedback we have received is very positive. The new grading system has the benefit of allowing students the ability to distinguish themselves with high achievement, while not burdening them with the pressure of a letter grading system. It really is a win-win situation.
TLS: What do you think about the U.S. News and World Report rankings system?
JR: I think it’s great that U.S. News is collecting and publishing data about law schools – I’m a big fan of data and I think that with more information students should be able to make better decisions about their legal education. I do sometimes worry that applicants focus a bit too much on the overall rankings without examining individual factors or how heavily each factor is weighted in the ranking system. It’s been my experience that each applicant has a different set of interests and priorities for their law school experience – thus, I’d guess that applicants may want to weight factors differently in assessing schools. So I think there’s probably room for improvement. But overall I think it’s a good idea to collect data and offer more transparency about the law school experience.
TLS: Why, in your opinion, should students choose Harvard over its peer law schools?
JR: Well, of course I’m biased as both an alum and now the Dean of Admissions! But speaking as someone who has personally experienced what HLS has to offer, what I value most about HLS is the incredible array of opportunities both as a student and now as an alum.
Harvard Law School offers more world-class opportunities than any other law school. Whether through our 350+ courses (150+ of which are seminars or courses with less than 25 students), our 28 clinical programs, our nearly 100 student organizations, or our 16 student-edited journals, the opportunities you can pursue here are endless. In virtually any area of the law you’ll find a critical mass of students and faculty ready to help further your educational experience. You’ll also be surrounded by an incredibly talented and diverse group of classmates whose interests span the spectrum and who will go on to form the broadest and deepest professional network that you can imagine. I still fondly remember my time at Harvard as one of intense intellectual exploration coupled with vast practical experience.
Harvard is also an incredible place to launch a career. Our Office of Public Interest Advising and our Office of Career Services have extensive experience in helping our students get some of the most interesting and impactful jobs out there. Whether in government or the private sector, in the US or abroad, Harvard will position you to best achieve your career goals.
TLS: Harvard has one of the biggest class sizes of any top law school. Do you think there are any downsides to attending such a large law school?
JR: I think virtually all of our students and alums view our size as a huge advantage. As I mentioned in the last question, our size is what allows us to offer so many phenomenal opportunities.
Further, from the moment you step on campus, you realize that HLS is not that big and that most people here quickly develop many strong friendships. From your 1L section of eighty people to the intimate clinical programs, or the student organizations and journals that all act as second families, students quickly find their niches and develop deep relationships with a wide array of classmates. Our student body is incredibly diverse and the students are what make HLS an amazing place. Being able to meet so many classmates is something our students value tremendously and we firmly believe that students learn not just from their professors, but also from their classmates.
TLS: Do you or Harvard Law admissions staff ever peruse admissions-focused websites like Top Law Schools? If so, what do you think of such sites?
JR: Absolutely! It’s fun for us to have a glimpse into what students are thinking and see what concerns students have. I think these websites are a good source of support for students as they go through the admissions process, but I am sometimes concerned that students fall into a group-think mentality. It can be detrimental to believe everything other people are posting because a lot of the information going around is incorrect. The inaccuracies are sometimes shocking and we often wish we could jump into the middle of some threads to provide correct information. So, I really urge students to take in the information from these websites with a critical eye and when in doubt, go to the source either by checking our website or calling/emailing.
TLS: In closing, what advice do you have for TLS readers about applying to – and succeeding in – law school?
JR: I think the most important piece of advice for an applicant is to invest time in your application. Each person has a unique voice and a unique set of experiences and background. Take the time to step back and think about your overall narrative so that you can convey your story in a cohesive and compelling way throughout your application.
As far as succeeding in law school, the most important thing is to dive right in! Three years can fly by, so immerse yourself and take advantage of as many opportunities as you can. It’s an amazing time in your life as you figure out how to use your law degree to pursue your passion. Also, treat the first day of law school as the first day of your career. Your classmates and professors will be your professional colleagues in a few years, so reach out and get to know them. And lastly, surround yourself with good people – whether they are family, friends, mentors, professors, or classmates – who will support you as you embark on your career. Good advice is invaluable, so make every effort to seek it out!
TLS: Thank you again, Dean Rubenstein, it’s a pleasure to have your input and advice!
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