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Interview with Dr. Karen Reagan Britton, University of Tennessee College of Law

Published September 2009 appreciates Dr. Karen Reagan Britton, Director, Admissions and Financial Aid and Director, The Bettye B. Lewis Career Center, at University of Tennessee College of Law, 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?

The application has typical components – the application itself, letters of recommendation, the quantitative components of LSAT and GPAs. We require an essay on a particular topic, in addition to the personal statement. I can honestly say that each file is reviewed with an eye to composing a diverse, interesting class of well qualified individuals.

TLS: How do you view applications for Tennessee residents? Do Tennessee residents receive a boost over residents of other states?

As a state-assisted law school, priority is given to Tennessee residents, and those who intend to remain in Tennessee to practice, in the admission process. Tennessee is an attractive place to live and study, so we are fortunate that many talented Tennesseans want to stay here and that residents of many other states choose to relocate here.

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.)?

Our faculty wants to teach well-rounded individuals and our students enjoy learning from each other. Everyone wants to know that the most qualified candidates are here at UT as well. It is a pleasure to be able to sculpt each entering class from so many talented applicants – who also have demonstrated the intellectual acumen that will enable them to succeed in a demanding profession. Many of the interpersonal and leadership skills necessary for success in the legal workplace are learned in life and work experiences outside the classroom, and we clearly value those experiences in candidates for admission.

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 University of Tennessee College of Law?

Think ahead. Make sure you have thought about why law school makes sense for you, given your life and career goals. Make sure you have an accurate picture of what lawyers do, and believe that you are well suited for a legal career. We work closely with our admitted candidates to help them understand what lies ahead, and to prepare them for success in the first year of law school. For example, our 1L Career Integration Program delivers critical training and information to our 1Ls in a carefully timed, systematic progression, so they are introduced to key concepts in the career development and job search processes when they need this information – not too early and not too late.

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

Evidence of the intellectual ability to excel in a demanding academic experience, and the emotional intelligence and maturity to contribute to the law school community.

TLS: How does University of Tennessee view multiple LSAT scores?

UT considers all valid scores reported by LSAC, but reports the highest score of any student’s multiple scores to the ABA.

TLS: In what circumstances should an applicant include and addendum to explain his or her low GPA or LSAT score? What should this addendum include?

A brief summary of extenuating circumstances (not excuses) is welcome as an addendum to the application. Previous testing history is often mentioned to demonstrate that the score is aberrational.

Financial Aid

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

Approximately 55% of students receive a scholarship through the College of Law either at the point of admission or during their law school career. Scholarship award decisions rely heavily on contribution of the candidate to the academic or/and diversity profile of the college. Other scholarships are awarded based on the criteria established by the donor. The average borrowed by 2008 graduates (the most recent class for which this data is calculated) was $57,064. Scholarships clearly help reduce the cost of attendance, and reasonable tuition gives our students a great start and help many of them graduate with modest indebtedness.

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

We reexamine our scholarship accounts and other available funds each year, so to the extent that investment funds drop, or the giving by our generous alumni is compromised, the amount of funding available can vary. Our scholarship program is conservative, but we are constantly working to create new scholarship opportunities.

Early Decision

TLS: Do applicants, especially those with numbers that fall below University of Tennessee’s medians, increase their chances of admission by applying Early Decision?

UT does not have an early decision program.

The Waitlist

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

The waiting list changes daily and we do not keep a count of the number of candidates that are on the list at any point in time. To do so accurately would require checking back with candidates each day to verify their continued interest, and we would rather those students who are interested stay in touch with us over the summer. We treat the waiting list process very seriously and do not ask candidates to participate unless we feel that they would be a solid, contributing member of the class.

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

Inform the admissions office staff if there have been changes in the UGPA or the LSAT score, certainly, but we value any additional information and welcome phone calls and e-mails to indicate a candidate’s continued interest.

Personal Statements

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

Candidates can use elements of a general personal statement and still customize it by school, and I recommend customization. We receive more applications from well qualified, interesting candidates that we can offer admission, and it helps to know who is sincerely interested in UT.

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?

Applicants sometimes treat the personal statement as a vehicle for communicating information that would be best described in an addendum to the application. It is hard to weave a reason for a lackluster performance on the LSAT into an otherwise positive, convincing statement. I would make the PS a positive prospective view of the law school years ahead and not a series of explanations.

Letters of Recommendation

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

Consider your audience. Members of the Admissions Committee are usually faculty members, and they find meaning in LORs that describe the candidate’s classroom performance. Some candidates do not have a recent classroom experience, however, so LORs from clients, colleagues or employers may be the most pertinent.

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?

The applicant is advised to brief the recommender on factors that the law school will consider in its process and ask the recommender to discuss the candidate in that light. Occasionally recommenders focus on factors that mean a lot to them, rather than on the factors that matter in the law school admission process, making the recommendation less effective.

Transfer Students

TLS: How many transfer applications does University of Tennessee College of Law typically receive, and what percentage are offered admission?

It is our hope that every law student who begins the first-year here will receive their degree from UT, and we do not solicit transfers from other law schools. In past years, very few students have transferred out, leaving very few, if any, seats for transfers into our second year class. We only accept applications if we expect to have seats available, and if we accept applications we usually receive 25 or so and admit one or two candidates.

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

We consider academic performance in the first year of law school, the traditional predictors considered in the first-year admission process, and the reason that the candidate wants to complete his/her legal education at Tennessee.


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

I advise applicants to offer a brief explanation of significant grade fluctuations. Faculty recommenders often paint very effective pictures of the evolution of a candidate as seen from the classroom perspective, and that information is valuable to us as well. That said, an upward grade trend is fairly typical, as the student learns to manage academics, extracurricular activities, living away from home, and other life transitions.

TLS: Do you consider the relative prestige or rank of an applicant’s undergraduate institution? 24. Do you consider the relative difficulty of an applicant’s undergraduate major?

We consider the relative difficulty of the course of student and of the degree granting institution. Indicators of academic rigor of the program and of the institution are good indicators of success in the rigorous program here at UT.


TLS: How do you view graduate degrees?

Many candidates find their stride later in their undergraduate careers, and an advanced degree can be a more recent reflection of their work.

TLS: Do you take graduate GPA into consideration?

UT’s admission policy allows evaluators to consider many factors, including a graduate degree. I characterize these accomplishments as “icing on the cake” – extra factors that together tell the story of the individual. The “cake” is the undergraduate grade point average and the LSAT score. Some candidates have a lot of cake and a thin layer of icing. Others have mounds of icing piled on a thin layer of cake. It’s the thorough evaluation of all these candidates that yields the interesting class that we seek.

The USNWR Rankings

TLS: What is your opinion of the US News ranking of law schools in general and the ranking of University of Tennessee-Knoxville College of Law in particular? Have rankings influenced admissions decisions as a whole to become more numbers focused?

We all look for short cuts in assessing who or what is best. The law students who have chosen UT over higher ranked law schools have done so with a keen eye for discerning context and real value based on factors that they view as important. There are many other sources for qualitative and quantitative information available, so no one need rely only on this one assessment. We work hard to make our employment and salary information very transparent, and I encourage anyone considering law school now to demand no less from any law school they consider.

University of Tennessee College of Law Distinctions

TLS: Can you describe the general culture of University of Tennessee College of Law?

I have heard currently enrolled students describe the atmosphere to prospective students as relaxed and collegial, with faculty, staff, and students showing a respectful appreciation for the different interests and backgrounds of members of the law school community. I have heard students say that they believe that their classmates are incredibly talented and that they learn much from others in the classroom, as well as from their professors. I enjoy hearing that, because we are charged to admit the “best” class that we can and the definition of “best” extends well beyond grades and scores alone.

TLS: What do you feel students enjoy most about University of Tennessee?

If you have ever visited, reasons to love Knoxville are readily apparent. It’s a beautiful area with reasonable cost of living and sky-high quality of life. Students usually cite their classmates, the amazing faculty, and the wide range of experiences open to them here. Many have come from smaller private schools, and many tell me that having a small law school of 450 students within a large university of almost 30,000 students is the best of both worlds. Many who attended large universities wanted to repeat that experience and find UT a really great place to be. I think students recognize that they will be part of a global alumni network of University of Tennessee graduates, and who would not recognize the value of that in today’s business world?

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

I think everyone is worried about the economy, and hoping that the bubble here does not burst and cost of attendance rise. Students from other states cannot be reclassified automatically as a resident for tuition purposes after one year, and that is a disappointment for many. We continue to point out that our residency regulations are inconsistent with other states, but the state statutes governing this matter do not change easily or quickly.

TLS: Why should an applicant choose University of Tennessee College of Law over other top law schools such as Vanderbilt? What makes Tennessee attractive to a candidate that wishes to get into biglaw?

Candidates who choose UT are often considering a large law firm in a major market, but are also considering a wide range of job settings across a wide geographic area. Our students come from all over the region and the country, and their interests and contacts are diverse. In that way, we are hurt less when the job market constricts in one particular market sector. UT graduates who have sought the “big law” experience and who had the necessary qualifications have been very successful in these markets. As this column is being written, the world of “big law” recruiting has been turned upside down, and the new reality is yet to be articulated. Certainly we felt some effects, but our recruitments programs have stood up well this fall. Employers are making difficult decisions and students, at UT and at other top law schools, may have fewer employment options until the market finds the new equilibrium. We are fortunate to have forged solid relationships with employers and alumni nationwide that will stand the test of time, and grateful to have recent graduates excelling with legal employers and paving the way for those who will follow them to these firms.

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 to the University of Tennessee College of Law?

Think about why you are well suited for this law school and articulate your reasoning, along with your sincere interest in enrolling here, even if your credentials suggest that you are likely to be admitted. Like many schools, we receive many more well qualified applicants than we can admit, and taking time to customize your application materials to demonstrate sincere interest is important.

Thank you for considering UT! If you take a close look, I think you will like what you see.

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