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Interview with G. Todd Morton, Assistant Dean and Dean of Admissions for Vanderbilt University Law School
Published November 2009, last updated December 2009
Top-Law-Schools.com appreciates G. Todd Morton, Assistant Dean and Dean of Admissions for Vanderbilt University 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?
Our aim is to get a sense of how each candidate uses available educational resources, takes advantage of professional opportunities, has a positive impact on people and organizations, meets challenges and overcomes obstacles, and otherwise demonstrates characteristics or skills that we believe are important to success in law school and the legal profession. Each application is reviewed in its entirety by at least two readers. Readers review the whole application, and we are interested in the interdependence of its parts. For example, we read transcripts in context for an overall picture of the candidate as a participant in an academic program, taking account of term-time work and extracurricular activities, academic recommendations, grade distributions and other information about the applicant’s college, trends in grades, and personal information potentially relevant to academic performance. Readers take a similar approach to each part of the application in relation to its other parts. We also think about each candidate’s potential contribution to the entering class (e.g., skills and experiences, personal background, interest in legal education, goals for the future) because we believe that a student body that is diverse in multiple dimensions helps to support and renew the best teaching and learning environment imaginable.
Readers use ratings that approximate each application’s overall “strength” relative to other applications. Imagine a pyramid with a small peak level containing a relative few standout applications, a larger second level of “near-standout” applications, a larger third level, and another level or two. Imagine further that there are permeable boundaries between levels, both because our assessments are admittedly imprecise and differences in “strength” across adjacent levels are often small. Stratifying applications in this way allows us to identify and admit those that we see as strongest until we approach the number of offers available to us. As we approach this limit, we are inevitably forced to choose some, but not others, from a level that contains many more comparably strong applications than the number of offers of admission remaining available. These applications are comparably strong overall, but differ in their particulars, and we usually “tip” toward one application or another based on individual characteristics and potential contributions to the class. This is a time-consuming process that involves comparing many applications several times. When we reach the numeric limit to offers, we must make wait-list and deny decisions.
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.)? Can you give examples of what you see as excellent, good, and mediocre non-numerical attributes or accomplishments?
Because we are interested in the whole application and the interdependence of its parts, each candidate’s GPA and LSAT are viewed in the context of all the information in the file. Once reviewed, applications with identical “numbers” can easily look quite different in their overall “strength.” Imagine one hundred applicants with identical GPAs who attended different colleges, each college with different grading practices and norms; some applicants worked full-time in school, others worked part-time, and still others did not work at all; some majored in Engineering, others in Government, Biology, English, or Economics; some were the first in their families to attend college, others fought serious illnesses. In the end, although some applications with identical “numbers” might look comparably strong after review, others will look stronger or not as strong in comparison.
In considering work experience, community involvement, extracurricular activities and the like, we tend to think about not only the “what” (i.e., military service, corporate work experience, Teach for America, etc.) but also the “how,” to the extent possible. By that I mean that experience: 1) can provide students with skills and information that can enrich their potential contributions to the law school educational environment, and 2) can reflect personal characteristics such as hard work, commitment, leadership, maturity, initiative, teamwork, creativity, persistence, and other desirable attributes.
J.D. Class of 2012 profile:
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 Vanderbilt?
Visit as many schools as you can. Nothing is more important than feeling good about the school you attend, and that means assessing many intangibles. Students, faculty, alumni, programs, campus, environs – each law school is a mix of elements that come together in a different way that shape the “fit” between an individual and a school. Walk the campus, sit in on a class, talk to students, familiarize yourself with the location; take a serious, close look at as many schools as possible. How you feel about the community you join matters to your ability to take advantage of its opportunities and resources which affects the quality of your legal education. Make time in the spring to visit as many schools as possible of those to which you have been admitted.
Entering law students should relax, mentally and physically. Law school is a life-changing experience that is best approached well-rested and with an open mind. Leave your expectations at the door and dive in.
TLS: What do you consider to be the most important factors an admitted applicant should examine when choosing which law school to attend?
By far the most important factor admitted applicants should examine is how a school “fits.” Choosing a law school is a very personal process of deciding to join a community with which you will engage in a life-changing experience. All the elements that make up a particular law school come together in different ways for different people. A school that might be a good fit for one person might not be quite as good (or might be even better) for another, and the most important factors for some might not matter much at all to others. A “bad” fit is extremely rare; “good” to “fantastic” is the range you are likely to encounter. If you are honest with yourself about what matters to you and pay attention to those things, it is hard to go “wrong” in choosing a law school, rather, you will be well-positioned to recognize the choice that is right for you. Feeling good about your choice matters to the quality of the education you obtain.
TLS: How does Vanderbilt view multiple LSAT scores?
The LSAT provides a standard measure of the set of skills included in the test, but it does not measure all the elements important to success in law school. Scores must be examined in relation to the total range of information about a prospective law student. Like all standardized tests, the LSAT is subject to measurement error and prediction error and should be viewed as an approximate indicator rather than an exact measure of an applicant’s ability.
For multiple test-takers, LSAC reports each score obtained and computes an average. In considering multiple test-takers’ applications, we review all scores, including the average, in relation to the whole file, rather than choosing one score and ignoring others. Where two scores differ “a lot” by the yardsticks of measurement or prediction error, readers might marshal other evidence in the file to make a case that one score or the other provides a better estimate for this particular individual. A multiple test-taker’s average score is likely to have more predictive value in assessing first-year grades than the separate obtained scores that make up that average, but we consider them all in the context of the full application.
There is one situation in which all schools use only one score for multiple test-takers. The ABA requires all law schools to calculate and report the 75th / 50th / 25th percentile LSAT for each entering class of first-year J.D. students. To do this, schools must use one score per student. Prior to 2006, schools were instructed to use the average score for multiple test-takers when calculating class percentiles. The ABA changed its instructions in 2006 such that all schools now use the highest score for multiple test-takers when calculating class percentiles.
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?
If you provide information that you feel is helpful for interpreting your GPA or LSAT (or any other aspect of your application), we will review it, whatever format you provide and whatever information you include. It is up to you to decide content and presentation.
TLS: The number of applications to law schools in general increased last application cycle and many expect that growth in applications to be even more pronounced this upcoming cycle. Is Vanderbilt Law expecting and making preparations for an unusually high number of students applying in the 2009-2010 cycle?
Although the number of applicants to all law schools nationally increased last cycle (2009), the national pool had been decreasing over the last few years such that the 2009 pool was about 10 percent smaller than the 2005 pool. Over the same period, Vanderbilt applications rose by 40 percent, setting historic records three years in a row, culminating with 4,851 applications in 2009. It appears that applicants are as excited as we are about the great things happening at Vanderbilt. We do not expect the Vanderbilt pool to continue to grow at the same rate, but early indications lead us to expect that we will receive at least as many applications this year as we did last year.
TLS: Vanderbilt is one of the rare schools to allow and encourage interviews. Many law schools report that interviews are not conducted due to the infeasibility of interviewing very large numbers of candidates. Why does Vanderbilt Law take the extra time to conduct interviews and do you have any advice for students wishing to prepare for such an interview?
First, an interview provides an applicant with an opportunity to demonstrate personal characteristics that are important to success in law school and in the legal profession: communication skills, sociability, maturity, commitment, professional demeanor, intelligence, concern for others, listening skills – the list of possibilities is long, and these elements come together in a different way for each individual. Second, interviews provide applicants an opportunity to learn more about Vanderbilt. These are both good things: the more we know about our prospective students, the better decisions we make, and the more our prospective students know about Vanderbilt, the better. In short, it’s a win-win proposition. I should add that most interviews are conducted by law school alums; there are more than 400 across the nation and abroad who interview applicants. They do a great job writing interview reports that add considerable dimension to applicants’ files, and applicants routinely report that their alumni interviews are valuable and enjoyable experiences.
Remember that an interview provides opportunities for you to present yourself as a prospective law student and lawyer and to learn more about legal education at Vanderbilt – take advantage of those opportunities. Your interviewer will write up a brief report of your conversation that provides some impressions of you as a prospective law student. It’s a good idea to bring a resume and to think about the things that you most want readers of your application to know as they review your application.
TLS: What percentage of students receives scholarships of any kind and what methodology determines to whom scholarships are awarded?
More than two-thirds of J.D. students receive merit- or need-based scholarships in varying amounts. The median scholarship award for the current first-year class is $15,000.00 annually. All admitted students are automatically considered for law school merit scholarships on the basis of information contained in the application for admission. We have a small number of Law Scholar Merit Awards that are full-tuition plus a $5,000.00 annual stipend which are awarded on the basis of a separate application in a competitive process. Admitted applicants who submit a FAFSA and Need-Access Form are considered for need-based scholarship assistance. All scholarships are automatically renewed for each year of attendance as long as the student remains in good standing.
More information about scholarships and finances is available on our Web site:
TLS: Will the current state of the economy affect the distribution of merit scholarships?
We do not currently expect the economic downturn to affect the distribution of merit- or need-based scholarships.
TLS: Do applicants, especially those with numbers that fall below Vanderbilt’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?
In the big picture, the application review and decision-making processes are designed to give every applicant a fair shot by ensuring that timing does not influence the decision on an application. As we begin reading applications (usually in October), we might feel comfortable offering admission to a small number of applicants before December, but generally we want to review and compare as many applications as possible before making more than a few decisions. This means that we tend to keep many applications under consideration while we continue reviewing other applications.
It is also true that early applications are reviewed when we have many offers available and only an incomplete picture of the current pool. These circumstances could favor early applications in comparison to later applications which are reviewed, by necessity of their later arrival, when we are reaching the limit to the number of offers we can make. However, this potential advantage is offset by “staging” decisions to avoid exhausting all offers of admission before we have reviewed all applications.
TLS: Do you have any general advice regarding personal statements for applicants who want to maximize their chances?
Our open-ended personal statement is an opportunity for you to present yourself to readers who are considering your past achievements, experience, communication skills, personal attributes, and other elements to get a sense of you as a prospective law student. We receive statements on wide-ranging topics, but many focus on the people, experiences, and events that have shaped the candidate’s course to law school. It is always advisable to think about what you want readers to know about you rather than what you think readers want to hear. Work to communicate rather than to impress, and to show rather than to tell.
TLS: Could an applicant significantly improve his or her chances of admission by drafting a personal statement specifically for Vanderbilt as opposed to a general personal statement that briefly mentions Vanderbilt, if at all?
Readers are primarily interested in you as a prospective law student for which a “general” personal statement is likely to be very helpful, but we are also interested to know what has attracted you to Vanderbilt in particular because the “fit” between student and school matters a great deal. If describing specific interests in Vanderbilt has any effect on a decision, it is very likely to be positive.
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? How often do you find statements that really stick out from the crowd and what do these statements consist of?
I once read a personal statement with a cover memo that indicated the applicant recognized that the suggested length was two pages, but there was so much of importance to convey that his statement required ten pages. The memo closed with an apology and an assurance that the author had done everything possible to keep the statement brief and on-point. The first line of the statement began: “It was a dark and stormy night when I was born …” There were many detailed accounts of events and circumstances that seemed easily understood without the detail provided. There might have been much to say, but the statement left the impression that the candidate was either unable or did not bother to distill his message to a more cogent presentation.
Outstanding personal statements are the product of candor, self-reflection, earnest engagement with the prospect of entering the legal profession, attention to detail, and effective communication skills.
Letters of Recommendation
TLS: Would you rather have a letter of recommendation from a professor with a Nobel Laureate or U.S. Senator who barely knows the applicant or the teaching assistant who truly knows the applicant and can speak to the applicants unique strengths and weaknesses?
The best recommendations are written by people who know the candidate well for a sufficient period of time and in a capacity to have something to say about personal characteristics such as work ethic, honesty, maturity, ingenuity, persistence, intelligence, communication skills, or other attributes important to success in law studies. Letters from people who barely know the applicant are usually not very helpful in assessing these attributes, and represent a lost opportunity.
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? How often do you find letters that really stick out from the crowd and what do these letters consist of?
We occasionally get letters of recommendation in which the author states plainly that only a qualified endorsement is possible. These letters almost always say that when the applicant requested the recommendation, the recommender initially declined, but the applicant insisted.
Some letters do not hurt, but neither do they help. This is often because the author does not know the applicant particularly well and can offer only faint praise.
Choose your recommenders with close attention to how well they know you and your work (academic or otherwise), line them up as early as possible, and offer your resume, transcripts, or other information that may be useful or informative to them as they write in support of your application.
Undergraduate & Graduate Education
TLS: How much will an upward grade trend positively influence the likelihood of admission?
An upward grade trend is a positive consideration, particularly where course difficulty increases noticeably over the time period, work hours increase, or other contextual information amplifies its meaning and strength.
TLS: Do you consider the relative prestige or rank of an applicant’s undergraduate institution? What about the relative difficulty of an applicant’s undergraduate major? What about students who attended an international school for either undergraduate or graduate studies?
Our working assumption is that there are graduates of each of the more than 4,000 colleges and universities in the U.S. and of many foreign schools whom we would like very much to have with us at Vanderbilt. In general, the college attended provides a backdrop for understanding a candidate’s achievements. Information about resources and opportunities available at the college help us to understand how a student engaged those resources. Selectivity and other markers of student body “quality” help us to understand the context of an individual’s academic achievements as do data describing college GPA distributions. To the extent we can discern them, we take account of grading differences across disciplines or departments.
TLS: How do you view graduate degrees and do you take graduate GPA into consideration?
A graduate degree is generally a plus. A candidate’s LSAC report includes copies of graduate transcripts which we review. Graduate school grading practices usually differ markedly from undergraduate practices, and we interpret them accordingly. Letters of recommendation from graduate school faculty members are usually detailed and insightful as a product of student / faculty collaboration and close interaction.
TLS: What is the typical size of the Vanderbilt waitlist, and how deep do you usually go into the waitlist to admit students?
The size of the wait list varies with a number of factors: the number of wait list offers we make varies from year to year, reflecting differences in the applicant pool; the number of applicants that accept our offer to be included on the wait list varies from year to year; the number of “active” wait list applications varies from day to day as the summer progresses and some wait-listed applicants remove their applications from consideration. With these and other uncertainties, our aim is to have an active wait list that is large enough to fill as many spaces as might become available and small enough so that there is a possibility of admission for any active wait list candidate.
The number of offers of admission made to wait-listed candidates varies, also. The number of deposits we receive from admitted students varies, as does the number who defer enrollment, or withdraw after paying a deposit. The number of vacancies that occurs varies as does the timing of those vacancies. When vacancies occur, we must fill them rapidly, and usually must ask wait-listed applicants who are admitted to respond quickly. Each year, the entering class includes some students admitted from the wait list.
TLS: Once on the waitlist are there any steps one can take to increase their chances of getting off the waitlist?
Keep in touch with the Admissions Office, keep contact information current, provide additional materials, express continued interest, respond to any communication you receive, visit campus if you can, keep open the realistic possibility of accepting an offer as long as possible, and anticipate that if we do have a spot for you, you will need to accept or decline on relatively short notice.
TLS: How many transfer applications does Vanderbilt Law typically receive, and what percentage are offered admission?
We normally receive about one hundred transfer applications annually, admit fewer than twenty, and enroll fifteen.
TLS: What are the main factors taken into consideration in reviewing a transfer application?
As with first-year applications, we take a holistic approach to reviewing and deciding transfer applications. For transfers, however, we give heightened consideration to three main factors: 1) first-year transcript, 2) interview, and 3) reason for transfer to VULS or to be in Nashville.
The USNWR Rankings
TLS: A lot of law students are used to seeing the phrase Top 14 or T14 used, as reference to the top 14 law schools according to the US News and World Report Rankings. Vanderbilt law has repeatedly fallen on the cusp of this “tier,” often appearing in the 15th to 17th slot. What would you say to students that might view Vanderbilt as a step below the schools that are typically referred to as the Top 14?
Vanderbilt consistently ranks among the nation’s leading law schools by USNWR and any other measure, but by themselves, USNWR rankings have extremely limited value for assessing schools’ relative quality or for deciding which schools best support an individual’s aspirations and interests. Our experience is that prospective students benefit greatly from considering a far broader and more illuminating range of information about the schools they are considering than USNWR provides. We appreciate that our admitted applicants have incredible options for law school, and we provide them with extensive and accurate information about Vanderbilt to help each of them make a well-informed choice. We know that Vanderbilt stands up very, very well across the board in extensive, close comparisons with “top” law schools, as do our students in deciding that Vanderbilt is where they want to be. The closer you look at all the elements that go into making a truly great law school, the more you realize that “quality” differences among the leading law schools, to the extent they exist, are probably much smaller and less meaningful than they might otherwise appear.
Vanderbilt Law School Distinctions
TLS: What do you feel students enjoy most about the Vanderbilt University Law School?
It’s the “whole package” of elements required to create a great law school experience and how they come together at Vanderbilt: an outstanding faculty, a rich curriculum with broad classroom and clinical offerings, a challenging and academically rigorous learning environment, a collegial and supportive culture, an international university setting, a national career services program, and many more dimensions of the school. Nashville is an ideal location for law school with both federal and state courts and agencies, large national firms and small boutiques, nonprofits, the entertainment and healthcare industries, and it is a sophisticated and livable city that offers a great quality of life. With a metro-area population over 1.5 million and the feel of a small town, there are many high-quality urban options in music and the arts, pro sports, great restaurants, parks, greenways, and the natural beauty of Tennessee close at hand. All of these things come together at Vanderbilt in ways that surpass expectations.
TLS: What is the chief critique that current students would have about the law school and what is being done to address this concern?
At Vanderbilt and elsewhere, the chief concern among current students is the economic downturn which has created great uncertainty in the legal services industry as well as challenges for all law schools committed to helping their students and new graduates find employment.
Legal employers across the nation are very familiar with the qualities of Vanderbilt graduates, our Career Services Office is widely-known for the full range of personalized, high-quality services it provides, and our Judicial Clerkship program is highly successful. In response to the uncertain employment climate, the law school has expanded services to students by adding a new member to the Career Services staff and initiating a new career services workshop series that provides students with skills and information for securing employment in a depressed market. The law school has also expanded summer educational and employment opportunities with significantly increased financial support for summer public interest opportunities, increased externships, and by freezing tuition for the Vanderbilt-in-Venice summer study abroad program. Perhaps most important, the newly created Vanderbilt Law School Public Service Initiative provides six-month stipends after graduation for graduates taking any 20-hour-per week position at a public interest organization. The Initiative helps graduates gain important work experience, build their resumes, make contacts, and facilitates transition to full-time employment.
TLS: What type of debt and employment situation is the typical Vanderbilt law student going to be in after graduating near the median of his or her class?
We provide admitted applicants with detailed information about the employment of recent graduates including a complete list of employers by location for the most recent graduating class. This information allows them to see for themselves the law firms, judges, government agencies, corporations and other entities with which these graduates actually obtained employment.
Law students can take out educational loans to finance their education. Although students can borrow up to the full estimated cost of attendance ($66,022.00 for 2009/10), many students find that they can live within the imputed living expenses and do not actually bear the full estimated cost. More than two-thirds of students receive merit- or need-based scholarship aid which also reduces the need to borrow. Eighty-two percent of the J.D. Class of 2009 obtained educational loans during law school. These graduates borrowed $118,220.00 on average.
TLS: On your website, it is stressed that Vanderbilt has a national reputation. Do your students have to overcome any barriers or have a more difficult time finding jobs that are not in geographic proximity to the law school? Would you describe your school as having “national reach”?
Legal employers across the nation are familiar with the qualities of Vanderbilt graduates and regularly come to campus to recruit our students for summer and permanent employment. We are also fortunate to have a global network of more than 8,000 active alumni covering 49 states, DC, three U.S. territories, and 26 foreign nations.
Our students come from across the nation and abroad, and choose employment upon graduation in a wide variety of locations. For the J. D. Classes of 2006 through 2009 (797 graduates), 18 percent took jobs in Tennessee, and 82 percent fanned out broadly over 39 other states, D.C., and abroad. The largest numbers leaving the state took employment in New York (10.3%), Georgia, (8.4%), D.C. (7.9%), Texas (6.3%), Illinois (5.8%), California (5.4%), North Carolina (4.4%), and Florida (3.4%). The remainder (about 30 percent) took employment in 32 additional states or abroad (3.3%).
Unlike schools that usually send a majority of new graduates to one or two employment markets, Vanderbilt graduates take employment in many different markets across the nation. Although Vanderbilt graduates are not immune to the uncertainty that new graduates of all law schools currently face, they are well-positioned by Vanderbilt’s longstanding reputation in geographically diverse markets. There is also reason to think that Vanderbilt’s comparatively small size (about 200 graduating J.D.s each year) will continue to benefit new graduates seeking employment in a depressed market.
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 the Vanderbilt University Law School?
Law school is a significant investment in your future, and the decision of where to attend deserves care, attention, and reflection. The application and admission processes offer many opportunities for you to explore the legal profession and legal education – take advantage of those opportunities. More importantly, these processes can present opportunities for self-discovery that can set the stage for productive and rewarding experiences in law school and as a professional.
Thank you for the opportunity to discuss these topics and for your interest in Vanderbilt.
On behalf of Top-Law-Schools.com and its many members interested in Vanderbilt University Law School, thank you very much for providing this informative and exclusive interview.
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