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Interview with Renee C. Post, Associate Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid at the University of Pennsylvania School of Law
Published August 2010
TLS: First, could you talk a bit about some of the qualities that an ideal candidate for Penn Law might possess?
Dean Renee C. Post: In addition to academic achievement, we look for curiosity, determination, and intellectual engagement, both inside and outside the classroom. We look for candidates who will be active members of the Penn Law community, candidates who are drawn to our culture of collegiality and cooperation. In many regards, we are looking for bright leaders who will seize the opportunities provided by a Penn Law education and the city of Philadelphia. Our students understand that a legal education can be rigorous but also enjoyable; they have the perspective to recognize that professional achievement and academic training do not require enduring a harsh three years. How all of those qualities manifest in any single individual will vary widely, so there’s really no prototype candidate that we seek – how boring would that be! Instead, we try to create a well-rounded class of individuals; they share the common traits I listed, which make them great students who contribute to the Law School’s intellectual vitality, but they also bring diverse backgrounds and viewpoints that make Penn a dynamic place to study law. What’s more, an ideal candidate is very often one who surprises us – the qualities that person possesses will survive the filter of conventional wisdom.
TLS: How important are factors other than a candidate’s GPA and LSAT during the admissions process? Do any particular “soft” factors – experience in Teach for America, military service, or the Peace Corps, for example – impress more than others? Do applicants with a few years of work experience have an advantage over those applying straight from undergrad?
RP: Life experience can be a great asset in an application, particularly the examples you listed such as Teach for America, military service, or the Peace Corps, which can demonstrate an applicant’s commitment and determination. A few years of work experience can also be an asset, depending on what the experience is and on the applicant’s other strengths and characteristics. That said, such experience is not a requirement, particularly for candidates who have been actively engaged in their undergraduate institution or in other pursuits; in our recent entering class, 29 percent of students came directly from college, a number which correlates with our applicant pool.
TLS: How does Penn view graduate or other professional degrees during the admissions process? What about graduate degree GPAs? Can a high graduate GPA help compensate for a lower undergraduate GPA from an applicant’s younger years?
RP: Graduate or other professional degrees can be helpful for a couple of reasons. First, applicants with prior graduate experience can bring a valuable perspective from another discipline to the Law School, and thereby make the Law School a richer and more intellectually diverse place to study. Second, the graduate record can be a good source of information on how the applicant is likely to perform in law school. The extent to which the graduate record impacts our decision will vary depending on the nature of the application. But the higher graduate GPA can help compensate for a lower undergraduate GPA, particularly where the graduate program was highly competitive.
TLS: How many Early Decision applicants does an average year see, and about how many are accepted? Are the GPA/LSAT numbers for ED admits usually higher or lower than those accepted via regular decision? Does applying ED improve a candidate’s chances of admission?
RP: In recent years, we’ve received between 130 and 200 Early Decision applications. Our acceptance rate is the same as for Regular Decision applicants: 14%. In addition, the Early Decision students we accept have similar GPA and LSAT scores to the students we accept through our Regular Decision process. Applying Early Decision can be helpful in showing a candidate’s commitment to Penn, and may tip the scale in very close cases, but in general it does not significantly improve a candidate’s chance of admission. If financial concerns are not great and an applicant is certain that Penn is the best fit, Early Decision may be a good option; but if financial aid could impact an applicant’s decision, I would caution against applying Early Decision since applicants won’t have the benefit of comparing financial aid packages from various schools.
TLS: The Penn Law application places particular emphasis on additional essays beyond the traditional Personal Statement. Does this help the admission committee filter out applicants who may not be so deeply committed to Penn? Is an applicant at a relative disadvantage by just doing the “bare minimum” when it comes to the essays?
RP: First, let me give some background on our application. The application requires two essays: a personal statement as well as at least one supplemental essay. For the supplemental essay in the 2009-10 admissions cycle, applicants were able to choose from four supplemental essay questions, including the option to explain why their academic record or standardized test scores do not accurately reflect their ability to succeed in law school. For the supplemental essay in the upcoming 2010-11 admission cycle, there are only three supplemental essay questions from which to choose, as we’ve moved the academic record question to its own “optional essay” section. We decided to move that question after finding that a number of applicants were choosing it and not the other essay topics, which often give us a better sense of the applicant.
With that background, the answer to your question is that we don’t look to the number of essays answered to filter applicants. All applicants provide a personal statement and at least one supplemental essay; if an applicant wants to answer more than one supplemental essay question, they are welcome to do so, but an applicant who answers just one will not be at a disadvantage. In the 2010-11 admissions cycle, applicants may also choose to submit an optional essay on the academic record question; applicants who don’t have any issues to address will obviously not be at a disadvantage for foregoing the optional essay, while those with clear issues – and explanations for those issues – should probably address them. It really depends on the particular applicant and on the quality and content of the writing.
TLS: As for the “5 year plan” question, what advice would you give to applicants who can’t imagine what they might be doing in five years’ time?
RP: The best essays tend to approach the question broadly and creatively. Even if you don’t know exactly what you’ll be doing in five years, the fact that you plan to attend law school means that you hope to be changed, or to develop some particular skills and knowledge, in the upcoming years. Speak about that. What do you wish to get out of your law school experience? How will you be transformed? How do you think law school will equip you for whatever you dream of doing after you graduate? And of course, if you do have particular plans for after graduation – to be a prosecutor or public defender, to join the DOJ, to enter private practice or academia, whatever you envision – this is your chance to get that across.
TLS: What advice do you have about writing addenda in an attempt to explain things like low GPA/LSAT, criminal record, etc?
RP: Write the addenda! You don’t want the Committee guessing about what may or may not have happened. We have wonderful imaginations. Be brief and articulate when writing your explanation. Use your judgment when determining how many explanations to write.
Note: In the 2010-2011 application, our optional essay is the following - If you do not think that your academic record or standardized test scores accurately reflect your ability to succeed in law school, please tell us why.
TLS: What percentage of students generally receives scholarships? How are students selected to receive scholarships? Is there anything prospective students can do to increase their chances of receiving aid?
RP: Between 45 and 50% of each incoming class receives scholarships in the form of outright grants. This does not include institutional aid provided to students who wish to pursue public interest work during the summer or after graduation. Applicants are automatically evaluated for merit-based scholarships – they do not need to apply for the scholarships specifically. If nominated for a scholarship, applicants may be asked for additional information. The best thing applicants can do to increase their chances for aid is submit a strong application, and for need-based aid, submit the required financial paperwork.
TLS: Will the current state of the economy affect the amount of scholarship and need-based aid given out?
RP: The economic downturn has not diminished Penn Law’s ability to provide student aid. In fact, the Law School is extending more scholarship funds and need-based aid than before the downturn. This is happening for a few reasons. First, since we have a need-blind admissions policy, to the extent the downturn increases students’ financial need, we are meeting it. Second, we have been increasing merit-based awards. Finally, we are increasing aid this summer to assist students in otherwise non-funded public interest or government internships.
TLS: Is transferring into Penn difficult? On average, how big is the transfer class each year? What can a transfer applicant do – other than make high grades – to be a competitive applicant?
RP: The transfer process is highly competitive, but we do accept a number of transfer applicants each year. On average, we receive between 150 and 200 transfer applications each year, and enroll between 20 and 30 transfer students. In evaluating transfer applications, we employ the same holistic approach we use when evaluating first year applications; all factors of the application are reviewed and considered. That said, we place particular emphasis on transfer applicants’ performance in the first year of law school and the strength of the academic program from which they seek to transfer. With that in mind, we require two letters of recommendation, preferably from law school professors. (Frankly, it is more than just a suggestion: in nearly all cases, the two letters of recommendation should be from law school professors.) We also look for a well-crafted personal statement. As far as what transfer applicants can do to strengthen their applications, I would give the same advice I give all applicants: tell us your story, tell us what’s distinctive about you, and tell us earlier rather than later.
TLS: Does Penn view transfer applicants purely based on their law school performance, or does the school also take into account undergraduate GPA and LSAT score?
RP: We employ the same holistic approach we employ when evaluating first year applications to transfer applications; all factors of the application are reviewed and considered. That said, we do place particular emphasis on the applicants’ performance in the first year of law school as well as letters of recommendation from first-year faculty.
TLS: What do you think are legitimate reasons for a student to transfer? Do you think transferring ever hurts a student’s job prospects?
RP: Students transfer for a host of reasons. Some cite a change in academic or professional interests; others are guided by personal circumstance. Each of those reasons can be legitimate, as long as the applicant has a genuine desire to attend the different school and specifically articulates this desire.
As far as the impact of transferring on job prospects, transferring does not hurt a Penn Law student’s job prospects. Successful transfer applicants to Penn Law have the opportunity to fully participate in the on-campus interview program as well as individualized counseling about the clerkship process. We are also fully accommodating with journal writing competitions and class registration. This is, I believe, unique among our peer schools.
TLS: On average, how many students are placed on the Penn Law waitlist each year, and how many make it off? Do you have any advice for currently waitlisted applicants looking to increase their chances of being selected?
RP: First, we understand that being waitlisted is not the applicant’s first choice, but in recent years we have admitted waitlisted candidates. Also, this season members of the Admissions Office were available to meet with waitlisted candidates either in person or over the phone. We do request that candidates schedule a call/visit to ensure someone is available for the meeting.
The number of waitlisted applicants varies from year to year, depending on the competitiveness of the pool. On average, a few hundred applicants accept the invitation to join the waitlist. The Admissions Committee begins its review of the waitlist in mid-May after seat deposits are received. The Committee then works progressively to release students from the waitlist throughout the summer. On average, between 30 and 40 students are admitted from the waitlist each year.
Applicants who are waitlisted should examine their applications for gaps or inconsistencies and supplement their applications where appropriate. Examples include additional letters of recommendation, additional free-topic essays, and updated resumes. Candidates should also keep the Committee apprised of their plans as the summer months progress.
An equally important question is what waitlisted candidates should not do. Yes, candidates should keep the Committee apprised of any changes – but daily phone calls and emails are unhelpful. Candidates should use their professional judgment when updating the Committee.
TLS: How are Penn students faring in this economy? Do you have 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?
RP: Our students are faring quite well. Penn Law’s focus on cross-disciplinary education prepares our students to serve as leaders and problem solvers in our ever-changing global economy. Our students and graduates have looked at the challenges of our current legal economy as an opportunity to grow and develop the skills necessary to move our industry forward. Our most recent numbers, which are for students in the class of 2009, show that 98 percent were either employed or continuing their educations upon graduation, with another one or two percent finding employment shortly after. Additionally, the increase that we are seeing in the number of firms signing up for OCI is a strong indication that the traditional legal market is showing signs of recovery.
TLS: Could you talk a bit about Penn’s pro bono requirement and commitment to community service?
RP: Penn Law requires every JD student to complete at least 70 hours of pro bono work before graduation, and students tend to really value the experience, with over 2/3 exceeding the requirement. The director and fellows at our Toll Public Interest Center work with our students to help them find a pro bono project that matches their interests and skills, whether in an agency in the city, or through a project that the student develops from the ground up.
The Law School is highly committed to fostering pro bono and public interest service, and in the past several years we’ve been able to back up that commitment with significantly expanded financial support. For example, we’ve enhanced our loan forgiveness program, created new public interest fellowships, and this past summer, we guaranteed funding for all students who have public interest or government internships and applied for funding from the Law School.
TLS: What is your opinion of the U.S. News and World Report rankings system and the influence it holds in the law school community?
RP: Oh, The Rankings. On the one hand, rankings are a valuable tool for helping potential candidates compare the relative strength and prestige of various law schools. On the other hand, I think it’s important to keep in mind that rankings can’t capture everything.
At Penn Law, for example, we put a lot of emphasis on cross-disciplinary education, and on having a truly supportive and collegial community. We are very deliberate about making Penn Law a welcoming place. The Law School does not class-rank students; we assign interview slots during on-campus recruiting by lottery, not grades; we limit each year’s class size to just 250 students, so professors know their students and students know each other; all faculty, students and staff are located in four buildings whose intersections form an interior courtyard. Equally important, our collegiality is sustained by our students, who self-select to study the law where the support they receive is as great as the challenges they will confront. None of these factors is considered when calculating the rankings, but that doesn’t make them any less important.
Bottom line: I believe the best way to approach rankings is from a broad perspective.
TLS: Do any members of the Penn Law admissions staff ever investigate admissions-focused websites like Top-Law-Schools? If so, what are your thoughts on such sites?
RP: My colleagues and I in the admissions office will often ask our incoming students what websites, books, or other sources they consulted for information about Penn Law before they applied or enrolled. Some students have responded that they read admissions-focused websites like Top-Law-Schools. Knowing that, I think it’s important that our admissions staff is at least familiar with such sites. We don’t have any formal approach, but we do read the websites from time to time to get a sense of what’s being said. If we read the websites on a regular basis, though, we would, of course, lose our minds trying to please everyone (and trying to decipher the lingo).
My general feeling is that information is a good thing, and that goes for admissions-focused websites. The caveat, which I’d probably apply to any blog or website with open comments, is that some information will be accurate and helpful, but other information may not. As long as visitors approach the websites with that caveat in mind – and my sense is that they generally do – I think the websites can be one more source of helpful information for potential applicants.
TLS: What advice do you have for the users of TLS, about the admissions process and law school in general?
RP: First and foremost, research the law schools and the legal profession. Talk to lawyers and people who have attended law school to learn about their experiences. Once you decide to apply to law school, think about fit. Can you see yourself spending three years at this school? That can be a hard question to answer based on books and websites alone, so I strongly encourage candidates to visit the law schools – there’s no substitute for that firsthand experience.
As for the application process, I have a lot of advice – but will focus on two major components. First, submit your materials earlier than later as the Committee reviews applications based on the order they are completed. And second, think about your application holistically, particularly when applying to Penn. What story does your application tell the admissions officers? Does it capture who you are and why you are a great candidate? The Committee realizes that applicants have many good choices, and the admissions process consists, to some extent, in persuading us that Penn Law is the best fit for the applicant, and vice-versa. It is a competitive process: we genuinely strive to enroll intelligent, interesting, and well-rounded individuals because we refuse to believe we must choose one quality over the rest. Similarly, it is important for applicants to be realistic about their chances at a school but not assume admissions decisions are based on LSAT and GPA alone. There are many factors considered when evaluating applications, and when you read as many applications as we do, it is fairly easy to determine how carefully an applicant considered the application.
TLS: Once again, Dean Post, thanks very much for your time.
RP: It was my pleasure.
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