Interview with Ann Perry, Assistant Dean for Admissions at The University of Chicago Law School

Published July 2009 would like to thank Assistant Dean for Admissions at The University of Chicago Law School, Ann Perry, for providing this exclusive interview.

TLS: What kind of emphasis do you place on quality of the undergrad institution?

Students come from over a hundred undergraduate schools. I wouldn’t say we put an overemphasis on the undergrad institution, because we have such a broad range represented. I really feel that there are a lot of good schools out there that can prepare students for law school. The students need to avail themselves to a good education and I feel that that can happen in a lot of good academic settings.

We look at each individual application — and obviously their undergraduate records, transcript and institution — but that’s just one of the many pieces of the puzzle when we’re reviewing an application. I think any school can prepare a student to come to Chicago, as long as the student takes advantage of the academics.

TLS: What about students coming from The University of Chicago undergrad?

It is one of our top feeders because I think students that have done their undergraduate studies here want to stay and come here for law school. They’re familiar with the University, familiar with the setting — but there’s no special bonus given to University of Chicago undergrads. It’s just an obvious feeder for us.

TLS: What kind of boost is there for applying Early Decision? How does ED affect an applicant’s chances for a scholarship?

Well, when a student applies Early Decision, they’re giving a clear indication to the admissions committee that Chicago is their first choice, which can only be considered a plus in the process. However, it won’t overcome any big weakness in the application, but I think it’s a true indicator that they really want to be at Chicago. Even if the application turns over to the regular cycle, we’ll still know they applied Early Decision.

TLS: Outside of the dual econ degree, does the famed strength of the school’s economics department affect the law school? Would an applicant who was an econ major or showed a strong interest in economics get any sort of boost in admissions?

Obviously Law and Economics was founded here, so we do have that in our back pocket, but you don’t need to have majored in econ to come here to law school. It is not something you’re going to need to know a lot about in your classes.

Does econ come up in class? Yes. But it’s more the theoretical econ — it’s not going to be the statistical number crunching econ. It’s just one piece of the teaching that happens in the classroom.

You know, I looked at recently the top ten percent of the class that just graduated in June. There was only one econ major. There were two performing arts majors, chemistry, physics, mathematics, political science and history…so, I think we’re very proud of the Law and Economics, but it’s just one piece of our whole curriculum.

The fortunate thing about being on a campus like Chicago’s is that we allow our students to take classes in other areas. We really believe in that interdisciplinary approach to the study of law. A student can take up to 12 hours — so roughly four classes — in any division on campus, be it the Harris School of Public Policy, Booth for business, or the medical school. We’ve had students take medical ethics. There are hundreds of classes that are cross-listed between us and another department that don’t even get counted toward those 12 hours, and that’s the reason why we’re on the quarter system and we’re on our campus: to allow our students that flexibility to take classes of many interests. You can take language classes, you can take econ, you can international relations; there’s a lot of broad subject areas you can cover outside the law.

TLS: Applying after which date might put an applicant at a disadvantage? Applying before which date might put him at advantage?

Because we have a rolling process and we review applications when they are completed, I always say the sooner you can get it in, the better. We start accepting applications September 1st and start rolling out decisions in December. Applying at the deadline is not a good idea. I think just given the rolling process, the sooner the better, which also means applicants really need to stay on top of their applications to make sure all the pieces are together. We don’t have time to go through the application and say, “Hey, you’re missing one letter of rec.” They need to stay on top of that throughout the process.

TLS: How do you deal with multiple LSAT scores?

We will see all the scores, however, we will report the highest for the statistical info that we need to report yearly. If I see a big discrepancy in LSAT scores, I think it would behoove the applicant to give us an explanation for that, because we’re going to want to see what happened.

TLS: What do you consider a big discrepancy?

Anything over probably 7 or 8 points.

TLS: What if a student first scored a 170 and then scored a 172, or something?

It just depends again on everything else in the application. You should only go into this test wanting to do it once.

TLS: How do you value graduate work and graduate GPA?

It’s another piece of the puzzle, the graduate work. I think what it does is it can show an admissions committee a little bit more about the applicant and what they’ve been doing since undergrad. But every application is different, and each individual brings his unique experiences. We will review it — we want to see it, we want to see the grades, we want to see what that person is doing with the graduate work. Graduate GPAs tend to be on the higher end. There’s a lot of As and Bs, but we want to make sure that they do well in their grad work no matter what. The work is helpful if it helps the admissions committee learn more about the applicant.

TLS: Could graduate work ever be a disadvantage?

I’ve never seen it be a disadvantage. Unless – no, I don’t think so.

TLS: What are some of the most common mistakes that you see on applications — not necessarily in terms of typos or grammar, but of “things not to do?”

I have to say, typos happen an awful lot. People leaving the track changes on…

TLS: Come on.

It happens more than you think.

Remember too, I know this sounds silly, but to follow instructions. Applicants need to use good judgment when they’re putting together application materials, meaning they need to make sure they’re answering all the questions, providing all the information that’s being requested, and not information that’s not being requested. The writing needs to be clear and concise.

I just read a transfer application and the opening line was something about Michael Jackson’s death and that’s why she was just getting to the application now. They just have to use good judgment — remember who your audience is. You have to remember that it’s a committee of faculty and administrators who are reading the applications.

TLS: So since you don’t have a Why Chicago question, does that mean that students shouldn’t write one?

It’s fine if they want — they can add it to their personal statement. I am a fan of addendums. If they feel there’s something they really want the admissions committee to know that already isn’t in their application in another way, addendums work in that way. Sometimes I think about going to a Why Chicago question; I haven’t yet, though.

We just have some people send in Dean’s Certification letters when we don’t ask for Dean’s Certification letters, and it gets bogged down. This is our second cycle being paperless, and sometimes people still send in paper.

TLS: What happens once an application goes complete?

Once it’s complete, it gets assigned to be read. Each application is read twice. And then, the committee just figures out how they all go and we start rolling out our decisions. An applicant can be admitted, denied, held, or waitlisted (and hold is kind of an early waitlist.)

TLS: Do you or your staff ever check out law school discussion websites? If so, any thoughts?

I have to say, they’re a new resource out there that students are using, so sure we’ll look at them, and they do give some information. I do want to stress that you don’t want to overly rely on some of the information, and some of it isn’t true. I think applicants should pick up the phone and call the school or go to the school’s website. I do look at them on occasion, but not a lot. During the year, I’m too busy to. It is interesting what kind of information people put up there. But I think they’re helpful, especially as one of many sources.

TLS: Could an applicant be better served focusing her personal statement on a work-related, academic-related, or personal life-related topic or issue, assuming she has compelling stories for each category?

I think all those examples could work — it just depends on how the applicant handles it. I think they should try to use whichever experience they think gives the committee the best insight into them, and the personal statement should be something new that isn’t already in the application. If they’ve written an addendum about some work experience, they shouldn’t then write their personal statement about that as well, because I really think they should use the personal statement as a way to highlight their strengths and tell the admissions committee who they are. One thing they should really avoid doing is rewriting their resume into prose form, because we do see that an awful lot.

TLS: How much should students focus on their actual desire to practice or law or what sort they might want to do?

The personal statement is a way for applicants to give the admissions committee insight into the type of person they are. I don’t think you need to write a personal statement about what kind of law you’re going to practice. Not every applicant is going to know what kind of law they want to practice — that’s why they’re going to law school. And over the three years, your interests might change, so I think that’s just something to consider.

TLS: How was Chicago’s grading system developed, and with what goals in mind? Have they been achieved?

When I was first here, it was a 55 to 80 scale, and what the dean did probably four years ago was just added a 1, so now it sort of looks like an LSAT score. But I think what our grading system does is kind of deemphasize grades. The numbers are still scaled to your traditional A, B, C, but I think it helps students distinguish themselves with employers. And the grades help identify a student’s strengths and weaknesses. I think our grading system allows for students to get back the feedback that they want. So I do think this grading scale works for our culture here, and I don’t think it’s going to change. I don’t know why they don’t do the As, Bs and Cs, but this is how it’s been, and I think if it was a problem, they would discuss it, but it hasn’t ever really been a concern. Which surprised me coming here, because I probably felt the same way and anticipated that students would get all worked up about grades, but it doesn’t really happen here.

TLS: So there’s no talk of following in others’ footsteps and getting rid of grades?

There hasn’t. I don’t know what’s going to happen to the schools that have gone to a no-grading system. I think it really will make it more difficult for students to distinguish themselves to employers and judges, because I think they kind of want to see how they’ve done. It’ll be interesting to see.

TLS: Chicago has only a few listed degree programs. How popular are these? Do students have the option to create their own program?

We have a few formalized dual degree programs, but this doesn’t foreclose students from doing JDs with other divisions, if they want, that aren’t formal. We really encourage that flexibility. When you do the dual degree, you are obviously taking yourself off the three-year JD track. Every year we do graduate about 10-15 dual degree students. I think students do take advantage of the interdisciplinary approach here, and take classes in other divisions, and I think that kind of whets their appetite for another topic and then they don’t have to do a formal joint program.

TLS: Which ones would you say are the most popular?

I would have to say our MBA program with Booth (School of Business).

TLS: How does Chicago’s faculty set itself apart from those at other schools?

They love to teach and they love to write their scholarship, and I think we do a good job of giving them all the time to do that. I think it’s pretty amazing that our top faculty teach our first years on a regular basis — that’s what they want to do. To have David Strauss teaching you Elements, or Richard Epstein teaching you Criminal Law — I think Richard Epstein has taught every topic in the first year curriculum. I think it’s that our faculty really loves to teach.

We draw this outstanding faculty because they want to teach, and they want to write a lot of good research and scholarship, and they want to be on a campus that’s something that we pride ourselves in. They have unparalleled interaction among themselves and among students. Our faculty has roundtable lunches twice a week with each other. I think there’s very much of a collaborative spirit, and they work with each other in different areas. We have a tax professor who’s now working on climate change. They’re very engaged in each other’s work and obviously engaged in their own work.

This doesn’t even take into account all the interaction they have with students — not just in the classroom, but outside the classroom. We’re a small school; we’re all self-contained within this one expanded building. Our faculty come in the same door as the students, and leave through the same door as the students.

TLS: Are there any practice areas that Chicago is particularly proud of (besides Law and Economics)? Any that you are looking to grow?

I have to say we have a very broad curriculum after our first year, during which everyone takes the same classes but after that, you can choose from over 170 classes a year. We don’t want our students to be forced into a certain curriculum — we want them to have the academic freedom to take the courses they’re interested in, because their interests might change throughout the years.

We have a lot of classes in Corporate Law, in Law and Econ, in Criminal Law, just as examples. We have great International Law professors, we have a ton of Constitutional Law classes, we have Law and Philosophy classes… the one thing that always amazes me is how much our curriculum changes because a faculty member wants to be able to teach a certain class.

TLS: Chicago has a reputation that it's one of the most rigorous and serious of the top law schools. Do you think that’s deserved? Are there any clubs/opportunities/initiatives available to keep one's social life alive in law school and add a little more “fun?”

I don’t see it here. Our students have a lot of fun. There are over fifty student organizations, and they’re always planning something. They range from Latino Law Students to the Hemingway Society, a wine tasting group. There is a broad range of student organizations that really show our students’ interests and expand their interests. They really get involved outside the classroom. They put on a musical every winter, and over 70 students participate.

Our students have fun here. They have the whole city of Chicago in their backyard; they take advantage of that as much as possible. The city has a lot to offer. So, I have heard that reputation — I just don’t think it exists. Students do work hard, but I think all law students work hard. I think the other thing is that they also play hard. There are dances, and groups often go to events in the city like a Bulls game. On Wednesday we have “coffee mess” in the Green Lounge, which has free donuts, bagels and coffee for the whole community. Every Thursday they have a bar review, which they go to a different bar in the city. It’s kind of a surprise thing where they release the name that afternoon. We have “wine mess” here on Fridays, which is kind of a cocktail hour / happy hour at the end of the week for faculty, staff and students.

TLS: How is OCI looking for this year? Are there markedly less employers coming? Is Chicago doing anything innovative to protect the employment prospects of students facing this difficult hiring season?

We all are aware of the tougher economic times, and it’s been an issue for all law schools. But our students are in a very good position because of our small class size. We still are having an OCI! There are still lots of firms coming to visit.

The Office of Career Services staff is really taking a personalized approach to this, and we’re calling it a Track and Coach approach, working with each individual student who is having issues. The nice thing is our staff here in OCS has over a hundred years of experience among them. Five out of the six counselors have run their own career services offices, so they’ve seen up markets and they’ve seen down markets. I think we’re well-prepared to help our students if the need comes. We have tremendous contacts in the federal government, in the state government, and our judicial clerkship program is terrific.