Interview with Edward Tom, Dean of Admissions U.C. Berkeley Boalt Hall School
Interview conducted on behalf of Top Law Schools by Ken DeLeon, Boalt Graduate, Class of 1998, published November 2006, last updated May 2009
Top Law Schools: Dean Tom, thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts and insight on the admissions process to Boalt. You often joke that you are not the Dean of Admissions, but instead the Dean of Denials at Boalt Hall because Boalt is so selective, with an acceptance rate of just above 10% in recent years. This interview will allow applicants to better understand the Boalt admissions process and thereby possibly have the opportunity to study law at one of the world’s leading law schools, an opportunity I am thankful to have had.
Top Law Schools (TLS): The personal statement seems to be the part of the application a student can most independently influence. Can you offer students any advice regarding writing the personal statement?
Dean Tom: “The personal statement is the first thing I look at when I open a folder, even before viewing the GPA or LSAT score. I think applicants should be aware that our personal statement option is twice as long as most other law schools, it’s 4 pages, and students should take advantage of that. There’s no particular assignment for our personal statement; it’s very open-ended. The personal statements is the applicant’s opportunity to distinguish himself from hundreds of other applicants who have the same numbers, and the same major, and come from a similar school. The personal statement is an applicant’s opportunity to describe the distance they’ve come in their lives.
Most everyone is a very different person now than they were in high school and along that journey they develop a voice that they will be bringing into the classroom. I want to learn about the journey that developed that voice, and to the decision to apply to law school. We are looking for intellectually curious people, and we are looking for people with a diverse array of experiences. So, the ideal personal statement would bring all of that out.
The personal statement is also a sample of your writing, and we are looking for precision of writing skills. It is not up to Boalt to teach you how to write a sentence. There should be no typos, no spelling errors, and no punctuation errors. Please change the name of the school; we don’t want to know how happy you are to apply to some other school. Also, don’t submit anything too far out there: no movies, no scripts, and no law transcripts.
TLS: Excellent. Is the personal statement topic to avoid something like, ‘I have wanted to be a lawyer since age 8’ or not?
Dean Tom: “Well, that theme has been used a lot, of course. And it’s one thing to say it, and it’s another thing to have the experience in your background to back it up. We’re not as interested in applicants who wish to attend law school because they watch “Law and Order”, or because they want to drive a fancy car, or because they like the cut of the suits. You know the law has a connection to politics, it has a connection to economics, it has a connection to the arts, to technology; you name it. And that’s the kind of applicant we’re out there to find. We are more interested in people who have a blazing kind of curiosity about this thing that’s holding civilization together, and to contributing scholarly research to that end.
TLS: Is there any other written material that a student may submit?
Dean Tom: “Yes. You can also send a resume, which I recommend doing. The resumes are generally one page, but that can be exceeded. More information can usually only help your application, so throw in the kitchen sink. There are no interviews, and I want to get to know the human behind the numbers. Also, you can send an addendum, one or two paragraphs on a separate page, dedicated to any particular talking points desired.”
TLS: I think applicants will find that information quite useful. Do you have any additional thoughts on the personal statement?
Dean Tom: “Putting together an entering class is like organizing a choir; we want 270 distinct voices. There are hundreds of similar applicants, but only one of you; so take the opportunity provided by the personal statement to let us hear your voice.”
Letters of Recommendation
TLS: And what advice would you offer students with respect to letters of recommendation?
Dean Tom: “You should cultivate two substantive letters, from people who can discuss your academic potential. Usually that is a professor or a teaching assistant. The second best letters come from people at work, supervisors who can comment on your research, analytical skills and writing ability in particular.
Letters from famous people whom you met once, friends of the family, or a judge for whom you babysat are not helpful. 3 letters of recommendation are ok, even 4 is fine, however 5 is probably pushing it.”
TLS: So it would be better to get a letter from a teaching assistant who knows you very well, than a professor who does not?
Dean Tom: “Absolutely.”
TLS: Ok. Excellent. For large state schools the teaching assistant is oftentimes your best contact.
Dean Tom: “Definitely.”
Admissions Process – Rating Applications
TLS: What does the admissions process consist of, and how is an application rated?
Dean Tom: “Well, all the files are read, previewed initially by me or by one of my staff. I have 4 other people who help me with the application process initially. However, I read the bulk of them. I read about two-thirds of the applicant pool, while the other 4 read the other one-third.”
TLS: Wow, busy man.
Dean Tom: “Yeah. But it’s structured this way because I know what I’m looking for. And, if my staff finds an applicant whom they want to admit, they have to bring the file to me for a final review. Concurrent to this review process we also identify about 1400 to 1600 other applications that are very competitive, and these we send to our faculty admissions committee, comprised of 6 faculty and 12 students. Students serve in an advising capacity on the committee. I admit roughly 550 people through what I call the administrative review process, and the admissions committee (the faculty committee) admits about another 200 or so. So, we end up admitting about 700 to 750 people. The admissions committee also structures a waiting list, and then everyone else is denied, either administratively or by the Committee.
This year for example, we received approximately 7100 applications. We admitted roughly 750, and we’re going to enroll a class of about 270. The applications go up and down a little bit from year to year, but in terms of admission, the number of people we offer admission to, and the size of the class, that’s about the same.”
Total Number of Applicants and Acceptances
TLS: This year applications were 7100, I think last year was 7500?
Dean Tom: “Yeah, application volume went down about 5% this year.”
TLS: I think UCLA was down 15% this year. Almost all of the top law schools had declines in the number of applicants.
Dean Tom: “Still, even if we dropped 10%, it’s still way too many applicants for the relatively small size of our entering class.”
TLS: Very true.
Dean Tom: “I remember a day when we routinely received 4,000 applications, and we thought that was a lot”
TLS: So, applications are cyclical to the economy, where poor employment prospects results in an increase of applicants and vice-versa.
Dean Tom: “Yes, but over the past ten years, a general upper trend in applications.”
Hierarchy of Application Segments
TLS: Does Boalt have an approximate hierarchy on what is most valuable for admissions: GPA, LSAT, etc?
Dean Tom: “I know that there is a perception out there in the cyberspace world that we value GPAs a lot more than LSATs, and I’m not sure where people get that. Because if you look at our index formula, we are purposeful in weighting it so that GPA and LSAT are roughly equivalent. So, if I had to characterize our review process, it’s about one-third LSAT score, about one-third academic record – I prefer to call it academic record because GPA is just so narrow, whereas with academic record we consider all of the factors that impacted the GPA: work responsibilities, extra-curricular activities, rigor of major, and so on. The last third is the subjective factors -- what one says in their personal statement, and what others say about them in their letters of recommendation. So, no, I don’t think either of the two quantitative factors is more important than the other.”
TLS: Ok, roughly equal.
Dean Tom: “Yes, they’re both important.”
TLS: I wonder if other schools maybe weigh the LSAT more, so relatively Boalt seems to weigh GPA higher.
Dean Tom: “I can’t help you there.”
TLS: But Boalt’s GPAs are very high, usually among the top 4 law schools as far as GPAs.
Dean Tom: “Oh, really? It’s a 3.8 median.”
TLS: What is the size of Boalt’s waitlist?
Dean Tom: “Usually the waitlist is anywhere from 200-300 applicants who are ranked by the admissions committee.”
TLS: Roughly how deep into the waitlist does Boalt go?
Dean Tom: “This year, not very deep. I think the deepest we’ve ever gone was a number of years back, we took about 40 people.”
TLS: Wow, not many.
Dean Tom: “No. This year it was 12. But, it varies from year to year, and this year, because I knew how good the people were on the waiting list, I intentionally admitted fewer people up front, thinking that I could go deeper into the waiting list. But, I wasn’t able to, because the yield rate was very high. A large percentage of accepted applicants decided to attend. ”
TLS: Good for Boalt.
Dean Tom: “Yeah, well, so much for my big idea.”
TLS: If one ends up on the waitlist, is there anything that you can do to increase the likelihood of admission?
Dean Tom: “No. There’s nothing you can do to improve your chances. And we tell people that when we inform them that they are on the waiting list. The waiting list is ranked by the faculty at the time the decision is made to waitlist them, because we believe the information is fresh in their mind and they’re best able to assign a waitlist ranking at that time.”
TLS: So saying that you’re still interested doesn’t matter?
Dean Tom: “Well, that helps us, but it’s not going to improve your chances or position.”
California Residency and In-State Tuition
TLS: On another topic, out-of-state students may feel discouraged to apply to such a selective state school. Does Boalt equally favor in-state and out-of-state students, or is there an advantage to being a California resident?
Dean Tom: “The number of in-state and out-of-state admits is just about equal now and both groups have average LSAT scores and GPAs that are equivalent.
Dean Tom: “Of course, the other nice thing is that those who are not California residents can qualify for resident tuition after one year.”
TLS: Exactly, and California’s pretty unique. I know Virginia and Michigan will not allow this.
Dean Tom: “Yes, that’s what I’ve heard.”
TLS: Because I think if you compare out-of-state tuition we’re equal to other top law schools, but if you factor in the savings from the later two years, Boalt is much cheaper overall. As I personally know, it’s pretty easy to get residency, and I think it’s a huge savings for those attending University of California law schools.
TLS: Regarding transfer students, Boalt generally accepts a decent amount, 20-30 students, is that correct?
Dean Tom: “We have actually increased the size of our transfer class now, to about 35-40 students. Right now, we have an incoming transfer class of 37. The transfer students applicant pool is anywhere from 200-300, this year about 280 people applied.”
TLS: That’s actually a pretty high acceptance rate for Boalt, for the acceptance rate for general admission is generally just above 10%.
Dean Tom: “Transfer applicants should be at the top 5-8% of their first-year class.”
TLS: Is there a sliding scale a little bit, where if you come from a very good law school, you will not have to be as highly ranked?”
Dean Tom: “Yes, there is some balance.”
TLS: But transfers are pretty impressive. One of my friends was first in his class at the University of San Diego Law School, and he did quite well here after transferring into Boalt.
Dean Tom: “Yes, transfer students generally excel at Boalt.”
TLS: They’re such hard workers.
Dean Tom: “Exactly.”
TLS: You touched on this a little bit at the beginning, but specifically for transfers what are you looking for? Mainly academic success or are there any other important factors?
Dean Tom: “I think it’s mainly the academic success of the first year of law school. We do ask for one’s LSAT score, but the predictive value of the LSAT only goes as far as the first-year grades. So, if you have a mediocre LSAT, but you’re ranked number 1, then the LSAT didn’t accurately predict your potential. Additionally, we take subjective factors into account as well.”
Poor LSAT Score
TLS: For college seniors who take the LSAT in the fall and are unhappy with their original score, would you recommend applying as early as possible anyway, or should they retake the test and apply?
Dean Tom: “They should apply as early as possible anyway, and then retake the LSAT later on. There is a space on our application form for applicants to indicate when they have taken or will take the LSAT, and so that tells my staff to hold the file open.”
TLS: And Boalt just recently changed their policy to taking the highest LSAT score, that’s a recent development, right?
Dean Tom: “Exactly.”
TLS: This reflects the recent ABA ruling where they will now take applicant’s highest of multiple LSAT scores whereas before they averaged multiple scores.
Dean Tom: “Correct.”
TLS: I think that’s good. Before this change there was just so much pressure on that test day.
Dean Tom: “Right. And now we take the higher of the scores. I’d also like to add that I’ve been doing admissions for almost 30 years. I still haven’t been able to determine how 2 numbers alone, the GPA and LSAT, can identify whether applicants have a passion for justice, determination, leadership ability, academic curiosity, compassion for others, or that they can relate well with people.”
History of Poor Standardized Tests
TLS: For those who do poorly on the LSAT and have a history of doing poorly on standardized tests, which is not reflective of their potential, should that be discussed in the addendum?
Dean Tom: “Yes, in the addendum. And required is a copy of those SAT or other standardized test scores.”
TLS: Oh, good to know.
Dean Tom: “A lot of people say, hey, I’ve never done well on a standardized test, but look at me anyway, I’ve got a 3.8. I usually don’t believe them unless they can document their SAT score.”
Quality of Undergraduate Institution
Top Law Schools: How much does the quality of a student’s undergraduate institution greatly affect how his or her GPA is viewed? For example, is a student with a 3.8 from Stanford at much of an advantage when compared to a student with a 3.8 from a lesser school, holding all else equal?
Dean Tom: “Well, it is true that we look at the caliber and rigor of the undergraduate school for each and every applicant because we realize that some universities and programs are much more rigorous than others. Clearly if an applicant has a strong GPA from one of the great universities, then that says something about their academic potential. That being said, consideration of the applicant’s college and major are just some of the many things that go into the holistic review process we use.”
Choosing Undergraduate Field of Study
TLS: Choosing a field of study can be difficult for a student in their freshman and sophomore year of college. Are certain fields of study weighed more favorably than others by the admissions office?
Dean Tom: “I think an applicant should major in what he or she is truly interested in. There isn’t any one particular undergraduate major we favor. I would encourage a person to major in something traditionally academic. The most common majors every year are the same -- political science, history, econ, philosophy, and English. Those are just always the most commonly represented, they are not majors we go out and seek. However, I do think these majors prepare people well for law school.”
TLS: I anticipate also that there are a lot of science majors at Boalt, because of the preeminent intellectual property program.
Dean Tom: “Yes, and in increasing numbers every year, all segments of engineering and science.”
TLS: Excellent. And is a double major viewed as a positive, or not that much of a positive?
Dean Tom: “In general, a double major doesn’t give you as many points as a lot of applicants think. But it depends on what the double major is. The byword here again is the applicant should go for the double major if that’s what they truly want to do. It shouldn’t be done just to get into law school.”
Applying Directly from College versus Real World Experience
TLS: Does Boalt have a preference for applicants who apply directly out of college, or for those who get some ‘real world’ experience?
Dean Tom: “If we have a preference, it would be for someone with a little more experience. The average age of our student body is about 25. Overall, Boalt is interested in interesting people. If applicants come to us with a little bit of experience, they have more leverage in their application. Also, taking time off before law school, for whatever reason, is a good thing. If you take time off you usually are more focused.”
TLS: If someone is a bit below Boalt’s standards that might be something they can do to improve their standing, whether it’s the Peace Corps or something else.
Dean Tom: “Sure, it could bolster their chances a little bit, or augment, sure.”
TLS: And is there any sort of ideal profession to increase one’s chances of being accepted at Boalt?
Dean Tom: “I don’t think that matters. What matters is the voice the person has developed as a consequence of his or her experience; it’s not the experience itself. Unless, of course, if it was something directly related to policy-making or something like that then that would be a factor. But even then, I think we’re more interested in the individual’s perspective and curiosity and what they will bring into a classroom as a result of whatever experiences they may have had.”
TLS: A lot of people think about becoming a paralegal. Is that helpful?
Dean Tom: “There are a lot of people who apply as paralegals, and a lot of successful applicants happen to be paralegals, or worked as interns in law firms. If anything, I think it helps the candidate realize the life that a lawyer must pursue. The kind of hours they have to keep, for example, is one of many examples. So, it is educational for them.
TLS: From Boalt’s perspective, probably something more exotic and unique would be more helpful for developing one’s voice.
Dean Tom: “Well, people develop voices and experience by virtue of a lot of different activities and circumstances, and because we are interested in producing a graduates who will go into a wide variety of jobs, and because we believe that the caliber of a Boalt degree is really a function of the caliber of the dialogue that happens throughout law school, we are naturally interested in the voices that comprise that dialogue, that synergistically work together in the class to be engaging. And you know how it is here, you learn as much from your fellow students as you do from your professors.”
TLS: I would completely concur, I lived in a larger home in the Oakland hills with five other Boalties and would constantly enter into philosophic and legal debates, and I loved it. All Boalties were very unique and interesting people. So I was impressed.
Dean Tom: “Right”
Applying with a Previous Graduate Degree
TLS: Boalt has a high percentage of students who already have a masters or Ph.D. Does a graduate degree increase an applicant’s chance of being accepted?
Dean Tom: “Having a graduate degree is a plus in the process. 18-20% of our students have at least a master’s degree. If you have a previous graduate degree, you should also send in those transcripts. Your graduate GPA is not factored into your undergraduate GPA, but it is definitely looked at.”
Personal Information: Background, Ethnicity, Sexual Preference
TLS: When and where should a student include information about their background, ethnicity, sexual preference, or any unique attributes?
Dean Tom: “That’s up to the applicant, whether or not they want to share that, but we welcome any kind of that information, especially if the applicant believes that contributed to who they are. And there’s no formal recommended place to include it. It could be in the addendum or as a separate statement. Race, ethnicity and sex are not considered in the review process though.”
TLS: Ok. So you can even do a separate statement, in addition to the resume and the addendum?
Dean Tom: “Sure, sure. That would be fine. I will say this, that we’re much more interested in how it’s presented and this, I think, a lot of applicants ought to know – grammar counts, precision of writing counts, punctuation, spelling all count a lot. And there’s nothing more disappointing than seeing an applicant with a good GPA, but poor writing skills. I don’t know how that happens, but it does. We’re not able at this law school to teach students how to write a sentence. They’ve got to know that coming in.”
TLS: I presume that the personal statement is another place where you could talk about your unique background?
Dean Tom: “Yes, absolutely.”
Proposition 209: Cannot Consider Ethnicity or Gender
TLS: I know that with Proposition 209, Boalt is precluded from implementing affirmative action, but does ethnic background still play any role in admissions?
Dean Tom: “No. As a result of 209, we did modify our review process to be much more holistic, rather than numbers centered, which I liked. I think it results in an entering class every year that is diverse across the board. We still have strong ethnic representation in the class, almost where it was before 209. And it is more challenging for an admissions office to accomplish that now because the minority students who are admitted here without affirmative action are among the top minority students throughout the country. They are being courted by all the great schools and so it is particularly satisfying when they choose us.”
TLS: Boalt has a very high percentage of female students, such as 58% recently. Does gender play any role in admission?
Dean Tom: “57% of this year’s entering class are women. We have had more women than men in recent entering classes, that’s right. But you know, 209 says that we can’t take sex into account either.”
TLS: Well, women generally do better in college.
Dean Tom: “I have read a lot of articles in major newspapers about how, in general, there are more women than men in college these days, and that they are doing better than men in college. So, I’m expecting this trend to continue.”
Financial Aid: Scholarships and Matching Financial Aid
TLS: Does Boalt award merit-based scholarships?
Dean Tom: “Yes. Some.”
TLS: Ok. But the majority of financial aid is definitely need-based.
Dean Tom: “Yes, need- and merit-based.”
TLS: Could you please discuss Boalt’s policy of trying to match financial aid of peer law schools?
Dean Tom: “We have a matching program for which admitted students may apply. They simply send us a copy of their scholarship award letter from another school to which they’ve been admitted. But the school’s got to be on our list of competitors. And it’s not an automatic thing that their financial aid is ‘matched.’ They still have to go through the financial aid review process. Now when we say ‘matching program,’ it’s not a dollar for dollar match. We re-structure their financial aid here so that it becomes no more expensive for them to attend here than the other school. The matching program also takes into account the applicant’s reduced tuition once they get in-state tuition starting their second year. The other thing that’s cool about financial aid here is that almost all of our scholarships are three years.”
TLS: Oh, excellent. Many scholarships are just for the first year, aren’t they?
Dean Tom: “At other places. But here the majority are for all three years”
TLS: Is the peer list anyone outside the top 10, or just the usual schools?
Dean Tom: “The usual suspects”
TLS: Who would you say actually is Boalt’s biggest competitor, Stanford?
Dean Tom: “Stanford, Harvard, Yale, Columbia. It varies a bit from year to year.”
TLS: Yeah, but I certainly couldn’t see someone picking Michigan over Boalt.
Dean Tom: “Some people do. It’s such a personal choice.”
Changes in Admission Trends
TLS: What changes if any, have you noticed in the admission trends in recent years, and where do you see Boalt’s admissions heading?
Dean Tom: “I’ve seen more women than men applying in recent years and being more successful in the process too. I have seen a slight increase in older applicants applying, and getting in. And by older I’m talking about people in their 30’s and 40’s. And the last thing is that there are more people applying to Boalt with science backgrounds in engineering, medicine, the sciences, PhD’s in molecular biology, that sort of thing.”
TLS: Have there been any changes in Boalt’s admissions or focus?
Dean Tom: “There has been a slight change in our admission goal. Our mission used to be to provide our students with a world-class legal education, which of course includes traditional courses augmented by clinics and litigation simulation courses. The mission of the school has evolved so that superimposed over the basic mission is a very theoretical, intellectual policy-oriented thrust. I tell people now that Boalt’s main mission is to train policy-makers and leaders who happen to be good attorneys.
And, to back that up, a lot of our curriculum is now housed within ten academic centers -- think-tanks that concentrate on a particular area of the law. So, for example, we now operate a center for law and morality, we have a center for law and technology, a center for law, business and the economy, a center for international and comparative law, and so on. All of the centers are described on our website. We believe that Boalt is particularly situated to address some of the cutting edge issues in society. We are situated on the Berkeley campus. We have a great history, an incredible faculty and fabulous resources. So, in addition to training top lawyers we have an opportunity to generate scholarly research in many of the most cutting edge issues of the day. Each center also produces a law review or journal as well as annual conferences and symposia.
Another factor that’s not part of general admissions is that we’re growing. We’re growing the faculty by 40%. And we’re building, there’s a building fund-raising campaign underway, and our intent is to add a really significant wing to the school in the next few years.”
TLS: Yes, I’m impressed with Dean Edley’s fundraising goals. Very bold.”
Dean Tom: “The man’s on fire.”
TLS: It’s just excellent. If you’re so excited, I’m sure other faculty members are.
Dean Tom: “I have never been so excited to be at Boalt since Dean Edley’s joining us and bringing forward the many improvements and innovations. We put on-line this year two centers; one is the Earl Warren Institute on Race, Ethnicity, and Diversity. The other is the Center for Law Business and the Economy. “
TLS: Boalt’s centers offer a great opportunity for students to specialize in a particular area of law. When a student applies should they have an exact idea of what they want to study at Boalt?
Dean Tom: “While the centers are there for student research, there is no need or requirement to know an area specialization before you come to Boalt. The curriculum is very deep and broad. Many people graduate without specializing at all in any one area.”
Boalt’s Specific Attributes
TLS: What do you think makes Boalt stand out from peer law schools?
Dean Tom: “I think the thing that sets us apart most is that the relative level of neurotic behavior at Boalt is lower than at most other law schools. And that’s a comment on the students. And not only the students who enroll, but it’s also a comment on an admissions process that expends a lot of energy and work and pride in identifying very bright students who, as a group, don’t take themselves too seriously, who, as a group, are centered, rather than self-centered, people.”
TLS: What other strengths does Boalt have?
Dean Tom: “Amazing curriculum, location, the faculty, resources on a lot of different levels, and I think Berkeley is a great place to live and study law.”
TLS: And the Berkeley campus offers so much and has so many great graduate institutions.
Dean Tom: “I think it’s important to somehow also get across that sometimes this works against us. And in particular one area, which is the perception among the pre-law world nationwide, that if you go to Berkeley you can’t get a job outside of California. People believe this because our placement statistics are skewed to the West Coast even though we do have many graduates in big market areas -- New York, Boston, and Washington D.C. But unlike a school, say, in the Midwest, that may send its students to the two coasts, people who come to Berkeley usually don’t want to leave the Bay Area or the West Coast. After spending three years here, even if they’ve never been here before, even if they were born and raised on the East Coast, they come out here, and chances are that after three years of law school, this is the place where they want to settle down, raise a family, and get a job.”
TLS: Yeah. This was certainly true for me. I was from Florida and never thought I would end up in the San Francisco Bay Area, but I fell in love with it and successfully sought to get a job at a nearby law firm in Silicon Valley.
Dean Tom: “True for you. So, you know those advantages that I ticked off, location, weather, and all that, kind of work against us. But on the other hand, placement rate here is very high, and coming out of Boalt you stand an excellent chance of getting a job anywhere you want.”
TLS: You somewhat addressed this previously, but the ideal candidate for admission to Boalt Hall would possess what qualities?
Dean Tom: “Curiosity, very strong academic potential, a centered person who has been out of school a year or two, an interest in an interdisciplinary approach to the study of law, and someone who is not applying because of outside pressures or expectations. Also the ideal candidate should be someone who enjoys school. You know, I don’t care where you go to law school, it’s a lot of work, and you’ve got to like school. Law school is like taking the subway or Bart. The train arrives, the door opens, you enter, but this train picks up speed without stopping. Enjoy the trip, because the train won’t be stopping for awhile.”
TLS: Excellent. And then, the concluding question: any additional advice that you’d like to offer applicants when they apply for the next academic year?
Dean Tom: “Yes. You must apply early. Even though we don’t have an early decision program, the early bird does catch the worm here. And by early I’m talking about October, mid-November at the latest. Even if you’re taking the December LSAT, you should send in your application to us ahead of time. Use the Law Services electronic application that’s available now. It’s a great product and it works very, very well. You can just apply online through them. Our application is available on our website in PDF form too. But if you use the Law Services version everything comes to us in a bundle: your LSAT score, your letters of recommendation, your personal statement, and it expedites things for the candidate.
A lot of people make the mistake of filling out their applications over the Christmas holidays. But I start reading applications in late October, and I start making offers at that time. Because we have a finite number of offers to make, not only are there fewer spots available later in the process, the competition for those spots increases.”
TLS: What percent would you say get their applications in by mid-November or earlier?
Dean Tom: “Well, it’s increasing now because we’ve been getting the word out to do this. I think that we probably get now at least half of our applications by mid-November.”
TLS: Any last thoughts?
Dean Tom: “I think Boalt offers an ideal combination of great academics, quality of life, and location and I hope to review your readers’ applications soon.”
TLS: Dean Tom, thank you so much for your unique insights into this process. I am certain that our readers will find this information valuable, and will be inspired to apply to the excellent law school at Boalt Hall.
Dean Tom: “You are very welcome.”
How Long Should My Law School Personal Statement Be?
by Daniel Coogan
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Although much of the law school application process has been standardized, there are still some aspects of it that change from school to school. One such aspect is the length of the law school personal statement.
To illustrate this point, let’s take a look at several schools’ personal statement length guidance:
- Harvard has strict requirements for length and formatting of personal statements: 2 pages maximum, 11pt minimum font size, 1-inch margins, double spaced
- Columbia asks for two double-spaced pages “using readable fonts and margins”
- UC Berkeley asks for a personal statement that is “ideally four, double-spaced pages”
- Georgetown states: “There is no minimum or maximum length. We do not feel that an applicant’s personal statement should be limited.”
These examples show that there is great variety in both length requirements and in specificity in describing those requirements.
So what is an applicant to do? Most applicants apply to ten or more schools, and it is unfeasible to write a different version of one’s personal statement for each school one applies to. Instead, we recommend that you write two versions of your personal statement: a 2-page version and a 3+ page version. These two versions, with some minor modifications, will satisfy all length requirements.
Start by writing the three-page version, finalize it, and then pare it down to a two-page version if necessary. (It will almost certainly be necessary: two pages is the most common length requirement.) The process of paring down the essay may be painful and may take several hours over a couple of sittings, but it is much easier than writing two different essays.
A few additional rules of thumb:
- Follow each school’s instructions to the letter. We mentioned Harvard’s requirements above: 2 pages, 11pt minimum font size, one-inch margins, double-spaced. If they spent the time putting together those requirements, they don’t want you to deviate from them.
- Don’t play games with margins, font size, etc. First of all, it’s obvious to the reader that you have changed the document properties to fit more words into less space. Second, it’s just less pleasant to read. Remember that there is an actual human being at the other end of this process, and he or she will not appreciate reading an essay that is cramped or significantly different in format from the other components of the application.
- Keep it brief. When no length is specified, only consider writing something longer than three pages if you have something truly compelling to say.
- Use a header. Create a header that includes your full name and LSAC number, and indicates that the document is your personal statement. Do this for every written component of your application, not just your personal statement, and make sure it’s on every page of the document. 📝
Daniel Coogan is the Director of Law School Admissions Counseling at Stratus Admissions Counseling.Daniel is a graduate of the New York University School of Law and Bowdoin College. At NYU, Dan was an articles editor for the Journal of Law and Business, and did extensive coursework in corporate and partnership taxation and tax policy. After preparing for the LSAT and applying to law school with the help of Stratus Admissions Counseling, Dan tutored Stratus clients on the LSAT and GMAT before and during law school. After law school, Dan was a tax attorney at a major corporate law firm before rejoining Stratus in his current capacity. Dan has advised dozens of applicants over the past several admissions cycles at Stratus. Follow this link to learn more.