‘Serendipity’ plays role in Yale Law School admissions

This article has been corrected. You may view this article’s correction here.

By last Friday’s deadline, 3,400 students from around the world had submitted applications for fewer than 200 spots in the next class at Yale Law School. Now comes the hard part.

As the Law School evaluates its applicants, it follows a unique, decentralized procedure, involving the entire permanent faculty — over 60 people — and reflecting the Law School’s self-image as a community that nurtures leaders.

The Yale Law School admissions department is in the process of selecting next’s year’s class from among 3,400 applicants.
Lauren Woo
The Yale Law School admissions department is in the process of selecting next’s year’s class from among 3,400 applicants.

For aspiring esquires vying for admission to the nation’s top law school, the admissions process is nerve-wracking, daunting and mystifying. The mystery surrounds not the procedure itself — Yale Law School openly discloses how it evaluates candidates — but rather the “serendipity,” in the words of one professor, inherent in that method.

“Applicants often think of law-school admissions as that scene from “Legally Blonde” with the roomful of crusty old men with cigars and bowties,” Dean of Admissions Asha Rangappa said. “That’s not how we do it here.”

The process

First, Rangappa reviews all the files in the order they are submitted — not sorted by grades or test scores. She identifies about 50 to 80 applicants who are so outstanding that they are “presumptive admits,” reviewed by Rangappa and one other faculty member serving as the admissions committee chairperson, a position that changes every year and is designated by the dean.

The traits of a presumptive admit are hard to pin down, Rangappa said, but she looks for people with distinctive backgrounds, experiences and accomplishment who she thinks will contribute to the class.

“ ‘I’ll know it when I see it,’” she said, quoting a famous one-liner by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart ’37 LAW ’41.

Rangappa narrows the rest of the applicant pool down to roughly 1,000 files and forwards them in stacks of 50 to the faculty readers.

Each of these stacks is read by a set of three faculty members, each blind to the other readers in the trio. Each reader rates the application on a scale of two to four based on his own criteria.

The professors are free to assess their applications in their own way, without centralized guidelines or official policies. After years of practice, they usually develop their own system, but newcomers to the faculty sometimes feel awash at first.

When law professor Lea Brilmayer first joined Yale’s faculty, “I tried to get them to specify what criteria to use,” she recalled. “Nobody had any.”

Professor Heather Gerken, who joined the Yale Law faculty in 2006 after six years at Harvard, said she was surprised — but heartened — to learn that reviewing applications was part of her new job description. For the faculty to take time away from writing and scholarship to read applications shows its commitment to the intellectual community at the Law School, she said.

“They’re willing to do the invisible things that make a community stick together,” said Gerken, who served as the faculty admissions chair last year. “They’re not just free agents.”

This year’s faculty chair, law professor Akhil Amar ’80 LAW ’84, said he views the faculty’s role in the admissions process as an extension of teaching through connecting with students.

“It gives the faculty a connection to the students before they even set foot on campus,” he said. “We have picked them, so we take responsibility for them. These are people we individually want to teach and mentor.”

While evaluating applications is a departure from professors’ usual activities, Gerken compared it to grading papers: It would be hard to rank them all, but the A paper is easy to spot, she said, as is the four-worthy application.

There is no official policy regarding applicants who attended Yale as undergraduates, Rangappa said, but they may find an advantage in the law professors’ familiarity with the Yale College curriculum. The faculty reader may know the professor who wrote the student’s recommendation or may even have taught the student as an undergrad, she said.

Yale and Harvard College alumni are about equally represented in Yale Law School’s study body. Currently, 79 law students went to Harvard as undergraduates and 78 attended Yale. The next largest contingent — 37 — is from Stanford. Graduates of these three colleges comprise about a third of the Law School’s student body.

When the faculty readers are finished, the scores are tallied. All applicants who receive a 12 (straight fours) and most who earn an 11 are admitted. The readers are assigned a distribution for how many fours, threes and twos they can award so that there are exactly the right number of 12s to fill the class, Rangappa said.

The only permanent faculty members not involved in the admissions process are the dean and the two deputy deans.

The origin

This admissions process has been used for at least 20 years — it was already in place when Guido Calabresi assumed the deanship in 1985.

The rationale behind the system, Calabresi explained, had to do with Yale’s preeminence — once the University established itself as the top law school, the applicant pool became less self-selected and unmanageably large for a traditional admissions committee. The goal, he said, was to find the applicants with the most leadership potential, which meant looking beyond grades and test scores.

“A very slight difference in LSAT score should not trump when somebody has many more qualities of leadership — on the left, on the right or indifferent,” Calabresi said. “That could only be done if we didn’t have a committee that had to look at all the thousands of applications. They wouldn’t be able to do more than look at the numbers as a practical matter.”

When Calabresi used to look through the admissions files after decisions were made, he saw this strategy working, he said. He noticed that students with slightly lower test scores but more leadership potential were overrepresented in the admitted class compared to students with perfect scores “but nothing else going for them.”

The outcome, he said, is “we still have the highest numbers, but we also have the most interesting student body.”

The results

Yale is the only law school that relies entirely on faculty readers, although some others do involve professors in the admissions process. At Harvard, some combination of professional admissions officers and faculty members comprise an admissions committee of about 10 people who evaluate all 7,000 applications for about 550 J.D. spots. Review is holistic, but applications are sorted by LSAT scores and GPA before they are distributed to the readers.

The benefit of this more centralized approach is consistency, said Philip Lee, Harvard Law School’s assistant director of admissions.

Rangappa acknowledged the “element of randomness” in the wide range of possible readers at Yale, but since any evaluation method is inevitably arbitrary, she thinks it makes the most sense to let the faculty make the calls.

“Because there are so many more qualified people than we can take, at some point it has to be arbitrary one way or another,” she said. “So why not let the faculty’s preferences play that role in shaping the composition of the class?”

Amar added that Rangappa’s role as the “gatekeeper” who sees all the applications “can help bring consistency and coherence.”

Faculty members may bring different preferences to reading applications than professional admissions officers, Lee said. Harvard’s admissions officers, who were all formerly practicing lawyers, look for the qualities that will make the applicant a successful attorney, he said, whereas professors might look for applicants who lean toward academia.

Gerken said she has this aim in mind when she reads applications. She is not just looking for future students, she said, but for future colleagues.

This tendency in the admissions process may account for the numerous Yale Law alumni who become law professors — roughly as many as Harvard, even though Yale is about three times smaller.

Additionally, for those who are not admissions officers by profession, deciding who gets in can be just as uncomfortable for them as it is for the applicants who hang in the balance.

“God didn’t put me on this earth to decide who gets to go to Yale and who doesn’t,” Brilmayer said.

But often, reading an applicant’s file is the first stage of the relationship that the professor goes on to develop with that person as a student. Gerken said it is rewarding to see students who she “rooted for” show up in her class or office.

Rangappa said reading applications gives professors the chance to build the Law School community right from the beginning.

“They really feel like they have a stake in the class when it comes here in the fall,” she said. “It’s an investment that they make, and the return comes in September.”

The exact number of applications to Yale Law School this season has not yet been released.

Comments

  • anon

    An element of randomness is one thing. But not sorting the stack before dividing it among the readers, when each reader has to apply the same rigid curve to the applications within his/her allocation, raises capriciousness to a virtue.

  • xman

    If so, why do YLS students still have stellar numbers? If anything, this article highlights the fact that easing the pressure on GPA/LSAT -- even if only slightly -- results in a much more capable and interesting student body.

  • Fazl

    It is shocking to note that the number of applications are brought down from 3400 to 1000 on the judgement of just person "Rungappa". How can Yale be so sure of an objective assessment of one person, with all due respect for Rungappa, I see this as an extremely 'subjective'process that could be shockingly biased