Gap years strengthen law school plans

Eighty percent of first-year law students at Yale Law School took time off between college and law school.
Eighty percent of first-year law students at Yale Law School took time off between college and law school. Photo by Joy Chen.

With jobs hard to come by in the current economy, some undergraduates turn to law school as a fallback plan, but Yale Law students interviewed said working after college can lead to a more directed and productive law school experience.

Only 20 percent of the first-year class at Yale Law School came straight from college, and more than half of the 80 percent who took time off had been out of school for more than two years. Students and administrators interviewed said that for those who wait before applying or attending Yale Law School, the intervening years may help them understand why they want to apply to law school and what they hope to gain from it — which can strengthen their application, as well as guide their course of study after matriculation.

Students interviewed who took gap years before attending Yale Law said their time out of the classroom changed their perspective. Taylor Asen LAW ’12 said that as an older student, he appreciates school much more now, and sees it as a privilege after working long hours for several years.

“For younger people, law school can sometimes feel like just an extension of college,” he said. “But for older students, it has a more professional feel.”

ADMISSIONS ADVANTAGE?

As a result of their real-world experience, Dean of Admissions Asha Rangappa LAW ’00 said that some students who take time off write more reflective personal statements, a cornerstone of the law school application.

“Sometimes the experiences themselves can also just make them more interesting, particularly if they are able to write about it,” she said. “Somebody working in an investment bank during the economic meltdown is going to have something real that they looked at, and if that’s what they are interested in, possibly a more thoughtful personal statement.”

She added that those evaluating an applicant’s file will sometimes be more confident accepting a person who has taken time off, as undergraduates often apply to law school as a default option and may not have fully thought out their decision to apply.

Romy Ganschow LAW ’12, who took two and a half years off to pursue social work, teaching and advocacy, said she stressed the benefits of her time off in her personal statement, which she wrote about his experience working at an advocacy organization that dealt with criminal justice policy.

“I briefly mentioned the other things I had tried and how experiencing other things had convinced me that law was the right path,” she said in an e-mail.

Ganschow said though she knew during college that law school might be a natural fit for her interests, she was determined not to fall into that path before exhausting her other options. Her time off gave her the confidence to commit to three years of law school, she said, adding that she expressed this in her personal statement.

“I kind of harped on the fact that I wanted to go to law school in spite of the fact that it was the clearest option for my interests, not because of it,” she said. “I have a feeling they eat that kind of thing up.”

Still, Rangappa said applying straight out of college has some benefits as well — for example, a current senior may find it easier to get faculty recommendations than someone who has been out of school for a few years. In the end, neither path gives a concrete advantage over the other, she said, because each reader will evaluate a file for its overall strengths and weaknesses using their own personal criteria.

While the vast majority of students who matriculate at Yale Law have taken at least one gap year, some of them were accepted straight out of college and then deferred, she added.

STRAIGHT FROM SCHOOL

Three of four students interviewed who matriculated to law school directly out of college said they think they would have benefited from time off.

Brigid Davis LAW ’12 said she thinks she would have ended up going to law school either way, as she developed an interest in consumer protection law when she worked at a firm for two summers during college.

But she said she is not yet sure whether she wants to work as a lawyer or academic, or in public policy and government — something she said she feels taking time off might have changed.

“Even if you know you have a passion for the environment or prison reform, you might not necessarily know if you want to pursue that in government or direct services or public policy,” she said. “I think that’s one of my big regrets: not having the time to have figured that out as much. If I had done some legislative advocacy before coming to law school, for instance, at least I could have known whether I could rule that out.”

She said her efforts to keep her options open have affected her course of study. For example, she has not been able to take as many practical “clinic” classes as she would have liked because she has been focusing on the academic research she needs to complete if she decides to become a professor.

Still, for some students, applying straight out of college seems like the best option. Ramya Kasturi LAW ’12 said that when she graduated, applying to law school seemed like the best way to avoid entering a bleak job market, although she sometimes wishes she had taken time off.

Stephanie Turner LAW ’12 said she decided to apply straight out of college because she was excited about law school and did not feel burned out.

“It’s not the case that students who come straight through don’t write good personal statements or have good reasons for coming to law school. Otherwise we wouldn’t be here,” she said. “[But] if you are a junior or senior in college, thinking that law school might be an option but having a really hard time figuring out exactly why you want to go to law school and coming up with a personal statement, you might want to consider whether that process would be easier for you a few years down the road.”

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