We posed questions to admissions officials at the University of Pennsylvania Law School regarding the application process, what they look for in applicants and what sets their school apart. These are their responses:
1. What can applicants do to set themselves apart from their peers?
Stellar academic credentials and experience are great attributes for any application, but what sets the best applications apart is that they paint a picture of who the applicant is and how he or she will contribute to the Penn Law community. The specific characteristics that an applicant should highlight vary widely from person to person—and applicants really need to do some deep searching to figure that out for themselves. What are your strengths? What is it about your experiences that set you apart? What are your goals and objectives? In other words, why you?
2. What do you look for in the application essays? What do the essays tell you about a candidate?
The essay is the place for applicants to tell us their story. We want to know your dreams, your challenges, your accomplishments, your unique life experiences. What did you learn, how were you affected, how will you teach or affect others as a result... or what do you hope to learn or hope to teach? We want to know what you are going to add to our dynamic mix of students. Your résumé, transcript, and references will tell us a lot about your course work and academic abilities, your work experience, and your extracurricular and community activities; don't rehash or repeat what we will learn from those materials. Tell us something more.
3. How important is the applicant's LSAT score? How do you weigh it against undergraduate GPA and work/internship experience? Which of these carry the most weight? The least?
The LSAT score is, of course, a significant component of each application. But we do not apply any formula or numeric cutoffs for the LSAT or any other component of the application. Rather, the Admissions Committee takes the time to read every application holistically because every individual is different. Since we look at the LSAT, GPA, work or internship experience, and other data in the context of the particular application, the importance of each component varies according to the nature of each application.
4. How much does prior work/internship experience weigh into your decision making? What's the typical or expected amount of work experience from an applicant?
Prior work or internship experience can enhance an application, but the weight it plays in our decision making varies from application to application, depending on the particular experience and on the applicant's other strengths and characteristics. Most, but not all of our students do take some time between college and law school. In our recent entering class, 29 percent of students came directly from college, while the remainder worked, interned, or pursued another opportunity between college and law school.
The bottom line is that work or internship experience can definitely be valuable; but so can being actively engaged in one's undergraduate institution or in other pursuits. In general, we look to see what the applicant has accomplished and what facets of the applicant's background could contribute to the Penn Law community.
5. What sets you apart from other schools? What can students gain from your school that they might not be able to find anywhere else?
The hallmarks of the Penn Law experience are a vibrant collegial community and an extraordinary cross-disciplinary legal education.
We have a well-deserved reputation as a community where collegiality trumps competitiveness, and we have been very deliberate about making Penn Law a collegial place. The Law School limits each year's class size to just 250 students, so professors know their students and students know each other; we do not class-rank students; we assign interview slots during on-campus recruiting by lottery, not grades; 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 are as driven as law students anywhere, but who also self-select to study law where the support they receive is as great as the challenges they will confront.
We are also known as a pioneer in cross-disciplinary legal education. Our faculty collaborate with colleagues across the University, and our students may enroll in joint-degree or certificate programs at other Penn schools. Students may also choose to take up to four classes toward their J.D. at other Penn schools. Even within the traditional legal curriculum, students easily gain cross-disciplinary exposure; 70 percent of Penn Law faculty holding advanced degrees in fields in addition to law, making it nearly impossible for our students not to learn the law from multiple perspectives. We believe that our cross-disciplinary pedagogical approach provides the best preparation for lawyers who will increasingly enter a marketplace where the boundaries of traditional legal issues blur, and the ability to critically evaluate and synthesize diverse perspectives will be among a lawyer's most important skills.
6. What do you look for in recommendation letters? How important is it that the letter's writer has worked regularly with the candidate in an office or school setting? Do you put much weight on letters from prominent public figures who may not know the applicant well?
Recommendation letters provide an additional source of information—and perspective—about the strengths, skills, and experience an applicant will bring to the Law School. Applicants should think strategically about who they choose to write their letters of recommendation. The most important criteria is that the recommender knows the applicant well and can speak directly to the applicant's academic or professional skills and strengths; a letter from someone who is well-known to the Admissions Committee, but knows little about the applicant, is of little value. We always suggest that applicants provide their recommenders with as much information as possible, such as an academic paper, current résumé, and a clear explanation of why the applicant wishes to pursue a legal education.
With those criteria in mind, candidates applying directly from college or a year or so out of school should submit at least two letters from faculty members. If a candidate has been out of school for a number of years, professional letters are more helpful. Our Admissions Committee will consider as many as four letters of recommendation. This allows applicants some flexibility to select recommenders who can speak to different facets of their background: academic, professional, or community leadership, to name a few.
7. Can you give a brief description of the life cycle of an application? What's the timeline applicants should expect?
Each year we receive more than 6,000 applications for our first-year class of approximately 250 students. Every application is read in its entirety by two members of the Admissions Committee and, in some cases, by three, four, or even five members of the Committee.
We begin the application review process in the fall, focusing first on Early Decision applications and conducting a preliminary reading of other applications. Early Decision applications are due by November 15 and must be completed by December 1. The Admissions Committee, in turn, notifies each Early Decision applicant of a decision by December 31. Regular Decision applications are due by February 15, and decisions are made on a rolling basis from early January through the spring. It generally takes two to four weeks from the date that we receive an application to process and complete the file. Once an applicant's file is complete, it is placed in the queue and evaluated by the Committee on a rolling basis. The evaluation process typically takes eight to 12 weeks from the date on which the application is completed, though some decisions are made much sooner. Throughout the process, candidates can track the status of their application though the Law School's online status checker.
8. Which firms/organizations recruit heavily from your school? Which ones hire the highest percentage of your graduates?
Our students are sought after by a wide range of organizations, from government, to public interest, to private sector, to traditional law firms. Many students spend their first year after graduation in judicial clerkships and then work in firms or practice in the public or government sectors. Several years post-graduation, many graduates have proceeded to in-house careers or leadership roles in the business and non-profit sectors.
Our Fall and Spring On-Campus Recruiting Programs attract more than 300 employers annually from across the country. Our Regional Interview Programs are held in Northern and Southern California, Miami, Atlanta, Chicago, Denver, Texas and other locations, depending on interest. The Law School also coordinates the February Public Interest/Public Service Career Fair in downtown Philadelphia each year, which attracts regional, local and national public sector employers.
9. What are some of the most common mistakes that applicants make that hurt their chances of being accepted?
Beyond the obvious mistakes such as sending the wrong essay to the wrong school or submitting essays with grammatical or typographical errors, the most common mistake is an applicant's failure to approach his or her application holistically. For example, applicants may not address discrepancies in their applications such as poor academic performance during one semester of their undergraduate career, or may vaguely list experience on a résumé without explaining it adequately. Applicants should put themselves in the Admissions Committee's shoes and be sure to provide complete answers to any questions the Committee may have. Do any discrepancies stand out in the application? If so, be sure to address them. Does the application as a whole paint a picture of who the applicant is and what he or she will bring to the Penn Law community? If not, keep revising until you are confident that your application reflects who you are and what sets you apart.
10. Can you describe the archetypal student for your school?
Yes and no. Our students do share several common traits: they are curious, driven, and intellectually engaged both in and outside the classroom. They embrace (and help perpetuate) the Law School's culture of collegiality and cooperation. But beyond those similarities, our students don't fit any single profile—and this is no accident. At Penn Law we have been, are and will continue to be committed to diversity in our community. This commitment includes diversity in all of its manifestations: culture, intellectual perspective, philosophy, race, politics, socioeconomic background, religion, sexual orientation, work experience, and much more. Having a rich tapestry of people in our community enhances the process of legal education and contributes greatly to the Penn Law experience. For our Admissions Committee, this means seeking out students with diverse backgrounds and points of view, but who share a common commitment to contribute to the Law School's intellectual vitality and culture of collegiality and cooperation.