Georgetown Admissions Dean: ‘We’re Not Trying To Persuade Fourth Graders To Spend Fifty Grand On Law School’

How has admissions changed the way it assesses candidates over the years?

As someone who’s done this for a long time, I have to say that the essence is basically the same. It’s the same in that the overall package of how you strike us—between the academics and all the other things—hasn’t changed. I think that’s still what matters most to me and to us. We have way too many applicants for seats in the class, and as we try and sift through this and make the hard decisions, it’s about the overall impression we have of someone who we think will contribute in all the different ways: age diversity, ethnicity diversity, political diversity, geographic diversity, upbringing diversity—a mixture of all those things. I’m not sure it’s all that different than it was 20 years ago.

Where it’s different is the technology. It’s just that we’re able to access more information now, because this is the information age. We’re able to do all this stuff quicker. We don’t open envelopes anymore—it’s all online. I think that allows us to spend more time evaluating. The technology has helped give us another side of you, if you choose to do it that way. Students submit videos to us; we’re able to stay in touch with students much more easily through email and other things.

Do you favor some majors (i.e. STEM majors) over others?

One of the things we take into consideration when looking at somebody’s academic record is the rigor of their curriculum. We are well aware that the hard sciences, technical engineering, that sort of thing—those can be more demanding courses than courses in lighter majors that aren’t quite as technical. So that sort of gets adjusted as we look at somebody’s academic record. At least at Georgetown, this is not done in some numeric way. It’s not that if you have a 3.2 in mechanical engineering, you suddenly become somebody who really has a 3.6. But yes, we sure do take that into account.

Another side of that might be: A student has a certain GPA but has worked 30 hours a week while they were at school. We know that will impact your GPA; I did that. We know that you’re working while someone else has time to study. All of these things are all taken into account.

Again, I just think it’s an overall impression of how you present yourself. In that respect, the personal statement is a very important part of this process. We are trying to get to know these students as much as we can personally. It’s hard to do with the four corners of an application, but to the extent that we can based on the personal statement, we’re happy to take that into account.

Because we believe so strongly in that, we also have a very strong and active alumni interview program. Roughly 750 to 1,000 of our applicants are interviewed by alums, and I myself am out doing group interviews in the hope of meeting about another 1,000. Life skills, personal skills, how you come across in person—we think that matters. It just becomes a little bit of guesswork if you just sit in your office and read files.

When you reach out to specific applicants for interviews, is it because you’re already sure of them or because you’re unsure and you’d like to know more?

More the second than the first, but it’s both. We have a lot of tough decisions—most of them are—so that added input can make the difference to us. In a large percentage of the cases, we just can’t decide, and we’d like some additional information. But it is also sometimes for people who are otherwise strong, but we’d just like to get it confirmed and have someone meet them in person and make sure and give us that added blessing, and then it’s a yes. In most cases, it’s a tossup, and that meeting can make the difference.

Can you name a few overused essay topics, the kind that make people go, “Ugh, not again”? 

I could do that. That’s more of a negative answer. I’d rather give a positive one. But the answer to what we see too much of is forced essays: people who are trying to force “why I want to go to law school”—“I want to go to law school to do XYZ,” when there’s nothing really in their background that indicates that they have any interest in XYZ. It’s 8,000 people, not 8,000 topics, so you’re going to get some of the same things. It really has less to do with the topic than how it’s discussed and how it’s said.

I think the most effective personal statements have two qualities. First, whatever you write about needs to let me, the reader, know more about the applicant. So if you want to write about your background, if you want to write about an internship, if you want to write about travel, if you want to write about your undergraduate school, if you want to write about obstacles you’ve overcome, if you want to write about why you want to go to Georgetown—all of those are perfectly good topics. We get plenty of them. That’s fine. But at the end of the day, what I look for is to learn about you, the applicant—not about your father, not about Georgetown, not about your internship, but about you. The more open, the better. Let us know who you are. Give us a real window into that. Those are the most effective.

The second thing I would say is sort of basic essay writing, I guess: Show, don’t tell. Don’t just talk about stuff. Show us what you’re talking about. When we were in fourth grade, they called it show and tell, they didn’t call it tell and show, and that’s because show comes first.

It’s commonly said that if you don’t want to become a lawyer, you shouldn’t go to law school. Do you agree with that sentiment, and does it affect the way you evaluate applicants?

It does not affect the way I evaluate applicants. I believe that all kinds of backgrounds mix beautifully here. Listen, I went to law school. I’m still going to law school. I didn’t practice law—not for one day. I think that in this world, there are places for law school graduates who are not necessarily going to practice law in a big firm, small firm, or any other firm. Businesses can always use law graduates, academia can, the federal government can—there’s all kinds of stuff you can do.

It would affect me if I felt that you hadn’t given it a whole lot of thought: “I’ve got nothing else to do next fall, let’s go to law school!” I’m not particularly interested in those folks. That’s very different than what you just said, though. There are plenty of people who’ve thought this through and said, “Look, I know I don’t want to practice law, but I know that a legal education is exactly what I need to help me do XYZ or to help me have a different way of thinking” and so forth. If somebody thought that through, I’d say, “That’s terrific! That’s fine!” I’m not going to disqualify them because they don’t want to go work for a law firm—that’s fine!