The Gatekeeper To The Duke University School of Law

What is more important: a high GPA or a high LSAT score?
I don’t think one or the other is more important. We look at a lot of different aspects of peoples’ academic backgrounds and try to make our best guesses as to what kind of law students they’re likely to be. You have to look at much more than just those top-line numbers to be able to really know what they mean.
For example, the cumulative GPA number is not necessarily the best indicator of what we might be considering when we’re looking at somebody’s college record. Think of somebody with a 3.5. You could get somebody who’s kind of plugged right along at that level and never been much better and never been much worse, or you could get somebody who had maybe a rough freshman year because she’s a first-generation college student and took a while to kind of figure out what she wanted to do, but then she had 3.7, 3.8 grades in the last couple of years of college. Those are very different profiles, and you can look at those and draw different conclusions about what kind of potential a student like that has.
It’s true that LSAT is more of a common yardstick. But of course, the kind of preparation you do has an impact, so you’ve got to think about that. We’re seeing more and more people taking it more than once, so we have to think about what multiple scores mean.
None of it is really just a straightforward “this is a number, and it means exactly what it means” kind of assessment. There are people who have really great classroom records, and for reasons they might be able to explain to us, their LSAT scores aren’t as strong. There are also people whose academic records are uneven, and it’s helpful when they can explain to us why that one semester is not as strong and back their GPAs up with strong LSAT performances. You could be looking at somebody who wasn’t a great student in college but has been out for a number of years and has gotten to a better place—that be confirmed with a strong LSAT score. I definitely don’t feel like one or the other of those is more important. They’re different.
Let’s say there’s the hypothetical applicant whose GPA and LSAT scores are not terrible but not terribly impressive. What can that applicant do to make up for that?
The other parts of the application are really important to us. We want to find people who are going to be enthusiastic members of the community and good fits for the kinds of experiences we want people to have here. Writing a careful, thoughtful personal statement can definitely help somebody stand out. In our application, we have two optional essays, and they certainly are optional—we admit plenty of people who don’t write either one—but they are an opportunity for people to give us additional information.
It never, ever hurts to show sincere interest in a school. This isn’t an answer for everybody, but for someone who’s very, very interested in a school, an early decision option is a way to give yourself a boost if your application is not necessarily right at the top of the heap. Still, I always want people applying early decision to be aware of the implications of a binding application— especially of the fact that you’re not able to compare scholarship offers from other schools if you are admitted.
When writing a personal statement, is it better to err on the side of safe but a little boring or exciting but a little bit strange?
It’s a tight rope, but if you can do it really well, a little bit of creativity and personality can definitely enhance a personal statement. For most people, trying something kind of gimmicky, like writing a poem or a legal brief or a newspaper article about your future self tends to be too much. You put so much energy into that framing thing that there’s not a lot of substance to your personal statement beyond that. If you’re are a good writer, it’s worth showing some creativity and personality, but there needs to be some meat on the bones as well.
Considering how difficult it is for many law school graduates to find jobs, has prior work experience become more important to you in recent years?
I don’t think so. I don’t think the makeup of our class has changed dramatically as far as that goes. One specific point in our application review process is sort of a sum assessment of personal qualities: We look at what the recommenders have to say, we look at whether the applicant has had positions of responsibility, we look at whether he has been a tour guide on his campus or something like that—something that indicates that somebody else thought he was pretty presentable and could stand up in front of people and make a good impression.
I don’t think that necessarily has to come from work experience. There’s certainly some value to that, but I don’t think that from our end it’s become more important than it was previously. The average age in our class has been about 24 for several years. Usually, about a third of our class is straight from college, about a third has a year or two of work or some other kind of post-college experience, and a bit less than a third has more extensive work experience.
Has Duke recently made any changes to the admissions process?
There’s been one major change in the last couple of years. We added a small second round of our early decision application. We primarily wanted to allow people who take the December LSAT and have a high level of interest in Duke to be able to apply through early decision, so you know traditionally for us and for most schools there’s kind of a November application deadline with a notification by the end of the year, and a couple of years ago we instituted a second round so that you can apply in early January and hear back by the end of January through our round two early decision option. That’s the most significant change I can think of in recent years. Right now, there aren’t any plans to shake things up. I think we’ve got a system that has worked pretty well. We’re always brainstorming, but there are no immediate changes in the works.
If you could give all applicants one piece of advice, what would it be?
I would advise applicants not to leave us with any unanswered questions and to make sure that everything in your application covers all the bases, like grades that need explaining or resume gaps. Don’t assume that we’ll be able to figure something out. Don’t take it for granted that we’ll understand what a certain club was or anything like that. Basically, you should make sure that everything in your application is driving towards giving us a complete and positive picture of who you are, what you’re interested in, where you’re coming from, and how you got to the point of applying to law school.

Comments or questions about this article? Email us.