A special thanks to Dean Tom for participating in this interview series. Dean Tom is currently serving as the Dean of Admissions for U.C. Berkeley School of Law. He has been directing the law admissions program for over 25 years.
As the Dean of Admissions, what are your day-to-day responsibilities?
They vary from day to day and month to month. In general, I oversee all policies related to admissions, and a professional staff that oversees outreach and recruitment activities, an interactive website, and the entire admissions and file-review process. During the late fall and winter months, I read and make decisions on applications almost non-stop.
What do you consider the most significant parts of an application, the parts which applicants should prepare the most carefully?
Ours is a very selective admissions process, so no one part of an application is more significant than the other. In fact, if I were asked to give theoretical weights to the three main areas on which we focus – academic record, LSAT score, and subjective factors (personal statement and recommendations) – each would be about one-third.
Is there anything you frequently see on an application that you hope to never see again?
Generic personal statements come close, as do statements that are lifted from another source. Mistakes in grammar and spelling reflect on an applicant in a very negative way.
What common pitfalls should applicants be careful to avoid?
Applicants forget to approach this process in a professional way. For example, they fail to read or understand directions. They make mistakes in the application process. Many often send us replacements for their personal statements or resume because they neglected to use their final version. Not professional. Not good.
Are there any myths about the application process which you would like to dispel?
I can’t speak for all law schools, but Berkeley operates an admissions process that is holistic. Although numbers alone are not dispositive here, you have to have a strong application in all departments to be competitive.
Another myth pertains only to Cal undergraduates many of whom believe that we do not admit them as a matter of policy. This is false. Berkeley undergraduates comprise the largest cohort in our entering classes every year.
What advice would you give to an applicant with below-average test scores but significant work experience?
This is a difficult question to answer because the answer depends on how “below-average” the test scores are. That said, some applicants just don’t do well on standardized tests yet have very high GPAs. If documentation is provided (i.e. a copy of the SAT score) in these cases, then we may place less weight on the LSAT score. Significant work experience is also a fuzzy descriptor because we evaluate the type of work, range of responsibilities, and length of employment.
Do you frequently have to turn away applicants whom you wish you could admit? If so, what could those applicants do to be admitted?
This happens all the time. Ninety-nine percent of what I do is all about heart-ache. Applicants should know that timing of an application can make a difference. Applying early in the process is better than applying just before the deadline.
How much faith do you have in the ability of the LSAT to predict success in law school?
I have faith that the LSAT generally predicts success in the first year of law school because we conduct a correlation study every year with Law Services. The correlation coefficient is not perfect but it is positive and substantial enough for us law schools to continue using the test for now. There is no correlation, however, between the LSAT and success in the second or third years of law school or, significantly, in the profession.
What do you look for in a recommendation letter?
I look for evidence that the writer knows the applicant well and can provide comparative remarks with other applicants for whom the writer has provided past recommendations.
Suppose an applicant has little or no experience relevant to your program, but has significant experience in other fields. What can that applicant do to distinguish himself or herself in your eyes as a good candidate for your program?
This is less of a problem than many applicants think because our definition of diversity is to include students who come from a broad range of backgrounds and experiences. There is no different advice for this applicant than we would give to another: Do well on the LSAT, present a strong academic record, write a compelling personal statement that describes well the voice you will bring to the table, and apply early.