BY OWEN ALTERMAN
It shouldn’t come as a shock: Applications are up this year. What may be surprising is that this year’s increase turned out less dramatic than expected.
Total applications to the Law School rose about five percent over last year, “up a bit, maybe more than a bit,” Assistant Dean for Admissions and Financial Aid Joyce Curll said.
That figure, which will not be finalized for several more weeks, is a smaller increase than projected a few weeks ago. Curll said that, as her office received more electronic applications than last year, computers added them to the totals more quickly. Comparisons thus showed a much higher number of applications compared to the same date last year.
But as the application deadline approached and passed, that difference began to shrink. So while a few weeks ago the increase seemed more dramatic, the final figures will show a more modest rise. Other deans of law school admissions have noticed the same trend, Curll said.
But whatever the percentage, this year will be the third straight year of higher numbers of applications. In 2001-2002, applications rose 20 percent from the level in 2000-2001.
The application boom of the last two years is also a national one. Joining a chorus of experts and casual observers, Curll named the weak economy as the main factor. Dimmer job prospects have driven potential applicants toward graduate schools, she said.
“In the more uncertain world we’re living in,” she said, law school is seen as more reliable.
At Mather House at Harvard College, resident tutor and 2L Jocelyn Benson has seen the trend among undergraduates. As a house tutor, Benson — like many other HLS students — advises Harvard undergraduates applying to law school and writes their recommendation letters. Normally, she said, Mather has only 20-30 students and alumni who apply to law school. This year, that figure is 36.
The number might have risen even higher, said Benson, with as many as 60 students and alumni taking steps toward applying. But many, especially College seniors, decided to wait for better chances in a future year, when the number of applications declines again.
At the same time, Mather saw an opposite trend. Many of its alumni — possibly suffering the economic slump in the “real world” — decided to file their forms this year. So with alumni interest high and student interest lower than it might have been, 25 of the 36 Mather applicants are alumni, Benson said.
In casual conversations, Benson said she heard about similar trends from pre-law tutors at other Harvard College houses.
The extra applications will not change the composition of the applicant pool or the admissions process, Curll added. She suggested that the additional several hundred applicants are not disproportionate from certain cohorts of students as compared to the applicant pool as a whole.
And just as she told The Harvard Crimson a few weeks ago, Curll confirmed that the increase in selectivity will not be as dramatic for Harvard as for less selective law schools. The extra number of applications will not add as high a number of highly-qualified candidates.
“Even if you took our whole pool and you took 2,000 [new] people,” Curll said, “they’re not 2,000 people at the top of our pool.”
The admissions process, and number of admitted students, will not change. That basic process has been widely explained in media reports and guidebooks. It begins with the reading of applications by admissions officers and continues with a certain number of applications passed on to a faculty committee.
In that initial reading, Curll stressed, every application is read at least twice and sometimes as many as five times. She also personally reads every application that will continue on to the faculty committee.
That committee, which this year has six members, then meets and “applications with the highest votes get in,” Curll said. The office has already sent some admission and rejection letters.
When asked, Curll declined to give the names of the faculty committee members, saying she wanted to protect their privacy. Curll said that, although she does not regard it as a secret, she feared that applicants angling for an advantage might flood committee members with direct letters and e-mails.
Already, she said, some applicants e-mail the entire Harvard Law School faculty in the hope of getting an edge. That, Curll said, is “bad judgment.”
She also said she prefers that HLS students not be involved in the selection process. With only three years at the Law School, students could not develop the same expertise as faculty committee members. Curll added that students might not be willing or able to devote the significant time, 20 hours per week, that committee members spend on the process. Instead, the administration counts on students for recruitment, both pre- and post-admission, especially as tour guides and hosts for visiting students.
Benson disagreed, saying that students should play a greater role in the process. “I went to an undergraduate school where students were voting on candidates,” she said. “Students have a unique perspective on what’s happening at the Law School, and a unique perspective that could play a very useful role in the admissions process.”
As for other issues in law school admissions, Curll said she saw no broad trend or movement away from the LSAT. This is despite recent criticism of the SAT used in college admission. On whether admissions officers think the LSAT should be emphasized more or less, “you’d get 180 different answers,” she said. “The LSAT is a very good test, but it is an imperfect one.”
Finally, Curll said she saw little impact on law school admissions from the Internet bulletin boards and chat rooms dedicated to the subject. She said that sometimes “students give each other misinformation,” though current HLS students often correct it.
Generally, Curll said the bulletin boards are “really for the students to talk to each other.”
The same may be true of Mather House’s applicants. Benson said she was only aware of only one bulletin board: the house’s e-mail listserv.