Thursday, October 02, 2003

Law School Admissions

In his earlier post, Stuart assumed the reason Harvard placed his application on hold despite his excellent LSAT and GPA was due to bias against state schools.

But there's another reason Harvard was reluctant to admit Stuart, and it has nothing to do with any doubt on their part that he would be an exceptional student. If Stuart went to another school after having been accepted at Harvard, Harvard's acceptance rate would go up because they'd have to accept an additional applicant to fill the spot initially held for Stuart. Schools want to keep their acceptance rates low because they're a factor in U.S. News' ranking formula.

I applied to seven law schools: Harvard, Yale, Stanford, Chicago, Columbia, Duke and Berkeley. Duke and Berkeley were my "fall back" schools: schools that were almost certain to accept me.

Rather than send me an acceptance letter, Duke called me on the phone to ask I'd enroll if they admitted me. I told them that because I'd been accepted and given a generous financial package elsewhere, I wouldn't commit to going to Duke without seeing something in writing. Several days later Duke called again. This time they asked if I would enroll if they gave me a generous financial package. I told them that I would have to see the offer before I could make a decision, but that I would definitely consider going to Duke.

I never heard from Duke again. No grant money letter, no acceptance packet, not even a rejection letter. Nothing.

As far as I can tell, the only reason Duke would go through the hassle of contacting me in person is to make sure they don't accept me, thereby increasing their acceptance rate, only to have me turn them down. I know they didn't do this for every applicant, as most of my friends never got phone calls, so I suspect that I must have matched a particular profile.

That said, during my last year at Harvard Law (2001) the school was considering ways to improve its performance. While I don't think it was ever stated explicitly, it was obvious that the fact that HLS had fallen to 3rd place in the U.S. News rankings ruffled lots of Harvard feathers.

Because Harvard's large student population is one of the factors that hurts it in the U.S. News formula, one of the options on the table was trimming the class size from 555 to 450 or 500.

When the school published their decision not to reduce class size, their explanation was that students from state schools would be most affected, and they didn't want to further limit the numbers of state students.

This is further evidence that Harvard's formula may disfavor state schools, but controlling for LSAT scores would be the clearest way to find out. Compared to the weight of the LSAT, I suspect the school attended is a negligible consideration. And state schools are benefitted by the rankings, as U.S. News only reports applicant's GPA, with no concern for the school the applicant attended. So for Harvard's purpose of preening before the U.S. News gods, my 3.8 at the University of Utah makes them look better than does an applicant with a 3.7 from a more competitive school.


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