Archive for the ‘Applications’ Category

Alright, so in my most recent post I listed the things that were given to me by Columbia and NYU law schools as sort of bribes to induce my attendance. I was not able to be really thorough on that occasion, though, because (due to events that were only mostly my fault) I did not yet actually have my “goody bag” of things from NYU. Instead, because I failed to pick up the bag when I had the opportunity, the way-too-nice admissions staff mailed it to me. My descriptions of NYU stuff were thus based on the things I saw in other admitted students’ hands, not things I had actually as of then received myself.

Anyway, I just got the bag in the mail, and I need to report that I seriously underestimated the free stuff that NYU was handing out to admitted students. The final tally of things from NYU is as follows:

  • An aluminum thing full of peppermints, each of which is individually stamped with the NYU logo. Also, my friend the business-minded C____ pointed out that the thing that holds the mints is really designed to hold business cards. So if I go to NYU, I can carry around a set of cards that say B____: Scholar/Adventurer and hand them out at parties and social brunches and martini-filled lawyer sessions (like a boss).
  • An insulated purple coffee cup, with one of those lids that will keep my coffee from spilling when I’m on the bus or whatever.
  • A t-shirt, which was like super-compressed into a disk but then expanded into a shirt when submerged in water.
  • A bag of purple and white jelly beans (flavor not yet ascertained), tied with a purple ribbon.
  • A moleskine journal, with “NYU” stamped on the cover, in which I can write my most pretentious thoughts in the tradition of Hemingway and Oscar Wilde, and other great journal-users.
  • A purple pen, with which to write said thoughts.

Thanks NYU!


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It’s been a busy week in New York city. Attending admitted students events is both exhausting and rewarding. You have to get up a little earlier than you’d like, but once you’re there they give out way more free food and booze than you would ever otherwise be entitled to. I won’t bother to give a snack-by-snack description of the weekend, but I’ll instead just write down some of the highlights from each school.


-Swag: A t-shirt.

-Big names: Columbia had an impressive array of professors with impressive “real world” credentials. A talk on International Law was hosted by Prof. Matt Waxman, and a mock class on Brown v. Board of Education ended with a sort of celebrity guest appearance by Prof. Jack Greenberg, who actually served as counsel alongside Thurgood Marshall (Greenberg is also known for his notable work co-writing the cookbook Dean Cuisine, or The Liberated Man’s Guide to Fine Cooking.

-Food: Good. Buffet style cheese and fruit and cookies for the reception on day one, and assorted breakfast things for breakfast on day two. Also a pretty great lunch (also served buffet style), which was further distinguished by the fact that it took place indoors. I wasn’t going to eat the really massive cheesecake they served, but then, I did.

-Students: A high representation of big brains and ivy league alma maters, but everybody seemed much more relaxed and friendly and just cool about life than I’d expected (this has not been my experience with the students I’ve met from, say, Harvard or U. Chicago law schools). At pub night (one of many nights of free booze with current students, although the drink tickets allowed only well drinks and bud light), one girl reportedly had a final the next morning. “Don’t worry,” she said. “It’s pass fail!” Well then, ein prozit*.

-Other student comments (paraphrased and possibly not really well remembered):

  • from D_____ my host and roommate for two nights:”No, I was always planning to do corporate law. I know lots of people who are planning to go into public interest, but that’s just not for me. I’ve got loans to pay off!” *mentions loan repayment programs, etc.* “Sure you could do that, but you’ll still have to live on, what, eighty thousand a year maximum. Is that really the quality of life you want?”
  • from second year student (also called a “2L”) M_____ at Wednesday reception: “The best thing about Columbia is that they want you to succeed. They will help you do literally whatever you want. Last summer, I did human rights work in Uganda, which was a job I never would have been able to do without their support. This summer? I’m going to be working at a group that does environmental law in San Francisco.”
  • from drunk R_____, at the pub: “Let’s be honest now. I mean,… let’s be honest. Columbia, NYU, Chicago, you can get exactly the same education at any top school. Great professors, great…whatever. But you’re not paying for an education, you’re paying for a name. Look at the rankings. Columbia was top five last year, it was top five ten years ago, it’ll always be top five. NYU, Virginia, you don’t know. People don’t know. But people will always know what Columbia means.”

-Notes: Students and especially presenters made it a point to tell us that not everybody at Columbia goes into big corporate law firms. They said this many times, and emphasized that all kinds of resources are available for those who want to do public interest work. Some of those resources sounded really very impressive, especially in terms of things like loan repayment and summer funding. On the other hand, methinks the law school protests too much: almost every single student I spoke to (and I spoke to a lot) was planning to go into a big New York law firm upon graduation. I was also impressed by the good and (for New York) affordable housing (wow! a one bedroom apartment for $1600 a month!) and the really beautiful campus.


-Swag: A goody-bag of stuff, including a t-shirt, a notepad, and a set of breath mints with the NYU logo. Also a folder, in which to keep my NYU stuff (note that this still isn’t a clear victory for NYU, since Columbia mails me some new booklet or folder or notebook just about every week. They’re damned insistent).

-Big Names: The best event was a presentation by a panel of judges from the appellate circuit (mostly) who were also NYU grads and current professors. A really fascinating group of men (Harry Edwards, John Gleeson, Douglas Ginsburg) with really fascinating jobs. Of even more interest to me was Yale Law and Literature prodigy and all-around badass Kenji Yoshino, who taught a mock class on California’s Prop. 8.**

-Legal Academia: One thing that really impressed me about NYU was that they had a whole panel on careers in Law Teaching, in which their representative professor indicated the school’s great willingness to work with students from Day One to help them develop their writing, work closely with professors on research, and eventually get jobs as law professors. In contrast, Columbia (which has a relatively similar record for placing law teachers at top schools) had a professor Green willing to answer questions about legal academia during his office hours. Green was very nice, even though he didn’t even know his name was listed in the schedule for a law teaching Q and A, but he had no real insight as to how Columbia would be better than any other top school for anybody considering such a career. Definite point for NYU.

-Food: Three meals, each more lavish than the last. Breakfast (which was assuredly not buffet style) had some kind of baked cheese souffle thing, as well as copious fresh fruit and pastries. Lunch was a delicious chicken. Dinner was just this absurd array of foodstuffs ranging from hot dogs to meatball sandwiches to wontons and dumplings, organized according to a “Districts of New York” theme (the wontons were Chinatown; don’t ask me where the other things come from). Later, I had fish tacos at the “West Coast Connection” student event, and then all the free beer I could drink (and not just bud light, either) at nearby pub. NYU wins this one as well.

-Notes: NYU was in a lot of ways the opposite of Columbia. I heard a lot less about the professors here–very little about the spectacular Washington jobs they do in their spare time, for example (though Dean “call me Ricky” Revesz was exuberant in describing all the top law-teaching talent his school has pirated in recent years from Harvard Yale Stanford Chicago and “that school to the north which we will not name”)–and a lot more about how dedicated NYU would be to putting students to work directly with those professors to achieve whatever their own specific personal goals might happen to be. It’s the company line, sure, but the attitude of the place matters, especially in a decision between two such excellent options as these. On the other hand, student housing at D’Agostino hall (aka “D’ag”) was bad. Like, shockingly bad. I’m an adult now, and I’m not at all keen to spend $1,800 a month to live in a two-bedroom apartment with rooms that look like my freshman year dorm, complete with pre-furnished extra-long twin sized beds.

*In fact, the general good-natured fun everybody seemed to be having was strangely off-putting to me. As my dad liked to say to me when I was a kid: “we’re not here to goof around, son. We’re here to work!”

**These mock classes are a curious phenomenon, since their intention, unlike most classes, is to entertain and impress potential students rather than to educate them. Professor Yoshino was, in that regard, perfectly successful. My favorite quip was when he compared the lawyering profession to that of modelling (which makes Ted Olson and David Boies the like Carmen Electras of the legal profession).

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Because it’s all a numbers game. Emphasis on game.

As a somewhat jaded veteran of many grad school applications, I think I know a little bit about the process. When applying for doctoral programs in the humanities, acceptance hinges upon a number of factors: your undergraduate GPA, your recommendations, your GRE Subject test, and probably especially your statement of purpose and writing sample. Those top two are supposed to say something important about your abilities and ambitions and also just about who you are; what your style is. As such, they are very difficult to evaluate objectively (unless you have a lot of misspellings or something, and I doubt that even that would be fatal).

As a package, your application is designed to give the admissions committee an impression that you will “fit” in their program. Sure, being a super genius doesn’t hurt, but when it’s common for graduate programs to receive 500 applications and accept 10 students, it takes more than impressive statistics or even impressive writing to be admitted. Instead, your success depends on whether the department wants to work with you, whether there are faculty members in these relatively small and often-underfunded humanities departments who not only think you show promise as a scholar, but also want to be their scholar.

The subjectivity of the process entails a great deal of work on the applicant’s part. Some schools want a 25 page paper, some want twenty pages, and some bastards will actually ask for two ten-pagers. Different schools will also want different things from your statement of purpose, and they actually mean it when they ask you to talk about your goals, or your leadership experience, or whatever random thing they come up with. One or two ask for both a statement of purpose and a personal statement, meaning you need to take that well-crafted statement that you labored over for weeks and dissect it, dividing it into its component parts and building new essays like Frankenstein’s Monster from the pieces (UC Berkeley is particularly notorious for its statements, I believe, though I’ve always preferred to spend my time and money applying to LA and Irvine).

In the end, with PhD applications, the odds are absurdly against you, it’s difficult to understand what is expected, and mostly all applications end in pain and disappointment–for two years running, in my case, although I did get a good MA as a consolation prize.

After a particularly humiliating round of rejections last March (not entirely attributable to matters of fit, I suspect; my sample on Oscar Wilde’s Salome was a little undercooked at the time of its submission), I decided to try something new and apply to law school.  Law School! The last refuge of directionless humanities students. The place where you can study for just three years, get a respected degree, and then go out and use that degree to get a real job (with paychecks and everything)!

I was feeling particularly optimistic about my odds of admission because I happened to have in my files a (if I may say so) pretty excellent 25 page paper which used legal theorist Robert Cover’s concept of jurisgenerative communities to explore the (spoiler alert!) death of Ralph Marvel in Edith Wharton’s The Custom of the Country. It would, I thought, make a great writing sample to go with my applications.

As it turns out, however, law schools don’t really care about your ability to write a publication-length academic paper. There is no writing sample in a law school application. In fact, the only items that really seem to matter to most top schools are your undergraduate GPA  and your LSAT score. Personal statements, recommendations, and extracurricular activities might be used as tiebreaker items. Pretty much nobody even cares what you write about in your personal statement. The prompt is, more or less, “tell us something about yourself in 1200 words” (which is, admittedly, probably somewhat equivalent to an invitation to shoot yourself in the foot).

A word on the LSAT: This test is a difficult test, but it’s also extremely easy to study for. About a million people take it each year, which means that there are about a million copies of actual LSAT exams available for purchase on the internet. I have nine or ten LSAT books (some loaned to me and not returned, some bought online) sitting in my room, and each has hundreds of actual test questions. For comparison, there were exactly Two sample tests for the GRE Subject Test in Literature when I took that exam, meaning nobody had the slightest idea what to expect**. When you take the LSAT, if you’re at all serious as a test taker (and man, I get into my test prep), you know to within six or seven points how well you’ll do before you ever sit down.

Next, three weeks later, when you get your test scores, you have to decide where to apply. Is it like literature, in which only one in sixty applicants is accepted? No It Is Not. In law school, everybody and their mother applies everywhere, and many of them post their statistics and results online. That means you can go to websites like lawschoolnumbers.com and get an extremely good idea of how likely you are to get admitted to a particular school. There are even websites that will do the work for you; just type in your scores, and they’ll tell you whether to bother applying. Since applications cost a hundred dollars a pop, this means that you don’t have to spend your fortune (as I have many times in the past) applying to ten schools that won’t accept you. You can pick safety schools that are actually safety schools (I’m pretty sure there is no such thing as safety in literature). You can forego schools at which you really don’t have a shot in hell, because you know how many people with numbers more or less exactly like yours made that shot and missed (yeah, a part of me wanted to apply to Yale anyway. But NO! I resisted! I’m spending that money on new shoes instead!).

This is where the game part comes in. You can screw around with different statistics, play the odds, and start mapping out your future based on the numbers. If you get ambitious, you can even create an excel spreadsheet, like I did in one of my more idle and obsessive afternoons, using assorted methods to determine your probability of success at assorted schools (how many people with my scores got in last year? How many people with lower scores were still accepted? What percentile are my statistics?)◊.  It breeds compulsive behavior, but it’s really fantastic.

I thought this numbers addiction would pass once I finished submitting my applications, but if anything it’s gotten worse. While you’re waiting for a response, you can go and see whether other applicants have heard back yet, and whether their results were favorable. You can toy with hypothetical scenarios (if School X and School Y accept me, do I go the the one with the higher US News Ranking or the one that gets more Supreme Court clerkships?). I’ll remain on the edge of my seat, I expect, trying to guess the answers (with science!) until they arrive (which, according to my calculations, should be in early March for the majority of schools).

Oh, also, on a separate note: Tonight’s wine is Santa Ema Carmenère, and it is really pretty great. Dark garnet color ◊◊, and dark fruity flavors like maybe cherries and something heavier. Chocolate, it says on the label. I get chocolate. And a strong taste of pitch (in a good way!). Plus I could afford it, so you know it’s cheap as hell.

* I mean this as no denigration of English programs, by the way. The study of literature is not a hard science (and my friends in physics tell me that at a high enough level even the hard sciences get a little squishy), and any effort to make admissions to literature programs rigorously quantifiable would be both counterproductive and impossible. Moreover, many of my very good friends are PhDs and PhD students, and all of them are among the smartest people I know (well, for a large enough list of smart people, I mean. They’re all in the top 30%, I guess I could say). Clearly, these departments are doing something right.

**Though, to be fair, the GRE Lit test is a stupid exam and I’m pretty sure most admissions committees must know that. It’s my strong suspicion that they only require you to take it in order to weed out the uncommitted.

◊According to my only half-scientific methodology, odds of acceptance are about 70% at Columbia, 70% at Chicago, and 35% at the Big H here in Boston. Thus far, my spreadsheet has been validated by one (extremely fast) acceptance from NYU, where I gave myself a 90% chance of admission. I haven’t however been able to predict my chances at UCBrkly, because it seems to be one of the few schools that actually does care about what you’re like as an individual. Curse them!

◊◊That’s right, I’m using words like “garnet” in my descriptions. Give me a glass or two, and I get pretentious as hell.

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