Podcast: An Insider Look at Admissions with UVA Law Dean Natalie Blazer (Reddit Q&A + Artificial Intelligence in Admissions)

In this episode of Status Check with Spivey, Mike interviews UVA Law Admissions Dean Natalie Blazer on differences between this year and past years in admissions, special factors influencing this cycle, AI in admissions, and an insider look into UVA Law's application review process (including why some applicants hear back sooner than others).

For more law school admissions advice from Dean Blazer, check out the UVA Law podcast she hosts, Admissible.

You can listen and subscribe to Status Check with Spivey on ⁠⁠Apple Podcasts⁠⁠⁠⁠Spotify⁠⁠⁠⁠Stitcher⁠⁠⁠⁠YouTube⁠⁠, and ⁠⁠Google Podcasts⁠⁠.

Full Transcript:

Mike: Welcome to Status Check with Spivey, where we talk about life, law school, law school admissions, a little bit of everything. I think it's a tell that we're going to talk about law school admissions today. I'm here with Dean Natalie Blazer from UVA. Hey, Natalie.

Natalie: Hi, Mike!

Mike: There was a question on Reddit that I would love to start off with, because I'm curious your take. How have you approached, Dean Blazer, this cycle differently than previous cycles? And if so, why, how?

Natalie: Yeah. So I listen to your podcast, you did an episode recently about how this is the slowest cycle ever, and so we absolutely are feeling that. And this cycle, I would say more so than in my eight years in admissions, we are going slower. We are taking our time. We have a lot of new application questions in response to the Supreme Court decision. We did a pretty significant overhaul of our application and just sort of realignment of our mission and values, and I think that was actually a very useful exercise and sort of a gift from that decision; it just made us really think very clearly what we are looking for and what we want out of candidates. Reading a lot of new essay content that you're not used to, and we actually added one or two essays, so it just takes a while, and we want to be really careful. And I think my personality, usually I just want to bank a lot of great admits and get them in and get them excited, and that hasn't really changed, but I'm more open this cycle to potential waitlist activity. And just again, really taking my time and drawing it out a little.

Mike: Yeah. I mean, I know you, you're a doer and a hard worker, so if you're moving slowly, that speaks to the market itself. And this was so obviously coming. We were signaling months before, we knew it’s going to be a slow cycle. One thing, a friend of mine in admissions, one of your colleagues not at UVA but an admissions dean, brought up that I failed to mention in the podcast is also, law schools are traveling again in full force.

Natalie: That is such a great point; we have been on the road. I actually myself traveled for in-person recruiting for the first time since 2019. That slows you down. Travel is exhausting. You can't be sitting in your office reading files all day, so that's a great point too.

Mike: Yeah. So it dovetails into something else that was brought up on Reddit that I have tried so hard, and I failed, I feel like I haven't worded it well. But it’s being asked on a, if not weekly, daily basis, “Why haven't I heard and other people have?” And then the particularly the people who, “Okay, I submitted in September, and someone else submitted in October/November, why have they heard and I haven’t heard?” You want to help me out on this one? I haven't signaled it well to people.

Natalie: I think it's because probably it's a tough thing to accept that you are going to have to wait and that there's maybe no rhyme or reason to it. I'll try to give a little rhyme and reason to it, which is this. Admissions committees are always looking for something pretty specific at any given point in a cycle. Now at the beginning of the cycle, let's say September/October, we're just admitting who we think are really great and people who applied binding early decision; obviously they get a decision sooner. The beginning of the cycle is just great, you know, you're kind of making offers, you're super enthusiastic. Then you start checking data every single day. I hope applicants know this, but the reality is you have to have a well-rounded class that's diverse across a lot of different dimensions, numbers, undergrad, everything. So after that sort of happy month or so of just admitting people that are really shining, then you really have to drill down and be like, okay, well, now we need to balance this out. Now we need to balance that out. So if you're somebody who's not admitted in that first batch, from that point on in the cycle is when it gets a little bit more, I don't want to say targeted, but like, admissions committees are then going to be rounding out here—I mean, you've heard the metaphor, it's like landing an airplane on a postage stamp, is what my old boss used to say. Right? Like you're balancing seemingly infinite number of priorities and metrics and all of this. And so I'm in the data almost every single day, making sure that we're getting the class that we want. You know, if you're not paying attention to those things, you can end up with a really lopsided class, and that's not what we want.

So unfortunately, some people that apply, they have that one thing that I'm looking for in that moment and I might reach out to them the day they apply. And then other people are like, “Wait a second, I've been sitting here for two months.” We also, I'm a pretty cautious person, so like if I mark someone as waitlist, I'm not necessarily going to send that out the second I decide. I might change my mind. I might think differently about that person. Not hearing is not necessarily a bad thing, either. It might just mean that we're waiting. I've said this on my own podcast before; sometimes we think maybe you're not interested in us and we're seeing if you will come to visit or you reach out or something. This is the two-sided process, and there is so much going on behind the scenes that you will probably make yourself crazy if you're trying to figure it out.

I will say one thing, I strive every year to be better about giving everybody a decision within a reasonable time frame. It's just not always possible because of all the different things going on. So if we know definitely that we're going to deny someone, sure, we're not going to wait, and we might send notes out around this time, actually. But waitlist, we might wait a little bit. My rule of thumb I always tell people, if it's been three months since your application went complete, reach out to us. Say, “I'm still here. I'm still interested. I have these other offers, but UVA is my top choice,” or whatever it is. But unfortunately, again, in a slow cycle like this one, it is going to be a bit of a wait.

Mike: Yeah, I'm a big fan of the, “If X months have gone by, it's okay to reach out.” You know, I take as far as—you mentioned, like, “On any given day, we might be looking for someone.” Everyone wants admissions hacks, you honestly don't need it, but I'll give you the tiniest of admissions hacks that works for a few people every year. Don't just reach out every three months and say, “Hey, this is Mike Spivey.” Reach out with your cell phone number in the signature block. Because for all you know, that law school might have just lost 10 people that day, and you might be walking home from work and want to interview off the cuff, talk to this person, assess their interest, and all you have to do is mash that button. Now, I'm talking about like the lowest nuanced thing to do, and usually wins happen at the macro level, but it does bounce off of your notion that on any given day, things change.

Natalie: This is a super dynamic process, and as much as I have to do on a daily basis, I do read every email I get, and tell applicants that I meet on the road, “Email me when you apply,” and I tell people to do the three month thing. I read every single email, and I look them up right away. And exactly what you just said happens does happen. It does. I say to myself, “Here's somebody who has taken the time to reach out and is interested, and in this process, that means something. Now, look, you can't just reach out and expect that that's going to do it for you but a lot of this process is about us wanting you and you wanting us. And if this means something to you, don't be afraid to do that for sure.

Mike: Yeah, and we've a blog somewhere on how to titrate that. If you're reaching out overly to calm your nerves, never do it. If you're reaching out for a reason that, for example, in your scenario, after three months, you may want to know that they're interested. That's a reason. But if it's just to calm your nerves, not a good reason to reach out.

Natalie: Be genuine in this process always.

Mike: And we'll talk about being authentic when we get to AI. I think we only have one more admissions question from Reddit and then we can talk a little bit about AI. I am happy to answer it; if you want to chime in, please. But there was one that I thought was interesting—“What has surprised you the most about this cycle?”

To me, what's interesting is, when LSAC during COVID had to initiate the, what's called the LSAT Flex, one thing that I was really complimentary of LSAC, and still am, was how seamlessly they went to virtual in a forced period of time; it was like a three-month time they went virtual. So kudos to them then. But now this cycle, and this has contributed not just to the slowdown, but also to really some horrific stories. We had someone call us the other week, and not only were they not able to take it when they were supposed to, they had sent LSAC a number of emails and phone calls and LSAC never returned a single one. That surprised me, because LSAC has been pretty good at logistics in the past. And the whole logistical part of the virtual LSAT broke down, and Justin Kane, our data person in my firm, and I debate this. He thinks it had early impact, but it won't have downstream impact, and sometimes I think that, when unnatural forces are inserted into the admissions process, you have unintended consequences that we don't even know about later in the cycle.

Natalie: Yeah, the LSAT, the August test, and then I think also in September there were issues, it’s heartbreaking. These applicants are studying for months, and they sit down and they have this, like, really truly like disastrous experience. And then the next time they go to sit for it, I don't blame them for them having test anxiety, and they're in their head about, “what if this happens again?” Like, you know, you really have to have mental fortitude to get through that, and no one wants to really take the LSAT more than once if they don't have to. And that whole thing really was upsetting, and I think really set back our cycle a little bit just because people weren’t ready to apply when they thought, right? Like, why do so many people sign up for the August LSAT? Because they want to hit those September 1st application opens, right? The good thing is we have seen people overcome it, they take it later, they end up okay, but you never want to see that. And my message for anybody who that has happened to, it's good practice you know, you gotta sort of look on the bright side. It is good practice. You're always going to have setbacks. You're going to have these obstacles in law school, in your legal career. Does it make me resent LSAT? A little bit for putting people through it. But the way that you approach it and the way that you move past it and overcome it and address it in your application, if you feel it needs to be addressed, that's ultimately what's going to matter.

Mike: Oftentimes applicants don’t see admissions officers and Deans of Admissions as humans. But you are, everyone is. And it’s totally fine to say, “Look, this really threw me off my game, not just missing the test, but then when I had to take it two weeks later.”

Natalie: We are human, and believe me, like, we're rooting for you! And we don't want that to happen to you, and we totally get it. Again, if you want to explain it, know that admissions committees know when big things like this happen, right? So if we see that there's something like that, it's not going to come as a total surprise to us.

Mike: Well, a good way to shift to AI is you saying we are human. You had a decision to make this year about your application, and you chose to have a certification process. And you can be precise with your wording; it’s basically, anyone who applies to UVA law school has to certify that they did not use generative AI to form any part of their application. Is that close?

Natalie: That's exactly right. So we always had a certification at the end of our application, and this year we just added that to it. I will read the language. Our certification in the past just said, “Everything here is accurate,” you know, “I am subject to the school's academic policies,” all this. So we added, “I certify that this application is in my own words and that I have not used artificial intelligence tools as part of my drafting process.”

Why did we do that? Lots of reasons. I got into admissions because I love people's stories, and I love to learn about people, and why they want to go to law school and what their goals are. And I love the writing process. I love reading people's writing, reading people's stories. I don't want to read what a computer wrote. I just don't. It's not interesting, it's not good, it's not compelling, it's nothing that I can connect to. And we want people to have to sign their name to that that, okay, they're going to write this on their own. I know it's harder and harder as technology improves to not rely on things like that, but what I always say is, a lot of the admissions process is about making a connection with the admissions committee. And you're joining a community. And so we really want to know who you are as a person.

And so if you want me, a human with empathy and curiosity and understanding, to be reviewing your file and understand maybe some obstacles that you've had and understand where you're coming from, if you want a human evaluating your file and not a computer who's just running your numbers through and spitting out a yes or no, know that we have the exact same feeling on our end, right? This is all about people. I understand that technology is advancing, but we're still all people. You're still going to have to come to law school and answer a question in a class on your feet. You're going to get cold called, it's Socratic method. You're going to need to practice law. You're going to need to talk to people and interact with people. I mean, to me, I don't want to seem like, outdated, but I don't think that anything is going to replace human connection anytime soon.

Mike: You and I talked about this a little yesterday. I come down on that side too. When I was growing up, it was all, “Well, robots are going to take over the world.” Humans have a pretty strong reason to take care of ourselves, so I do think there's going to be impetus for AI to work where it should work, but not to cost the projected 300 million jobs that some of the heavy hitting consulting firms that are projecting. As you know, Natalie, the best personal statements always begin with authenticity. The only way AI could give me an authentic personal statement would be if I spent—I’m 51—my next 51 years telling AI every life experience I had. I would much rather spend a week me reflecting on what matters to me and write my best shot.

Natalie: And also, to me, there is inherent value in sitting down and actually just thinking for a minute before you turn to have the internet tell you what to do or have your phone tell you what to do or. I know that it's hard to write a personal statement. I have written one, I read them all the time, I've practiced law for many, many years at a big law firm. I get it that these things are not easy, but I personally, this is just my sort of ethos, I think it is inherently worthwhile to a productive and fulfilling and happy life to work hard and to sit there and be uncomfortable and to struggle and to rewrite and edit and do it. This is what being a lawyer is all about. And you're never going to get an effective outcome for your clients if you're not willing to put it in that work. I don't care how far technology advances. So this is good practice to get into now. If the idea of sitting down and writing two pages about yourself, which should be pretty easy to come up with the content, that's the profession for you. So I think there are certain people who would like to sit down and write—and I shouldn't say it's easy; coming up with the content should be relatively straightforward. But these are things that are good life skills to have. No matter how far technology advances, you still have to think for yourself. Reach inside your brain and like you said, you know, you have these life experiences that are right there for the taking. I would much rather read somebody's slightly unpolished, authentic personal statement than something that is just robotic.

Mike: Right. If I'm sitting on the couch and it's a memory, experience, challenge, obstacle, failure, success, anything to me that makes me sit up, it’s a 9 or a 10 memory. And anyone has 5, 10,15, 20 of those if you think hard about it. You don't need AI to come up with a farmer on a turnip cart truck that you helped when his turnip cart fell over. I don't know if you've seen that one, but people are submitting the same personal statement.

Natalie: Oh gosh.

Mike: This is for our LLM programs, this is the same.

Natalie: Oh boy.

Mike: Have you or your team spotted things that you're like, “Oh man, this is AI.”

Natalie: I have this cycle. There are some that are quite obvious. Luckily, this is relatively very small now. I just think people are taking our certification seriously. But there are some where it is just very clearly either written by AI or written by someone who is not a very good writer, because it's very stilted, it doesn't seem organic, it doesn't seem authentic. So by the way, even if you have not used AI, if it sounds like you have, it's not a good personal statement.

Do I think that I can tell with 100% certainty? No, of course not. I have tried to use all the tools online just for fun, not for like actually figuring it out. I will write my own thing in AI and then see if AI recognizes it; I'll put something I wrote myself. Those tools aren’t effective. Luckily, I just have a brain and can read and decide. The beauty of admissions committee is we just get to decide whether a personal statement is a good one or not.

Mike: It is horribly stilted. You don't know if it's AI or not, but you know it's just horribly, horribly done. Does that person have a chance of being admitted to UVA Law?

Natalie: Gosh, it really depends. And this is where it's nice that we have many opportunities for writing in our application now. There's the LSAT writing sample. There is the personal statement. We have what I call the Q13, which is question 13 about your experiences in life. We have an optional Why UVA, and then we have an optional statement about your responsibilities and work experience. So we have lots of opportunities to read your writing. I have definitely read applications where one essay is much better than the other one. And I don't know if that's because of the topic they chose or whatever, but that person will definitely get a chance depending on how good everything else is. Not every single piece of writing has to be perfect. But if all of your writing is that stilted, not organic—that would be a problem. But we interview people all the time that do not have perfect applications by any means, but there is good stuff in there and that's a lot of what we say. We say, like, we see some good here, and it's worth the 20 minutes for us to talk to this person and see if they have what we're looking for. People don't have perfect applications. People have really good ones. My advice in a competitive process, because it is getting more and more competitive every year, you might as well maximize every single piece of the application to give yourself the best shot.

Mike: Yeah, something to put people’s mind—we'll do two things that put people’s minds at ease. One, I was at Vanderbilt Law School, I think maybe I read 50,000 applications in that time, 60,000. I can't think of a single one that was all perfect. And that's a good thing if you're an applicant. You know, this is 15 pages. So yeah, someone would have a period outside the quotation marks, or inside, I mean some of them are tiny. But honestly, I'm not sure if there was ever a perfect one. So that means you can—when you hit submit and you see four minor mistakes later and you want to update the law school and you're freaking out, you really don't have to, because this is more than par for the course. It's all like that. And admissions officers are fully fine with some flaws and imperfections. Accurate?

Natalie: That is accurate. I will say I am probably more tough on, if somebody drops a word in the first sentence of their personal statement because that's something spellcheck won’t catch. The only reason I am a little tough on that, or if somebody says the wrong school name or things like that, again, not a disqualifier, but to me, I think, “Have you even read this once? You would catch this.” And being a lawyer is about being detail-oriented and catching those things. Words matter, things like that matter. And the only reason I'm tough on that is because, in a competitive process like this, the next application I read might have your same numbers, your same undergrad, and no mistakes. So it's not disqualifying, but you have to remember that you are in a pool with people who are getting it all right. So always give it to somebody else to read. Somebody, you know, I think I should have been a copy editor in another life. Find a person in your life who is like that. And you're never going to catch everything. It's not disqualifying, but why not give yourself the best chance you can?

Mike: Yeah. I agree. And we all have our own subset of turnoffs. Yours might be the first sentence missing a word. The universal one is using the wrong school name. No—and I’ve been doing this for 25 years—no law school likes that. Which to your point, read your application twice before you submit, read it out loud the second time, including saying period, quote, exclamation point, and then have a second set of eyes always. There still might be some blemishes, but everyone also has unique pet peeves, like mine is when people qualify the word “unique.” Nothing can be “very unique” or “kind of unique,” it’s a binary word. Well, that used to drive me crazy, but most law schools really couldn't care or wouldn't notice. You can't know the other person's pet peeves, just do your best job and then don’t overthink it.

You mentioned spellcheck. We're starting to get a lot of, field a lot of inquiries “I applied to this law school”—I’ll just say UVA, although might not have been an inquiry for us—“I applied to the UVA and I did read their full application, I certified I didn't use AI. Now it's some months later, I haven't heard from them, and I’m beginning to really worry because I did use Grammarly, which you know checks syntax and spelling, or spell check. Hey Spivey, do I need to update them?” What would you say to that, and then where are the boundaries?

Natalie: Yeah, I assume everyone's using spellcheck and Grammarly. In my view, that is not what we mean. What we mean is, did an algorithm or a software program or whatever it is spit out the actual words? I want you to sit there and type up all the words yourself using your own brain, and then if you use Microsoft Word or whatever it is to double check that you have things correct, that is sort of assumed that people do that these days. However, as I mentioned in the previous answer, those programs aren't catching everything. They're not going to catch when you use a word that's spelled the right way but it's not the word you mean. They're not going to necessarily catch when you drop a word. A perfect example of how humans have a leg up over machines, you gotta read it, and you gotta read it multiple times and have other people read it. But no, using tools like that is really not what we mean, and that is fine. And not hearing in a month is—you shouldn't be worried, and you don't need to contact us about that.

Mike: We’ll end on a personal note. What do you enjoy about admissions?

Natalie: Probably what I've sort of alluded to this whole time—it is the people. Every year I think we're never going to get a class as good as the class of 2024, which is the first class I brought into UVA, and then every year it's like, wow, there are just so many great people out there. They made their way to us, and we make those connections with them, and then what's even cooler than that is—we get excited about them, they get excited about us, then they come here and we see them be friends with each other and makes the law review, get a great job, win their softball tournament, come work for us as student workers in admissions. There's nothing like that on earth in my opinion. Just having gone here as a student and feeling that I'm playing one small part in keeping alive what I experienced here in this community, that will never get old. And the reason that is, is because there's new people every year to get excited about. Especially, like, if somebody has applied two or three times, they've made their way to us after some hard times in their life or obstacles they've faced. It's just really rewarding to be able to be there to see it all unfold. When I think about the class of 2024, my first UVA class graduating, I can just lose it just thinking about it, in a happy way. Like they're going off, they're doing incredible things. So believe me, of course we have to waitlist and deny a lot of people, but we are rooting for every single applicant, because we love to see it when they do get admitted or when they do come.

Mike: Yeah. So, admits are coming slower this year than in previous years, but they are coming. I love everything you just said, an admissions officer, it's not the office of denial. It's the office of admissions. Admissions officers like making admits and do not like making denials. If you're waiting this cycle, you're going to have to wait a little longer than past cycles, although you most likely didn't apply in the past cycles so it might not feel any different. But the admits are coming. They're coming, they're coming. Hang in there everyone. Thank you so much for your time, Natalie. I know we both have hard stops in a matter of minutes. So thank you for your time.

Natalie: Yeah, it was my pleasure. Happy to be here.

Mike: Well, it’s good to see you. Bye.

Natalie: Bye!