Podcast: International Students—Differences in Law School Admissions + Our Best Advice

In this episode of Status Check with Spivey, Anna Hicks-Jaco has a conversation with two Spivey consultants, Peter Cramer and Tom Robinson (you can read their bios here), on differences in the admissions process for international applicants, how law school admissions has changed for international students over time, and our best advice for strategically navigating the current realities of the application process.

Two of our blog posts are referenced in this episode—our sample personal statements (the essay Tom references is #5!) and a few sample letters of recommendation.

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

Full Transcript:

Anna: Welcome to Status Check with Spivey, where we talk about life, law school, law school admissions, a little bit of everything. Today's episode is entirely focused on law school admissions—and specifically for international applicants. We've gotten a ton of questions about this lately, so I brought on two of our excellent Spivey consultants who do a lot of work with international students to share with you their expertise, their experience, and their best advice for international applicants.

We have Tom Robinson, who worked in admissions at Harvard Law School and did a lot with international students there, in addition to a real focus on working with international applicants in his work with Spivey Consulting. And Peter Cramer, who himself came to the U.S. as an international student, got three degrees, ran LLM programs in multiple law schools, Georgetown and Washington University in St. Louis, and now does a great deal of work with international applicants as a part of his role with Spivey Consulting.

We had a great discussion about differences in the JD application process between international and domestic students—how law schools evaluate international applicants, how GPAs and transcript summarization are different if you went to undergrad outside of the U.S., writing tips and advice for how to best present yourself in admissions through your essays, your resume, and your other components, and a number of other helpful topics as well. So without further delay, I'll let Peter and Tom introduce themselves a little bit more!

Peter: Hello, my name is Peter Cramer, I have been a Spivey consultant for the last five years approximately, and as you can probably hear from my accent, I'm not originally from the United States. I came to the United States about 30 years ago and I went through several programs. I did an LLM in the United States, a Masters in English as a Second Language, and a PhD in Language Education, so I have a lot of experience in writing personal statements! But then I went on and I worked in law schools in the United States, so for example, at Georgetown University, where I was in charge of an LLM program, and I created an LLM program at Washington University where I was in charge of an LLM program. So I’ve worked a lot with LLM and international students, a lot in admission, but I always had the JD admission people come over to me and say, “We have a JD applicant who is interested in coming, can you tell us a little bit more about him or her?” because I’ve had so much experience. So that's about it, about myself.

Tom: Hi everyone, my name is Tom Robinson, and I’ve worked with the Spivey Consulting Group for five or six years. I realized recently that a lot of the people I work with now were born before or just after I began working in admissions. So, working at the University of Vermont in the late '90s, over time I've worked at MIT, Northeastern, most recently I worked at Harvard University, as a Director of Admissions in the Law School. And over those years, I've worked with international students as a student affairs professional, advising student organizations, but much of my time has been spent recruiting, working with applicants, and advising them. I’ve worked with a lot of students from Saudi Arabia when I was at Northeastern, as well as China, at MIT I worked with students from India and all around the world, and I find my work with international students to be very interesting. I can sit at my desk at home and interact with people from around the world, and so I really enjoy that process. I'm glad to be here with you today.

Anna: Thank you both for taking the time. You both have such expertise in this area that I think it's going to be really valuable for any international students who are applying to JD programs right now or in the future, for them to listen to you all speak about your experience and what advice you have, and what sorts of common mistakes, things like that. I think that the main topic of this podcast is the differences between JD admissions for domestic students and for international students. So that's a pretty broad topic. What do you two see as the biggest and most significant differences that international applicants to JD programs should keep in mind?

Tom: So, Peter and I have talked a lot about this, and there's a lot to go over, and we probably won't be able to get to all of it today. But just to name a few things, and then maybe we can circle back and go deeper on them—so in the admissions process, a lot of international students have non-reportable GPAs. I've talked to a lot of clients who've found it harder to take the LSAT as frequently as they need to; it's offered fewer times abroad, and sometimes students have to fly to the U.S. for it. There's a different mentality about writing essays, different expectations for recommenders than they might be used to in their home countries. Framing their interests for their essays is complicated and different even for Canadian students who might be applying to a U.S. law school. Work experience levels differ for international students. English language skills, which Peter obviously knows a lot about, can be a challenge, both written and verbal. And there's some differences in terms of scholarship aid for international students. That's just a few of the differences in a nutshell.

Peter: Yeah, I mean let's start with what you said at the very beginning, the uGPA. So the good news is, it doesn't go into the rankings in terms of U.S. News. That does not mean, however, that you can say, “I’ll forget about my undergraduate experience back in my home country.” So there is a system with LSAC that looks at your transcripts, and then says, GPA in your country, and this is what it translates into, into superior or advanced, and this is really a guideline that the admissions people look at. But again, if you haven't been that stellar at your university back home, it may be not as influential as your uGPA in the United States.

Anna: So we're talking about when someone went to undergrad outside of the U.S. and as a result, they don't have a cumulative GPA that LSAC is reporting to law schools. So Tom, when you were at Harvard Law School and you were evaluating applications and you came across a student who didn't have an undergraduate GPA because of this situation, because they were international, how did you go about evaluating their undergraduate transcripts and performance?

Tom: Yeah, that's a great question. I guess overall we wanted to understand, can the person be successful academically in the program? Have they been very successful in their program, like a peer who might have gone to a U.S. undergraduate school might be or might need to be to get into Harvard Law? And so, have they really strived and showed a lot of academic success and talent in addition to just being able to do the work? So that was one of the standards we used. And some of it was a little bit rough, you know, if we didn't know the school, if we weren't familiar with it, that might be a challenge to understand like how rigorous the school might be. So if someone went to Seoul National University or Peking University or something like that, we would obviously be familiar with the programs. And in some cases, I visited those schools periodically every other year or so, and so we were familiar with the rigor at those schools. So that could be a little bit of a challenge. So we would try to make our best assessment possible about, can they do the work? Have they been really successful compared to their peers in their program?

And then that did put a lot of pressure on the LSAT, which you know, a lot of international students do take the LSAT instead of the GRE. If the LSAT was really advanced and we had the assessment that they could do well academically, then that was usually enough for us to look at all else—you know, sort of, how did the essays check out, how did the recommendations, resume. You know, some of it was trying to be familiar with the programs as best we could and certainly just assess how successful they'd be.

One thing I left out that I think is an advantage for students with these evaluated transcripts is, sometimes you would be looking at medians, and someone might be just a hundredth or two hundredths below a median on reportable GPAs. For an international student, if we've decided that they’re stellar, that they've done really well, maybe in reality their GPA is just a little lower than peers at the school, but you know, they've excelled in a lot of ways—we don't have to worry about that median being reported. So in some ways, for some international students, it could be a little bit of an advantage. We just can decide that they can be strong in the program and not really worry about that a hundredth of a GPA point that it might have dropped or something, that might be just slightly below a median GPA that we want to report. So, and even that's a bit of an advantage, I think, for some non-reportable students.

Peter: One little tip maybe for your CV or resume, because these GPAs vary in terms of numbers, I think it would also always be good to say what GPA you had at your home university out of what range. Because some universities have a 5, you know, as the highest, and so if you were to say you had a 4.0, you look on the CV very attractive in many ways. So that's just a little tip for writing something on your CV.

Anna: Yeah, definitely. Translate it so that the admissions office will be able to understand.

Peter, you were talking a little bit about how LSAC has these qualitative designations as opposed to, they'll give a number for someone who did their undergrad in the U.S., "their cumulative GPA is a 3.85." For international students, LSAC summarizes their transcripts in a different way. You started to talk about that; do you want to describe that a little bit more?

Peter: Yeah, there's actually a transcript service, and if you look up, under the services that are offered for international students, there are services that you have to sign up especially. And so what they do then is, they have an agency that looks into those grades and tries to translate those into what's equivalent, to an equivalency in the United States system. And the highest grades, so to say, GPA, would be "superior"—it goes a little bit farther, but you would probably want to hit “superior,” but you don't always have a chance to, and you sometimes can even explain why you did not perform as well as you might have, just like what American students would if they're not necessarily at the highest GPA. So that's an extra service that you subscribe for at LSAC.

Anna: So how much stock do admissions officers really put in that designation, in that “superior,” “above average,” relative to just sort of looking at the transcript? How do you think admissions officers look at those evaluations?

Peter: I think a lot of it has to do with what we know about those schools. As Tom said, he visited schools. I taught at some of those schools in China or in Japan so, we have long-standing relationships with some of the schools. So with those schools, we know that a "superior" is superior. But then there are sometimes lesser-known schools where we then, I think, would probably want to use a couple of other measures to figure out whether that applies. We hope—and that's why the service is being bought by the applicant—we hope that this translates into an equivalent number. But then we would do a little bit more gauging and finding out about that specific school I think.

Anna: So it sounds like that “superior,” “above average,” “average” is not the be-all-end-all of evaluating international students' transcripts. And certainly, that was my experience when I was evaluating international students' files as well—it's much more than just that designation.

Students who have these non-reportable GPAs, we've talked a little bit about how they're being evaluated, how they're being interpreted, how other elements of the application might take on more important things like the LSAT score. That was another thing that you mentioned initially, Tom, was, in some cases it's harder to take the LSAT for international students. I think that just comes down to the schedule. They're offered fewer times per year and you're going to encounter that if you are trying to take the LSAT outside of the U.S.. Are there any other factors with the LSAT that can influence specifically international students?

Tom: The LSAT is challenging for U.S. students, right? Doing it in English as a second, third, or fourth language, I think that is the challenge. And a lot of law schools don't ask for the TOEFL or for IELTS or something like that. Chicago does, a few others do for some students. So a lot of law schools assume that if someone can get a 173 or a 172 or a strong score on the LSAT, then that's a sign that their English is strong as well.

Anna: That's a great point. They have to take this test, the same difficult test, but in a language that is not their first language. So certainly, I think that the LSAT score alone can tell admissions officers some things about the English language abilities.

So the next thing you mentioned was sort of a different approach, a different mentality to writing essays. Can you both talk a little bit about that?

Peter: This is really something that's cross-culturally determined very often. What happens very often is that applicants from abroad, they have been brought up in a very competitive environment where they have to be first. They have to sometimes beat out 10,000 people in competition to get into a school. So they have learned to kind of think about being the best of the best. And then they have to write a personal statement. What happens then is they say, “Okay, I'm so good. I'm going to show the world that I'm so good.” Unfortunately, everyone else is so good, so many other people are applying. So what happens is, if they say, “I was number one here, I did this, I was the best in this area,” whatever, what they do is basically, A, they are repeating what's maybe on their CV, which they shouldn't do on their personal statement. But there's really something that they are showing not in any way that they are different from other people. And personal statement says, “Say something about yourself,” and not about your sister, so to say. And Tom, you sure have had that experience all the time with people telling that they are the Superman's, Superwoman’s sibling.

Tom: It is—storytelling, and talking about someone's background and about themselves, is really hard. It's hard for U.S. students; it's at least a little more expected in the U.S. system. And for international students, yeah, there is a reliance on a little bit of a narrative resume sometimes, and really a little bit of disbelief—this year, I had a client who was really in disbelief that she should start with something more creative, something more like literature and storytelling, because she has a science background, she's a very serious person, and she thought that might be fluff and not valued. And so that storytelling that leads to an understanding of who she is and what she might bring to campus, there was a lot of discussions to help her think about why they value that. So that's, I think that was a really interesting part of the advising process.

Anna: Yeah, it’s kind of a mindset shift. I do think that's got to be one of the most common personal statement mistakes that I've seen. And probably particularly among applicants who are maybe coming from backgrounds where they're not used to writing about themselves in that way. Of just having the personal statement be this list of all these wonderful things that you've done; you know, you want to make sure that the admissions office knows that you won this award and that you went to that conference and that you got this great job, but that's not really the purpose of a personal statement. So that's a great point that there are these different approaches to writing that can sometimes require a little bit of a mindset shift, as you were talking about, Tom.

Tom: Even in the Canadian system, University of Toronto puts out sample personal statements, and they're very narrative-driven. They do suggest that there shouldn't be a lot of storytelling, that there should just be this direct sort of conversation about what you've done. So more of a narrative resume. So even for Canadian students, the process of their applying to both U.S. and Canadian schools is pretty different in terms of the type of personal statement.

Peter: Yeah, and they even give examples at these English-influenced, Commonwealth-influenced universities; they give examples of language not to use, and it’s like avoid words like “excited,” you know?

Anna: Oh, interesting.

Peter: These narratives are more driven by achievements in those countries. But then in the United States, and I think for JD admissions, it's—you are not a lawyer yet, and you haven't done law yet. We want to see what person you are. They want to see that you are a person who has the passion and the grit for being a lawyer. Actually, some JD applicants from foreign countries have this background; others don't have the background. And I think maybe that's something that they can also accentuate or they can emphasize some of those. If someone is already a lawyer, they can write about that. But the most important thing with personal statement is the personal. And that's another thing that I've seen quite often is, applicants don't really know, “Okay, what do Americans want?” They see, you know, all kinds of things on Reddit and wherever, and they don't know what to write. And so they say, “I think maybe I should write what Americans want to see, so Americans love human rights, you know, they are just like very dedicated and passionate about it." So sometimes an applicant says, “Okay, if I write about this, I'm going to win the hearts of the admissions committee.” And with all these topics, human rights, women rights, for example, in specific, or LGBTQ, any of those things, I think if you can write from your heart, and you write something that is true and you are yourself, it's okay. An admissions officer can smell from a hundred miles away when someone writes a story that's supposed to manipulate the admissions officer. And this is not something that just international students do; it's also what U.S. applicants do. And Tom, you have probably lots of stories from the trenches.

Tom: Yeah, and I was just thinking of one essay that I think we published with my client’s permission. You know, "rule of law" is sort of the—maybe the sister of human rights essays, you know, in terms of, writing a rule of law essay is very vogue right now, and it could fall flat if it's just sort of jargony and not grounded in someone's personal experience. And I had a client who really did ground it in her personal experience, and she talked about—I don't know if I can do it justice now—but certainly maybe we could link to it in this podcast below. She talked about going grocery shopping when she was a kid. She and her mom lived in mainland China, and they would take the train to Hong Kong to go grocery shopping, and it was about a 40-minute trip. And she wrote about the reason why they did that was because of rule of law, because they trusted the food sources, the baby formula, the products in Hong Kong more because of the regulatory system was perceived as stronger. Rule of law meant that she and her mom once a week did a 80-minute round-trip train ride to the grocery store instead of the five-minute walk to the corner. That is a great way to show how rule of law shaped part of her life and also gave a window into how she grew up. You know, you can talk about human rights, you can talk about rule of law, but you should ground it in your own personal story in a way that's very genuine.

Anna: Yeah, Tom, I think that's a great example. I remember reading that essay, and it really felt so authentic and sincere. It was clear that the applicant remembered that very first trip to the grocery store so well because it was this notable moment in their life. And that really did come across in a way that would not if it were just them trying to write about something they think that admissions wants to hear.

One more thing I will note on the sort of mistake of using your personal statement to list out all of your accomplishments and all of your wonderful things that you've done—there are other places in the application for you to do that. So we're not telling you, "don't communicate the wonderful things that you've done"; just put them on your resume. You know, lots of applications have places where you list your awards, your work experience, your extracurricular activities, things like that. If they don't, put them on your resume. If you have these wonderful accomplishments, absolutely include them in your application. The personal statement is just not the place to list all of them in order.

Peter: Absolutely.

Tom: Yeah, and you can also have a recommender mention one or two things that you’ve really emphasized. It's almost better when a third party says something nice about you rather than promoting it in your own personal statement, so I think that really resonates well with committees.

Anna: That's a great point. Anything else on writing?

Peter: I'd like to add something, and it's that "PS" also means passion, you know? You should put passion in what you're writing about. But there is a fine line; if you put adverbs here and there and everywhere to show your passion, your essay will not look very convincing. And so, Spivey, I think what we do is we help people to figure out, what's a good adverb that we could use here? Don’t use too many, and so on and so forth. If you work with someone, and especially with a problem with English if you have a problem with English, I think you can work with other people; you should work with other people. It always has to be your own piece. And what we do I think at Spivey is, we actually help people figure out how PS should sound. And for non-native speakers, we also give you extra lessons on style and grammar, so at the end of working with a consultant here, what you have is a good introduction in how to write. Good tools to take on to law school when you write exams, say, or when you have to express yourself in good English. Passion is the technique of writing in English. It's good to improve your technique.

And last but not least, you don't have to sound like Shakespeare or like some kind of fancy speaker, because if you sound like a fancy speaker and that's not your English, then you may be in trouble. And that leads us to using outside sources like AI or so, and I'm not sure, that could be another hour of talking. So Tom, I'm sure you have a few things to say about that too.

Tom: Yeah. I think in writing these essays, many schools do prohibit using AI at all. But one thing I have seen, when a client will use AI, is that I think I catch it most often and flag it for them, because I think AI can write something really well, but it doesn't yet—and maybe it will someday soon, who knows—it doesn't yet have a lot of depth. So they can say it well, but it's not meaningful to the admissions office. It's grammatically correct but a little bit shallow in terms of what you really want to convey. People who might be tempted to use AI, it's really not going to get you to the level that you probably want to be at with these essays, in terms of depth, in terms of really nuanced things. And maybe it's a “Why Duke?” essay or something like that—it could maybe help you with the grammar, but it's not going to help you be persuasive. So that's I think the big problem with AI right now.

Peter: In America they say, “You can run, but you can't hide,” which means you may be able to write one piece that is convincing at some point, but you're going to go on to law school where you have to write many other pieces, you won't have AI. And the other thing is, there is always the interview. There might always be an interview where they will ask you, “What does the word ‘preposterous’ here mean?” Or they might ask you about your English in general, and then, admissions officers have been trained for years. They can ask you questions about your essay that will show everyone right away, it's not your product. You don't want to do this; you want to stay true to yourself.

Anna: Yeah, there are other elements of the application, too, where, if there are huge discrepancies between some written components of your application and others, that is going to be a red flag, and you do want to keep everything in your sincere, authentic voice.

I think one place where this comes out is the LSAT writing sample, which when I was applying to law school, the wisdom was basically, "no one reads your LSAT writing sample," and at that time, the LSAT writing sample was handwritten. So I certainly understood why a lot of the time it was just completely disregarded, because a lot of the time it's very difficult to read people's handwriting. Now that it's typed, it's a lot easier, and I think most admissions officers probably do at least skim that LSAT writing sample, because it is typed, because it is something that you can read relatively easily. And I think that probably is especially true for applicants for whom English is not their first language, to be able to see an example of their writing under timed conditions without the ability to get editing done afterward and really take their time finessing all the language. That's another place where, if you took the LSAT, they're going to be able to see how you write under time constraints in other parts of your application.

So yes, your personal statement, your other essays are probably going to be a lot more polished than a writing sample, and they expect that. But if the voice, the style, the word choices, the vocabulary are just completely different, that is going to stick out to admissions officers. They are going to see that. And your personal statement is automatically going to be read as less sincere and less authentic as a result.

Tom: Yeah, that's very true.

Anna: So the next thing that you brought up in your list, Tom, was different expectations and different considerations for asking for letters of recommendation. Can you talk a little bit about that?

Tom: Sure, so, the U.S. law schools would often get single-space, one-page letters of recommendations from like a faculty member at Cornell or Brown or Ohio or something. Brown faculty were sometimes two and a half pages, single-spaced, like overwhelmingly long. I don't recommend that. I mean, it wasn't bad; it's just over the top. You know, it shows a lot of dedication, I suppose. But what I have found is, recommenders from Commonwealth countries, you know, the UK, Australia, and other countries, the recommenders tend to be less verbose, and it's maybe cultural, but they probably think Americans go on too long about these things. And it’s like they might just write one or two paragraphs, and it's very brief. Very positive, but very brief. And that can be seen by admissions officers as missing the mark. Maybe they could misinterpret it as the faculty member is not invested in the student as much, that the relationship wasn't that strong, and there's usually a lack of examples. If you do have a faculty member who is international and may not understand what U.S. law schools are looking for, there's resources on our website and so forth as example recommendations. Try to point them toward that idea, that they should have examples of things that they've been successful at, that it's probably going to end up at least at a page single-spaced, and they do want a little more depth on those things. And so that's good to just prepare those faculty so that the recs come in and they land well.

Anna: That's helpful to keep in mind. So you recommend applicants specifically talk to their professors about this, about setting expectations for what the letter would ideally look like.

Tom: Yeah, sometimes that's, if your faculty member is really well placed at like Seoul National, you know, you have to sort of approach it a little tenderly, I guess, or tentatively. And so just trying to work that relationship a little bit to help them understand what you're looking for and what's going to be appropriate for U.S. law schools. So yeah, I think that is important.

Peter: One thing that I think is very important is—who do you pick, who do you ask? Culturally, in many countries, the idea is that you pick the person with the highest rank, the biggest title, and so on and so forth, because that convinces people. But basically, what a recommendation boils down to is, it's written by someone who knows you quite well. Who can talk about, were you number one, number two, number three in class, where did you excel, and so on and so forth. But again, in many countries, it's, “Okay, I'm just going to ask someone famous.” And I have had, in the last year, three clients who said, “The president of my country can write a recommendation for me.” Think about you, like you say, “Okay, President Biden can write something for me”—does President Biden know you? That's the next question. So what it boils down to really is, if the president knows you and has worked with you and can really say something to what makes you a good applicant and maybe a good student if he or she or they are lawyers, yes. But if the president is just there to sound fancy and be a big name, no. That's another piece of advice. Don't go for the name and the rank; go for the experience. And so if someone may just be—and I say "just be"!—assistant professor, those might have so much more exposure and much better position to write a recommendation for you.

Anna: Yeah, absolutely. That's great advice. And I think it can be counterintuitive or unintuitive sometimes for applicants to hear, “Oh, so you think I should ask this adjunct professor who taught me in a couple of classes as opposed to the president of the university who could talk about me from that perspective?” And the answer is, if you didn't work closely with the president of the university or the president of your country, if they don't really know you as a person, yeah, that adjunct professor is probably a better choice.

So this next topic is kind of a big one, and I think it might be helpful, first, to talk about how JD admissions for international students has changed over the past 10, 15 years, because things have been changing. And I think it's going to be important to understanding some of the topics around messaging career goals and where you want to be working after graduation to understand briefly a little bit of that history. Do either of you want to get into that a little bit?

Tom: Yeah, there's a lot going on, and even in the last year a lot has changed. When I first started working at Harvard, I think there was maybe around 5,600 applicants in their pool. We weren't really sure, you know, what direction that would go. You know, 2008, the crash had happened, and by 2012 and ’14, things were low in terms of application volume. Most recently, or two years ago I think, Harvard had just over 10,000. So you can see, like, there's such a big pool.

When application numbers were lower, I think some law schools probably saw international students as a way to sort of increase their pool and to find really talented people from abroad, and so there was a bit of a push, maybe, for that. And I think over time, more recently, Harvard's admissions numbers for international students in their 1L class was around 9 percent, used to be 15+ percent. As the volume has increased, a number of international students have had to compete more, I think, probably for seats, and the overall percentage in classes might be going down a little bit at some schools. It may be going up at other schools; I've actually—I want to look at some data on that. But I do think that it's more competitive for international students, and the U.S. News & World Report rankings, even though a lot of schools aren't participating in it, they've shifted a lot of the weight away from inputs to outcomes, right? So if someone comes in with jobs and internships and post-undergrad work experience and then applies, they're going to be in a stronger position. And I think all of this is making it a little bit more challenging for international students, because a lot of international students may not have internships. They may be coming right from their undergrad in another country or from their undergrad in the U.S., and so, you know, I do think that those things are combining to make it a more competitive environment for international students.

Peter: Absolutely, that's it. I think it's just like the employment market also. I think when you apply—and you should think broadly—yes, maybe you really want to work in the United States, but you don't know how your grades are going to be, you don't know how the future will work, and maybe you have good connections to your home country already, so why don't you just present this as a possibility? Possibly working, ideally working in the United States, but also have this great fallback working in your home country. Because if you focus too much on the United States, you never know how that's going to work out. Keep it open, get admitted, see where it takes you. That's one thing.

And then Tom, you mentioned internships and similar things. So I'd like to talk about volunteering, for example, in the resume. Americans, many times, have wonderful, like, volunteering experience here, many years of volunteering there. Culturally, in many countries, volunteering is not a thing. It's not what people do. They just often don't have that volunteering experience. And they ask me, for example, they say, “How about if I volunteer two months now or so?” I always say, “Well, I'm not sure whether that's worth doing this now in the last few months before you come to the law school. Maybe you want to look for something else, maybe the internship, maybe something like that.” Because really, the trouble with volunteering is, I think, what admissions officers want to see is, they want to see commitment and length. There's always this example about going to the dog shelter for one day and put it on your resume and say, “I visited the dog shelter,” or so, that's not convincing. If you don't have anything about volunteering, maybe you want to write something and say, “In our country, culturally, we don't volunteer. That's why I couldn't say anything about that.” Tom, I don't know whether you have any more advice.

Tom: Yeah, I think that's very true. And if you are a number of years from applying, now is the time, as Peter is saying, to look at internships, look at volunteering, try to find a way to do something online. I have one client who's international, who did volunteer work with an NGO in Africa, he did it virtually, and so he was able to build his resume a bit. So that can happen if you are doing it in just the last few months before you apply.

The other thing is that a lot of this is being emphasized by career services offices, who are talking to admissions offices, and they're saying that it's a tougher market, and we need to make sure that students are coming in with this good experience that they build on that while they’re here, and that's going to position them well for graduation. And that's another sort of pressure on international students who may not have that experience. You know, if you went to undergrad in the U.S., you really don't have a lot of time to work before you have to be worried about your visa. There are some challenges with that.

And then the other thing is, even back when I worked at Harvard, it was international students who may not get a visa or may not be interested in working in the U.S., they could work for a U.S. firm in London or somewhere. And that's a little bit less, it seems to me, less available to students. I think there's fewer roles available currently at some of the firms abroad or a little bit more difficulty for someone to get hired by a U.S. firm, and if they don't have a visa to be just transferred to London or something. So I think that path is a little more restricted, and I think career services knows that, and so they're worried about it. And then that all gets in the feedback loop to admissions, "We're worried about these things with international students." So there's more, I think, just focus on, is this person going to be employable? Is this person going to have good employment outcomes? And even at the most competitive law schools. So there's a lot of different factors going into the pressures on international students.

Anna: So something that we've been talking about on this podcast a lot lately has been the increasing emphasis on employability in admissions. And I think a lot of this goes back to that. Especially now, when admissions generally is more competitive. When we're talking about 10+ years ago, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, it was much more an applicant's market. Law schools had many fewer applications, and things were less competitive generally for applicants. Law schools right now are drawing from, by and large, a larger applicant pool and more competitive applicant pool. So things are more competitive generally, but it seems like things are especially more competitive for international students, because of these additional employment concerns and hurdles that they have to go through.

So you’ve both given some recommendations, some advice for how you can address that employability question as part of your application. I think it's been some really solid advice. Anything else on that sort of, employability and how international students can signal that they are going to be able to get employment after law school?

Peter: I would say with applicants who have legal experience, so like education back in their home country, they should really accentuate that and they should actually gauge the waters with their own—if they worked for a firm or have work, they should really say, you know, that, “Chances are high that I will be employed back in my country again by that firm or a similar firm.” So if you have that background, if you have anything like that, I think I would definitely take that and put that somewhere in the narrative.

The same is, connections to, you know, players in the field in your home country. There are firms that give internships in the United States; they have offices there too. If you reach out now and say, “I want to go to the United States in the future. Might it be possible maybe to have some time over there for an internship?” And as we all know, I think, networking is such an important thing, it's a skill that you have to learn these days from the crib onwards. If you do this well in advance of applying, then you may set the stage for maybe even getting a great job internationally in the future.

Tom: Yeah. And I think contradicting myself a little bit about the personal statement from earlier, for international clients, they do always recommend to tell that story and be genuine and find your way to be compelling, but then also give a few concrete things in your essay. Maybe towards the end where you talk about an interest in working for firms in different regions. I have a client who's interested in working in Latin America and other places and has some background there. Being able to talk about that—and do it very briefly because obviously it's often only two pages, and you don't want to have something super practical at the very end that sort of drags down the storytelling nature of your essay—so finding a way to artfully incorporate that in your essay to get that message right across so that schools aren't going to say, “Well, if we admit this person, then we're going to have to place them in the U.S., and that's their only interest.” And that may be your interest, but I do think, for international students, it's important to show that you have other avenues to be happy professionally.

Anna: Yeah, going back to that employability.

Peter: Yeah, I mean, if you say "this is not a contract," that doesn't mean you have to go to this country or to that country, but it opens the stage to more options, and that makes admissions officers happier, I think.

Tom: Yeah.

Anna: Definitely. That's really solid advice. We are getting close to the end of our time here. I do think we already spoke somewhat about English language skills. We definitely talked about work experience in the context of our conversation just now, about employability, and resumes. Before we close up here, can we touch on differences in scholarship process and financial aid for international students? I know that's kind of a big topic. We could probably do a whole episode just on that, but to the extent that we can keep it brief, what are some sort of key things for international students to keep in mind with regards to scholarships and financial aid?

Tom: It's a difficult process for every student, international students. There's some limitations. One of the strengths of the system that is in place for the top schools, Harvard, Yale, Stanford, to a certain extent Columbia, is that they have need-based aid. So if you're an international student with financial need, you're likely to qualify for a similar amount of aid as the U.S. student with a similar situation. So need-based grants, these are grants that don't need to be repaid, can be helpful from those three or four schools. For the rest of the schools you're applying to, most of them are merit-based. And I do have international clients every year who get a strong merit-based aid. But a strong award could be 30,000 a year, and that's obviously a lot less than the full cost of attendance which can be 100 or more thousand per year. So that can be a challenge, I think, for international students. So outside of those three or four schools I mentioned, it's mostly merit-based. And in a lot of cases, the awards are made just based on the quality of your application and don't require a separate application process. But it does vary by school, but that's some of the process. So it can be quite expensive, obviously.

Anna: Yeah. Anything to add, Peter?

Peter: So, one thing that I think I heard and over the years is, there are loans, for example, that you can apply for, but you cannot apply for loans in the United States in most cases if you are a foreign national. So that's out of the picture. So you would really have to, for example, you should think about the loan or so, think about where does that come from in my country? Can I do this in my country? There are loan forgiveness programs in many countries, but then you have to do some public interest, for example, just like in the United States.

The other thing that I would definitely consider are scholarships from your own country or organizations. Fulbright comes to my mind; they might have some funding. There are so many organizations with specific purposes and so on and so forth. But the operative word here is, do this very early on, because the process takes a long, long time. So if you think about going to law school, I would do this at least a year before, probably even before then, because there is a process of writing an application, being interviewed the first time on location, then having to go to the capital of the country for another thing—maybe not anymore with Zoom also—but it's lengthy. That's all there is, you know. And so, time is of the essence, with so many other things. These internships, for example, if you want to get internships, think about it if you're still in school, that's about that aspect of the whole thing.

Anna: Yeah, that's great advice. The process of financing your legal education might not be easy, but it is relatively simple in a lot of cases for U.S. students, who, you get your merit-based scholarship from whatever law school or need-based if it's Harvard, Yale, or Stanford, but apart from that, you've got your merit-based scholarship, and then unless you are independently wealthy, you just make up the difference between that and cost of attendance with loans. And it's pretty simple; it's all wrapped up into that one thing. Versus it might be a lot more complicated, you might have to seek out other sources of funding if you're an international student, you might have to look at different places, because you don't have the ability to just lump everything else in with, “Okay, I'm just going to get my federal loans.” So that's a great point, definitely something to keep in mind, as you said, Peter, as early as possible in your application process.

We don't have a whole lot more time; I want to be respectful of everyone's time here. But to wrap up, some of the things that we've been talking about today have been about how the process for international students has changed a little bit over time. But I want to ask you both, if an international student applying to JD programs is listening to this podcast episode, years from now—let's say three, four years from now—what's one piece of advice that you think is going to hold true, whether they're listening to it right now or many years into the future?

Tom: I would say—and this is something that we've talked a lot about during this conversation—but it's something that I think about a lot and conversations that I have with clients very frequently is, try to connect to your story and know your story and tell it compellingly in your essays. And then it can be a marginal gain or even a big gain for your overall applications. Try to avoid getting into the admissions officers' minds and imagining what they want you to say. If you take that approach, often your essay becomes a little more sort of basic, a little more tactical, a little less story-driven. And in the process of understanding your own story, it can help you in so many ways when you go for internships, when you go for other interviews, when you think about the types of law you want to practice. If you spend a lot of time in the application process, understanding your story and telling it well, that can be useful in so many different venues. That would be my advice, even though it maybe is a little bit obvious from the conversations we've been having today. I think that is the big piece that I try to impart to all clients.

Anna: I think that's a great one for sure to emphasize here at the end, because it's incredibly important. Peter?

Peter: Yeah absolutely. I mean, this is the “be yourself” approach, so it’ll always be the right approach. So what I'd like to mention, and I've been thinking about that in terms of what is it the time tried and true thing here, I would say do your due diligence and establish networking. Find out, what is the school all about? You are going to go there for several years as a foreigner, for example, so find out, what is the situation there for foreign students, what's the support there? I would ask former graduates from my own country, recent graduates, what is it like there? And they will always be around. Maybe a former graduate can speak for you actually in terms of a recommendation, if they have something to say and they know you very well, think about the people you know and do your research. Do your research about the school. Don't just say, “I want 1 to 10 because everyone wants to go 1 to 10.” Find out what's going to wait for you; be very informed about it. This is part of your life for the future, and it's a lot of money that you put in there and life and emotions and everything else.

Anna: Love it. I think those are great places to end. So be authentic, be sincere, and do your research. Do that due diligence.

Thank you both so much for your time again. I really think this is hugely valuable for our listeners, and your time is greatly appreciated.

Peter: Thank you!

Tom: Thank you.