Podcast: What It's Like Applying to Law School, Part 3 (Final Decisions & Choosing a Law School)

In this episode of Status Check with Spivey, we wrap up our ongoing conversation with "Lucy," a 2022-2023 law school applicant from Reddit (thank you, u/Accomplished-Body785!). We interviewed Lucy at several points throughout her cycle, and in this episode, we delve into her final decisions and her process of deciding where to attend.

You can find Part 1 of this series here and Part 2 here.

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

Full Transcript:

Anna: Welcome to Status Check with Spivey, where we talk about life, law school, law school admissions. My name is Anna Hicks-Jaco, and I am here checking in with “Lucy,” not her real name, on how her law school admission cycle is wrapping up. Hi, Lucy!

Lucy: Hi, how are you?

Anna: I'm great. How are you doing? How are you feeling? Everything is coming to an end.

Lucy: Yeah, it really is.

Anna: How is it feeling to have spent so much time in this big section of your life, thinking about this process and engaging in this process, and having it be, sort of, closing off?

Lucy: Honestly, it's a big relief. I'm sure a lot of other applicants empathize with this sentiment. I really expected I would be done earlier, but it just felt like things kept coming up that delayed my decision-making process personally. So it feels like a big relief to be moving forward, I mean. There are some things that I found fun about the process that I'll be sad to see go, but I'm definitely excited to be moving on to a new chapter.  

Anna: Tell me about that. What did you find fun about the process?  

Lucy: I think there's a sense of camaraderie in it. I met some really wonderful people this cycle.  I think there’s also like something addicting about having that sense of purpose that comes from waiting for something to happen. Waiting to see, you know, if you got an interview invite, waiting to see when people are getting in and it's definitely like a double-edged sword because it is addicting when things are going well, but it can feel really bad to miss a wave or something like that. So overall, I think I'm happy to be through with it but there is something fun about it too.

Anna: I definitely identify with that. I got probably too obsessed with my admissions process when I was going through my law school applications, and I certainly, you know, met a lot of people who I really enjoyed talking to and becoming friends with and got very, very invested in this process. And also felt somewhat of a loss—excitement to be going off to law school and to be doing the real things—but when I was done with the admissions process, it was sort of losing something that I had been so invested in and constantly thinking about. Of course, I ended up making law school admissions my career, so I guess I'm a little bit of an outlier there. But for the vast majority of people, now you're going into the “real life” of it all. But I have good news for you, which is maybe bad news for some people. The waiting is certainly not over. So, you'll definitely be experiencing that when you are applying for internships, and waiting for exam results, which of course is so different in law school than it is in most undergraduate programs, and then waiting for bar exam results and trials and the whole big world after that. So if you like waiting for big results, you I think are in for a good time in law school!

Lucy: Yeah, that was also like I think the other part of finishing up this process that felt a little bittersweet, knowing that I'm just moving on to like even more high-stakes processes. It's such a relief to be done with this huge set of stressors but then it's like, oh I'm only getting myself into something much bigger than what I've already done. But I guess that's just like a life thing.

Anna: Certainly. The cool thing about law school is that I think a lot of the admissions process can feel like you are doing so much to try to prove yourself in a way that is a little bit disconnected from the substance of what you're trying to do, and who you are. You're kind of trying to go through these motions and work in this system as well as you can, versus when you're in law school everything you're learning is highly relevant to what you're going to be doing. Even if you never do anything in contracts law or property, all of that is part of learning to think like a lawyer—it's a cliché, but it's a cliché for a reason. So I think that there's something more fulfilling about that stressful process actually in law school than in the admissions process, if that makes any sense at all.

Lucy: Yeah, it all makes sense. I think that's comforting to hear.  

Anna: So let's back up a little bit. Why don't you give us an update on your cycle? Where are you right now? Update us since the last time we spoke.

Lucy: Yeah, so I guess the last time we spoke was November, right?  

Anna: I think around then, it was a while ago.

Lucy: Yeah, so I think I had gotten some admissions decisions at that point. I had gotten into, I think, a handful of schools and I'd just gotten interview invites at a few schools that were my top choices. And my cycle ended up going a lot better than I could have ever hoped. I got into almost every school that I applied to. Which I came into this process with no illusions that I was a bad applicant or something like that, I knew that because I was coming in with a pretty high GPA and LSAT I would probably be getting bites across the T14. But I felt really compelled to apply pretty broadly, just because I'd seen how competitive the past few cycles were, and I wanted to put myself in the best position possible for things like scholarship negotiation. And I didn't really know if my circumstances or anything like that would change throughout the course of the cycle. So I definitely maybe overapplied slightly, but I think in the end it worked out even if maybe I was a little bit safe in terms of my choices for applying.

Anna: You’ve got these great results. What did you end up with in terms of admits, waitlists, denies?

Lucy: Yeah, so I got into every T14 except for Cornell (because I didn't apply to Cornell), I got waitlisted at Chicago, and I got put on hold at Columbia and I didn't end up waiting for a final result there.

Anna: Did you wait for a final result from Chicago, were you ultimately admitted from the waitlist, or did you withdraw?

Lucy: I just withdrew. I mean I was on the fence on whether to pursue it. Especially like earlier on, because I think I got waitlisted pretty early in January. But I kind of ultimately decided that I probably wasn't going to be getting pretty compelling scholarship money off of the waitlist so I decided not to write a letter of continued interest for them.

Anna: Yeah, fair. Because you have some other great offers anyway. So you ended up with zero denials, is that correct?

Lucy: Yeah, which was a huge blessing and a really big surprise to be honest.

Anna: Yeah, that's really exciting. That is really rare. Last cycle, we actually interviewed someone who at the conclusion of her cycle had ended up with no denies. And we interviewed her as this sort of exceptional thing that very rarely happens. And now here we are, we've been following you since the beginning of your cycle, and you also ended up with no denies, so that's awesome. That's so exciting and very, very rare as I said. That puts you in this great position where you're looking at all of these wonderful offers from all of these wonderful law schools. Tell me a little bit about your decision-making process. What did that look like? Feel free to get into specifics as far as school names to the extent that you're comfortable; don't feel the need to mention anything specific if you don't want to.

Lucy: Yeah, sure. I think my decision-making process, you know, I was really lucky and that I had offers from some of my dream schools. And it was something that for me the decision-making process is a little difficult and I realize it might be out of touch to say difficult because I had some wonderful options. But I think when I was first thinking about applying and thinking about like hypotheticals of what law schools I would choose, I just never really imagined myself being in the position to pick some of the schools that I got into.

Like I honestly never thought it would be a possibility for me to get into Yale. I did have strong work experience and involvement in college especially, but I think in my mind I'd assumed that most people that get into these schools are like the Rhodes Scholars of the world, the Malalas of the world, and there certainly are quite a lot of people that I've been super blown away with that come from these amazing backgrounds. But you know, there certainly are a big segment of admits at these schools that are just largely regular people with strong narratives that for whatever reason fit a niche that these schools were looking for.  

So this is just all to say that I didn't really expect to have that as a possibility for me. So I think that I initially took a long time getting over kind of a sense of imposter syndrome. Like I have this option but am I really willing to go through with it, both in terms of the debt and then also just being in this space that I never really thought I would fit into. Of those two considerations, the primary one for me was debt. And that was something that I took many months to kind of mull over whether I was willing to do the amount of debt that going to like Yale or Stanford or Harvard would have required of me. And it was something that I honestly really agonized over.

I am really lucky that I had a scholarship to go to undergrad, so I didn't have undergrad debt. And the financial freedom that allowed me right out of college was something that I didn’t take for granted. And so the idea of going back to school and going into debt was something that worried me quite a bit.

But for me, what really changed my mind and helped me think through that was talking a lot to current students and alums that were taking on pretty significant debt to go to these institutions. And just knowing it's not an easy choice. I know plenty of people who turned down Harvard to go to another school for a full ride, and I think that's a super valid choice and for a lot of people, the right choice. But I did meet a lot of people that were making the debt work and had pretty compelling reasons to do so. So I really did a deep dive into the loan repayment programs, I also have a friend who made this really wonderful spreadsheet that outlines the payments you would be making over like a five- to ten-year period if you were to enter into biglaw. And you know, it's really scary seeing that number on a spreadsheet, but actually being able to break down like where in your career you would be if you were making those really aggressive debt payments. So for me ultimately I decided to take the debt, but it really did take me quite a while. And I ended up deciding on Yale.

And another big factor in my decision-making process was wanting to visit schools. For me, that was something that was a non-negotiable. Though a lot of people are willing to commit sight unseen to the places. But for me, I felt like it was important to go and at least see what the area was like, see what the students were like. Personally that like assuaged a lot of the doubts that I had.

Pretty much it came down to Harvard, Yale, Stanford, versus the University of Virginia. And I'm pretty familiar with UVA, I have some people that are pretty close to me in my life that go there. I knew a lot about UVA, but the other schools were a big unknown for me. And I especially, I think, was caught up on the idea of culture. UVA, rightfully so, has a big reputation of collegiality and a more collaborative culture than I think some other law schools.

So I visited UVA earlier than the other schools that I visited, and I really liked it. And so I think seeing that I had that as an option was really comforting. But then I also was able to visit these other places and I really, I ended up really falling in love with Yale and deciding that I really wanted to take the risk and go there.

Anna:  I think it's so important to get into those specifics. Because I do think a lot of people take on hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt without doing that very specific math of it that you did. Where you went in and looked at, “okay, what would my actual loan payments look like, when could I actually be paying this off, and how would this affect my financial situation in the years after law school?” I think it's really easy to just look at that big number and realize it's going to take forever to pay off and not really get into the specifics, and not put yourself in the mindset of, this is what this debt is actually going to look like. And I think that's so important if you're going to take out that level of debt. So thank you for explaining the level of detail that you went into. I think that's really important.

And then, I do tend to be of the mind that fit is really important. If you go to law school and you’re miserable for three years, you’re probably not going to do as well as you otherwise could have. You're probably not going to get as much out of it as you otherwise could have, if you were in a situation where you were really thriving and really enjoying your time.

It's kind of funny, you're moving from one city where I've lived, Charlottesville, which I loved, to another city where I've lived, New Haven, which I also loved. I think New Haven gets kind of a bad rap online. I feel like any time New Haven is mentioned, people talk badly about New Haven. But I really enjoyed living in New Haven. My husband went to Yale for undergrad as a non-traditional student, and I really loved it. Tell me a little bit about what you thought of New Haven and what you thought of Yale visiting.

Lucy: Yeah, honestly I really came in not really knowing what to expect. I think I went to Connecticut maybe once, and we like drove through it, so I hadn't heard a ton about New Haven other than, like, in the context of Yale. So I was honestly surprised by how big it seemed, like the downtown area especially, it seems like a small city. Which I think I had associated it with the college, so I had expected it to have a little bit more of that college town feel.

Anna: It does feel like a city.

Lucy: Yeah, which is something I probably should have done my research on, that I was a little surprised by. But of course, Yale buildings especially, are so beautiful. And I'm coming from a more southern area, so I was a little bummed out by the weather, but I think that's kind of something that I will have to just deal with.

Anna: Yeah, definitely. We should talk after we record this a little bit more about New Haven since you're moving there soon. But we shouldn't make this the New Haven, Connecticut podcast; I guess we should talk a little bit more about law school.

So you’ve made this decision, you've decided on Yale. You’ve got these great results. I think that it's a common mistake that applicants who do really well decide that it was one or two aspects of their application that made them do really well, and then they go online and they say, “This is what you need to do to do well.” And I think it's easy to over-extrapolate from those anecdotal stories and apply them to your specific situation even if it doesn't necessarily make sense. And that applicant might have gotten in for a totally different reason than they even realized or thought. So that's my first caveat.

My second part is, tell me a little bit about what you think made the difference for your application, and we can have those disclaimers in mind. But why do you think, from your perspective, you did so well this cycle? Apart from, of course, your wonderful numbers, which are going to open the door certainly in ways that lower numbers wouldn't.

Lucy: Yeah, I think that's really important to keep in mind. If I just had a bad day on the LSAT, it's pretty possible that I would have not gotten into most of the schools that I got into, and I would have still been the same person with all of the same other materials. That was something that I tried to think about a lot when I was like first getting ready to apply is, I really wanted to make sure that I put my best foot forward in terms of the LSAT. But I think also like it's important to remember that when seeing people's results and thinking about your own application, someone isn't a better person because they got into better schools or something like that. And “better,” of course, is relative in terms of someone’s goals and interests.

I think there is a pretty non-negligible factor of luck in the process. I certainly believe that if I had been read by a different first reader on a different day or something like that and someone was just having a bad day, it's very possible I would have not gotten into certain places. And it's hard to, like, parse out how much of that was a factor in my cycle or anyone's cycle. I have met people this year that were wonderful people, I read their materials, I thought they were really good; they still got great results, but I think were a little disappointed by the way that their cycle shook out. It's hard to say what makes the difference there. So I feel like I just want to give a bit of a disclaimer that there's so much that goes on behind closed doors, that I don't want to make it seem like my application in particular was better than anyone else’s.

I do think that for me, one of the biggest things that I think helped was taking time off, and I think I touched on that a little bit the last time that we spoke. But I think it's something that I am still really grateful that I did just personally. There's many people that are able to apply straight through, and that's the right decision for them. But for me, I was not in a position to go right back to school. And I think that the work experience that I had in the meantime both made me a stronger applicant and also taught me a lot about the kinds of work that I find gratifying and I find interesting. That I was able to bring into my application and interviews a lot. I don't think I would have been able to do the same extent if I applied straight out of undergrad.

Anna: Definitely, that makes sense. And I do think work experience, professional full-time work experience after undergrad, is only increasing in significance in law school admissions. I think it's more and more common for folks to get at least a year or two of work experience before law school, and especially with the trend toward focusing on outcomes and employment, I think that's even more a factor. Because if you've been successful in the professional world, maybe you've gotten a couple promotions, maybe you have a really great letter of recommendation from an employer—that speaks to your employability after law school also. I think it can be really helpful in that way.

As you said, certainly going straight from undergrad makes sense for some people, works really well for some people. But all else equal, if you're considering going for an interesting job opportunity or applying straight to law school, strategically, for your law school admissions strategy, it certainly makes sense I think to get that work experience too. And that's just talking admissions, even without all the other sort of enriching aspects of getting that work experience.

You really do seem like the type of person who wants to do her homework and make sure that you are thinking about every part of this process as rationally as you can, and getting as much information as you can. So I think that the way you went about it is going to be really helpful for future applicants.

Speaking about those future applicants, it's getting to be the end of May, almost June. This is when a lot of folks, especially the early appliers, start working on their application materials, start really gearing up to apply for next cycle, for Fall 2024. What advice would you give, what would you say to someone who's listening to this who is just at that part of their own process, they're just getting ready to start?

Lucy: Yeah, I think not rushing your applications is the big one. I was really anxious to apply, you can probably tell. By the first time that we talked, I knew that I was probably not going to hear back much earlier from applying early, but I just really wanted to put my applications out there. But there are definitely people in my life that held me back a little bit and made sure that I was like really proofreading everything. Even within the individual applications when they open up, there's just like a whole bunch of forms you have to fill out. And I'm sure no one's going to get denied based off of like a single error on that kind of page, even just going through that several times like I definitely caught a bunch of little mistakes that I had and inconsistencies there. And I think that individually like those mistakes wouldn't have really changed much for me, but I think as an aggregate I felt better putting forth the most polished, plain, application that I could.

I also think the other big thing that has been something that I have struggled with throughout this process is definitely like figuring out how much external feedback is appropriate. An application especially with essays, that was something that I struggled with a lot because there’s a tendency to try and get as many eyes on your materials as possible, and I certainly felt that way. I think it's important to just be true to yourself and be able to make judgment calls on whether you think something sounds like your own voice.

There were even essays that I had that I shared with people. Like I remember my Yale 250, I shared it with a good friend of mine, he’s wonderful to crack a good story with. But he read it and was like, “I don't think this fits the prompt.” And I was like really bummed out because like I liked it a lot, I felt it was like something that was representative of what I wanted to share. And I went back to my partner about it and we talked about it. I kind of went through and like fine-tuned some things that I think made it more clear how it fit the prompt but the meat of the essay was still the same. And I ended up submitting it, and that was like the essay that I got in with. And that same friend submitted something very different that I also read, also got in. So it's like there is a little bit more of variety than people sometimes think in terms of the kinds of essays that are accepted. And so I'm really glad that I tried to limit that kind of feedback with the essays.

And then even with the decision-making process too, there's so many ‘what would you do’ posts on Reddit and other forums. And I think I've seen, maybe it's just because I'm a little bit more tuned in than the last year when I was maybe going on every couple of weeks. I feel like people have really strong opinions this year about what is the right law school to go to. And sometimes it can be, at least in my opinion, a little bit harsh the kinds of feedback people give. And it is solicited, like people are asking what people would do. But I've seen posts where people are like deciding between one very good law school with a lot of debt, another very good law school with much less debt and people will say things like, “oh, you'd be stupid to not take the lower debt option, it's not even a question, it's an easy choice.” And then there's plenty of people that are making that opposite choice and are doing just fine.

I think with the decision-making process, ultimately like you're the one who's going to have to go to whatever school you choose. You're going to have to move there. If you have a partner or a kid, you have to bring your family there. It is a huge decision and it's so deeply personal that I think the black-and-white of what is the right choice sometimes I think drowns out a lot of the individual factors that people have in choosing a law school. Or even just where someone prefers to live might be like a much more important factor for them than someone else.

So that's something that I personally really struggled with at first because I think I took a long time to make my decision, and I really don't regret that. But I think that there were times when I felt like, oh like I'm not deciding fast enough, I'm not choosing quickly enough. Like I'm not withdrawing from other schools as fast as other people might like. But in the end, I think I was really glad that I made that decision. And it might have been the same choice as my gut feeling in December or January, but I think I felt a lot less anxiety and really just excited to choose when I finally felt ready to. Now I'd gone through applying for financial aid, I really had everything I needed to feel ready in front of me. And that's something that I don't think anyone can take that away from you.

Anna: Yeah, yeah. That makes a lot of sense certainly. And if you have the luxury of having the timeline where you can really take your time to think about all of your various options and explore those in as many ways as you can, absolutely take it. For sure, take that time if you can.

I love that Yale story about your friend who said that it wasn't a good topic and then you both ended up getting in. That's hilarious. And I think that's so representative of the fact that you can get online advice from people who do really well and put together excellent applications, and their advice for your application might be just exactly wrong. I think your takeaway of ‘be genuine, be true to yourself, be sincere’ is an excellent one. Because if you make changes to your essays based on outside feedback that make them less sincere, less genuine to who you are, that's probably a pretty bad choice to make. And it's easy to get caught up in the advice from other people who very well might have great admissions instincts for themselves, very well might get into Yale and do wonderful things, and that doesn't mean that every piece of advice that they give to you is the right thing for your application. So I think that's great advice, I think the applicants who are putting together their applications right now should certainly keep it in mind.

I'm so glad that we've been able to follow you throughout your cycle, Lucy. I think that you have had wonderful insights to share, and I'm so excited for you to be going to the law school of your choice after having really thought it out and giving it the thought that it deserves. Congratulations, and then thank you so much for doing this with us, it's been great.

Lucy: Yeah, thank you so much for having me. And I came onto this podcast, like, not expecting to have the kind of outcome that I did. I think that it's been really interesting even looking back at how I was feeling at the start of the cycle and everything to so see how much things have changed.

Anna: Yeah, and certainly I would encourage you, if you didn't listen to the first couple of episodes of Lucy, go back listen to those, listen to this one and see how far someone can come throughout their process. It's a long process, it's a difficult process for most people. Stay upbeat, put together the best and most sincere applications that you can, and you're going to be okay.

Thank you again, Lucy. Your time is greatly appreciated, and I hope that folks get a lot out of this.

Lucy: Yeah, thank you so much.