The Yale Question

If you are a law school applicant, admissions officer, or preparation company, you are almost certainly aware of the “Yale Question.” But for those that are not, here is the basic idea:

Yale Law School has added two questions to its 2009 application, which ask candidates to disclose the use of A) LSAT test preparation, and B) admissions consulting.

The mere fact that Yale added these questions generated a response within the law school community, but it was a blog post on Yale Law’s “203″ (“An Admissions Blog”) that really ruffled some feathers and put applicants in a quandary.

In the post, Asha Rangappa, Associate Dean, takes a pretty harsh stance toward both LSAT preparation and law school admissions consulting. The thrust of her argument is that admissions consulting creates an unfair advantage — basically, that it undermines any hope of a level playing field for applicants.

I’ve had a chance to engage in a dialogue with Asha about some of this and find her to be extremely intelligent and sincere, with a very idealistic viewpoint toward the world of admissions. It is that idealism that makes her stance both compelling, but also — in my opinion — incomplete.

In a vacuum, law school admissions consulting does indeed create an uneven playing field. Because all things being equal, an available resource would allow “consulting applicants” to gain an advantage over the rest of the applicant pool. And certainly, even in the real life version of admissions, some candidates do indeed gain a competitive advantage by paying for services that others can’t afford.

Of course, law school admissions does not exist in a vacuum, and that type of analysis ignores the enormous advantage held by a percentage of the applicant pool that is fortunate enough to enjoy built-in resources right at its fingertips. I’m referring, of course, to those candidates who have a brother that went to Yale Law, or an uncle from Sullivan & Cromwell, or a family friend who taught at Harvard. I’m referring to the candidates from Princeton and Cornell and Stanford, who have amazing pre-law advisers at their disposal. All of these advisory options are allowed and encouraged by Yale. But how many people have these types of resources?

The applicant from a state school, with limited pre-law advising (if any), no family members in the law, no close friends from Yale … how can that person possibly compete with the advantages described above? Based on the preexisting disparity between segments of the applicant pool, it is my opinion that admissions consulting actually levels the playing field.

Access

Of course, I would be remiss if I did not return to the idea that there are applicants who can’t afford such services. Knowing that there is an “access” problem (and when is there ever not an access problem when it comes to admissions?), should we just give up on the idea of consultation altogether? That hardly seems like the best solution. Doing so would just continue to create massive information advantages for the privileged upper crust and leave the masses behind. “Admissions Consulting for no one” doesn’t really solve anything. “Admissions consulting for everyone,” on the other hand, might just be the answer.

Imagine a situation in which each applicant had the same insight, guidance, and perspective on the process. It sure seems like such a scenario would allow the best stories, skills, and fits to emerge from the applicant pool. Which, of course, is the end goal of any admissions process. And yes, “admissions consulting for everyone” is a pipe dream at this point, but it is not unreasonable to think that pro bono options will emerge at companies like ours, or that schools like Yale will one day provide financial programs to allow for low income applicants to receive consulting services (which would be an advanced — and admittedly more expensive — form of application fee waivers). I’d much rather aim for this form of idealism than Yale’s. Because the provision of admissions consulting for every applicant is still possible, if not likely. On the other hand, eliminating the “legacy” portion of the applicant pool that I described above is absolutely, unequivocally impossible. That cat is already out of the bag.

Process versus Substance

In addition to the access argument, I’ve also heard it argued that admissions consulting is a particularly bad fit for law school applications, because the “application process” counts as much as the “application’s substance.” What this implies is that law schools are evaluating not just the merits of candidates, but also their analytical and presentation skills. The argument goes like this: law schools are trying to admit tomorrow’s leading lawyers and one of the lawyer’s tasks is to identify key components and then present them in an articulate way — therefore, any assistance in doing so eliminates the law school’s ability to evaluate those skills.

I find this argument to be unconvincing. For starters, one need look no further than law school itself to recognize that “developed legal skill” is not the primary goal of this process. Find me one elite law school that makes “process” its educational mission — my guess is you will be looking for a long time. Law schools strive to teach critical thinking skills and explore theoretical underpinnings for the way laws and legal systems work. You don’t spend three years writing motions and briefs — you’ll be lucky if you spend three classes honing those skills.

Furthermore, whenever the analysis in question is introspective, the challenge becomes unique and distinguishable from any other process of compiling and presenting data. One can’t draw inferences from the admissions process as to a candidate’s ability to draft memos, motions, or briefs, because the two tasks are apples and oranges. Ask a talented person to write an op-ed piece or a research paper and that person will more than likely handle the task with aplomb. Ask that same individual to write a bio and it is just as likely he or she will struggle mightily. It is much harder to analyze one’s own life than it is to analyze facts, cases, and statutes. It is much harder to write a personal statement than it is to write a legal brief. If not harder, then different. The skills are not the same. To attempt to evaluate such skills in this context is foolhardy. Not only that, but I suspect if law schools were really serious about analyzing lawyering skills, they would include a closed universe assignment. If you really care about it, make it apples to apples.

Burden Shifting

All told, there is not a compelling reason to dismiss admissions consulting (let alone LSAT prep) outright. Sure, if companies or consultants approach this process in a way that lacks integrity — if they broadcast secret tricks or write their clients’ essays for them — then crack down on them. By all means. And there is no doubt that admissions — and the services that support candidates — are complicated and difficult to structure and police. But to shift the burden and put the pressure on the applicant (do I pass up a resource? use it and lie? receive assistance and risk being denied for it?) is completely unfair. And to denigrate a helpful and needed service based on a limited and slightly archaic viewpoint seems irresponsible. Particularly when the author holds so much sway on such influential subjects. Because when Yale speaks, people tend to listen.

For the time being, clients of Veritas Prep’s law school admissions consulting services can expect to receive thorough, honest, and helpful service that will level the playing field and help them overcome those built-in advantages enjoyed by the most connected candidates in the applicant pool.

Just know t
hat if you use our services, you will be asked to disclose that fact to Yale Law school.

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