Podcast: Interview with Penn Law Admissions Dean Renee Post

In this episode, Spivey Consulting's Derek Meeker — a former Penn Law Associate Dean for Admissions and Financial Aid — interviews Renee Post, Penn Law's current and long-standing Associate Dean for Admissions and Financial Aid. Derek and Dean Post walk through the components of the law school application, including the personal statement, resume, addenda, and Penn's "Core Strengths, Goals, and Values" essay, and they also discuss topics including joint degrees, the merits of going to law school straight from undergrad vs. getting full-time work experience, handling the stress of the admissions process, their craziest admissions stories, their favorite things about Philadelphia, and what gives some law school applicants that "it" factor.

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Full Transcript:

So let me just start by telling you a little bit about our guest’s history and her background and our special 20-year history as colleagues. Renee Post is the Associate Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid at the University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School. She received her BA in history and women's studies from the University of Pittsburgh and her Masters in Higher Education Administration from the University of Pennsylvania. Renee began her career at Penn Carey law in 1999 as an admissions officer. In 2001, she was promoted to associate director and served in that role until the fall of 2002. And that is when our paths first crossed; Dean Post had decided to leave her position at Penn to start a family. And I was actually hired to replace her as the Associate Director. She was going to stay on for, I think, about a month to help me transition. And then the unexpected happened. On my second day of work, which was also the first day of orientation, the then Dean of Admissions resigned. Renee actually stayed on for a few more months. They made her interim Assistant Dean for Admissions and Financial Aid to help me with my sudden new role in the office.

She left after a few months, I then became the Dean of Admissions, and three or four years later, as luck would have it, I was looking to hire a Director of Admissions, and Renee was looking to come back to Philadelphia to work in admissions. I hired her back, which turned out to be a very prescient move on my part, because a year later life changes brought me to Los Angeles. And so, she replaced me as Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid, and she has been there ever since. I have reported to her. She has reported to me. She is a respected colleague, a mentor, a mentee, and a dear friend. I'm so honored that I get to interview her today. Dean Post, welcome to Status Check.

Renee: Hey, thanks Dean Meeker. Thank you for having me. I sort of feel like that our paths are just so interwoven, it's kind of a good LSAT question, right? Who’s where and when?

Derek: For sure. I don't even know if anyone followed that, but I thought it would be fun to cover it nonetheless. We'll have at least one question about the LSAT. So not an LSAT question fortunately. I should also add, you've also served on a number of leadership positions on national committees, including on the board of trustees for LSAC. And there are very few people with the breadth of knowledge and experience in law school admissions and education that Dean Post has. We are so lucky to have you. And now that I just gave the longest introduction ever, we are pretty much out of time. Thanks so much for joining us. I’m kidding, but we do have a lot to cover, so we should get to it.

Dean Post is going to give some pre-application advice, tips on various components of the application itself, including the infamous Penn core strengths, goals, and values essay, joint degrees, we're also going to talk a little bit about stress and some of our craziest experiences in our positions at Penn. Let's just start with a little more about what brought you here, Dean Post. What made you decide to work in admissions?

Renee: Thanks Derek. That's a really interesting question. When I completed my graduate degree at Penn, I knew two things. One was that I wanted to stay in Philadelphia because I fell in love with the city, and two that I really wasn't cut out for any sort of development work. I didn't want to ask people for money. So, I started my job search, cast a wide net, and as luck would have it, someone took a chance on me and hired me as an admissions officer/office manager at the law school.

Derek: That's funny about development and not wanting to ask people for money because now people ask you for money, as we well know. Alright, tell us what you like most about working in admissions. It's now been more than 20 years, so there must be a few things you like about it.

Renee: I do. You know working at admissions, it's all about the people. I am fortunate to get to know terrific applicants, law students who then become alums. The admissions community is full of wonderful colleagues who are mentors, who are trusted advisors. It really is the people that make working in admissions just so much fun.

Derek: Yes, definitely one of the things that I liked most about it. This also gets to the next question I'm going to ask you, which is one of my favorite interview questions. What would you say is the most challenging part of working in law school admissions?

Renee: I think one of the most challenging parts of working in admissions is sort of trying to dispel bad advice around the admissions process. A lot of people think that they are experts on the topic and sometimes the information just gets twisted in ways that really is frustrating. And I think that I would say is the most challenging part, is dispelling the myths, really sort of trying to get out there and get the right and correct and transparent information out to applicants.

Derek: Right. Which is something that has changed a bit of course, and has increased since when we first started, right. Because now with the internet and all of these discussion boards and just so much information out there, it's often hard to parse through it. Yeah. And what I was going to say is what I loved most about admissions was also -- what I thought was one of the most challenging parts, which is you have to, it just involves so many different elements. Like I loved that it was recruiting, it was marketing, it was writing and communication. It was interpersonal. It was also a lot of data.

If I could go back, I probably would have taken a statistics class. I never thought I would have to know that much about numbers when I worked in admissions. But yeah, I mean, even now as a consultant, the myths thing is something that I feel like I talk about almost every day with my clients and Dean Zearfoss actually spoke a little bit about that on the podcast that we did. What would you say are some of the biggest myths that are out there as far as admissions and financial aid?

Renee: It's a good question. We're going to get to some of this later in the podcast, I think. I'm going to temper my answer a little bit. So as to not answer all of our questions in the first 10 minutes, Dean Meeker.

Derek: Sorry.

Renee: I think one of the myths that is out there is that it's all about the numbers and that students should count themselves sort of not apply to a school, because they don't think that the numbers are strong enough. And I think that it's not all about the numbers and it is really about fit, which we'll talk about later. And students identifying a school that they would feel good being at and they would be successful at as well as schools identifying candidates. It's really a two-way street.

Derek: Yeah. And I mean, I think one of the things that we've talked about in other podcasts is the medians, right. There is this often a lot of talk about the medians and obviously they are important. No one's denying that LSAT and GPA are important components. Absolutely. But they are medians which means there is flexibility in terms of the people that you get to admit.

One of the things that I often also try to impress upon clients and anyone I talk to who is interested in law school is, I think some of this idea that it's all about the numbers comes from the fact that an applicant only knows their own application, right. They don't get to see the comparisons in the entire pool, the way that you do. And I will say one of the things that really surprised me the most when I started working at Penn was just how talented and amazing the applicants are, that comes into play.

And I distinctly remember a colleague or friend who didn't work in admissions saying to me – because I read every application and at the time there were over 6,000 applications and made the decision on them. And someone said, “Well, why do you have to read the ones that have lower numbers? Can you just reject those or not worry about them?” And absolutely not. Right. I mean, everyone deserves to have their application read completely, and there's so much wonderful information in those other parts of the application that really allow you to admit an interesting, and of course, a diverse class. And that's one of the things I loved most was reading their stories.

Renee: Yeah. I don't know that I could have said it better. It is the entire application. And there's a lot in there. A lot of really terrific information for us to review and think about.

Derek: Yes, first what I want to do. Actually, we do have listeners who haven't started the application process yet. There are people who are listening, who are still in college. And I think one of the things that you and I wanted to talk about was just some pre-application advice. Also, one of the most common questions is, “What should I major in?” Or “What should I study if I'm thinking about going to law school?” I love talking about this actually.

And I'm curious to hear your thoughts. I was actually a first-generation college student and grew up in a very blue-collar town. And so, it was impressed upon me that I had to do something practical and that I should major in business because business will get you a job and that's how you make money. And so that's what I started out as and as I alluded to earlier, I'm not a numbers person really. I hated it. All I knew was that I loved to write and I didn't know that I wanted to go to law school at the time.

I actually ended up choosing journalism as my major, because again, hearing that I had to do something practical, English felt too abstract. I thought, well, I just know, I love to write. I majored in journalism. As it turns out when I did decide to go to law school, I thought that journalism was an excellent preparation for law school. I really felt prepared for all the writing that I had to do.

I would just say the advice I usually give is, number one, follow your heart, trust your instinct because the rest will work out. And then the other thing that I can't help saying is whatever you do, write as much as you can or try to take as much writing as you can, but tell us what your thoughts are on what one should study, if they're thinking about going to law school.

Renee: I always love this question because if you look at Penn Carey Law’s first year class, we have 69 unique majors in the class. And 22% of the class majored in a STEM field. And so my advice to an undergrad who is choosing a major is very similar to yours, Derek, which is pursue something that you are interested in, pursue something that you are passionate about, pursue it for the love of learning, because that is where a student is going to do their best. They're really going to be able to dig into to whatever the field is.

And if you think about law school and you think about the law, the law intersects every aspect of our society. And so really when you think about what to major in tangentially, there are going to be connections to the law, regardless of what the major is. And so at the end of the day, I'm right there with you. I say, study what you're passionate about, study what you're interested in, and that is going to best position you to pursue whatever educational or professional experience you want. And the law is very versatile in that respect.

Derek: Great. And one of the other questions that I hear a lot from people who are thinking about applying to law school is whether they should take time off after college. Now, I always feel like I have to correct them a bit because by time off we don't mean that you just take time off to sit around and do nothing, take a break, right. But take time to maybe gain work experience, to do some sort of additional study, to do community service, Teach for America, Peace Corps work, whatever appeals to you. Now I have very strong opinions about this question, but I'll save those maybe I'll chime in after you do, but what's your answer to that question?

Renee: The answer to this question is very nuanced. I think it depends on the individual and what their goals are, both educationally and academically. We do see a majority of our applicants and thus enrolling students take some time off after undergrad and do things sort of like you said, enter the workforce, they will join a program, do something that is of interest to them and the interest that was born from whatever their undergraduate studies were.

Having said that though, I do and over the years, I've met with so many candidates who say, “I'm ready, I'm ready to go to law school now I do not want to lose my momentum.” And that's great too. I really don't think that there is a wholesale answer that I can give on this question, but would say to candidates, think about what your goals are. Think about what happens if you take time off, what happens if you go right to law school.

I will say that, we talked about majors and the breadth of majors that we're seeing in our applicant pool and then in our enrolling students. I would say the same about experience before law school. We have students join us from the health field, from communications, from intellectual property, from graduate programs, from Fulbright, Teach for America, AmeriCorps, that sort of thing. As well as students who say, “I don't really know if I want to go to law school. I'm going to become a legal assistant or a paralegal, I want to see what this whole thing is about before I make the commitment to go to law school.” And we see those students as well.

For the student who chooses to come directly to law school, I think that's an individual choice and I support it. For the student who says, “I want to do something else for a period of time.” That is certainly supported as well. Now I think your opinion, I don't think it differs hugely from what I just said, but I do want to hear your thoughts on this.

Derek: Okay. Yes. I probably overstated it. I would say in most cases I encourage people to take time and get some sort of experience before going right to law school from college. What it comes down to for me is, I think, if you can answer the question, why are you doing this? What's motivating you to go to law school. And what do you see as your professional goals, right. How's it going to add to what you see as your potential path? Not that they have to know exactly what they want to do, but I think you have to be able to answer those two basic questions, right.

Because it's a lot of time, it's a lot of money, it's hard work. I don't know. I just feel like I often hear from people who went straight to law school, “I wish I had taken some time off.” Some people regret that. I don't hear the opposite though, from people who did take time. I've never heard someone say, “I wish I had gone straight through.”

But you are correct in that my answer doesn’t differ from yours that much. And that I will say, I have certainly met and work with many individuals who are applying directly from college and they have amazing experiences from summer work or things that they've done on campus and they can answer those questions and they have a sense of maturity and self-awareness and professionalism, which I think is so important in trying to convey that, right. I think that's part of it. If you can bring that out in your application, then absolutely.

Let's talk about then the application itself. I think what I first want to ask, and we're going to get back to some of that. How do you convey professionalism or self-awareness, that's going to come up I think a couple of times in the discussion with the questions I have. But let's jump right into the application itself then which primarily obviously consists of the LSAT score, the academic record, personal statement, resume, letters of recommendation, sometimes supplemental essay, sometimes there are addenda. Let's just start with, how do you even approach an application? How do you read an application?

Renee: I thought a lot about this question since Derek and I talked last week in preparation for this podcast, and I thought a lot about this question because how I approach an application has changed over the years. It seems that every season I'm reading an application in different order, but each application, I think the best way to describe it is you sort of approach each application as a blank canvas. And as you read through the application, that canvas is populated with a ton of information, right. From all of the application components that you just mentioned. And you think about sort of, again, I go back to fit. You think about are we a good fit for what this applicant wants out of their law school education and their professional career? And as you just read through an application again, the canvas starts to get populated with different pieces of information that the candidate has put forth.

Derek: Great. One of the questions that I'm really most excited to ask, it's what I call an “it” factor question. As you know, aside from being a Dean of Admissions and a consultant, I was also an actor for many years.

Renee: That's why you left.

Derek: Oh yes. Thank you for exposing me.

Renee: That’s in my orientation speech most years.

Derek: Yeah, I heard.

Renee: That my dear friend and boss left to become an actor.

Derek: Yes. I'll never forget your face when I said we need to go for a walk and I told you that I was leaving Penn to be an actor. Yes. Thank you for outing me on that. But yes, those were the life circumstances that brought me to Los Angeles. Something that I always hear in Hollywood and the acting industry is it's often about whether someone has that “it” factor that kind of makes them jump off the screen in a movie or a TV show, the je ne sais quoi, if you will. I don't know if I said that right. I'm curious, it's sort of that abstract factor. It's hard to explain. What would you say some of those abstract factors are that make a law school applicant jump off the page?

Renee: Yeah, this is a really interesting question. It’s a very good question. I think intellectual curiosity is something that will hop off the screen, if you will, as you're, you're reading an application. And that intellectual curiosity will come from many different parts of the application. It's this theme that builds as you're reading an application.

I think the second is commitment, and I want to be clear. I want you to tell me Derek, if I'm not being clear on this, when I say commitment, that can be a commitment to anything, it can be a commitment to community, it can be a commitment to family, it can be commitment to an athletic team, community organization, to the academic pursuit, right. It is a commitment to something. And I often am asked the question, how many organizations should we get involved in? Or I'm doing this, this and this. And I sort of feel like the answer is to do what you are passionate about. You don't need to do two dozen things. You can do one or two things and do it very, very well. And so, I think that commitment is second. And again, that the idea of commitment, it just builds in an application as you're reviewing an application.

The third is kindness, and by kindness, I mean, someone who is open-minded, someone who is self-aware, someone who is willing to sort of have their norms challenged and respectfully challenge someone else's norms, but come at it from a place of kindness and growth.

Derek: In answer to your question, yes, you were very clear about commitment. And I love that answer because obviously law school is quite a commitment in of itself, but the work itself is such an intense commitment. I love that you talk about that because I think sometimes there is a perception that in one's personal statement, which we're going to delve into, they need to talk about their commitment to law specifically, right.

And that gets to the question, other question that we were going to talk about, which is when one is thinking about law school or applying to law school, do they need to know what area of law they want to practice in? But yeah, I mean, so what you're saying essentially is in the application, that commitment can come from so many things, because that is a way of showing your dedication. The dedication that you will have to the study, to the law school community, to the greater community, perhaps, and to the profession. And kindness…thank you for saying that.

Ah, we so need more kindness right now. Right. So I agree. So that is a, that is a great segue then to the personal statement, right. Because that is one of the main pieces that an applicant can use to bring out these more abstract qualities. And so why don't you first give us your thoughts on whether one needs to know what type of law they want to practice. And then we can talk a little bit about, does that need to be part of the personal statement? What would you say makes for a compelling personal statement?

Renee: I think a majority of candidates enrolling in law school are not certain exactly what type of law they want to practice, and that is 100% okay. Now there are students who enroll after a successful career in another field, and they are very specific about what type of law they want to do and they talk about that in their essays and that is very effective. But that is typically again, the person who has been working for several years in a field that has piqued their interest in the law and specifically how the law intersects with that field. In that instance, it makes a lot of sense. But I don't think that an applicant should stress about not knowing what type of law they want to practice upon entry to law school.

I think you said it beautifully when you said there is a level of commitment and dedication and belief in sort of the pursuit of the study of law. And that is an important question to be committed to when applying, but you don't have to write about that if it does not feel genuine or authentic to you as part of the personal statement.

Derek: I'm curious though, if you would, I mean, one thing I do say though to applicants is I think that at least in looking at all components of the application, so not necessarily the personal statement, but just taking all the pieces together, is it clear to me, or do I get a good sense of at least why this person is applying to law school? So maybe not specifically the field that they want to enter, but why they're at least why they're doing this, connecting the dots, if you will. I use that phrase a lot. Would you agree with that?

Renee: I do. I agree with that. You put a very nice fine point on what I was saying. There is a question about why someone is applying to law school and oftentimes the different components of an application answer that question without the literal writing of why I’m I applying to law school.

Derek: The personal statement being my favorite part of the application, because I write personal essay myself. I love writing.

Renee: You're a very good writer too. You're an excellent writer, Derek.

Derek: Thank you. I appreciate the “excellent.” What would you say makes for a compelling or effective personal statement? What is your one-minute spiel on personal statement advice.

Renee: In full disclosure, I have a child who's applying to college this year and have given at least 20 different topics for a personal essay. And each topic has been summarily dismissed as no good.

Derek: It's harder to work with 17-year-olds than it is with 20 –

Renee: But in suggesting the topics I was suggesting topics that I believed would be authentic to write about and would come across in a genuine voice. And that was my goal in suggesting these various topics. But I think when approaching your personal statement, there are several sort of high-level things I hope people remember. One is, don't assume you know who's reading your application on the other side. At Penn Carey Law, we had at least two readers, oftentimes more on every application. And the committee itself is a very diverse group in every sense.

And so when writing a personal statement, write it from your voice and your authentic self and not what you think someone on the other side of the page is going to want to read. So that's number one.

I think number two is the topic of a personal statement can be a common everyday thing. It does not have to be a grandiose accomplishment. It can be, right, but I think that's where sometimes applicants get stuck. They’re thinking, “I have absolutely nothing to write about.” Well, you do, right. You do. And so, think about the smaller stuff and I think you'll find a topic that works for the personal statement.

Derek: It's so interesting because in thinking about the main things that I tell people when I'm giving tips or advice, I say them a bit differently, but they're so similar to what you're saying, that authenticity and genuine voice part, what I often say as a practical way of just coaching them is make it conversational, which I think is very similar.

Right. I think that there is this often the sense that I'm writing a personal statement for law school. I have to take on a certain tone and write like a lawyer or write in an academic way. And it often becomes rather stilted and it's not their voice. And so one of the things that I probably say to everyone I talk to is you don't know if you're going to be the first application that's read that day or the 50th application.

The more conversational you make it, the more you can write it in a way that brings the reader into your story, so they feel like they're a part of your experience. I think the more effective it's going to be. I also loved what you said about just the common everyday things. It doesn't have to be some grandiose thing. I think more and more in recent years, what I find myself saying is less is more. A lot of times less is more. I think that given how competitive these last few cycles have been, there is this increase in anxiousness. Also, I think the sense that I have to do more, I have to do more and more and more in my application and that actually sometimes ends up, I think, hurting the applicants. I find myself more and more saying less is more. Sometimes there's just a beauty in simplicity sometimes in those everyday sort of experiences. How is your son's personal statement coming?

Renee: It's not, I thought I had some really great ideas and they were daily, everyday things and it's not coming.

Derek: Alright. Well, that should at least give our listeners some reassurance because the personal statement is one of the things that they struggle the most with.

Renee: It’s hard. It is really hard.

Derek: If the child of one of the most experienced Dean of Admissions in the industry is struggling, then it's understandable. Most people don't like to write about themselves. I'm actually one of those people that does I don’t know what that says about me, but I actually enjoy it. You mentioned too, just you can’t try to write to one person.

Renee: Can we talk a minute about the mistakes of a personal statement?

Derek: Oh absolutely, yes. Another one of my favorite questions, biggest or most common mistakes with the personal statement.

Renee: Yeah. I think to go back to the blank canvas example, as a candidate is thinking about their application, think about what other information is presented elsewhere in the application. And so a restatement of a resume is a missed opportunity. Let me say that in the personal statement, and it's certainly fine to hone in on something that is on the resume and expand on that experience. But restatement is just, you've missed that real estate.

Derek: Okay. Any others?

Renee: To go to something you and I talked about, I think a timely example is important in the personal statement. To write about something that is far off in the past, unless a very clear connection can be made to the present, is again a missed opportunity. What do you think about that?

Derek: Absolutely. Thank you for raising that. That's such a good point. Because that is a question that often comes up and there's confusion on both ends of it, which is some people feel that they cannot or should not talk about any experience from childhood, which is not true. You can, one of the other pieces of advice that I often give is, think about the inflection points. Think about the moments when something changed for you. It changed your path or your perception of things. Those are important moments and experiences to remember when you're brainstorming topics. And some of those obviously happen for people when they are young. I always say, yeah, I mean, it's absolutely fine to talk about an experience from childhood. If you're using it as a way to establish theme for the essay or maybe it's part of a greater journey, but absolutely. I mean, I agree, you have to move on at some point. It has to connect to who you are today, why you are, where you are.

Renee: Yeah, absolutely.

Derek: Yeah. I think that that's such an important point. Also, I have to say, because when I was talking about the less is more thing, one of my favorite quotes and this just gets to, again, that sense of I have to take on a different voice and I have to overwrite the essay to try to stand out and be impressive. I often quote Mark Twain, who said, “If you see an adverb, kill it.” And similarly, Stephen King said, “I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs,” which I know I'm getting a little bit in the weeds here, but as you know I'm a writing and grammar geek. That's going to be my next podcast.

But yeah, but I mean, I say when you're trying to cut words or go through and take out the adverbs. Again, there are times when adverbs serve a purpose but I agree with Mark Twain that -- so we digress a bit. Alright. What about the resume, because yes, one of the things you mentioned was you don't want to repeat the resume, but you can use the personal statement to elaborate on something in the resume. What's your one-minute spiel or critical tips for the resume, the law school application resume, let's be more specific. Because it can differ from an employment resume.

Renee: Absolutely. So that's a very important point, which is the application resume is going to be different than an employment resume, 9 times out of 10. When applying to law school, applicants should let admissions committees know sort of everything they've done from undergrad forward, beginning in undergrad forward. If there is an organization or a sport or an instrument or anything that has been a lifelong passion that is absolutely appropriate to have something prior to undergraduate career on the resume. The resume can be two pages for the purpose of applying to law school. Use the real estate on the resume wisely.

For example, I waited tables when I was in college and I would just put “server,” I wouldn't necessarily put anything beyond “server” and the number of hours I worked. But if you're part of an organization at your undergrad that is peer nominated or faculty nominated organization, that admissions committees may not be familiar with, then you want to give us a little bit more information about what that is. And so just use your judgment when putting together a resume. I'm always a fan, people disagree with me wholeheartedly on this, but I'm always a fan of the interest section of the resume.

Derek: Me too.

Renee: Yeah. I think it really provides some fun insight into hobbies that applicants have outside of their school, or –

Derek: Yes. Thank you for bringing that up. I will always remember when reading a particular application at Penn, when I was there, someone had written in interests section, ultimate Frisbee I think it was. And one of the committee readers put in their notes, we could use more ultimate Frisbee players in the courtyard. But yes, I mean a lot of times those things just stand out and they certainly allow you to get a fuller picture of who someone is, their personality beyond academics and work.

Renee: Absolutely.

Derek: I’m curious you mentioned that you waited tables. I'm not going to ask you how good you were as a server, although you're welcome to share. No, but I am curious, many people would say, “Well, why would I put that on my law school resume? That's not substantive experience. It doesn't have anything to do with academic study or law.” Why would one include that?

Renee: I worked for several years during undergrad. It was just another, it was another commitment that I had on top of going to class. I think for the student who is employed, who does work during their schooling, that they should absolutely put that on their resume. It's an important indication of one's ability to manage their time. And that is a key skill that is needed both in law school and in their profession.

Derek: Not to mention the managing people, right.

Renee: Right.

Derek: I mean, there's so many different types of people that you have to interact with. And please, not just being a server in a restaurant, but in so many of those service industry type of jobs. Great tips. Let's move on to addenda, because I think this is a part of the application that has many nuances and a lot – talk about myths, lots of myths and misunderstandings about that. I'm just going to quickly – so there are two types of addenda, generally. There are those that are required based on specific application questions. And then there are optional addenda. Those are the ones that require a little more nuance and understanding. And that's what I want you to talk about, but just to make sure that our listeners understand the difference.

When I say required addenda, I'm talking about affirmative answers to questions on the application about character and fitness, i.e., academic discipline or probation or arrests or criminal charges or convictions. Every application has those sorts of questions. You must answer them. You must answer them truthfully, you must provide an explanation. But then there are what we call optional addenda. And not every application has any instruction about this, or even any guidance. But when we say optional addenda, we're talking about adding something to your application to explain something. So can you talk about what some of those are when one should write one, when one should not write one.

Renee: Thank you for setting that up so nicely. Just to reiterate, if there's a question on the application that an applicant answers ‘yes’ to, there will oftentimes be, ‘please provide an explanation.” Then you have license to write, must write that addenda. A lot of times applicants will ask about grades, for example, they will say, “I was doing really well in school. And then I -- first term of my junior year something personal happened and my grades really fell off. Should I write an addenda?” So that's one example. The second example is someone who says, “I had two Cs first term of my first year at university. Should I write an addenda?”

To the second example, the answer is ‘no.’ First term of first year of university, no, don't write about two Cs. To the first example where if you sit back and you look at a candidate’s academic record across their entire career in undergrad, if there appears to be a blip, there's going to be a question. What happened this term? Something clearly happened. If we have a student who has a consistent 3.4 across three years, and then all of a sudden we see a 2.9 one term, that is a noticeable difference. What has happened? And in that instance, I think an addendum is perfectly appropriate. Letting the admissions committee know sort of what was going on at that period of time that impacted the grades and that sort of thing.

Another example would be, if time off had to be taken during the undergraduate career, just acknowledgement that that time was taken off I think is important. And that's not time off between undergrad and law school to be clear, that's time off during the undergraduate experience. I would say to answer the question.

Derek: Maybe you were getting to this, so I'm sorry. I just jumped in, but what about, so they've graduated from college and then worked for a year or two, and then there's a gap of, I don't know, six months or more when they're applying to law school.

Renee: That's a really interesting question.

Derek: One that's coming up more. Because there've been a lot more gaps in the last year and a half because of the pandemic.

Renee: Yeah. I think from the Penn Carey Law perspective, we will read everything that you submit, why the six months off, why the eight months off. I mean, during the pandemic, there are so many reasons why applicants had to leave the workforce or applicants had to leave school or that sort of thing. There's no harm in sharing that with the committee. Sometimes if we do see a gap in a resume, a committee member will ask and we will follow up with the candidate, “What are you currently doing?” And again, there's no wrong answer to that, and it's not certainly a negative that we're asking the question, but if you can answer it right out of the gate, I think that's worth it.

As applicants think about what addenda to write about or, or what not to write about. I think you have to trust your judgment. I would, if there's any uncertainty, sort of ask a trusted advisor or ask a mentor, do you think this is too much? Or do you think I should, if you think the admissions committee would ask this question, as they're reviewing my application.

Derek: One of the other ones I get a lot of questions about is an LSAT addendum, so I really wanted to hear your thoughts on that. One of the things that's changed over the years since I've been doing this is people are taking the LSAT more frequently. And I believe now that three times is the average number, which is a jump from prior years. When should one write an addendum when they've taken the LSAT multiple times?

Renee: Yeah. It's a good question. I mean, I think that if an applicant sees a jump or dip in score from one test administration to the other, I usually say five or more points. What happened? Again, there's no right or wrong answer to that question about what happened? Well, you certainly have read them Derek. I've read them. I mean, I remember one applicant writing about a marching band practicing outside of the room, outside of the classroom. So that would be difficult circumstances under which to take a test, to have a band playing outside the window.

I do think it is important for candidates if we see a score discrepancy, then they should write the addenda. I don't think it's necessary to write an addenda if a candidate has taken the LSAT two times, frankly. And from what you just said three times, I don't think it's necessary to say, “I took the test three times because—"

Derek: Great that is very helpful.

Renee: Can I say one more thing on this?

Derek: Please.

Renee: If a candidate is in doubt as to whether or not a school welcomes addenda, ask the question, ask the question of the school.

Derek: A very good point, because there are definitely varying and strong opinions on this. But I think the takeaway is if there's something that might raise questions or leave a question unanswered, it's better to just err on the side of writing it, but be judicious, be thoughtful. I don't think there's any hard and fast rule about length other than I usually say no more than a page. And the most things that you've described, I think a couple of paragraphs or even a paragraph, if we're talking about LSAT discrepancy, would you agree?

Renee: Absolutely. And thank you for raising that about length because I think it can be a very short explanation. Absolutely no longer than a page. I agree.

Derek: Wonderful. I think that those are some really helpful points for our listeners. Let's talk about supplemental essays because that is an important part of the application and many schools have them. And I just want to hear a little bit about your thoughts because Penn has a unique supplemental essay, the Penn Carey Law, core strengths, goals, and values essay. You essentially list five or six of the core strengths of Penn Carey Law.

And then the prompt is these qualities define Penn Carey Law. What defines you? How do your goals and values match Penn Carey Law’s core strengths? Now I will say a lot of people I talk to are intimidated or a little overwhelmed by this. Because it's a big question and they have one page to answer it. I actually love this essay and I can say why, but why did you, or why did the admissions committee choose this prompt? And what tips do you have for applicants in writing it?

Renee: Yeah. Thank you for raising that. You'll remember Derek way back when the question on the application was simply “Why Penn?” That was the supplemental prompt.

Derek: Initially we required it. And then we did supplemental.

Renee: We did.

Derek: Yes.

Renee: The response to the “Why Penn?” was often just a restatement of marketing materials or website or something. And so the committee wanted to provide a prompt that allowed applicants to be a little bit more thoughtful about why they're applying to law school and why Penn is a good fit for them. Again, I keep going back to this idea of fit. But what is it? The core values essay is an opportunity for an applicant to sort of really hone in on why Penn Carey Law is a good fit for them in terms of their past experiences and their future goals. It's not simply, I am a good fit for you Penn Carey Law. It's this is why you're approaching a legal education and all of the community and the supports are a good fit for me. So that is my one-minute answer on the core values.

Derek: Alright. Well, it's interesting that you say, obviously you're talking specifically about fit for Penn Carey Law as the response should be. But interestingly, one of the things I love about this essay is, it really compels applicants to dig deeply and to reflect on, “Why am I doing this? What's important for me in an academic setting and what do I see as my goals?” Whether you intended it or not, while it certainly helps them with their Penn application, it ends up helping them quite a bit for when writing those ‘why’ essays for other schools.

Also, these questions get asked and more and more schools are doing admissions interviews. And so, these questions come up. Although initially I think they're intimidated by it, ultimately, I find that many people like it because not only do they learn more about why they want to go to Penn, but it helps them then thinking about more generally and more broadly when talking or when writing for other schools.

Alright, gosh, time is going so quickly. There are a few more things that I want to talk about. I did want to get your advice about joint degrees. I feel like that's not something that we've talked much about on our podcasts or blog about. I get a lot of questions about it. Certainly, when I worked at Penn I did, because Penn has a lot of joint degree programs and most law schools have some, at least some joint degree programs. The thing that I often hear is whether they should apply for one, does it help them? What I find is many times when I ask them, why do they want to do the joint degree? A lot of times, many of them just say something like, “Well, it sounds interesting.”

I'm just curious. What is your advice generally for law school applicants who are considering applying for a joint degree and should they talk about it in their law school application?

Renee: Good question. I think for candidates who are considering pursuing a joint degree, they should do their research. What is the value-add of the pairing of degrees either academically or professionally? And what does it look like on the other side, in terms of career prospects? So asking the question, why do I want to do this joint degree? It's interesting.

Penn Carey Law is so cross-disciplinary and candidates certainly write about their interest in cross disciplinary study, but they do it from a perspective of curiosity as opposed to absolute, right? More candidates write about thinking about how the law intersects with another discipline and maybe there's a certificate program or a joint degree offered at Penn, but they stopped short of saying I'm affirmatively applying for this degree. I think that's okay. I think that's okay.

I mean, when thinking about a joint degree is a commitment and a lot of research is involved. One of the great things about Penn is that there's a lot of flexibility, so the students can decide later in their law school career, whether or not they actually want to do the additional degree and still be able to complete in a timely fashion. Again, I think it's a very individual response as to whether or not to write about wanting to do a joint degree. I've never read an application where someone says they want to do a joint degree and it hurt them. It was not seen as a negative.

Derek: Yeah. There's that theme of commitment again, which has come up so many times in your responses. I think that's just such a great takeaway from this podcast when applicants are thinking about how they're putting their application together and conveying that aspect. I will say, I think similar to earlier when we were talking about whether one should take time off and you talked about people who work in a particular field and then see how it intersects with the law and so they're coming to law school specifically to work in that field. Sometimes there is a joint degree obviously, that's associated with that.

There are, it's a small percentage of people, but they have a very good idea of why they want a joint degree. And I think for them it can actually make their application stronger when they can talk about the experience that they have that backs it up and why they're doing it. It might allow them to tailor their application to that particular school because it offers that program.

Renee: I think you're absolutely right on that Derek. I think for that candidate, I'm envisioning a resume, I'm envisioning letters of recommendation, I'm envisioning everything that builds to the experiences, build to wanting this dual degree. And so the evidence is there to make a really strong case as to why the joint degree. Thank you for pointing that out.

Derek: Of course, that's why we're a great team. Alright. We're going to quickly go through a few more questions because one thing that I want to talk about that is so important is just a little bit about advice on managing stress, advice for applicants this cycle. There's been so much talk obviously about last cycle and how competitive it was and all of these questions about is it going to be as competitive? And I don't want to talk about that.

I mean, in some ways people are getting more stressed out about all the talk about it. And the thing that I always say to my clients is, look, it doesn't change what you have to do. We're never going to be able to control external factors. I mean, there's so many examples of that, the pandemic, no one ever saw that and how long it was going to last and how much, and to what extent it was going to affect higher education and so many things.

I mean, it's just, you know, you just have to stay present and stay focused on what you need to do to put together the best application, because that's the one thing that you have control over. One of the things that I really admired and respected about you as a colleague is that you were steady, talk about ‘never let them see you sweat.’ That's what I always thought of you as poised and always professional. It's a two-part question.

One is just, what advice do you have for clients as this cycle has just begun. What advice do you have for them generally? And then secondly, what do you do, how do you do that? What do you do to manage your own stress? Because you have a stressful job. I've had it.

Renee: Thank you for those wonderful compliments. I appreciate that. My general advice for this cycle is for applicants to do exactly what you just suggested, which is put together the strongest application that you can. Once you hit submit, you have done your work, I've done everything I can, now it's their turn to do their work. I say that because I suspect, and it's early, it is still very early and it's not even October yet, but I do suspect that this cycle will be a little slower in terms of decisions than we've seen in prior cycles. I think that that is just how I predict it to go. I would say to applicants, just try to be as patient as possible. If you don't hear immediately back from a school it is not a negative, you've done the best you can and they're reading the files now.

That's really easy for me to say, and I want to acknowledge that because I think for all of those wonderful compliments that you just gave me, I'm not a particularly patient person. I just want to point out that I'm saying to candidates, the decision will come and asking them to be patient in that, so I want to acknowledge that.

In terms of managing stress, is interesting to me because you and I, early on in our professional careers found ourselves in a very stressful situation, and that taught me a lot. Our experience together all those years ago, taught me a lot about managing stress. I think the three things that I do, one is I go for walks. I walk by myself. I don't have an exercise partner. If someone joins me for a walk, it's not like my meditative time, it's time for a visit. I often go for walks by myself just to think.

The second is to find trusted advisors. I think this is where kind of our paths crossing all those years ago taught me this, is finding someone you can trust and you can bounce ideas off of when things are really, really stressful, knowing that they're not going to judge whatever it is that's coming out of your mouth in that moment.

The third is to be vulnerable. Stress happens to all of us, and I think it's important to acknowledge it and be vulnerable to the people you trust that you are finding yourself in a stressful situation and not isolate in stress, but rather have people that are there for you to share, support you.  You're going to support them I hope too, there to support you when, in times of stress so –

Derek: Yes, such sage advice. It's so important just given, not just what's happening in the law school world, but of course what's happening in the world generally.

Renee: You're the one that always taught me, you can only control the present. How many times have you said to me that you can't control that, Renee?

Derek: Yeah. I still say it to you, right. At least once a year, I think.

Renee: You do.

Derek: Yes.

Renee: Probably twice.

Derek: Okay. My favorite question that I almost forgot to ask, favorite one of all is our craziest experiences. What are some of the craziest things that have happened working in admissions? I think you were there for when some of mine happened, but I definitely had that stalker theme of things of the grandma who stalked me via phone and mail whose grandson was rejected and then called me on a regular basis, sent me cookies, sent things in the mail to try to get me to change the decision. There was the parent that waited for me outside of the law school, until I left the office who then cornered me. Then the applicant who found out somehow where I lived and actually showed up at my building and tried to bribe the doorman into letting them in and up to my apartment, not once but twice.

Renee: No.

Derek: Yes.

Renee: I don't remember the applicant or the parent story. I remember the grandmother.

Derek: You were there I think, yes, we were afraid to eat the cookies, but I think you might've been there for this one too. You remember the person who at the admitted students’ day, we ran out of Philly cheesesteaks at lunch and an admitted student demanded that I fire the caterer on the spot because we ran out of cheesesteaks. And then a few weeks later asked for more scholarship money to which I said, “We are out of cheese steaks and we are out of money.”

Renee: I don't remember that one either, oh my gosh.

Derek: Okay, that must have been in our gap. Alright, what's yours?

Renee: I thought mine was great. Now mine is like ho-hum. I was probably a month into the job as an admissions officer/office manager, living in West Philadelphia, right by campus, living alone. It’s like nine o'clock on a Friday night and my phone rang. I was like, “Who's calling me at nine o'clock on a Friday night, cause I think I've talked to everybody that I planned to talk to today.” It was an applicant, had found my number and called me at home. I don't remember what the issue was. It was a processing issue, it was not a decision issue. It was a processing of application issue because at that time I was the office manager and proceeded to try to give me their social security number. I'm a month into the job, and I'm thinking to myself, I don't know—

Derek: Is this what my Friday nights are going to look like working in admissions--?

Renee: “Is this what every Friday is going to look?” So that next morning, that next Monday morning, I think I called my boss the next day and said, “Hey, this happened, like, is this normal?” And at the time of course it was not normal, so we handled it from there. But that was the one that I remember, because I was so young in my job and I just thought, what on earth have I signed onto?

Derek: Apparently, it's easy to find someone's phone number or home address, but to our listeners, please don't do either of those things. Alright, and my last question, speaking of Philadelphia, what do you love most about it?

Renee: About the city?

Derek: Yes.

Renee: I love the people. I love the neighborhoods. I love the architecture. I love the river. I love the parks. I love the food. I mean, I have sort of like equal opportunity love for the city of Philadelphia.

Derek: I love the food. It's so funny because so many people talk about cheesesteaks and I talked about it because we serve them at admitted students’ day, but oh my god, the food is way, way, way beyond cheesesteaks. In fact, my favorite restaurant in the world of all the places I've traveled to, my favorite restaurant in the world, Zahav, is in Philly. And it was my favorite restaurant before it got the three James Beard awards for being the best restaurant in the country. But there's just this amazing Middle Eastern food and Mexican food and lots of Italian food. I can talk all day. That'll have to be a podcast too, food in Philly.

Renee: Yes, food in Philly. You would know.

Derek: Yes. Dean Post, this was such a pleasure. We talked for a really long time. I don't think we've missed anything, but do you have any final thoughts?

Renee: Just thank you. Thank you for the opportunity to talk with you. And hopefully the applicants found it helpful. And if we have to cut some, we can cut some because we we’re too chatty.

Derek: Yes, we certainly are. But such a pleasure. Thank you so much. And thanks to our listeners. This has been a true joy.