‘Admissible’ S3 E4: Tricks and Treats of the 2023-24 Cycle

UVA Ghoul of Law
October 27, 2023

In this spooky, special episode of “Admissible,” Dean Natalie Blazer ’08 shares her key observations of the 2023-24 cycle so far. From personal statements that are a treat to read to letters of recommendation that give her a fright, Dean Blazer provides listeners with tricks for putting their best foot forward in the application process.


CREW: OK, so that you're knee deep in applications. But do you have any Halloween plans?

NATALIE BLAZER: Oh, man. No real plans except for dressing up our two cats in costume which we do every year and they absolutely hate. We have a little witch costume for one of them. So it's like a witch hat and a cape. And the other one gets like a little lion costume, and it's just the cutest.

CREW: So is one of your cats witchier than the other?

NATALIE BLAZER: Yes. Much more witchy.


This is Admissible. I'm Natalie Blazer, Dean of Admissions at UVA Law. Today's episode is going to be the first of its kind because it's just me in the studio today. As you all know, my love for interviewing people is a big part of why I started Admissible. And I also think it's extremely valuable for you all to hear trustworthy advice from people other than me because I feel like I do this all the time. So I'll be honest and say it's kind of sad looking at this empty guest chair in front of me today.


Or maybe, since we're approaching Halloween, there's a ghost sitting in the chair, and I just can't see them. But sometimes the material I want to share with you all really lends itself to a shorter episode in a different format, and today that really is the case. I promise it will be no less fun and helpful than the usual episodes. So let's dive right in.

As I record this, we're about two months into the 2023 to 2024 cycle. And since our application is open for six months total, we're right around one third of the way through the active application period. It's still early, so, if you're planning to apply this cycle, believe me, you have time. But we're also underway enough in the cycle that I feel comfortable sharing with you some key observations I've had so far.

And since we are in what I think everyone now calls, [SPOOKY SOUNDS] spooky season, I'm going to break down my main observations of this cycle into three categories-- a trick, [DOORBELL] a treat, [DOORBELL] and something downright scary [SCREAM].

So I want to start by talking about recruiting. This fall was the first time I personally went out on the road in person since 2019, so for the first time in four years. Fall of 2020, obviously, nobody was recruiting in person. Fall of 2021, we were extremely short staffed and basically couldn't leave the office. And last fall, 2022, my focus, as you may know, was on creating and launching this podcast, primarily, actually, as a way of connecting with people all over the country when I'm not able to travel.

Well, in these last several weeks, it felt great to get back out there to meet you all, to meet prospective applicants in person. It is incredibly energizing to make those connections. Meeting all of you and learning about your goals is what this job is all about. So my first observation to share with you is that, there is a trick [DOORBELL] to making a good in-person impression and to making it last. In-person impressions really do matter. I know that a lot of it is about the application and the interview, but these impressions do count.

Every year, there are applicants who come into the pool a year or two or even three after meeting me on the road. They send me a note, and I will remember them. So what is the trick to making a good in-person impression and making it last? When you're approaching a school representative at either a fair or if you're asking a question during an info session or a Q&A or a panel, your presentation, your tone, expression, how you address the person you're speaking to, Dean so-and-so versus calling them by their first name, being friendly, gracious, respectful, upbeat, professional, making eye contact-- all of those things are going to make a positive impression.

I mentioned eye contact. I'll talk about this for a second. I personally am very big on eye contact because I do not shake hands. So if a law school rep sticks their hand out first, of course, if you feel comfortable, shake it. But understand that in this year of 2023, a lot of people might not want to shake hands. And this, for me, predates COVID, by the way.

So that's just a quirk about me. So eye contact and smiling and all of that matters even more. All of those things are going to say so much about you. They're actually going to say a lot more about than the actual specific question you're asking. I think a lot of people focus on coming up with a really great question. But all these other things are going to matter more.

So as a corollary to what makes a good impression, here are some things that make a bad impression. Don't pull up a list of questions on your phone and stare at your phone and just ask questions when you have 10 people standing behind you. Do not address a dean or a director by their first name. Do not ask, again, incessant questions when there's a line forming behind you.

Don't ask basic questions that can be found on the first page of our website and on and on. Remember that you're competing against thousands of other applicants who are going to have very similar qualifications as you. We're going to have probably two or three times as many qualified applicants as people we can actually admit. So the person who we meet who is pleasant and professional and we can immediately envision them being a lawyer, getting a job, assuming they're admissible in all other ways, that person is going to have an advantage over someone who doesn't make a good impression.

And here's the trick about following up. Maybe it's a quick thank you email that you send to the admissions office after meeting someone at an event, or it's an email telling us you've applied. Those follow-up emails are often what tie it all together for you. I'll say it as many times as I have to, you have to be admissible in the first place. But if you had an in-person meeting, if you took the time to go to an event or a Q&A or a panel or a fair, you made a good impression, and then you sent a nice, polite, professional follow-up email, those things together, in this wildly competitive process where you want to kind of give yourself every advantage you can, those could be enough to get you to the top of the interview pile.

CHILDREN: Trick or treat.

NATALIE BLAZER: All right, next I want to talk about our application and, specifically, the essays. The admissions team at UVA Law, like I assume at pretty much every law school in the country this summer, spent an extraordinary amount of time inventorying our application from start to finish and making pretty significant edits to our essay prompts. We also added a couple of questions that weren't there before along with an optional Why UVA essay.

So in the first two months of the cycle, I've read-- I tried to calculate this. I've read I think upwards of 400 applications already. And here is what I have observed. Our new prompts, our new essay prompts are eliciting some really authentic, genuinely self-reflective essays that have truly been-- you guessed it-- a treat [DOORBELL] to read.

It is incredibly satisfying to see that all that hard work we put into writing those new prompts this summer was worth it in the sense that they're doing exactly what we designed them to do. Our goal with the essays is and always has been to get to you better. And the only way we can get to you better is if you are your authentic self writing in your own voice. So if you're still out there in the process of working on your applications, read the essay prompts very carefully. Every word is there for a reason.

Really, we agonized over each word. And you want to make sure you're actually answering the questions we're asking, not the questions we asked last year, not the questions that other school is asking, but the questions we're asking this year. We also added page limits to our personal statement for the first time this cycle. Page limits were always sort of implied. I think people kind of knew it should be in the vicinity of two pages, double spaced. But now we just put it out there. We made it explicit to, hopefully, take the guesswork out of it for you.

So last point on the essays, which is also reiterating what a treat it is when we get to read your authentic writing, this cycle we added a certification to our application that states, "This application is in my own words, and I have not used artificial intelligence tools as part of my drafting process."

We added this so that you are certifying it, and so that you are reminded that this should be in your own words, even though it is, believe me, quite obvious to us when someone other than you has written the essay, ChatGPT, AI, whatever is out there now. We can tell. And we do not enjoy reading this material. And it has never as good as a person, a human telling their own story.

I would much sooner admit someone with a slightly unpolished, imperfect, but real personal statement. And I have done that than some shiny piece of writing that a robot generated. And even if you are writing everything yourself, by the way, without the assistance of AI, just be careful about being so overwrought in your writing that it no longer sounds like how you would talk. If you can say something in 10 words or you can say it in three words, say it in three-- no flowery language, no overuse of a thesaurus.

The example I always give is, I was hit with an extreme feeling of shock. I was shocked. There's the three-word solution to what you were trying to say. And again, if you're trying to get in those page limits, believe me, bad writing will very quickly sabotage an otherwise great application, and it is really unfortunate. After all the hard work you put into your applications, you want a human reading them, right? You want a human who can relate to you and to your story and to your background.

And so we want also a human writing those stories. So we can all relate to one another, get to one another better. I think it's going to be great, great practice for the many, many, many pieces of writing you'll be doing in law school and your legal career.


So the final observation of the 2023 to 2024 cycle I want to share with you all is something I've seen in letters of recommendation. Letters of recommendation are largely out of an applicant's control. And I know, for a lot of us type As, lawyers and future lawyers, that lack of control is, in fact, what makes this part of the application extra scary [SCREAM] for all of you out there.

Well, I am here to tell you that letters of recommendation, while always somewhat scary, for you, as the applicant, have been the most downright frightening element of the application I have seen this cycle. It is bad. I'll tell you some examples-- when the letter is a clear copy-and-paste job, when there's like all these extra spaces around your name as the applicant, and they're referring to you by first and last name throughout the letter, it's almost like a Control Find and Replace, when the letter contains mismatched names or pronouns, when the entire thing reads as damning by faint praise, it is terrifying, you guys.

And it's scary to me that, A, letter-writers feel comfortable actually submitting recommendations like this after agreeing to write you one, and, B, that you the applicant, you have no idea that your letters are not reflecting well on you because, if you're adhering to the best practices rules, you're never going to see those letters. Those letters get submitted directly to us through LSAC.

Now, I'll go back and say, typically, letters of recommendation simply confirm what I see elsewhere in the app. So usually they're the last part of the application that I read. So if an application is super strong, I go in excited to read the letters because I know that they're going to be raving about you. And it's just going to be fun to learn about from someone else's perspective who knows you. Similarly, if the application is not very strong, sometimes you could have a nice letter in there, but a lot of times, it's just going to be sort of the run-of-the-mill standard letter.

Sometimes, though, a letter of recommendation can absolutely elevate the application from the maybe pile to an interview. So you're sort of middle of the road. Again, there are so many applicants out there with your same qualifications. Remember that. But if you have letters that are just effusive, those can get you to the interview. But on the other hand, they can sometimes tank a middle-of-the-road app to a waitlist or a deny. And unfortunately, for whatever reason, more letters than usual this cycle are falling into that second category.

Now, maybe that's because the letter-writer genuinely doesn't have a positive recommendation to give. They should never have agreed to write you one in the first place. So how do you take ownership of this situation. Your job as the applicant when seeking out letters of recommendation is to make sure the professor or supervisor or whoever it is that you're asking truly has something positive to say and is actually invested in writing you a good letter. They're not just sort of agreeing to it.

The best way to ensure that this will be the case, by the way, is to first select recommenders who actually know you well. How do they know you? In what context do they know you? How many classes have you taken? How long have you worked for them?

And also, recommenders who you can trust-- so you, really, as the applicant have to use your best judgment when asking people to write for you. Faculty, especially the great faculty who you're probably going to be wanting to ask letters from, they've had hundreds, hundreds, maybe thousands of students in their career. And they've probably written dozens and dozens of letters. So one question I get all the time is, what if it was a really big class, and I didn't get to the professor well?

Well, sometimes there's a TA who you have worked with on a maybe more granular level or you've met with more often or a graduate assistant or something. That is totally fine. A lot of times, a TA or a graduate student will write the letter, and the professor will co-sign it, or they'll add their own thoughts. That is totally fine. I would much rather see a personal, in-depth letter from a TA than a very generic short letter from a professor who teaches a 200-person course.

Same thing with the professional context. People often ask, well, I'm working on Capitol Hill for this congressperson. I think it would be really impressive to have this Congress person write my letter. Well, how much have you actually worked with him or her? Is there maybe a legislative director or an aide that you have worked with really, really closely, somebody maybe a notch or two or three below the congressperson.

I would so much rather see a letter from that person who's seen you on the day to day, who really knows you well, who frankly probably has more time and energy and investment in you to write you a strong letter than somebody with a fancy, fancy title. So again, it comes down to choosing truly the right person.

But even when it's someone you and trust, you should still meet with that person and talk to them about what you have asked them to do. Make sure what you're hoping to get out of their letter of recommendation. And remember that a good letter takes time, actually. I've written letters of recommendation for people in a lot of different contexts. And if you want to do a good job, they really do take time.

So be grateful. Give them the tools they need. Remind them what you did in their class. Remind them what your goals are. Do your part to make your letter one of the strong letters. Another question that I've seen out there about letters is, what should I do if you my letter-writer just hasn't submitted it? And I feel, it's always uncomfortable if that person's your boss or they're your professor. It's always uncomfortable to nudge them.

If all of the rest of your application is complete, I would nudge whoever it is. OK, you can say, I submitted all the rest of the components of my application. I'm so grateful, again, for the time and energy you're putting into this. Please let me when I might expect a letter. That is a nerve-wracking process. But hopefully, if you've done the work of asking the right person, somebody who is invested and who you trust, you're not going to have to chase them down.

When you sit down with them in the beginning, give them your timetable. Give them your time frame. Give them plenty of lead time to write the letter in the first place. Don't ask them the day before you want to submit your application. There are so many steps you can take to make this a less scary part of the application.

So having said all that, I don't want to end the podcast terrifying you with these disastrous letters we've been reading. It really is the case that there is a small handful, and they do stick out in my mind. And I don't want anyone to ever have a bad letter in their file. So to go out on a high note, I will tell you, the vast majority of applications I've seen this cycle are very, very good. We have already admitted about 80 people this cycle. And we are genuinely supremely thrilled about each and every one of them.

80 people over 2 months, that is rather low for us. It's going to be a slower cycle. With the new application, with a lot of changes that are going on in admissions, it's just going to be slightly slower. So if you're listening to this, a little bonus tip I'll give you is just be patient. If you haven't heard from us in, let's say, three months since the time your application has gone complete, definitely send us a friendly email, understanding how many apps we have to read and how busy we are. It doesn't hurt to check in, but I would wait that three-month period before you do that.

So to summarize my key observations from the first third of the 2023-2024 cycle, in-person impressions and follow-up emails matter. The trick [DOORBELL] is to keep it polite and pleasant and professional. Second, be your authentic self in your essays. Make your writing a treat [DOORBELL] for us to read. And finally, lay the groundwork for strong letters of recommendation. Don't scare us. [SCREAM]

This has been Admissible with me, Dean Natalie Blazer at the University of Virginia School of Law. My guest today was nobody, or maybe it was a ghost.


For more information about UVA Law, please visit law.virginia.edu. The next episode of Admissible will be out soon. In the meantime, you can follow the show on Instagram at @AdmissablePodcast. Thanks so much for listening, and please remember to rate the show wherever you listen to podcasts.


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