The evolution of admissions

Looking beyond the numbers, a successful application could look very different today than it did in the past

By Karen Gross / Photography by: KC Bannister

From the Fall/Winter 2015 issue of Nexus

Ashley MajorGrowing up on a farm in rural north-central Saskatchewan, Ashley Major did it all. She and her three sisters would wake up early to water and feed the cows. They built fences, dug dugouts, planted trees and drove the tractors and the grain trucks. They helped with the harvest and the yearly cattle roundup, tagging, vaccinating and castrating the herd. They attended school in the nearby town of St. Brieux, population 650. Major was one of 12 kids in her graduating high school class.

"It was busy. It was a busy 18 years," Major, 25, says wryly. The daughter of a mother who was a nurse and a father who farmed full-time, Major set her sights on law school from an early age. Much of the impetus came from watching the TV news and sharing observations with her family. "I was particularly interested in women's rights abuses," she remembers. "Domestic violence, missing and murdered Aboriginal women, sexual violence against women around the world."

Attracted by the International Human Rights Program and the enticing array of clinical opportunities, Major aimed for the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Law. In Regina, she completed an undergraduate degree with a major in human justice. She worked as a waitress and a domestic violence counselor to save money for school, which she had to pay for herself. She posted very strong grades and did well on the LSAT, but figured most of the other applicants had too.

"I grew up in a very different background from most people and a lot of things aren't captured by the numbers," she says. "You don't see that I was taking my books to work overnight at the shelter when I was studying for my LSAT. Or that I would pull them out when the tables were quiet at Earl's."

That's where the law school's new holistic admissions formula gave Major’s story a voice.

Devised and launched three years ago by Associate Professor Ben Alarie, JD 2002, admissions committee chair, together with Assistant Deans Alexis Archbold and Sara Faherty, the process relies on extensive statistical analysis of an applicant's academic background and performance, which helps project the odds of success in the first year of law school. That counts for two-thirds of an application's weight. If the "hard" analysis passes muster, the applicant's personal statement and biographical sketch, along with an optional essay, are passed on to the committee. Each statement is evaluated and scored separately by at least three readers. That so-called "soft" side of the application is worth the remaining third of the overall package.

"It's no longer the case that if you have a really high LSAT and a really high GPA then, no matter what, you'll be admitted," Alarie says. "If you won't bother to write a personal statement or put much effort into it because you think you're such a strong candidate, the committee is unlikely to evaluate you very strongly."

But with good grades and LSAT scores, your personal statement could be what tips the balance in your favour, and ultimately gains you admission to a school you may have feared was out of your reach.

That's how things worked out for Jacob Aitken, 28. Raised in Sarnia in southern Ontario, Aitken left home at the age of 17. After graduating high school, he worked in a call centre doing computer repair by telephone for two years. He enrolled at Western University, but floundered during the first three years of his undergraduate political science program.

"I was trying to figure out my life," Aitken says. "I got myself into a lot of trouble and school was always the first thing on the chopping block as far as priorities went." Aitken skipped classes, missed exams and notched a few failures on his transcript. By the time he made it to fourth year, Aitken managed to get serious about school. He pulled up his grades and he had a "pretty good" LSAT score. He checked off U of T on the Ontario Law School Application Service (OLSAS) common application, but assumed he didn't stand a chance here.

"Admittedly I thought it was a shot in the dark," he says. "I thought you'd have to have a perfect application package to be considered. So I just did it as a formality I think." Much to his surprise, Aitken was admitted. 

"I just told my life story and why I had trouble and how I was able to turn it around," he recalls. "I told them why I was so passionate about law school and why I was confident that my problems were not going to return."

Aitken became a key player in the law school's recruitment-outreach program, meeting and speaking with prospective students, sharing his story and encouraging them with his own success. "I explain to them that my classmates are an incredibly diverse group," he says. "They come from every imaginable background and area of study. And I tell them most of all to be as honest as they can in their personal statements because the admissions committee knows what they're looking for."

Vivian LeeIt's a message that Jerome Poon-Ting, as the law school's senior recruitment, admissions and diversity outreach officer, is determined to pass on to as many potential applicants and undergraduate career advisers as he can. Poon-Ting—only the second person to hold his relatively new position—is tasked with finding  the most promising applicants wherever they may be, and convincing them not to be intimidated by U of T's daunting reputation. There are many myths, he says, perpetuated most often online, usually by people who have never had direct exposure to the U of T law school or its students.

"That it's such an unhealthy competition, that the students are cutthroat against each other," he lists. "That you have to be an absolute Einstein genius to even stand a chance of getting in. None of that is true." In fact, Poon-Ting says, the students couldn't be more collegial. And thanks to the holistic admissions formula, an attractive application package may look quite different today than it did in the past.

For example, consider 23-year-old Vivian Lee, now in her second year. The only child of parents who emigrated from Hong Kong in the early 1990s, Lee grew up in the Toronto suburb of Scarborough. Her father worked as a waiter while her mother managed a coffee shop that was owned by an aunt. Neither had gone to university, and neither spoke English very well. Lee excelled in high school and considered a legal career because she enjoyed public speaking and thought she could advocate for the underprivileged. After completing her bachelor's degree with majors in criminology and history, she applied to U of T law because it was highly ranked and close to home.

"I didn't think I would get in largely because of my LSAT score," which was below the median for U of T, Lee says. She also worried because she was the first in her family to complete such a complicated application. She noted her socioeconomic and ethnic backgrounds and wondered if these would put her at a disadvantage, because she pictured the law school as a mostly homogenous mass of privileged progeny.  She was surprised when she received her acceptance, and even more pleasantly surprised when she met her classmates.

"I'm most impressed by the quality of my peers. They are truly exceptional. They're very kind and generous. No one is out to get me," Lee says with a chuckle. "Essentially, having a larger group of people from different backgrounds would strengthen the legal community, and help it represent the more diverse nature of the country," she says. "As a racial minority, I'll be able to understand the difficulties faced by people like my parents."

Pooja LassiLee's classmate Pooja Lassi agrees. Born in Pakistan, Lassi's family came to Canada when she was three. She and her two siblings were raised in a middle class home in suburban Mississauga. Initially, she says she was interested in criminal law. But lately she's been captivated by immigration, and by the people she has worked with during her experiential course and at a summer placement in Toronto.

"The current refugee crisis caught my attention," she says, "and working with immigrants at Flemingdon Community Legal Services."

The shift in approach to admissions—and the student cohort it has produced—haven't gone unnoticed among the people who hire and recruit law students. Ari Blicker, LLB 1995, is director of the student and associate programs at the Toronto firm Aird & Berlis LLP. He remembers noticing a change almost immediately.

"A few years ago I was speaking to a first year class and the students were just so engaged and funny and involved, I wondered ‘Wow, what's different?’” he says. Blicker learned that this was the first cohort that had gone through the new admissions policy. "U of T students are always impressive. But something had changed. It was really palpable."

Since then, Blicker has seen his impression borne out in the quality of the students who interview for summer jobs. "That might be a real game changer," he says, recalling one student who had launched and run her own successful tea business before deciding to apply to law school. "They always have incredible marks and terrific LSAT scores. But my sense is I've seen an uptick in more well-rounded candidates. That's great, because the person sitting in the corner office could easily be someone who was on the dean's list, but could also have been an above-average student who has phenomenal personal qualities, tremendous drive and dedication, and leadership and business skills that are not evident on a transcript."

I grew up in a very different background from most people and a lot of things aren't captured by the numbers.

The observation is shared by Liam Scott, in the legal services branch of the Ontario Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care. As the student coordinator at his office, he has reviewed thousands of job applications and interviewed hundreds of students.

"I often joke that I would never get my current job now if I had to apply for it," Scott says. "We're seeing more mature students with more diverse backgrounds and experience. There's a far greater range."

Now in his third and final year, the law school experience has surpassed Jacob Aitken's wildest expectations. As part of his academic work, Aitken is at Downtown Legal Services, helping to represent tenants in their disputes with landlords. And as an aspiring real estate attorney, he says the work has given him a fresh and essential viewpoint.

"I'm seeing the human side and I think that's certainly changed my perspective on it," Aitken says. "The most important thing about property is that somebody lives there."  

And Ashley Major, in her second year, is pursuing her passion as an advocate for victims of domestic and sexual violence by working for academic credit at Toronto's Barbara Schlifer clinic. Major also won an extremely competitive summer position with Ontario's Ministry of the Attorney General. She'll be assigned to the Crown Law Office—Criminal, where she hopes to be involved in sexual assault and domestic violence prosecutions.

It's all working out just the way she'd hoped, much to her pleasant surprise.

"I can definitely say I was very afraid I wasn't going to fit in," Major now says. "I think this holistic admissions process has brought forth people from a whole array of backgrounds. People who are immigrants, or who are doing the exact same thing as I am—paying for school themselves. We have such a range of diversity here, anyone can find their place."