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The top law programs basically use one type of admissions decision format, the "rolling admissions" cycle. With rolling admissions, officers evaluate applicants on a "first-come, first-served" basis. A number of top schools modify this basic format by considering the strongest applications (read; those with the strongest index numbers) first, and then so on down the line, or by offering an Early Application option to applicants. Early Application policies grant early notification of decisions to those applying by, say, December 1. For almost all schools, there is a cutoff date after which no new applications will be read. Be aware that this comes as early as January 15 for some schools.
When Should You Apply-Early or Late In an Application Cycle?
The application cycle refers to the period of time during which a school accepts applications for a given class. In other words, a school might accept applications from October 1 through February 15 for the class beginning in September. This raises an important question. Should you apply early (in November, for example) or late (in January or February) if you wish to maximize your chances of getting in?
What Are The Benefits Of Applying Early In The Application Cycle?
There are several benefits to applying early in the application cycle. Assuming that the application is well written, an early application suggests that you are well organized. It also suggests that you are serious about getting into law school rather than applying on a whim. Another benefit can accrue if the school underestimates the number of applications, or quality of applicants, this application season will bring it. If this is the case, early applicants will have the bar over which they must leap set lower than will later applicants.
Certain types of applicants, of course, can benefit (from applying early) more than others. If you are a "cookie-cutter" candidate, with excellent credentials but no unusual qualities or experiences, your file will be less likely to inspire yawns if yours is one of the first of its kind read. For example, the person who is applying direct from college, a political science major with a junior semester abroad in England, will certainly wish to apply very early. A second type of candidate who stands to benefit from applying early is someone who has a complicated message and who therefore must give the admissions committee the time and mental energy to read his or her application carefully. Admissions committees tend to lack this time and lose energy as the application season progresses.
What Are The Benefits Of Applying Late In The Application Cycle?
There is only one substantial benefit to applying late in the cycle: An applicant has the opportunity to continue to build her credentials during the few months involved. This can be significant for someone with the potential to transform her application. An applicant who expects to finish a major project—and is hoping to achieve impressive results—might wish to apply after the project is finished rather than before. This could provide wonderful material for an optional essay or a glowing recommendation. Similarly, someone still in college who expects fall semester grades to add substantially to the application's appeal should consider waiting to apply until the grades are posted, A second potential benefit can occur if the school has misjudged its popularity and finds that fewer good applicants have applied than it expected earlier in the cycle, resulting in reduced admissions criteria for those applying later. This is an unpredictable factor and not likely to happen to any substantial degree, however, particularly at the very top schools.
So, What Should You Do?
Most people will benefit, if only slightly, by applying early in the admissions cycle. In general, the most important timing criterion is to get the application done well as soon as is practicable. The earlier it is started, the more opportunity there is to rewrite and reconsider, to allow recommenders to finish their work—and even to have others help out by reading the finished product. The only group that should purposely apply late in the cycle consists of those who can substantially improve their credentials in the meantime. Apply as soon as you can finish a truly professional application.
How Long Will It Take To Do Your Application?
Most applicants underestimate the amount of time that a good application requires, thinking that they can do one in a long weekend or two. The reality is that many of the necessary steps have a long lag built into them. For example, the process of approaching a recommender, briefing her on what you want one, giving her time to do a good recommendation for you, and ensuring that she submits it on time calls for months rather than days of advance notice. This is all the more true when you apply to eight or ten schools rather than one; you have more application forms to get, more essays to write, and more recommendations to request. Although work does not increase proportionally with the number of applications, the increased complexity as well as the number of additional things you need to do will inevitably increase your efforts.
The application process should start at least one and a quarter years in advance of when you would like to start law school. Thus, if you wish to start a program in September, you should start work in May of the preceding year. This may sound excessive, but the timetable in this section makes it clear that this is an appropriate time to get serious about the process. One of the reasons this process takes so long is that schools generally require that applications be submitted six to seven months (at the very minimum) in advance of the start of the program, meaning that you will have about ten months to complete the process if you start at the suggested time.
Starting the application process late, or failing to work seriously at it until deadlines approach leads to the typical last-minute rush and the inevitable poor marketing job. It could also mean that by the time your application gets to the committee, they have very few spots left to fill.
It is useful to establish your own timetable for applying. Ideally, you will be able to start about 15 months before you begin your JD program. Do not panic if you can't, because many people will, like you, need to condense their work efforts. It is useful, however, to make sure you use whatever time you have to your greatest advantage. Be sure you note the dates that are fixed and immutable:
LSAT (and TOEFL) registration deadlines and test dates
Application deadlines themselves
The following is a typical schedule for someone applying to schools that begin in September, with application deadlines in February. It is intended not as an exact timeline for you to follow, but rather as an illustration of the tasks and deadlines you will want to track.
More than 15 months in advance of the program, you should:
Start considering specifically what you want from a law program, and whether a law degree is indeed appropriate.
Develop a preliminary list of appropriate schools. Read several of the better guides, look at the most recent surveys printed in the leading law and popular magazines, scrutinize the course catalogues and Web sites of the schools themselves, and talk with people knowledgeable about the schools.
Send away for the LSAT LSDAS Registration &and Information Book from Law Services.
Examine several schools' application forms, even if they are a year out of date, to see what the application process will involve.
Consider who should write recommendations for you (and be sure you treat them particularly well from now on).
Start putting together a realistic financial plan to pay for school. Research financial aid sources and your likelihood of qualifying for aid. (Identify necessary forms to be completed and their deadline dates.)
Register for the June LSAT (and TOEFL) exam.
Consider how you will prepare for the LSAT. If you are not a strong standardized test taker, are unfamiliar with the exam, or just want to save yourself the bother of preparing on your own, figure out which test preparation course you will take and when it will be available. International students will want to do the same regarding the TOEFL exam.
Start planning school visits.
Take the LSAT.
Send for the applications now! Requesting one over the Internet (rather than sending a postcard or calling) will get the quickest response. Many schools are inefficient about sending them out, especially to overseas applicants, so be prepared to have every third or fourth one fail to respond. If a school has not yet completed this year's application form, or is temporarily out of them, try to get last year's application form. The application form tends to change very little from one year to the next, so even last year's form will give you a good idea of what to expect from the new application.
Register for the September LSAT if you are unsatisfied with your June score
Develop a basic positioning statement; write a preliminary essay regarding where you are headed and why you want a JD.
Start visiting school campuses based upon a "short list" of preferred schools.
Register for LSDAS, notifying them of the schools you will definitely be applying to.
Take the LSAT again (if necessary).
Request that transcripts from the relevant schools be sent to LSDAS.
Establish a file folder system for each school and note specific deadlines for each.
Approach recommenders. (Assume the average one will take at least one month to submit the recommendations.) The more time you give a recommender, the more willing he will be to support you—and you do not want to get off on the wrong foot here.
Revise your essays. Have a friend (or your consultant) read them over.
Attend law school forums.
Submit completed applications.
Confirm that your recommenders sent the necessary letters and forms.
Submit applications for financial aid from third-party institutions (i.e., sources other than the schools themselves).
Submit loan applications (for school loans) and any forms necessary for institutionally based scholarships or assistantships.
Thank your recommenders.
Contact schools that have not yet acknowledged your complete file.
Prepare for any potential interviews.
Once You Have Been Accepted (Or Rejected)
Notify your recommenders of what has happened, and tell them what your plans are. Thank them again for their assistance, perhaps by giving them a small gift.
Notify the schools of your acceptance or rejection of their admissions offers, and send in your deposit to your school of choice.
If you have not gotten into your desired school, what should you do? Consider going to your second choice, or perhaps reapplying in the future.
Where Are Things Most Likely To Go Astray?
You should be aware of two different types of problems. Problems that are partially outside your control (but not your influence): (1) Some schools fail to send out a substantial percentage of applications upon a first request, or do so with a lengthy delay. The obvious solution to this is that you start requesting applications early and stay on top of the situation. (2) Your recommenders are another likely source of trouble. They are busy people who, despite their best intentions, are all too likely to need prodding to get the recommendations turned in on time, especially if they elected to write them themselves.
Major problems that are within your control: (1) The public mails are notoriously unreliable. This can readily be dealt with, however, simply by using Federal Express, UPS, DHL, or another private carrier of greater reliability. (2) Your essay writing is all too likely to fall behind schedule, leading to last-minute rushing and poor writing. Start the whole essay writing process early and continue to give yourself time, on a regular basis, to work on them. You must be disciplined about this if you want to maximize your chances.