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When to Apply to Law Schools

published September 24, 2013

( 6 votes, average: 3.9 out of 5)
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Most law schools have only one freshman class each year. Its studies begin in late August or September. The formal application deadline for that class may be as late as March 15 of the previous spring or as early as January 15. (Some local law schools still have no formal deadlines and accept applications until their freshman classes are filled.) But law school applications aren't like income tax returns. There's nothing to be gained by waiting until just before the deadline. If you apply earlier, in October and November-that is, 10 or 11 months before you will begin your legal studies-you may gain some small advantage over applicants who wait until the last minute.

Most law schools now use some variant of the rolling admissions system. Although these systems can be extremely complicated in practice, they are simple in principle. The law school doesn't wait until after its formal deadline to make its acceptance decisions. It doesn't collect all the applications, rank them, and then admit the top applicants based on that ranking. Rather, it makes a decision on each applicant as soon as his or her file is complete or, at some schools, as soon as a certain number of complete files have accumulated. These decisions are based on a prediction of what the qualifications of the total applicant pool will look like.

The law school adopts a set of grade and LSAT score cutoffs at the beginning of the application year. If an applicant's index number- his or her weighted combination of GPA and LSAT score as determined by the school's admission formula-is higher than the high cutoff point, the law school accepts that applicant automatically. By extending an offer of acceptance early in the placement year, the law school maximizes the likelihood that this person will actually enroll.

There's a second cutoff point, with much lower GPA and LSAT scores, for rejections. If a candidate's index number falls below this second point, the law school rejects him or her out of hand. If a candidate's index number falls between the high "automatic accept" number and the low "automatic reject" number, that person is put into a wait-and-see group.

Wait-and-see candidates are left until the end of the placement year, evaluated, compared one with another, and then ranked. Enough of them are then accepted to fill up whatever places are left unfilled by those candidates admitted automatically. If you are in the wait-and-see group, letters of recommendation, essays, and other admission variables will be considered in detail. The law school may look behind the numbers with some care to determine which candidates are most likely to succeed.

Being put in the wait-and-see group is the best that marginal applicants can hope for. And it will give them a chance to display their non-numerical qualifications to the admissions committee. But if you're a good candidate-that is, if you are applying to an insurance school or one for which you are highly competitive-then you want to be admitted automatically. You won't have to compete in a formal ranking against other applicants, and you'll know the law school's decision early in the placement year. The automatic admit (or reject) decisions are based almost entirely on GPA and LSAT numbers.

Not entirely, of course. The law school will wait to make sure that your application packet is complete, and it may withhold admission if there's something wrong with one of the forms or if some black mark shows up. Some schools may informally give preference to applicants from known high-quality undergraduate schools, al-though in my experience most law schools consider this variable only for wait-and-see candidates. But except for this brief screening, all the other forms that you generate will be barely read. One reason for using a rolling admission system is that it is easier to accept or reject students based on numbers than it is to make the detailed evaluation necessary to rate candidates in the wait-and-see group.

This assumes that the cutoff points can be set at the appropriate level. The cutoff point must be high enough to capture only good prospects, but not so high that only a very few candidates are automatically accepted. Ideally, the cutoff point will be just high enough to capture exactly the number of candidates the law school wants to admit. If it wants, say, 300 admits-150 law school freshmen plus 150 turndowns-the law school will look at the qualifications of its last several freshman classes and set the cutoff line to automatically admit candidates as qualified or more qualified than those previously admitted.

However, prediction is never exact in the real world. No two application years are ever exactly alike. If a law school bases its cutoffs on previous years, it will always over- or under-estimate the quality of the present applicants. If it underestimates and sets the cutoff point too low, it will automatically admit more candidates than it has room for. If it overestimates, it runs the risk of automatically accepting too few and having a tough job filling up its freshman class late in the year from its wait-and-see group. If it waits too long, it faces the nightmare prospect of having its wait-and-see applicants commit themselves elsewhere, leaving the law school with unfilled seats in its freshman class.

To prevent these dangers, the admissions committee monitors the automatic admissions through the year. If they seem to be running ahead of the previous year, the committee may raise the automatic admit line, consigning to the wait-and-see group some later applicants who would have been admitted automatically had they applied earlier. If admissions are running below anticipations, the admissions committee may lower the automatic admit line. Since computers can monitor the process with great precision, it is possible to raise or lower the line several times during the application year.

Now, how does this affect your application strategy? The admissions committee is afraid that it may wind up with too many freshmen. But it is much more afraid of having too few. Extra freshmen can be accommodated with extra chairs in the aisles. But an empty seat in a freshman class means that the school is short one student's tuition. Since transfer students are scarce, the shortage will probably continue for three years. And eventually there will be one fewer alumnus to contribute to the annual fund. Rather than leave a seat unfilled, the law school will admit students from a wait-and-see group from which the cream has been skimmed by other law schools, or from a waiting list that is even more poorly qualified. Setting the cutoff point too high, one law school official told me, is a "shortcut to a downward quality spiral."

As a result, law schools tend to allow a margin for error and begin the placement year with cutoff points lower than the predicted optimum. They expect the cutoff points to be raised later on. As a result, candidates who apply early have the benefit of a lower automatic admit point than candidates who apply later. Some candidates who are automatically admitted early would probably have been put in the wait-and-see group had they applied later in the year.

The margin for error also affects the setting of the automatic reject point. Some applicants who are placed in the wait-and-see group- and thereby given a chance to display their subjective qualifications to the admissions committee-would have been rejected out of hand had they applied later in the placement year.

Therefore, applying early may bring a small benefit. Underline the word small, however. Don't expect some magical bonus that makes otherwise uncompetitive applicants competitive. But a small advantage may help applicants who are just marginal for a given school. You should plan to apply early unless you have some specific reason for waiting.

It is, however, possible to apply too early. You shouldn't send an application before the first of October, because before that date law school staffs are still busy with the administrative chores relating to the previous application year, and there is a slight chance that your envelope could be put in the wrong pile. (Some law schools now formally refuse to receive applications before the first of October.)

Traditional students should mail off their applications during late October, November, or December of their senior years. Non-traditionals should observe the same eight- to ten-month lead time.

About 20 schools allow freshmen to begin at midyear, usually in January or February, and about 80 schools have evening divisions. The application timetables for these programs will be different. They may not use rolling admissions systems. But the same principle holds true: plan to apply early unless you have some reason for waiting.
( 6 votes, average: 3.9 out of 5)
What do you think about this article? Rate it using the stars above and let us know what you think in the comments below.