Often the answer you receive from the law school is neither an acceptance nor a rejection, but something in between. The law school may call this a hold, wait, or deferral, and different schools attach different meanings to the same word. Thus you must read beyond the words to see exactly what this letter is telling you.
Some schools send applicants a letter after four to six weeks telling them they have been "deferred" or "placed on hold." A hold is a determination that your file is too marginal for a decision just yet. You are neither a presumptive admit nor a presumptive deny. The school wants to defer a decision for a while. The surest way to know that this letter is a "hold" letter and not a wait list letter is that it says you will hear from them again at a later date (which may or may not be specified).
In a few cases, hold lists are simply a note from a courteous but overburdened admissions staff letting you know you haven't been forgotten. In other instances, the law school wants to see its entire applicant pool before making a decision about your file. Hold letters may also allow the law school to solicit additional information; frequently a hold letter will offer you the chance to strengthen your file. In this and other ways, the law school can allow a degree of "self-selection" -- i.e., the applicant who responds positively to this invitation may have a higher chance of admission.
Wait lists are for the protection of the law school, not the applicant. Law schools, like air lines and restaurants, must make allowance for some people's making a reservation and either canceling at the last minute or just failing to show up. The wait list alleviates this problem. The law school can call applicants at the last minute (indeed, sometimes on the first day of school) to fill any empty seats.
For all practical purposes, a wait list letter usually counts as a rejection. The law school is, in effect, saying they don't really want you, but in the slight chance that they need more applicants at the last minute, they'll call you. You can distinguish a wait list letter from a hold letter because the wait list letter does not say you will hear from the school at a later date. Instead, it usually asks to hear from you; if you want to be on the wait list, you must inform them.
Knowing you are on a waitlist thus tells you almost nothing without additional information. How many people are on the waitlist? If the waitlist is divided into categories, how many are in each category, and which category are you in? Are applicants called from the waitlist by academic strength or diversity needs? All this information is necessary to determine the value of your place on the waitlist. Feel free to ask the law school these questions in responding to their offer.
How many people did X call from the waitlist last year?
Waitlist info is very erratic from year to year, and I don't know the variables well enough to predict this year's performance from last year's. What makes Californians not go to Berkeley? Where do they go instead? How much does a change in US News rankings affect a school's yield rate? If we knew this, we could predict. Penn went up in the rankings and Texas went down, so Texas will go to its wait list. But where had those people paid seat deposits? SMU or BC? We don't know the domino effects on a yearly basis, but I've pondered the general pattern of those dominos long enough to make a rough estimate. Click here to see the food chain.
I just said we can't predict wait list fallout for this year. But so many people want to know about waitlists that I am including a chart of answers collected at the Law forums in 1996. It may have no connection to this year's wait list, of course, but it will give you an idea of the variance in the system.
How Long Will I Have to Wait?
I wish I knew, but I don't. A few years ago I bought a crystal ball, so that when clients ask, "When will I hear from Cornell?" or "Do you think I'll get into UCLA?" I could take a look. Alas, it has thus far told me nothing; I guess I'm just not attuned.
Admissions officers, too, need a crystal ball, and LSAC has provided them with one: the overlap report. These are such highly secret documents that I have in fact never seen one, but I've heard of them. Based on what I've heard, they look approximately like this. Schools use overlap reports plus historical data to predict how many seats they'll fill.
The Spy Eye on the Wait List
In the meantime, you're stuck here, powerless, wondering what's going on in that office. You call, and they don't tell you anything. Well, I'll try to ease your burden.
Once or twice a week, the admissions officer reviews the dailies -- a list that is updated daily, thus its name. It shows a summary of how many people paid a deposit. It shows them by race, sex, age, college, major, location, and anything else the admissions office tracks. It shows how many haven't paid a deposit, how many withdrew, etc. And it shows breakdowns of gpa and LSAT -- median, 25th percentile, 75th percentile.
So let's pretend the admissions officer looks this week. Her deposit deadline was April 1. She was looking for 400 first deposits to fill a class of 320. She only has 390 deposits. Time to look at more files.
She pulls out her daily report. She doesn't like the gender balance and the regional balance -- too many local people. She reviews the files of a dozen nonresident females. Okay, this one looks interesting. Now plug the gpa and LSAT into a program. Oops! She brings our 25th percentile LSAT down a point! Let's try this one instead. Okay, now the numbers look good. But she really liked person number one. Maybe if she admits these three she'll be okay. Ah, yes! The LSAT holds, the median gpa goes up by .02, all is well with the world. Pick up the phone and see if they're interested in a seat.
This is what the law school means when they say, "The wait list isn't ranked; we use it to balance out our class."