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Is it important to be first in line?

The Story of Top-Down Admissions

Let's step back inside the admissions office for a few minutes. Applications are generally available online in August, and schools begin receiving completed applications around October 1. At many law schools, files are not reviewed in order of the date they're received.  Instead, they're reviewed by index number.

So imagine the admissions officer coming into the office on a Monday morning. She stops at her assistant's desk on the way in and says, "Bring me some files, will you, Pat?"  (All administrative assistants, whether male or female, seem to be named Pat.)  Pat brings in the stack with the highest index numbers -- 216-220 using the "10 to 1" scale (i.e., ten times your grades plus your LSAT score).  Our admissions officer skims the files for serious problems, then okays the acceptance.  The next batch has a slightly lower index number. Maybe by the end of the day we've moved through all the numbers from 220 down to 210.

Now we go to Tuesday morning.  Our admissions officer doesn't start at 209. Instead, she starts at 220 all over again!  More files were completed yesterday, and more top people have to be admitted fast, so we can woo them. If it's been a slow week, she may get lower down in the stack -- say, 204.   By Thursday she's down to your number, a 200.  Does she admit you?  No!  She sets it aside until she has more 200s to compare you to, or until she sees how many 208s she has.  

A few of you will be admitted -- the ones with split grades or LSAT scores, or those of you with diversity factors the school wants -- military experience, varsity sports, geographic diversity.  The rest of you get set aside.

 The lower your index number, the more often you get set aside -- if you're lucky.  If you're unlucky, there was a problem in your file -- a weak school, an arrest, or just a sloppy or dull essay -- and you get rejected now.  

For instance, one poor client had a 3.5, a 170, and is a minority, although not a destitute one.  He applied to Chicago back in October.  In December he was told that he'd been deferred, and would be reviewed again in March.  Another, with a 4.0 and a 166, applied binding early decision.  He too was deferred. Then in March he heard that he'd been deferred until April.  I'm telling you, children, early does not help if you're not selling what they're buying.  

That's the story of top-down admissions.  Lower index numbers mean longer waits to hear. So, as I've said before, early apps help a small portion of applicants, but not the ones waiting to hear from dream schools.

Will there be Top Numbers Later?

Many people believe that everyone with high numbers applies early, so you will inevitably be next in line. But that's not true; as more law schools take the highest LSAT score, more people with high grades and low LSATs retake the LSAT; look at this graph!

LSAT Takers increase, 2006-2009

As the number of applicants remains constant, the number of test takers (and therefore of high LSAT scores) increases, so schools will wait for later apps, just in case. And many people win the LSAT lottery late and apply later -- LSAC says so, right here:

graph of applicants by ethnic group and date of applcation

(That's one of those pages you can't link to directly. Go to http://members.lsac.org/
Public/MainPage.aspx?ReturnUrl=%2fPrivate%2fMainPage2.aspx, then Data -- National Applicant Trends.)

For some reason, white applicants with high grades applied late, in enormous numbers. The most likely reason is that they retook the LSAT, then waited for the score, then applied. Even if their LSAT score didn't improve, the higher gpa will give them a higher index number. And if the retake DID pay off, they'll have a much higher number -- and your file will get set aside for theirs once again.

So the admissions game has changed quite a bit since 2005 or so, when the ABA started accepting the highest LSAT score instead of the average score, and the bulk of that change focuses on grabbing high LSAT scores, then high grades, and letting lower numbers wait until the school's medians are solid.

What does that mean for you?  If your numbers are in a range that the admissions officer knows she will be admitting, you'll be admitted whether you apply early or late. Conversely, if your numbers are far from the school's medians, early won't help.  Many an applicant applies before Thanksgiving and hears in May. Or June. Or July.

 So why do schools always say apply early?  Because their view of admissions differs from yours.

Sample Applicant Pool by Index Number

This grid represents no particular school. When I made it up in 2000, it was UCLA's applicant pool; now UCLA has twice this many applicants, and the grid above more closely resembles Wash. U's or Minnesota's -- a school with about 4,000 applicants, which makes over 800 offers to fill 250 seats. Virtually everyone with an index number of 204 --an LSAT of 166 and GPA of 3.8 or so -- is admitted. Below that, the applicant pool increases sharply, but the number of offers remains fairly constant for the next 6 or 8 points, then decreases sharply.

  • Unless the school has a "Why Us?" essay, everyone who applied with a high index number is admitted, no matter how late they apply.
  • Of the applicants in the solid discretionary range, about 1/2 are admitted. These people no longer need to apply early. The school knows that it will take a bunch of them, and instead of competing for them with several schools with which it has an overlapping applicant pool -- like Minnesota and Wash. U., for instance -- these people most likely get wait listed; then we see if they're still interested in May or June.
  • Everyone who applied with an index number below 196 waited a long time to be reviewed, no matter how early they applied.
  • If there is any kind of problem in your file, you will not be admitted early no matter when you apply. 
So the schools tell you to apply early to help them.  They can admit you, wine and dine you, offer you scholarships, and get you into a binding contract, so they can guarantee their median before they look at the "also rans."

Early Decision?

I spend a lot of time saying "early decision is a fake."  Oh, most schools who advertise them really do admit some people from them.  (Most?  Not all?  How about, "all who didn't lose their dean of admissions suddenly"?)  But admissions officers tend to admit presumptive admits early.  The rest of you get postponed until March.  

But they promised you a decision?  Oh yes, you'll get one.  The decision will be "We've decided to postpone..."  Unfair?  Or just thinking like a lawyer?  I have no opinion on the fairness of it; I only tell you the rules.  So don't worry about early decision unless you're sure you want to go to that school, and need to settle in soon so your kids can start school, spouse can find a new job, etc.

Of the schools that talk about early decisions, only a few have programs that are binding. The rest are what undergrad schools call "early action:"  if you apply early, you'll hear early.  That makes a lot of sense in the undergrad game, where most schools don't have rolling admissions, but most law schools do roll, so early action looks a lot like regular admissions, especially when what you hear might be, "We'll get back to you in three months."

So what am I saying here?  I'm saying that if your file is complete before December 1, your chance of being admitted is about exactly the same whether or not you checked a little box labeled "early decision."  The early date might be helpful; the little box isn't.  On the other hand, schools are filling up early, and it is helpful to have a good file complete early.  

Caveat: I said a GOOD file. A bad application hurts you, whether you file it in October or in May. So spend another week reading about how to apply, then another week doing what the web page says, instead of sending a poor app now. Get your file as perfect as you can as early as you can, then hope for declining apps after you apply.

"Is December Too Late?"

Why doesn't anyone ever give a simple answer to this simple question?  

The reason we rely on platitudes is that a comprehensive answer is incredibly complicated, and in the end amounts to nothing more than "I don't know."  

The first thing we can tell you, most definitely, is that fewer than half of all apps are submitted by December 1. Application volumes reach the midpoint after January 1, even at a school with a Feb. 1 deadline. In 2009, UCLA reported receiving 2,000 apps, or about 1/4 of their total application volume, on the last day! Here's a pretty typical app volume timeline for a school with a Feb. 1 deadline.

apps per year

Note that 1% of apps are received after the deadline. Very few schools actually refuse apps after deadline, although the app has to really stand out to earn a seat when 99% are filled.

Application volumes can have an effect on whether an early app has a greater chance of admission. As the number of apps vacillates, percentages admitted will be adjusted up and down to compensate. But as the grid above shows, most apps are received in the last two weeks before a school's deadline, so no one really knows whether your application will have a better chance of being accepted early or later until after the school's deadline.

So why does everyone always say "apply early"?  Because your app will get a better review early.  In December, an admissions officer may see an arrest record or a poor semester, ask "What's going on here?" and place the file on hold.  In March, (s)he may look at the same file and simply toss it in the rejection stack.

Predicting the Future

Doesn't the admissions officer, or Law Services, or someone, know whether apps are increasing or decreasing?

Law Services reports applications volumes nationally, but they vary enormously by school. Between 2008 and 2010, apps had increased by 1% nationally. But LSAC reported that at least one school (Cornell) had an increase of more than 50% , while others had apps decrease.  So Forum attendance and test takers may predict overall trends, but they're useless for predicting what's happening at a particular school.

Chart comparing Law Forum Attendance to application volume

Nonetheless, Law Forums are a bit like the stock market; high numbers make admissions officers optimistic, and low numbers male them pessimistic. So when Forum attendance is up, what looked like a good index number last year will be set aside this year, to see what floats in on the higher tide. Conversely, when Forum attendance is down, anyone with last year's medians will be snatched up as quickly as possible.

Bad and Good Advice

If a prelaw advisor suggests that you take an earlier LSAT instead of a later one when you don't think you're ready, you're getting bad advice.  If (s)he tells you to send your file in early without an LSAT score, or to rush your essays, you're getting bad advice.  And if you can't get an appointment with a prelaw advisor until your senior year (or at all), you're getting bad advice.

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