Many law schools seek demographic diversity in their student body. They may be looking for people from different parts of the country, from a more rural environment, from particular states or from foreign countries. By applying to a place that's different from where you grew up, you may be able to be accepted at a slightly more competitive school. In general, geographic diversity is worth two or three index points; when combined with a good personal statement about your background, that number can double.
East Side, West Side
The extremes of geographic diversity -- from east coast to west, or vice-versa -- are worth very little in the admissions process. New York and Los Angeles appeal to many of the same people. Applicants from both coasts can gain diversity points by applying to schools in the middle of the country, however. And applicants from the midwest have a competitive advantage at schools on either coast.
Yankees and Rebels
Northern schools often seek southerners for their diversity. Southern schools are much less likely to seek northerners, especially if the school is publicly funded. Southern schools which are private institutions, such as Emory and SMU, recruit fairly vigorously in the north. Some southern schools actively seek northern applicants, offering them hefty scholarships in order to compete with the allure of New York and Boston.
"Not With Our Money!"
With this battle cry, legislatures often hoard the seats they paid for, reserving them for residents. Many states require their law schools to reserve 3/4 of their seats for residents; a few demand that 90% of the student body be residents of the state.
This tendency to keep seats for residents is primarily a southern phenomenon (although the California legislature "recommends" that 3/4 of the students be residents). Tennessee requires that 80% of all students be residents, while Georgia demands a hefty 85% resident component in its law student body. Since most top southern schools are state-funded, this limits the opportunities for applicants from the north, or even from neighboring southern states. Conversely, many northern state schools, such as Temple, Ohio State, Oregon and Colorado, actively seek a national student body. Southern applicants do well applying to northern schools. But Connecticut is part of a New England agreement to give tuition breaks to residents of neighboring states. As a result, applicants from Vermont, Massachusetts and New Hampshire vie for so many seats that others have little chance of acceptance.
My big data-gathering effort in 2003 was on the proportion of residents and nonresidents at various state schools. I used the data to construct separate resident and nonresident grids for my data base for a number of schools. However, I'm willing to pass on the general news for free.
Washington, DC, is neither northern nor southern; it draws applicants from both with equal ease. Since it is not part of any state, there are no state legislators protecting their turf. To the applicant, this means that no one has an advantage, and no one has a disadvantage. However, it also means that everyone wants to go there. About one applicant out of seven applies to Georgetown, George Washington, or both. About one in three apply to a law school in the DC area.
Life in the Fast Lane
Both urban and rural residents apply to schools in suburban areas. Villanova is close enough to Philly to satisfy the urbanites, and far enough from it for people who worry about crime and traffic. But Philadelphians rarely seek the idyllic peace that Vermont Law School offers, and North Dakotans rarely look to leave their mountains for New York's chaos. Applicants seeking an extreme demographic change may have an advantage in the applicant pool for this reason. But that advantage carries with it a burden: you should show the admissions committee that you know what you're getting yourself into. If you're planning to leave Mouth of Wilson, VA for Los Angeles, be prepared to explain to the fine folks at USC how you plan to survive there.
Many law schools advertise their diversity, proclaiming residents of 49 states and 200 colleges. I always imagine someone in the admissions office with a checklist, saying, "Who do we have from Arkansas?" So if you happen to be from Arkansas, you might want to look for law schools that make such proclamations. Who knows, they might be looking for you.
Did you know...?
That more than half of all law school applicants come from the east coast -- or, to be more precise, the Eastern time zone? Another 10% come from the remaining few states east of the Mississippi. In fact, nearly 2/3 of all applicants claim states of residence east of the Mississippi. The proportion of law schools east of the Mississippi is almost identical.
What does it mean?
I don't know yet, except that I can predict when I can reach the LSAC web site by figuring out when the east coast isn't online. But I suspect it has a lot to do with why state schools in Oregon, Colorado and Nebraska want nonresidents.