Law school admissions work differently from admission at many undergrad schools. Instead, law schools have a long window where you can apply, typically beginning around October and lasting until February or later.

Rather than making decisions all at once, law schools continuously “roll” out decisions in batches over the entire application period. Hence the name “rolling admissions” However, the typical practice is to have accepted enough student to fill their class long before the application deadline approaches, at which point there is often already a substantial waiting list. Because of this, it is best to apply early when there is fewer applicants competing for more spots, rather than later when spots are running out.

In this post we explain why it works this way and how you can make sure you are in okay shape to get a seat at the law school of your choice. We also discuss how falling applications in recent years are changing the game for the 2013-2014 cycle.

Why do Law Schools Do Rolling Admissions?

Rolling admissions has obvious practical appeal because law schools don’t have to consider everyone all at once and they can tweak things as they learn who wishes to attend and who doesn’t.

The other big reason for rolling admissions is that it helps law schools get the most applications possible. This allows them to increase their selectivity and maintain a lower acceptance rate (the ratio of students offered acceptance to those applying). This acceptance rate is important to law schools, which are ranked in the all-important US News and World Report rankings partly on the basis of this acceptance rate.

Also, law schools want plain and simple to get the best student’s possible. By keeping the window open, they have a last chance to snap up any very strong applicants who apply late because of taking the December LSAT or other reasons. Lower ranked schools may be able to get these students because there are no longer spots available at higher ranked schools that typically would have accepted such an applicant earlier in the cycle.

The Ever Narrowing Door of Rolling Admissions

This is a big thing to understand about rolling admissions is that just because the door is still open, it’s getting smaller all the time. Though they keep admissions open for the reasons discussed above, their biggest incentive is accept a lot of students early so they know as soon as possible how many are coming and can fill the classrooms.

Rarely do law school look at an applicant that is good enough for them and think “hey, what if someone better comes along?” Law schools don’t have FOMO. If someone is good enough, they generally offer them a spot.

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Yield Protection- The one exception to this is something called yield protection. Often an applicant with really good numbers for a school (~75th percentile or better) might get waitlisted at first rather than accepted outright. This is because the school thinks it’s likely that this applicant is going to go to a higher ranked school. They will wait to hear some sort of expression from the applicant of genuine interest in attending before making a final decision. If you have really great numbers for a school and this happens to you, don’t fret. You are actually probably in a good position to get a scholarship if you get in touch with the school and express heavy interest in going there. We will be posting about negotiating scholarships as the 2013-2014 admission cycle approaches.

In fact it is usually the case that by the time the admissions deadline approaches a law school has already accepted nearly everyone they need to fill that year’s class. That means there are almost no spots or none at all left, and you are competing over any spots with everyone who has applied late and also to some extent with everyone who has been waitlisted (some of whom are often well-qualified yield protect applicants). As such, applying very late will often keep you out of a school that you could have gotten into.

So when is too late? Let’s discuss the specifics of timing your applications to law school:

When Should You Submit Your Law School Applications?

First off, I don’t want you thinking you have to be camping out at the post office to get your app in first. This is not going to give you any advantage. As stated before admissions go out in batches. Generally schools don’t send any acceptances in the first couple of month, and often not until December.

Generally the best thing to do is get the application out in the first two months that it is available. This is typically September and October for most schools. This will almost always mean you are being considered for the first batch of admissions that a school sends out.

If you are taking the October LSAT don’t worry that you are seriously handicapping yourself by getting your application in come November. This is still plenty early and the majority of spots are still unspoken for.

Now things get a little more complicated: common wisdom used to be that you wanted to get your applications in before Thanksgiving, after which your chances of success started decreasing steadily. December was viewed as pretty okay but any later and you were seriously handicapping yourself. However, things are a little different now.

acceptedBecause applications are so far down in the past couple of years, it is likely that applying later will not hurt you as much.

Applications are way way down in the past few years (Check out a NY Times article here discussing this and how it might be to your advantage). The same number of law schools are competing over a significantly smaller applicant pool and will be struggling to get enough applicants with the numbers they want. If you are a strong applicant for a school, I would expect that you could still have a lot of success far into the cycle, meaning December, January, or possibly even later.

That said, applying early is still the safe way to make sure that you have the best possible chances. Please don’t read this and decide to just put off apps until late December for no discernible reason other than laziness. This information should really only be a difference maker forĀ  people who may wish to retake the LSAT in December or have reasons why they cannot take it a first time until then. Whereas in the past you have to factor the significant timing disadvantage into your decision, there is good reason to believe this is a much, much smaller issue in this cycle.

Still try to avoid applying very near to a school’s deadlines if it is at all possible. When this is exactly varies quite a bit from school to school so do your research.

Gathering More Information

Remember that to get the details on a specific school’s admissions process the best thing to do is first check the school’s website. Also, forums such as TLS are a great place to get information as well. Search the forums for a thread on last year’s admission cycle at that school and you can see the timing of when they sent out admissions.

Another great resource is a book from someone who actually knows the admissions process from the inside. I recommend the new edition of the well known guide The Law School Admission Game. The author Anne Levine is herself a former dean of two law schools. She gives you a good peek inside her process when she was in charge of admissions decisions, including her take on the applications timeline.

Also check out this post which gives more recommendations for law school admissions resources.

As always let us know on twitter @onlawschool if you have any more questions about admissions timing or have specific questions about your situation. Good luck!