Does submitting an early law school application improve your chances?

Law School Admissions

Applying EarlyDoes submitting your law school application early improve your chances of admission?

When I was getting ready to apply to law school a few years ago, I remember very clearly checking on the dates that applications opened at each of the schools I was interested in, and anxiously waiting for those dates to arrive.  I figured that if I applied early on in the process, I was giving myself the best possible shot at being accepted.  After all, everywhere I looked on line the message was the same: apply as early as you can, apply today!  Actually, apply yesterday, because if you don’t, then all hope is surely lost.

To be honest, having your applications ready to go on day one is not the worst idea in the world, for reasons wholly unrelated to whether or not it improves your chances of admission.  First, I’m generally just a proponent of getting things done early rather than later, because who knows what might happen a week from now that will prevent you from getting that application finished?  If you have the time now, why not use it?  Second, it’s a great way to spend that anxiety-ridden period between taking the LSAT and getting the results.  I know for me, it helped keep my mind occupied on something other than a score I no longer had any control over.  But, does applying early actually have any effect on whether or not you’re admitted to a given law school? 

The answer to that question – as is so often the case in life – is “it depends.”  Based on statistical analysis I have done on applicant-reported data on Law School Numbers from people applying to the US News and World Report’s top 100 law schools, applying earlier is much more important if you’re gunning for the top 14 law schools, and far less important if you’re not (you’ll find a more detailed description of the data and methodology I used at the bottom of this article, if you’re interested).  Controlling for a variety of other factors we might expect to affect admissions outcomes, T14 applicants on the whole see about a 34% increased chance of admission for each earlier month they apply (September application vs. October application, for example), while the effect outside the T14 is statistically insignificant when considering the rest of the T100 law schools as a whole. 

One thing to keep in mind, however: even for schools for which there does seem to be an advantage to applying earlier, applicants would be advised to make sure their applications are the best they can be before hitting “send” on them.  In other words, rushing through an application and doing a poor job with it in order to get yourself a boost by applying earlier is a very ill-advised strategy.  While my analysis can control for factors such as LSAT scores and undergraduate GPAs, it cannot control for the overall quality of the application, including components like the personal statement or recommendations, and law schools do take these components seriously.  The last thing you want to do is send an application with a poorly written personal statement because you wanted to get it in earlier.  Another important point regards LSAT retakes.  I have often heard applicants say that they have foregone retaking the LSAT because they felt like getting their application in earlier was more important.  This flies directly in the face of what my data shows to be the correct approach.  Even for schools which do seem to give a boost for earlier applications, this boost is often offset by as little as one extra point on the LSAT.  So, if you know that you can improve your LSAT score and still get your application in for the cycle, then you should absolutely do that.

Before continuing, I should note once again that although I am able to control for a variety of vital factors such as LSAT and GPA (among others), I cannot control for other important components of an application, such as the quality of the applicant’s personal statement, letters of recommendation, and resume.  Some law school admissions experts point out that the “higher quality” applicants tend to apply earlier in the cycle, so some of the “boost” I find for applying earlier may be due to higher-quality letters of recommendation and personal statements (although, as I mentioned, not higher LSAT scores or GPAs, which I account for in my statistical model) , rather than the simple fact that the candidate applied earlier.  There are two potential upshots of this realization: (1) the early-application boost I find may not be the result only of the application being submitted earlier and (2) make sure your application is as good as you can possibly make it before submitting!

Following is more detailed analysis of the T14 and the rest of the T100, including numbers for schools outside the T14 where applying earlier does seem to make a difference.  I have also included the increased odds of admission for each additional LSAT point, so you can compare that boost with the earlier application boost.

Top 14 Law Schools

Of the Top 14 law schools, the data for all schools except Yale (whose admissions process is very unique) demonstrate an advantage to applying earlier rather than later.  That’s right: 13 out of the T14 seem to provide a boost for applying earlier.  This is probably the natural result of rolling admissions processes at schools with highly competitive admissions criteria and many more applicants than available spots.  As spots fill up, fewer spots remain, and the competition gets a bit stiffer as the cycle progresses.  In any case, the following table lists those schools in descending order of boost, along with the school’s LSAT boost.

Table 1: Increased Chances of Admission for Earlier Applications, T14

School:

% Increase for Each Earlier Month Applied

% Increase for Each Additional LSAT Point

University of Chicago

129%

64%

UC Berkeley

47%

28%

University of Michigan

44%

43%

University of Virginia

41%

56%

University of Pennsylvania

39%

55%

Northwestern

33%

69%

Cornell

30%

74%

Stanford

23%

41%

Harvard

22%

65%

Georgetown

21%

83%

New York University

20%

103%

Columbia

20%

77%

Duke

14%

120%

So, controlling for other factors, the increased chances of admission for a September vs. October application (or October vs. November, etc.) ranges from 14% at Duke to a whopping 129% at Chicago.  So, getting that application in earlier to these schools can get you a bit of an edge in terms of being accepted.  However, at all schools except Chicago, Berkeley, and Michigan, even a 1 point increase on the LSAT will have a greater effect on your chances than applying a month earlier.  So, while it’s great to get your application in as early as possible, if you think you could raise your LSAT score a few points on a retake, it definitely offsets any delay in applying. 

The Rest of the Top 100

For the vast majority of the schools in the T100 outside the T14, there is no statistically significant advantage to applying earlier (although each of the schools does show a statistically significant advantage to higher LSAT scores and GPAs).  In fact, of the 75 schools* for which we had sufficient data to analyze, only 6 schools demonstrated any kind of advantage for applying early (8%, compared to 93% of T14 schools), and five schools actually seem to disadvantage earlier applications!  The following table mirrors the table from above for the rest of the T100 schools which show some effect – positive or negative – of earlier applications.

Table 2: Increased Odds of Admission for Earlier Applications, the Rest of the T100

School:

% Increase for Each Earlier Month Applied

% Increase for Each Additional LSAT Point

Indiana University - Indianapolis

82%

80%

SUNY Buffalo

45%

46%

Arizona State University

42%

94%

Lewis & Clark

32%

40%

University of Denver

32%

56%

Washington & Lee

18%

53%

George Washington University

-10%

61%

Boston College

-16%

41%

University of Maryland

-20%

44%

Pepperdine

-26%

70%

Chicago-Kent

-30%

72%

Again, for every school except SUNY Buffalo, the advantage of applying in an earlier month is more than offset by a 1 point increase in the LSAT score.  In terms of why earlier applicants seem to be disadvantaged for some schools, I can only speculate that some schools may end up overestimating the quality of any given year’s applicant pool, and as the cycle goes on, criteria loosen up a bit.  That, as I said, is only speculation.  I should also note that I controlled for whether applicants applied as binding early decision (ED) candidates, so the effects of an earlier application and an ED application are independently measurable.

General Takeaways

So, there you have it!  If I were going to list the points I would take away from this entire discussion, they would be the following:

  • No matter what, make sure the application you send is your best. Don’t skimp on any part of the application to get it in earlier!
  • If you feel that you could score several points higher on an LSAT retake, prioritize that over applying earlier.
  • Once you have a full application package that you think is your best (including your recommendations and personal statement), send it as early as possible to any schools you’ll be applying to in the T14, as well as any schools from Table 2 that demonstrate an advantage to applying earlier.
  • Regarding the schools that seem to disadvantage earlier apps: if you’re already an otherwise strong candidate for these schools, I can’t imagine sending the app earlier will be a deal breaker. Perhaps if you’re a more borderline candidate, though, waiting a bit later in the cycle might be helpful.

Data and Methodology

The data I used for this analysis was applicant-reported data from Law School Numbers for the 2009/10 through 2015/16 application cycles.  You must keep in mind that this data comes from applicants, and not the schools themselves.  Although I have done my best to clean up the data and eliminate clearly erroneous or fraudulent entries, any reading of my analysis must take into account the imperfect nature of the data I worked with.

The analysis I have done here is for each earlier month applied, as opposed to each month earlier applied.  In other words, I am comparing September vs. October applications, October vs. November, etc., and not the effect of applying 30 days earlier.  In other words, applications sent on September 1 and September 30 are both treated as September applications, and applications sent on October 1 and October 31 are both treated as October applications, and so forth.

I analyzed the effects of earlier applications by running logistic regressions, treating a decision outcome (acceptance or rejection) as the dependent variable (I eliminated all applications for which the ultimate status was unknown from the data).  In running these regressions, I controlled for an applicant’s LSAT score, undergraduate GPA, underrepresented minority status, nontraditional status, sex, and whether or not the applicant applied through an early binding decision process.  I did not, and based on the data could not, control for other important factors, such as the overall quality of the application, applicants’ resumes, or the quality of an applicant’s undergraduate institution.

* There were insufficient data to perform analysis for the following schools: BYU, Villanova, the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, St. Louis University, the University of New Hampshire, the University of Arkansas, Rutgers – New Jersey, the University of Hawaii, the University of South Carolina, Wayne State, the University of West Virginia, and Florida International University.

Image Paris Clocks courtesy of Nick.

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