Applying to Law School: To Early Decision or Not to Early Decision

    Law School Admissions

    Law School Applications: Should you ED or not ED? Being a law school applicant is a tougher job than most people probably think.  The first and most obvious obstacle to overcome is the LSAT, which is a real (though very slayable) beast.  Once armed with an LSAT score, however, a whole new set of stressors emerge, as a future law student starts the law school application process.  Part of this process necessarily involves winnowing down the 200+ schools into a realistic and manageable list of those that she would like to attend and to which she has a reasonable shot at admission.  Often, part of an applicant’s calculation is whether to apply through a school’s early binding decision (ED) process. But, are some schools more ED friendly than others? It appears so.

    Currently, more than 25 law schools offer an ED option, and the general idea is this: if you are completely in love with one of these schools and absolutely sure you would attend if you were admitted, you can apply as an ED applicant.  The typical ED application will receive an expedited review and an expedited admissions decision, which for some applicants means an expedited chance to start working out the logistics of their next three years (many applicants rejected at the ED stage are placed on “hold” and reconsidered along with the rest of the applicant pool as “normal” applications later).  The flip-side of all this goodness, though, is a serious restriction of flexibility.  If an applicant submits an ED application to School X and is accepted, then that applicant must turn down all acceptances from other schools and attend School X (or not go to law school at all that year). 

    While the schools themselves typically claim that ED applicants will be reviewed along the same criteria as all other applicants (sad face), they also usually note that the admissions committee will consider the applicant’s demonstrated enthusiasm for the school during review of the application (happy face!).  Many law students interpret this as a wink-wink nod-nod type of hedging: “We’re not making any promises, but . . .”   In other words, many law students believe they absolutely will give themselves a leg up by submitting an ED application, and this is especially true for law students who believe they are long-shots for a particular school.  (I should note that this analysis does not apply to some ED programs.  Schools such as Northwestern, George Washington University, the University of Texas, Emory, and Boston University offer substantial - sometimes full – scholarships to students accepted through their ED programs.  The calculation in applying ED to these schools is obviously much different and they are theoretically likely harder to get into as an ED applicant, rather than easier.)   

    The question of which schools do seem to offer a “boost” to ED applicants is one which is heavily discussed amongst law students and applicants, and can create a lot of anxiety and indecision for an applicant.  Since I remember all too well what that feels like, I have done some analysis to try to help answer this question.  In doing so, I have used applicant-reported data from Law School Numbers from the 2009-2010 application cycle through the 2015-2016 application cycle (so, seven years’ worth of data).  I have cleaned it up to make it as reliable as possible, but it should be kept in mind that this data does not come from the schools themselves, but instead from law school applicants who have reported a variety of factors (LSAT, GPA, underrepresented minority status, nontraditional student status, the timing of the application, and applicant’s sex) as well as admissions decisions.  Due to the imperfect nature of the data, it’s important to take this analysis with a grain of salt.

    The results that follow are based on logistical regression analysis that uses the admissions decision – accept or reject – as the dependent variable.  Our variable of interest, of course, is whether or not ED applications demonstrate an independent effect on whether an applicant is accepted or rejected.  The analysis controls for a number of other factors which we would expect to affect an admissions decision:  the applicants’ LSAT score, undergraduate GPA, sex, whether the applicant falls under an “underrepresented minority” category, whether an applicant is a non-traditional student, and the month in which the application was sent.  Factors that are impossible to quantify (and for which I have no data anyway) such as the quality of an applicant’s resume, personal statement, or academic/professional references, are not controlled for.

    So, without further ado, we have The Lists.  Numbers in parentheses in List One indicate the increased chances of admission my data shows for ED applicants (as opposed to regular decision applicants).  The numbers in parentheses in List Two indicate the decreased chances of admission shown for ED applications.  The schools in List Three demonstrate no statistically significant effect of ED applications.  Unfortunately, there was not enough data available to analyze the effect of ED applications for Washington University in St. Louis, Indiana University – Bloomington, The University of Colorado, or the University of Maryland.

    List One: Schools that Seem to Have an ED Boost

    1. Northwestern (626% - this is very surprising, given the full scholarship that accompanies admission)
    2. The University of Chicago (767%)
    3. Duke (553%)
    4. The University of Virginia (192%)
    5. The University of Pennsylvania (208%)

    List Two: Schools that Seem to Have an ED Penalty

    1. Emory ( -94% chance)
    2. George Washington University (-79% chance)
    3. New York University ( -52% chance)

    The inclusion of George Washington University and Emory on this list makes perfect sense.  Given the sizeable scholarships ED applicants receive at these schools, one would expect the ED process to be competitive.  The same can't be said for NYU, and I'm not sure I completely understand why they would be more likely to reject ED applicants than regular decision applicants with identical characteristics.  I should point out that the data set for Emory is necessarily smaller than for other schools, since only includes data from the 2012/13 application cycle (when Emory started its ED program) onward.

    List Three:  Schools that Seem to Treat ED Applications No Differently

    • George Mason
    • Columbia
    • The University of Michigan
    • Cornell
    • Georgetown
    • The University of Texas
    • The University of California at Los Angeles
    • The University of Minnesota
    • The University of Southern California
    • Boston University
    • The University of Washington
    • The University of Georgia
    • The University of Wisconsin
    • The University of Colorado

    So what's the bottom line?  Great question.  Based on this analysis (and, one last time, you have to remember that it's based on applicant-reported and incomplete data), I would say:

    Schools that may be worth an ED application: Applying ED to Chicago or UVA might not be a bad idea, if you're absolutely sure that you want to attend (and doubt you'd get in as an RD applicant). An ED to Northwestern seems like an especially good idea if you're either sure you want to attend, or think you're unlikely to get into more attractive options, since you appear to be more likely to get in as an ED applicant (for some reason), and it comes with that full scholarship.  If you're sure you want to go to Duke or the University of Pennsylvania, it does seem like an ED application might give you a better shot.  Finally, if you’re not interested in applying ED elsewhere instead, it may also be worth it to apply ED to the University of Texas, Boston University, George Washington University, or Emory; although none give you any kind of increased chance of admission (and GW and Emory each give you a decreased chance of admission as an early applicant), they do offer substantial scholarships and/or other benefits to ED admits.

    Schools that are probably NOT worth an ED application:  I would not waste an ED app to any of the schools on List Two, since you don't seem any more likely to be admitted than if you applied RD (so why waste your one ED application or otherwise tie your hands?) or NYU, which the data indicates is less likely to admit ED applicants.


    Daniel Plainview is a pseudonym, but in the near past he was a law school applicant just like you. He originally wrote this article several years ago for his own site, and kindly updated the original article with new data for PowerScore students.

    Photo "Puzzling" courtesy of John Hritz.