In the past few months, I have talked about the law school admissions process: see here and here. BW&V is asking law students with personal knowledge of admissions offices using specific gaming tactics to comment on his blog. Some of the comments are very interesting, including the one about Marquette, where I teach!
Therefore, this post is dedicated to trying to explain those weird admissions stories and to give advice on how not to be gamed.
1. They asked me to apply, but then they didn't accept me.
Why would this happen? Well, law schools invite people to apply who have the same indicators as the previous class. So, if students with your LSAT/gpa were admitted last year, then you might be invited to apply or even given a free application. However, remember two things: (1) Just because students with your LSAT/gpa were admitted does not mean that ALL of them were. Most law schools have a huge chunk of applicants with virtually the same LSAT/gpa. From those, some percentage are admitted during the discretionary review process (more later). So, just because you are invited to apply does not mean that you will be admitted. (2) For the past four years or so, applications have increased at most schools. Partly due to the soft BA-degree job market (more applicants overall) and partly due to the ease of online applications (more applications from same number of applicants), this increase in applications has enabled many schools to be more selective every year. So, applicants with your numbers may have been admitted last year, but this year the law school had a 20% surge in applications and were more selective.
2. Don't you think they just invited me to apply to boost their numbers?
The cynical assumption underlying Question #1 is that law schools report their "Selectivity" numbers to USNWR, so law schools want to increase applications with full knowledge that more applications means better selectivity numbers but not more admits. I have also heard these stories. I have heard stories that admissions officers send out applications to anyone and waive applications fees to produce more applicants. I am sure it happens. I think this quest for selectivity also reveals itself more subtly. Say you really want to go to School A. Your LSAT/gpa is below the mean, and you don't have anything else but your passion for School A to recommend you. You call the admissions office and ask what your chances are. Unless School A is a top, top school that cares not about USNWR, the admissions officer is never going to tell you not to apply. The admissions officer will tell you that your file will receive individual attention and some number of students are accepted every year based on the quality of their entire application. You will not be told to not waste your time. The admissions officer is not doing this to get your $50 application fee; your application is worth more than that in terms of the selectivity percentage.
3. I got into a higher-ranked school, but not a lower-ranked school; how can that be?
In the comments at BW&V, there are two anecdotes of students admitted to large, public schools with higher rankings, but not to smaller, Jesuit schools. First, some background on the admissions process. At most schools, students with numbers above "X" are automatically admitted, and students with numbers below "Y" are automatically denied. Some students in the Y group may be pulled up if an admissions officer feels the file warrants review because of particular reasons. Students in the X group may be pulled down for particular reasons, generally "Character and Fitness" issues. Of all students who are not automatically sorted, the rest are viewed by the committee, usually in panels. These files are admitted or denied largely on idiosyncratic reasons. Some committee members may look at the numbers, the major, the undergraduate school, volunteer service, work experience, or life experience. Most members will look at a combination, but some focus on certain factors more than others. In this pile, most law students will have nearly interchangeable numbers. If you wind up in this middle pile at two schools that are in two different tiers, you may very well wind up in a situation where you are admitted at the higher-ranked school and not the lower-ranked school due to the idiosyncratic nature of discretionary review. In addition, larger schools also automatically admit more of their class because they cannot look through all the files, so that may also give you an advantage. Larger schools also admit more students more quickly because their process is more streamlined and they can accept a larger margin of error in terms of yield. If the entering class is usually 500, then they can take a risk that their expected yield will be higher or lower. If the entering class is 150, then the process may take longer because the process of building a class is a slower, more careful process.
Another factor to consider: you may be denied at the lower-ranked school down the street because you were the thousandth polisci major to apply from your institution. Schools like to have a class from different undergraduate institutions from different regions.
3. My character and fitness issues sank me at a religiously-affiliated school.
I doubt it. Different schools handle character and fitness issues differently. Some schools may delegate the power to analyze the issue to an admissions officer, but at our school these issues are brought to the full committee where a vote is taken if the applicant is an automatic admit. If the applicant is in the middle pile, then the panel assigned to the file lumps that information in with all the other information. Because the committee profile changes from year to year, the tenor of the inquiry may also change from year to year. In my experience, minor college infractions will be largely ignored -- minor in possession, public urination, even streaking. However, if the infraction happened recently or was part of a trend (four alcohol-related offenses, for instance), then the committee might look unkindly at that. Also, an applicant's description of the event can sink the file. If an applicant is explaining a minor infraction, but takes no responsibility and blames others, particularly the police, then that will not look good for an applicant. I also think that a different result could arise if the issue were decided by a non-lawyer admissions officer as compared to a faculty member. Certain infractions might be ignored by an admissions officer in his or her 20s, but not by a faculty member in his or her 50s who knows that "disorderly conduct" citations usually arise when college students are belligerent and disrespectful. So, the difference in treatment of fitness issues may be more large school/small school than public/religious.
4. So, what can I do next year?
First, apply early. Law schools have rolling deadlines and start accepting once they have a critical mass of applications. At larger schools, this probably happens more quickly than at small schools. Especially if you think that you will be around the median of the application pool. You would prefer to be the first polisci major from StateU that the admissions committee sees, rather than the thousandth. At private schools, as the committee watches the number of admissions and the yield, the standards may be tightened in March or April. Yes, the standards may be loosened as well, but you will be at the top of the waitlist in that situation. So, I would apply early and make sure your file is complete early. If you want to know if you have a chance at the school, listen carefully to what the admissions officer tells you. Don't be quick to take kind words or even an invitation to apply as a guarantee. And remember, rejection at a school does not mean that the school would not consider someone of your qualifications. Rather, the school had to consider many, many applications with the same qualifications, and other files were chosen because of idiosyncratic reasons. Also, apply to a sampling of big schools/small schools, and apply to schools were you will be a unique applicant because of geography, undergraduate institution, or major.
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