How many law schools should I apply to?

September LSAT scores come out in a few days and many of you are anxiously awaiting your score, wondering if it will be competitive enough to get you within range of your top choice law schools. Depending on what your score is, your school list may grow – for those who did better than anticipated, you may consider schools that are now a possibility; for those who didn’t get quite where you had set a goal, well, perhaps you will add a couple other safeties in your group. Either way, your list could get longer, prompting the question, how many law schools should you apply to?

I’ll confess that my own strategy when applying to college and graduate school wasn’t the norm. I applied to only three schools each time. I like to think I had better reasons for sending so few applications than being cheap and lazy. Actually, it was because I was both particular and practical. I did a lot of research prior to applying and I knew exactly what I wanted in terms of location, cost, program, and reputation. It turned out that the number of schools that offered everything I was looking for was finite. I also knew where I was likely to be accepted, and where I was not. I hate rejection, and I wasn’t interested in paying an application fee just to be denied, so I focused on schools I was truly serious about and put my application energy and fees there.

These days, app fees aren’t much of a concern since so many schools have relatively small ones, waive theirs or simply don’t have one. According to LSAC, the average applicant applies to about six law schools. With the group of applicants we work with, 9-15 is probably the number most aim for – four to five “match” schools where one’s LSAT and GPA are around the school’s medians, a couple safety schools, and a few reach schools. Still, we have worked with clients applying anywhere from one to more than 35 schools (many years ago we were told at an admissions conference an applicant applied to over 180 schools in a single cycle!). Our goal is to try to figure out what is the best approach for each person, regardless of what the actual number ends up being (although I think most of us feel 20+ is excessive). Not surprisingly, the answer to “How many schools should I apply to?” is “It depends”. It depends on your goals, interests, qualifications, ability to relocate, budget, and the amount of effort you want to put into your research and applications.

With that in mind, here are some things to think about – tips we offer as you go about crafting your list:

1) Ask yourself “would I really go there if I got in?” I had considered applying to a school in a part of the country that was far from where I lived, or even wanted to live, and nowhere near where I wanted to end up. It was a great school, with a stellar reputation, and had the exact program I was interested in, but I knew in my heart and head, I would not move there. So, I crossed it off my list.

2) Visit schools when possible. While most people can’t visit all the schools they are interested in before applying, it is a good idea to visit at least a couple of them if you are able. One school that was at the top of my list before I applied ended up at the bottom after I visited. It was in a state I was really drawn to, it had a great reputation, and I truly thought it was the school I would attend. I spent two days on campus walking around, meeting people, and talking to faculty and students, but I left disappointed. After learning more about the program, I found it was not quite what I was looking for. The campus was also unimpressive and the general atmosphere wasn’t as friendly as I expected. Off the list it went.

3) You probably don’t need to apply to too many safety schools. This is a mistake we often see people make. A safety school is one that you are confident will admit you, barring a really bad letter of recommendation or character and fitness issue. It is also one that you would attend if you weren’t admitted to a top choice school. It won’t give you scholarship negotiation leverage with the schools ranked 20+ places higher. There is no reason to apply to a bunch of safeties. Apply to just a couple of your favorite safety schools, and make sure they are ones you are happy to have as options.

4) Do additional research before applying. Most applicants consider location, reputation, specialty programs, and potential cost when determining their lists. We recommend you look further than this. Read the mission statements, news releases, online alumni magazines, and social media posts and comments of the schools’ student organizations accounts. You will see what alumni and students are talking about, as well as what is happening at the school aside from upcoming events. In other words, look beyond the front page of the website and the admissions materials. These other resources give you greater insight as to whether the school is a fit for you. We encourage our clients to write “Why X Law School” statements, even if they don’t end up submitting them, because it helps determine what they truly like about a school. If you have a hard time coming up with solid reasons for applying to a particular law school, beyond its location and ranking, then maybe that school isn’t actually for you. On the flip side, you could discover there is much more to like, and your genuine excitement will be evident in your application.

5) Keep in mind that the cycle is longer than most applicants realize. You can easily apply to 7 schools by December and recalibrate if necessary and add a few more. At times we have clients who exceed even our expectations and throw in a Harvard, Yale of Stanford application because their results have been so above expectations. We had a client apply to Harvard in June and get accepted in July. Again, the cycle is long.

In the end, it is not the number of law schools you apply to that matters, but whether those on your list are a good match and you have a realistic chance of getting into at least a few of them. If you came here looking for a precise number we can’t give one without knowing answers to the above, , but again a range of about 6-15 is the norm. Plan with these tips in mind and you will know when your list is right.