Early Decision programs are not new, but they have been gaining popularity among both law schools and applicants in recent cycles. We will address the value of such programs momentarily, but first let us define what “Early Decision” really means. An Early Decision program is essentially a contract between an applicant and a school – the only hardline often being that “if admitted, you will immediately withdraw all applications to other law schools to which you have submitted an application” with the covenant that if you go to law school in the current cycle you will go to the first school that admits you ED (you can apply to multiple ED programs, but are bound to withdraw from all others once admitted). ED programs, then, should not be confused with any kind of Early Action, Priority Track, or Fee Waiver programs where you are not required to withdraw from all other schools upon admissions.
In looking at the above definition, you should be asking “what is in it for me, the applicant?” The answer varies from school to school, but the overarching theory resides in the potential tradeoff between the aforementioned covenant “you will go to our school if admitted” with the possibility that you will get a bump or “elevating factor” as your application is read. In admissions terms the law school will say to themselves, “this person clearly has our school at the top of their list, so we will give her a bit of extra consideration and perhaps a bump knowing that she will come to our school.” Also, note that a few schools have guaranteed scholarships attached to an admission via ED.
Does this trade off exist in reality? That answer is a bit more difficult to come by. We looked at the data across numerous years from lawschoolnumbers.com ending at the 2013 cycle:
What the admittedly dated numbers tell us is that you should get some admission boost from many if not most schools that have an ED program. What the data does not tell us, but what is equally true is that:
(1), even if initially placed into the general applicant pool or wait listed, you will still be considered likely to matriculate since you applied ED, and should maintain that advantage throughout the cycle.
(2), whatever advantage you may be gaining in admission, you are severely weakening or diminishing your ability to negotiate for any scholarship increase, except from the schools that have guaranteed scholarships as part of their ED program. What’s more, a school may feel no incentive to give you any scholarship money, as you have committed to not attending any other law school that cycle.
What should you do?
The advice here is rather simple. Follow this three-pronged decision-making self questionnaire:
Do I have an absolute dream school above all others?
Do I need a bump (generally am I a splitter, reverse splitter, or below both medians?)
Am I “ok” with getting no scholarship or limited scholarship money to receive that bump?
If “yes” to all three of these, it likely makes sense to ED. If not, we would caution against it.