Podcast: The Myth of the Early Application “Bump” & Law School Rolling Admissions

In this brief episode of Status Check with Spivey, Mike discusses what has grown in recent years to be the biggest myth in law school admissions today.

Mike mentions two previous Status Check episodes in this podcast:

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Full transcript:

Welcome to Status Check with Spivey, where we talk about life, law school, law school admissions, a little bit of everything. Today is going to be law school admissions: the single [biggest] current—because they change over time—law school admissions myth, right? So it used to be that schools averaged the LSAT; after they stopped, it took about three or four years to debunk that myth. And the new big one—it is just, like, a perpendicular line. Five years ago, six years ago, yeah, people's natural instincts were if you apply a little earlier, it may or may not benefit you. And now there's been this seismic shift, not for everyone for the record, but it's hard to dispel the seismic shift of, “I heard a law school say,” or “I heard someone say, you better apply by September or October, and you get a bump if you do.”  

Let me tell you why I think that myth sticks around. Someone rightfully asked about it on Reddit—“What evidence you have that this is untrue?” We have a lot of evidence, hence the podcast. But let me first talk about why I think this myth is hard to debunk.

Number one, a few schools do say it. I love the analogy—and I hate that I use it; many of my closest friends are in law schools—but I would never buy a car from someone and believe everything they said, or a house from an owner and believe everything they said. So yes, schools like early data, they want you to apply to the school. A few schools may very well say, “Yeah, if you apply early, you get a bump.”  Doesn't really play out like that. I'm going to get into it. Most schools, incidentally, don't say that. All schools that I’ve talked to offline,  not publicly, tell me, “No, we don't give people an early bump.  We look for good candidates.” So that's number one.

Number two is this sort of, like, correlation/causation thing. Your friends are already going to register “applying early must be good,” and then when you see the people who applied early get admitted early, not everyone, but you're seeing the happy results—you’re more likely to post your admits than your denials—and the person that then gets admitted in September or October with a 176 and a 3.9 and a good application, is going to get admitted in December with a 176 and a 3.9 and a good application. And get the same scholarship amount of money. I'm going to guess 80%, roughly, of admits last year happened in the second part of the year, so in 2023. What does that mean this year? If it's just a slow of a cycle, and it looks like it's going to be slow, 80% of the admits are going to happen in 2024.

There's a third reason why this myth is hard to debunk. People think of “rolling admission” as “your file is read in the order it was sent into the law school and completed.” For a few schools that's true. Obviously, your application has to be complete or doesn't get read.  But most schools sort by strength of completed application. And this is how you see it play out. June was a sad month on Reddit. A lot of people that say, “I applied in September, October, and I still haven't heard from my schools,” they're not going to get read—every year you see this—“I applied in September, October, and I haven't heard, and it’s May, June, July.” And then sadly, what you see in August is, you see a lot of denials go out, even after the cycle is complete. Did those people get a bump for applying in September? No, they get the harshest eight/nine months of their life, waiting for their denial.

Which leads me to the point of this podcast, the deleterious nature of this myth is, you don't want to rush your application because someone online said, “Apply in September or October.” You want to follow the advice of the vast majority of Deans of Admission. You want to follow the realization that correlation is not causation. Again, there's a lot of people that apply in September and October that haven't even posted their results. The people that were admitted in September, yeah, they didn't need to retake the LSAT, their GPA was set. They worked on their applications all summer long.

To really bring up that point—if you're ready to go, if you take in the LSAT your max times or got your score that you're super happy with, and you got your application completely polished and done, rock it! Submit it. It doesn't hurt to apply early. (I don't want to bring up the one counter cycle we saw where actually it was beneficial to apply late because admissions officers misjudged the data. That's one year out of 24 years.) So, it doesn't hurt to apply early, don't get me wrong. There's just no mythical boost. If I were a Dean of Admission and I was looking at an application, I would much rather have someone have worked as a server or customer service and developed the wherewithal—they know how to deal with angry people—that to me would be a much bigger boost than someone applying September 1. Because that person that’s applying September 1, if they don't have the work experience, or the LSAT at my median or above my median, or the GPA at my median or above my median, I’m going to hold on to their file and do nothing. And that poor applicant is going to sit around and get more and more anxious.

And let me tell you the other flip side of is. When the stakes seem important—not just for law school applicants; I’ve seen Deans of Law Schools have meltdowns over college presidencies they were looking for. Dr. Judson Brewer talked about—this world-famous author who runs one of the research clinics at Brown—wrote the book Unwinding Anxiety; I recommend it. So as you get more anxious in the admission cycle because there's more uncertainty because you haven’t heard from schools, the part of your brain that doesn't have the impulse regulation hooked to it is more likely to do things. So let's say you apply in September and you don't hear in January, February, March, and a lot of people are posting online. This is going to happen to a lot of people listening to this. You're more apt to do something like call the law school once a week and say, “Hey, can I get a status update?” They're going to give you an update when you get it. I actually saw a post on Reddit about this. The heuristic is, call the law school if it's going to add value to your application or the application process. “Hey, I have an update, I visited the campus and loved it. I always knew Princeton Law was at the top of my list, but now it's number one.” That's a value-added phone call or email. But, “Hey, can you give me an update on my status?” They're going to give it to you when you do, and you're more likely to make those sort of spirals of anxiety if you've been waiting a long time.

So let me talk about the evidence. This is like what, year 24/25 for me? Rolling admissions 25 years ago was much more rolling based on date stamps. So I wouldn't have been doing this podcast 25 years ago. Now, rolling admissions is much more based on strength of application. So if you look at the data—and you can look at law school data, self-reported; we have tons of internal data that we just mined as a firm, and it's really fascinating to look at some of the stuff. It's our intellectual property, and we may put some of these things out there, like all the softs that go into it, what schools like “why” in the personal statement, more than others, all kinds of things. So when you look at the data, and you can control for the fact that the LSAT scores and the GPAs early submission tend to be a little higher, or you take out that pool and you look at the people with the lower scores who apply in September or in October, there's no bump. I'm not talking about early decision where you're bound; I'm talking about applying as early as you can as an arbitrary race. Don't do it. If you can take the LSAT again or make your application better, just like Dean Z said on one of my recent podcasts with her, just so many of my friends in admissions—Dean Z said January, but I'll say any time before November is super early. November to January, you’re still in the thick of well-timed applications. Most admits are going to be made in January onward. I would say, not even for admit purposes but for scholarship purposes, you kind of want to ideally have your application in sometime in January. So that gives you a timeline. This is Mike Spivey of the Spivey Consulting Group.