There is often a shroud of mystery among applicants once they submit their applications. Questions from “What is holding up my application from going complete?” to “Why is it taking my application so long to get a decision versus other people who submitted after me?” are rife online every year, and understandably so. The vast majority of applicants have never worked in a law school admissions office, so once their application is out of their hands, the next stage of the process is something of a black box. As former admissions officers, we'll walk you through (broadly, not for any specific school) how the process tends to work.
How Law Schools Read Applications
(1) When you hit "submit," the law school receives everything you see in your PDF application preview (not in precisely the same format as you see it, but very close) directly from LSAC. They also receive something called a "CAS Report" ("CAS" = Credential Assembly Service), which includes all of your LSAT scores from the past five years (if applicable), your LSAT writing sample (again, if applicable), your assigned letters of recommendation (if they have already been submitted), all of your transcripts, and an LSAC-generated summarization of your transcripts that includes information such as your GPA(s) at every institution of higher education that you've attended, your cumulative undergraduate GPA (this is your "official" uGPA that schools must report to the ABA), and your major.
(2) Someone in an administrative role in the admissions office is then tasked with processing and making sure that the law school has all of the required application materials from each applicant. If they have everything they need, your file will be marked "complete." If they don't, your application may be marked "incomplete" while they wait for additional information. If you're at this stage of the process, and you're wondering, "Why isn't my application complete yet?" there are a number of reasons that this might be the case. The two most common reasons are as follows:
(a) Your recommenders are tardy. This is by far and away the most common hold-up for an application to go complete. So what should you do? Certainly you shoudl ask your recommender for an update, but as with so many of the human elements of this process, you must be careful about being eminently polite and respectful of their time in all of your communications with them. If they perceive you as a pest, it could even negatively impact the recommendation (and a negative letter of recommendation is one of the biggest sins in admissions). We would advise not sending multiple seemingly desperate emails. Instead, consider calling your recommender, or better yet stop by their office if possible—if they can speak ravingly about you in a letter, surely they will not mind seeing you or hearing your voice. So, try to have a real-time conversation with them, update them on your life, and then let them know that, per the admissions office, your recommendation is not in yet.
(b) Your application has encountered processing issues. Most law schools receive thousands of applications every year, and at most, every single one requires some amount of manual processing to get to the first file reviewer's desk. Plus, many are working with clunky and notoriously difficult-to-use software. So, both human errors and tech errors happen from time to time. The good news is, these issues can typically all be remedied by a quick and polite call or email to the admissions office—just reach out directly.
(3) Once your application is complete, it can then be transmitted to the first file reviewer(s) to be read and evaluated (at which point your application is "under review," in many status checkers' terms). That doesn't always happen immediately—in fact, it often doesn't—but delays at this stage are typically just the result of the pace and workflow of the admissions office.
(4) Different schools have different file reading processes, so the first person reading your application might be the dean of admissions, another admissions officer, or a dedicated file reader. They will read your file, likely take some notes, and perhaps assign a score (many schools use a 1 to 5 rating system, but this varies a great deal). From there, your application will either be read by a second reviewer or assigned a preliminary decision (admit, deny, waitlist). It may also go to a faculty reviewer, if the law school employs a faculty review committee.
(5) Typically, no matter what process and how many reviewers your application goes through, the dean of admissions (or whoever is leading the admissions office) makes the final decision on all applications, either after fully reading each or just consulting prior reviewer(s)' notes/scores. If the school releases scholarships concurrently with decisions (some do, many do not), and if you are being admitted, your scholarship will also be finalized at this stage.
(6) Decisions are usually made in batches (or "waves," in applicants' terms) for processing reasons. Certainly, law schools can and sometimes do release individual decisions (especially during the later cycle/waitlist process—but that's a topic for another blog!), but that is not typical. Most law schools render decisions via email, though some also give applicants a call.
But, why do some law school applicants hear back later than others, even if they applied sooner?
Applications often encounter delays in this process, particularly at the #3 stage outlined above. But why? What does it mean? Law schools like to talk about "rolling" admissions, but that does not mean that all applications are read and decisions rendered in the order in which they received.
Many law schools—particularly schools that are highly competitive and receive large volumes of applications—sort their file reading process not by date completed, but by some combination of LSAT score and uGPA. To put it frankly (which, in this case, is also a bit bluntly), if they think you will be admitted, they care a great deal about you and what you think, because they believe they will have to recruit you moving forward. If they think you will be denied, reading your application will be less of a priority.
Early in the cycle, there's another factor at play here as well—at that stage, law schools can't yet be sure what to expect. They don't know how the applicant pool is going to shake out (at a national level, regional level, or at their school specifically), and as a result, they don't know whether they'll be able to maintain their medians, raise them, or have to lower them. They do know, regardless, that they'll want to admit applicants above both of their target medians, and that they'll likely deny most applicants below both medians, but that leaves a whole middle section of their applicant pool for whom their decision-making process might look different depending on a number of factors that will only become clear as the cycle progresses.
That reality of "rolling admissions" is not the only factor that causes disparities between when different applicants hear back, however—in fact, one applicant hearing back later than another might be caused by one or more of hundreds of reasons. Let's walk through a few:
- The different file reading processes discussed above in #4 don't just apply to variations from school to school—any one given school might have multiple different file reading protocols, too, depending on the time of year, type of applicant, or other factors. For example, if the dean of admissions is your first reader, they may decide to admit you right away. If your first reader is someone else in the admissions office, your application might have to go to a second or even a third reader. If the school employs a faculty admissions committee, your file might have to go to a faculty reader as well (and that can trigger for any number of reasons, both positive and negative, at different schools). All of these various processes can take different lengths of time to complete.
- Individual applications might be pulled out of the process and read sooner because of some specific circumstance. Maybe the dean asked about applicants with X or Y characteristic (e.g. a certain type of professional background, a particular undergraduate school), so the admissions office pulled those files to take a look at immediately. Maybe the applicant reached out to the admissions office about something, something about it caught an admissions officer's eye, and they pulled the file to read more. These types of factors won't change the ultimate admissions decision, but they can certainly lead to some applications being read sooner than they otherwise would have.
- Those technical/processing issues referenced in 2(b) above? Those happen at later stages of the process, too. Small hiccups in the process are usually resolved quickly, but they could delay your decision by a few days or weeks.
- The admissions office might have fully read and evaluated your application, but they're still just not sure about their decision. This could be the result of something in your application, or it could be the result of factors outside of your control (like how that school's applicant pool data is looking that year). This is often what applicants assume is happening when they see others hearing back more quickly than they did, and it sometimes is the case—though, less often than applicants think.
We hope that this has been helpful in understanding what happens to your law school application once you hit "submit." Best of luck!