Podcast: What Triggers Admit Waves?

In this episode of Status Check with Spivey, Mike talks about the different factors that precipitate waves of law school admissions decisions being released, especially late in the cycle/during waitlist season.

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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 we're going to be talking on the admissions side about waves, a favorite topic for many. And particularly it's good for applicants to understand this, but what triggers waves. I could be missing something of course, but particularly later in the cycle, you stop seeing waves and you start seeing ripples, for lack of a better word. But when you're talking about waves, these big waves, these weeks where you see A after A after A, it's really under the auspices of sort of three areas. It would be the need of the school, so let me be clear, not financial need. It would be the applicant pool, the data in waves and early admits. And by early admits, I mean earlier in the cycle, including in January and February, are data driven.

And then let me double click on that point for a second, because I think people keep asking, how does rolling admissions work. Well, it doesn't work the way a lot of people think it works. It's not that most law schools admit based on when your application is date stamped complete, they sort by strength or need. And people have asked what could they possibly sort by other than LSAT and GPA. They could sort by diversity or gender or other variables too. But you're right, they're not reading your file and then sorting, which would be an ultimate waste of time on their end. They might as well read your file and admit you because you have a kick-ass application.

So I just wanted to sort of get off track a little bit and get rid of that misnomer and mythology. Basically waves come out, not always, but they come out more often than not as As, admits. And then later Ws, waitlist, and then later denials, Ds. I think what people are most interested in, understandably so, is what would trigger the admit waves, and we're going to see more coming.

So the first thing is the applicant pool itself and the dynamics, the atmospheric variables around the applicant pool. If it's a small pool and things are looking bleak and LSAT scores are looking down, then you might see way early waves because the school might say, “oh my god, this is going to be a down cycle. We better gobble up these people now in hopes of getting them to visit the school and matriculate.” Why didn't that happen this year? Well, to begin with, the applicant pool isn't down that much and it's not down very much at all if you started looking about three, four, five years ago. It is down relative to these two years of a huge spike, but it's down a tiny bit versus last year. But the LSAT scores 170 to 180 are not down, and class sizes are incredibly likely going to be smaller. You don't have this huge pressure on admissions officers even in a normal year to hurry with their admits.

Number two, this is the furthest from a normal year I've ever seen because of the U.S. News withdrawal. So U.S. News obviously is still going to rank schools, that's their profit center. But what they haven't said is they can't rank a lot of schools based on private data, because 26 schools and counting and growing have said they're not submitting their private data anymore. That's a good thing, by the way, for you all. It's – you want more transparent data. But they are going to rank on public data that goes through the ABA, also a good thing because that can be third party audited. Schools are much less likely to fudge the numbers if it goes through the ABA than if it goes straight to U.S. News & World Report. But we don't know, and by we, I mean no one on the planet knows how much they're going to weight the metrics, hence the slowness.

Hate me for saying this, but if you are a Dean of Admission, you would probably think the same way I'm thinking. You can see a scenario where your job is dependent on bringing in strong classes and you don't know what a strong class is anymore because you don't – the LSAT could be 0% weight or it could go up to 12.5% weight. I've seen, and we've run many different simulations, I could do an entirely different podcast based on these simulations because I – well I'm not going to say them publicly. It would drive a lot of traffic to our website, but we're guessing just as much as anyone. What's fascinating about the simulations to me is we know the metrics, as much as we play with the different possible weights any given school doesn't bounce around that much.

So a school might drop from like 18 to 25 and I'm just making this up, but then when we start playing with the simulations, that 25, if we run it 10 times in 10 different weighted simulations, it might be a high of 20 and a low of 30. So there's not that much variation. I could go on about wonky admission stuff forever. Let me get back to the topic at hand.

So it's been slow for understandable reasons. The pool has made it a little bit slow. The incredible abrupt change this cycle and methodology has made it slow. But the nice thing about slow cycles is when you can get past the waiting, and we have a beautiful podcast with Dr. Guy Winch on how to handle the waiting.

When you get past the waiting, it's not a race. An admit is an admit. Waves are coming because they haven't come in these huge droves yet, and schools have to fill classes. You're not going to get paid as a Dean of Admission and Admissions Officer if you don't enroll people. So we know waves are coming and some of what triggers that again is the pool and what percentage of the pool you've admitted. If 55% of the pool has applied by today and only 20% have been rendered decisions, there's a lot of freaking decisions out there to be rendered and they're coming. So we know that, we don't know when. This is why I, I like to say on prediction posts, it seems likely based on past data and based on the applicant pool and based on how the cycle's going, that in the next two weeks we'll see a lot of waves. You never know the day, although I'll get into the psychology at the end and maybe some of you can figure out the day. You never know the day. But waves are coming because schools have been slow.

The other thing is need of that school. If that school is looking at their admit pool and they see that it's 60% male, 40% female, which incidentally would be the opposite. Back when I started 24 years ago in this, your age probably, it was the opposite. It was 60% male, 40% female. Now it's flipped. So let's say a school has admitted 60% female, 40% male, then you might see a wave triggered by need, or LSAT need, or GPA need. You have the need of the school, and that need literally may be that they're freaking out because last year they had made 1,000 admits by February, in this year they've only made 200. Why would I say 1000 admits when no law school enrolls 1000 people? The typical applicant is applying to seven, eight schools. They can only go to one. So I think this is where a lot of applicants don't understand the math of this.

For most schools, including most elite schools, unless you're sitting at the very top like Yale or Harvard or Stanford or Chicago or whomever, you're admitting like five, six, seven times as many people as you're actually matriculating because they're going to other schools for prestige purposes, job prospect purposes, merit aid purposes, etc. So schools, their yields beyond the very elite aren’t in their favor, so they have to admit more. Another reason why more waves are coming.

So you also see waves triggered around seat deposit deadlines. That's a great way for you to know when to send a letter of continued interest. Okay, seat deposit deadline is due, five days have passed, they probably didn't get as many deposits as they had admits. I in fact will all but guarantee that's never happened. No school has admitted 600 people and gotten 600 seat deposits by the first deadline. So that would trigger another wave. Keep those dates in mind. Seat deposits.

There's also the final element, which is the psychological effect. This is real. Keep in mind, and maybe it's hard as an applicant to do. I know like when I was in high school applying to colleges, I thought of admissions committees as these people with behind closed doors at this beautiful oak table with silver platters of coffee discussing my application. No, it's not like that. It's tired people, who are normal people, who do great jobs and sometimes make mistakes, who love their jobs some days and hate their jobs other days. Point being your typical Admissions Dean or Admissions Officer is no different than you or me.

And if they start seeing Harvard, if you're the Dean of Admission at a top 10, top 14 school and Harvard just made scores after scores of admits, you start getting nervous. It's just human nature. You start saying, “Where are all these people going to go? Am I going to lose all these people?” So the third variable of the triggers, waves are waves themselves. The psychological impact that waves have on other schools. So get excited when you see Yale or Stanfords are making admits. They always do it late because that's going to have other schools say, “Wow, we need to make admits too.”

So there is this domino ripple effect. So let me just summarize and underscore. There's the applicant pool, which this year is stagnant, not up, not down, a little bit in your disfavor from 170 to 180. Keeping in mind that class sizes should be smaller this year. But other than that, it's a very stable pool versus last year, other than the abrupt sort of U.S. News changes, which is why it’s been such a slow cycle. Schools don't call me and say, “hey Spivey, we need more blank LSAT scores.” But I do know the schools always have needs. We just don't know what they are. And then you have these more powerful than you realize psychological effects. So waves beget waves. I'll end that on almost like a weird biblical sounding note. I hope this was helpful sort of as just a very general macro-overlay of the land. This was Mike Spivey, of the Spivey Consulting Group.