This is an important post, notably because there are a few critical misconceptions out there about how files are read — and thus when they should be completed. But first, a semantic. Note I could have said "how short does it take..." in the title. Or, "how PAINFULLY" long?" The fact of the matter is the process is highly variable, depending mostly on you, but also on the school you apply to, when you apply, and a slough of other factors (competitor school read-rates, scholarship considerations, etc.) But for most it feels long. Indefinitely, indeterminably long; and particularly long when others are getting early results and you are not, and their early results are all "ADMIT" (more on why that is below). But, for the sake of understanding the process at the broadest level know these two things first:
(1) There is indeed great variance on file reading rates. How much? At the extremes the fastest I have seen is about 5 minutes from when the file went complete (and while that seems awesome do you really want a law school reading your application in 5 minutes?) and the slowest I have seen is, wait for it... never read.
(2) Obviously, both of those are at the extreme ends of the continuum and doesn't come close to answering the questions for the masses. So let's throw in another dimension: the majority of law school application decisions are made from post-Thanksgiving Break to March 1. What's more, the vast majority of initial admits (versus admit from wait list) are made by February at the latest.
But here is where one of the most systemic law school admissions myths takes hold. Most applicants believe that applications are read sequentially, based on when they are completed. That is not the case at almost all schools. Rather, they are read based on each school's needs (obviously they do have to be completed first). We can be pretty sure that for most schools the greatest needs early cycle are LSAT [above their median] and LSAC computed GPA [above their median], in that order. And we can have confidence that a diverse class is high on their list of priorities. So, what this means is that the decisions coming out quickly are almost always admit decisions and,likely, based on an empirical need or needs and then a thorough file review. This thorough review usually involves two file readers, and then a third (often the dean of admission) if there is disagreement.
Which means the following. Early cycle we can be confident if you are above a school's median LSAT and/or GPA and have a pretty solid application, your application will go through the process rather quickly. Quickly, of course, varies from school to school. Some schools will do this in a matter of days, some 10-14 days, other about 3-4 weeks. But, once it goes to "committee" (there are very rarely committees fyi, but most often individual file readers) and if only two people will see your application, you should expect a result in the above scenario in around four weeks or less. If it is after Thanksgiving break, has gone to file readers, and it has taken longer than that, it is likely that there is some disagreement and is sitting in a third person's hands. So prepare to wait more for a decision — and this can take months depending on what the disagreement involves.
What you see, then, is that the early decisions coming out of law schools are almost all admits. Sounds good, right? Well, no because this causes TREMENDOUS angst for those not yet getting decisions. "How could everyone be getting admitted and not me at X school?" "How could everyone be getting admitted and not me yet at ANY schools?" These questions run rampant early cycle from many applicants — and many applicants that soon, or eventually, get admitted to those schools too! Keep in mind that almost all schools still have a majority of their admits to make after mid- December, particularly when you factor in admits from the WL.
I could go on forever because of the extreme level of nuance here, but here is the broad view of "how long does it take?" Keep in mind, too, that some schools simply start later than others but the throughput is the same once they do start reading.
A. If your file has gone complete and you have strong numbers for a school(s) you are looking more likely than not at 1-4 weeks once a school starts reviewing (some start much later than others, especially at the very top of the food chain) If you have not heard anything after 4 weeks (after Thanksgiving when admissions officers are not traveling anymore) then you likely are in the hands of the dean of admissions due to a sloppy application, poor interview, bad visit, or C&F issues, etc. That 1-4 week corridor is gone and you may have to wait a month or more. BUT — because you are in that strong number category unless one or more of the above issues are major, you still are likely to get an admit. Albeit slower.
B. If you are complete and you split the medians, especially lower on the LSAT end, then likely you are going to be read AFTER the A group. But still before many others and this should take between, unfortunately, 1-3 months depending on that school's applicant pool, your numbers, their office resources, etc. BUT YOU STILL HAVE A GOOD CHANCE if you help them numerically and have a strong application. It's just a slower process.
C. If you are really low in one numerical category, below both medians, or split the medians but have a sloppy application, poor interview, bad visit, or C&F issue, etc. then it's going to be a long wait. You could go complete in September and not hear from a school until March, April, or even May. So we are talking up to 6 or more months for some people. The range could be 1-6 months. But, this probably means that school was a stretch for you and you applied to some other schools where you are an A or B.
I'll end with an anecdote which I find to be helpful in summing this all up. Six + years ago when I left law school administration and a fancy dean title and started on the consulting side of things someone sent me a long email with a heck of a lot of information on themselves, their applications and the 21 schools they applied to. They asked me what their chances were at each school and when they would hear from them. I got 20 of 21 ultimate admit/deny decisions correct and yet messed up on the timing for most of them. Why? Because most admissions decisions are not cut and dry. You don't apply to only schools where you are above both medians. And over time, for each school, their needs change dramatically. Which is the real point of this blog. I would never read too much into the timing of other people's admits, or yours. I've been in this industry since 1999 and I can't predict timing that well. But, admission isn't a race. And for most it isn't even a journey (I personally love the journey).It is a destination. Hang in there and please don't worry about the timing of the results of other people. Put together a quality application and ride on that -- even if the ride is longer than you may expect.