Should I Apply Early or Wait Until I Have Fall Semester Grades?

My current GPA, if I've calculated it correctly, is 3.47. However, after this semester, it should be brought up to 3.52. Some of the schools I'm applying to include School X and School Y. School X has a GPA median of 3.43, while School Y has a median of 3.7. I'm trying to figure out what will benefit me more -- applying early (within the next week or so) or waiting until my grades are in in late December/early January and applying with a slightly higher GPA. I should also mention I have a strong upward GPA trend (my GPA at the school I went to my freshman year is what's bringing me down).

My advice is to apply early in the season (by the end of November), all else being equal. That last bit is important. It assumes that your GPA is either (1) already set in stone, because you've already graduated, or (2) not likely to change, because you're still in school but your grades are not expected to improve (ideally because your grades so far have already been stellar and there's not much room for improvement).

So what do you do if you're a college senior and you do expect your grades to go up? In that case, you'll only be a stronger applicant with your entire college record to show off. How much stronger? That depends. If your current GPA already exceeds your dream schools' medians (I'd really like to see them exceed the upper quartiles), and your LSAT is very competitive for those schools as well, then improved senior year grades might not be a good enough reason to wait, since your numbers are already attractive to the schools you're targeting. 

But if your grades aren't already great by the standards of your intended schools (as is the case here), and you think you can do better your senior year, then not only would it be worth holding off until you have your fall grades, but I'd even recommend that you hold off until you have your spring grades as well, and apply early in the following fall. If you apply without the benefit of your senior year grades, you're effectively cheating your application of an entire year of your undergraduate record. If you're on an upward swing with your grades, and previous semesters need to be mitigated (like those freshman year grades you referred to), you're just going to make yourself a stronger applicant if you wait until you have your full undergraduate record to put on display.

Incidentally, one thing that I've learned over the years is that applicants tend to underestimate how important their undergraduate performance is in the law school admissions process. Applicants with less than stellar transcripts like to think that they can write their way around poor performance with addendum essays and various pleas to overlook this thing or that thing, but addendum essays only get you so far. Your grades will matter a LOT. The combination of your LSAT score and undergraduate performance is going to be the most important factor in law school admissions decisions, so if you can improve one or the other before you apply, you should wait until you have done so.

Can that advice be taken too far? Absolutely, especially on the LSAT side. For many people, most of their transcript is already set in stone by the time they are applying, and there's only so much wiggle room for improvement. With the LSAT, however, it's tempting to fantasize that OF COURSE you'll get that 174/176/180 if you just keep studying and retaking the test. Every year I cross paths with people who aren't happy with their initial LSAT score and spend YEARS chasing the test, often with severely diminishing marginal returns. 

And I hear lots of reasons why they don't think they did their best when they took it the first time, or even the second time. The conditions at the test center weren't quite right, or unpleasant stuff was going on at home, or they were busy with other things. But guess what? Testing conditions will never be perfect, things will always be busy at work or in school, family commitments don't magically disappear, and life will continue to get in the way. (That will be also be true for your law school exams, the bar exam, every brief and memo you have to write as a lawyer, every contract you have to draft, every deal you have to negotiate, and every case you have to argue, often under ridiculous time constraints and with very little sleep.) It makes sense to keep chasing the LSAT only if you think you can improve your score with all those life imperfections continuing to happen in the background. You cannot wish that baseline away.

So be brutally honest with yourself when you are evaluating whether and by how much you can realistically improve your LSAT or GPA profiles. In your case, you're telling me that you're on a "strong upward" swing with your grades. That's a great reason to wait, maybe even until next fall.

Good luck. Please let us know what happens. Readers: any advice to share?

Former Dean of Admissions at the University of Chicago Law School and a recovering lawyer, Anna Ivey founded Ivey Consulting to help college, law school, and MBA applicants navigate the admissions process. Read more admissions tips in The Ivey Guide to Law School Admissions, recently updated and available as an e-book. Follow Anna on Twitter (@annaivey).