Submit Late This Season or Wait Until Next Application Season?

I am an avid reader of your blog and had a quick question--is it better to apply now, in January, or to wait for next cycle to do my applications?  Also, if I have a poor cycle this time, how does it look if I reapply to the same schools with a new LSAT score next fall?

This is a very popular question, so I'm glad you asked. Answer: It depends.

A couple of weeks ago, I was telling applicants not to freak out if they hadn't heard from law schools yet. That's a problem you face if you've already submitted your applications and you're waiting... waiting... waiting. But what if you haven't submitted yet at all? Judging by the emails we've been receiving during all of January, there are still plenty of people out there who are pulling their applications together. My message to them: It is indeed late to be submitting your applications. When I tell applicants not to freak out about not having heard yet, I'm directing that message to people whose applications are already in the law school pipeline.

Many schools have deadlines in February through April, and they've been seeing a steady stream of applications since September. That's a LOT of application in the pipeline by this point. Even if you were in a position to submit today, and all your other application bits and pieces (like your recommendations and transcripts) are happily sitting at LSAC and just waiting for you to hit "send," your applications would be among the last to show up on admissions officers' desks. You want to be applying from a position of strength, and applying in January is not applying from a position of strength.

As I wrote in my book, here are a couple of reasons why you should apply as early in the season as possible, assuming that you've maxed out your (realistic) GPA and LSAT possibilities:

1. Human psychology: The first time an admissions officer comes across a one-legged ice-skater, he's blown away by her resilience and zest for life. The second or third time he comes across a one-legged ice-skater in the same season, he's going to think, “Impressive, but I’ve already admitted a one-legged ice-skater, and I’m looking for something different.” However special you think you are, you’ll seem a lot less special later in the season when admissions officers have seen lots of other interesting applications before yours. 
2. Signaling: By submitting your application early, you signal to the admissions officer that you’re on the ball, that you’re organized and don’t wait until the last second. (You don’t make a good impression if you submit right before the deadline.) You also signal that you’re very interested in that school. Lots of people send out another round of applications as deadlines approach because they panic and flail and apply to more schools just to make themselves feel better, and schools know that. 
3. Money: Financial aid at many schools is distributed on a first-come, first-served basis, and funds may have dwindled if you apply late in the season. Financial aid timing can vary from school to school (some don’t even let you apply for financial aid until you’ve been admitted), so you’ll need to track those timelines carefully.
4. Numbers: In the early part of the admissions season, admissions officers have more latitude to admit people because they like them. In the later part of the admissions season, they have to focus much more ruthlessly on managing the incoming class’s LSAT and GPA medians and quartiles.

5. Early Decision: If you apply early in the season, you can take advantage of binding Early Decision opportunities, which on the margin can make you a more attractive candidate to a school. Meaning: all else being equal, they'd rather admit the person who commits to accepting than the person who doesn't.

What does that boil down to, if you're wondering whether to hit "submit" now or wait until the coming fall?

If your numbers are very strong for the schools you want to attend, go ahead and apply. If your numbers are only so-so, or you are otherwise a borderline candidate, you're probably better holding off and applying from the strongest possible position, i.e. in the fall. We go to some lengths to push all the applicants we're working with to have their applications totally complete and submitted by the end of November every season. Of course, not everyone does, and that's each applicant's prerogative. Sometimes it makes sense to wait, but usually that's to wait until the next season, not to submit in January. We're pretty blunt with people: unless your numbers make you a true superstar or you are a catch for a given school for whatever reason, you really need to get things in early. Even for schools for whom you are a catch, you're better off applying early, because you're more likely to get some nice funding that way.

You're probably thinking, "What's the downside to applying now, seeing what happens, and giving it another go next fall if I'm unsuccessful?" Yes, that's always an option. I don't think that's the wisest way to go, though, for a couple of reasons:

1. Essays: If you're knocked yourself out writing your best essays this season, are you going to be able to come up with something just as good, or even better, next season? Let's assume you're not going to accumulate a whole lot more interesting life experience between now and then. Do you have a really good essay as a back-up? Are you going to be able to come up with another really strong one? Maybe yes, maybe no. But if you're showing them your best work now, you're creating a hurdle for yourself to generate something just as good when you reapply. You certainly don't want to show them written work that's less impressive than what you showed them the last time. Also keep in mind that your previous application doesn't just go away. They always have the freedom to pull it up and see how things compare. You may have locked yourself into a certain narrative that is going to constrain how you present yourself however many months later. You don't get a totally fresh bite at that apple.

2. Presumptions: Law school admissions is hard enough without creating presumptions against you. As with many things in life, the first impression you make is going to have a big impact. If you present yourself to them, and they ding you (say, in April, May, June), and then you show up in September, October, November with another application, you're going back to them with a presumption built in against you. The presumption will be, "I just dinged this guy. Why should I let him in now?" That's not a rhetorical question. They really will be looking for reasons why they should let you right after they dinged you, so it's a presumption that can be overcome. One way to do that is to show them a much higher LSAT score. You would need to show them something substantially different (and better) the second time you apply, and the most important needle you can move is going to be on the numbers side. Do not bother reapplying with the same numbers.

A question for you to sleep on: If you think you're capable of a substantially higher LSAT score, why settle for what you can make happen now with the lower one, both in terms of admissions at various schools and the price tag you'll end up paying? Sure, somebody will take you with your current numbers this late in the season. You might be good enough for them, but is that good enough for you?

I'd love to hear from applicants about how these different approaches worked out. Did you apply late in the season, or did you push off your apps? How did that turn out? Did you end up reapplying? Please 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).