Law school applications: Law school decision-making

Most law schools first rank applicants based on an index calculated from the LSAT and GPA. Each school determines its own formula for weighting these factors, but in general, the LSAT weighs more heavily than the GPA.

Based on the index, the applicant pool is divided into three categories: presumptive admits, presumptive denies, and all the rest. The presumptive admits will generally be accepted barring any negative information in the file. Likewise, the presumptive denies will generally be rejected unless there is some compelling information in the file. The majority of applicants in the pool will fall somewhere in the middle. These candidates are compared to each other using more subjective criteria that will help the admissions committee compile an interesting and diverse entering class.  The committee then takes one of the following actions on each application.

Please note: the time frame for law school admissions decision-making processes varies considerably from school to school. How soon (or late) you hear from a school has no necessary correlation with what the decision is. Just because some of your friends have already been admitted to School X doesn’t mean anything about your own application.


If you are admitted to a law school, be sure you understand exactly what you have to do to accept a seat in the class, and by what date. Unlike the more uniform college admissions process, the seat deposit deadline is individual to each school. If you know for sure that you are not going to attend a school to which you have been admitted, be sure to notify the admissions office so that your seat can be offered to some other applicant.

If you are rejected, at least you know where you stand. Hopefully, better news from other schools will follow.


If you receive a “hold” or “defer” letter, it means that the admissions committee has not yet made a decision on your application because they want to review more applications to get a better sense of the applicant pool. This leaves you in a very difficult position if that law school is your first choice.

If seat deposit deadlines are looming, the prudent course of action would be to accept an offer from another law school even though it may not be your first choice. You may be waiting until late spring or early summer for a decision on a held application, well past the deadline for paying your seat deposit at another school.

Wait list

If you are placed on a wait list, it means that the admissions committee decided you are qualified to enroll in their law school but that they have already extended as many offers of admission as they think necessary to fill their incoming class. Getting off the wait list and into the pool of accepted students is largely a matter of attrition. All law schools want to have a full incoming class so they keep willing applicants on a wait list to fill slots when other accepted students decide to attend another school. This of course does not mean that a particular school will actually draw from its wait list in a given year—this is probably the least predictable part of the entire application process. Because of annual variations in the admission cycle, it is impossible to predict this year’s wait list behavior based on last year’s.

A wait-listed applicant may be offered admission at any point, but is more likely to receive such an offer after seat deposits are due, through the summer, and even as late as August or even during the first week of classes. The waiting process can be very tough. There are some steps you can take to enhance your chances of admission:

  • Write the admissions director or dean a letter expressing your continued interest and updating your file with any significant academic or professional milestones: promotions, awards, completed thesis, presentations, etc. If you haven’t already had the chance to, describe why the school is a good match for your specific career aspirations.
  • Follow up with telephone contact every couple of weeks. Be careful not to cross the line between showing initiative and being a nuisance.
  • If the school is your first choice, let them know you will accept an offer if it is made.
  • If you are still in school, send an updated transcript with your final grades.
  • Submit another letter of recommendation, particularly if you have written an honors thesis (as long as you have not already hit that school’s limit on recommendations).

Be sure to check in on the law school’s website regularly—they often post information for wait listed applicants during the spring and summer. Follow any additional directions they provide.

Conditional admit

If you receive a conditional admit letter, it means that the admissions committee thinks you need an additional course or program to prepare you for studying law. Be very sure that you understand exactly what conditions must be met. For instance, if you have to take a course, is there a particular grade you must earn? How much will the course cost? Often the percentage of applicants successfully fulfilling the conditions is low. You need to know exactly what is expected of you in order to be admitted to the law school.

The prudent course of action would be to accept an unconditional offer from another school that may not be your first choice, pay their deposit, and then work on fulfilling the conditional accept at your first choice school.

See an overview of the entire application process