Waitlist purgatory. The place no law school applicant wants to end up. What should you do now? Some say you need to continually update the school with your recent developments, more letters of recommendation and maybe even take the LSAT again, but some schools tell you not to send anything unless there’s been a significant change in your application. We’ll explore where you should go from here and what you can do to help get you off the waitlist and onto the accepted list.
- Richard Geiger, Associate Dean, Cornell Law School
- William J. Hoye, Associate Dean, Admissions and Student Affairs, Duke University School of Law
- Ann Levine, Founder of Law School Expert.com and author
- Graham Richmond, Co-Founder and CEO of Clear Admit
Welcome to Law School Podcaster, your source for inside information and advice on the law school application process. I’m Diana Jordan.
You’ve applied to law school. You’re waiting to learn your fate and when you finally hear back, you find you have to wait some more. It could top the list as the most frustrating position to be in. Admissions Purgatory — or better known as the Wait List. What does that mean? And, what should you do? Some schools advise the best thing to do now is nothing at all, while other schools say you can send periodic updates. If you’ve been forced into limbo and want to know how to get out, two top law school deans and two admissions consultants are here to help you plan a strategy. We’ll find out what to send to the Admissions Committee, how often you should contact them, and what else you should know to help you move off the Wait List and on to the Admitted Students’ List.
First, it’s important to keep in mind what being on the wait list means, and what it doesn’t, as Law School Admission Consultant, Ann Levine tells us: “So many times people think a wait list letter is the death knell, like it’s a rejection and it’s so not.” Straightforward answers are sometimes easier to deal with like, “Yes, you’re accepted,” or “No, we don’t want you.” At least you know how to proceed. Being told maybe yes or maybe no inevitably leaves you guessing. In this show, we’ll hear how you can read between the lines of a wait list letter. You’ll learn exactly what actions you can take that will lead to your successful admission to law school, and you’ll also hear what not to do.
You might find some comfort knowing you’ve quite a lot of company in Admissions Purgatory. Law schools report they receive more applications each year overflowing with qualified candidates, leaving a lot of applicants on the wait list. Cornell Law School probably saw the biggest surge in applications this year, a whopping 52% over last year. While Cornell’s Associate Dean of Admissions, Richard Geiger, tells us that, other than the conventional wisdom that when the economy sours, applications to law school rise, there’s no way of knowing why the leap in the number of applicants was so huge. However, Dean Geiger does know that only a few applicants will be chosen off the waiting list. “Well, I think most law schools plan on using the waiting list to fine-tune their entering class. That’s their main purpose for having it there. Sort of a buffer, if you want to think of it that way. So most places aren’t going to plan ever to be taking a lot of people off the waiting list. That’s not in their heads when they’re thinking of using a waiting list. I always like to leave a little bit of room for people to take people off the waiting list, if it’s possible. This is a very unpredictable business so it’s really hard to determine that in advance.”
Graham Richmond is Co-Founder and CEO of Clear Admit and offers law school applicants one-on-one guidance through the law school admissions process. He confirms that there are more applicants being wait listed these days. “Since the downturn in the economy has taken place, i.e. the 2008 application year, many of the top schools have been wait listing even more candidates than usual and by those top schools, I’m thinking of Stanford, Columbia, Penn, Harvard. I think that it’s probably in response to the assumption that top applicants may be more inclined in a tough economy, with sort of uncertain post-JD job prospects, to accept scholarship money from less competitive schools, and I also think the schools are probably under some pressure to make sure they’re enrolling a full class. So the best hedge is to kind of wait list a lot of people so that you know that even if more folks drop off than you had expected, you’ve got plenty of reserves on the wait list that you can kind of go-to, to stock your class.”
The number of candidates on the wait list varies from school to school, and at each school the number can vary from year to year, as we hear from William Hoye, Associate Dean for Admissions and Student Affairs at Duke University School of Law. “Last year was an interesting year in that we were unable to make any offers from our wait list. But the year before, we offered about 75 candidates a space in the class from the wait list. Then in other years it’s been 10 to 12 or 25. So it varies tremendously from year to year. In part, it’s driven by the behavior of candidates. So for instance, as we see more applicants to law school applying to a larger number of schools, that process that applicants are using affects the models that we use to predict enrollment. Those models might become less reliable for us. In order to protect from over enrolling, if we have a sense that a typical applicant is applying to 20 schools this year, let’s say, as opposed to perhaps 10 or 15 last year, then that might influence how many offers of admission we feel we can safely make and we might, in fact, build a solid wait list so that we can come back to very strong candidates if, in fact, we under enroll.”
Hoye says with only 160 seats in the fall and 7,000 applications for those seats, the admissions committee is making fine distinctions between applicants. Dean Hoye says many applicants have a solid undergraduate record with great LSATs, so it may come down to judgment on writing or how much time it appears they have spent on the application. Being on the wait list may feel like purgatory for students, but for the law schools, there is an additional value to seeing how students respond to that challenge. “The process of applying to law school is, in my view, an advocacy challenge. So part of what we’re looking for is whether one can, in a concise, clear, and compelling manner, present information that persuades us that they merit admission to the law school. So even with the great record, it is sometimes the case that we conclude this is not someone that we can admit immediately because we have so many other very, very strong applicants who have made a really terrific effort in their applications and so those folks might end up on the wait list.”
You might wonder why you ended up on a wait list. Well, the law schools have good reasons for using the wait list, as we hear from Dean Geiger, who says there are a lot of reasons candidates get wait listed. “The one thing I can say for sure is that it’s never because we have any doubts about their ability to succeed. If we have doubts about somebody’s ability to thrive here as a student, then at Cornell Law School, at least, we’re going to deny them. We’re not going to put them on the waiting list. It doesn’t have anything to do with our sense of their ability. What it has more to do with is our size. We are a relatively small law school here and we can’t take a lot of the really good applicants that we see.”
Admission Consultant Ann Levine, who owns Law School Expert.com and is the author of The Law School Admission Game: Play Like an Expert, has another perspective. “The law schools are gauging likelihood of attendance because US News & World Report, partially grades schools, takes into account acceptance rates, law schools are really protecting their yield which is the number of people they admit versus their number of applications overall. So law schools don’t want to hand out precious acceptance letters to people they don’t think will attend.”
When choosing off the wait list, the Admissions Committee will likely pick someone who will jump at the chance to go. That means schools generally want to see your enthusiasm unless the wait listed school falls into the “Don’t Call Us, We’ll Call You” group. Clear Admit’s Graham Richmond says there are some schools to which you should not write a letter of continued interest. “If you’re on a wait list at Harvard and you write a letter saying Harvard is the right place for me, they’re not interested in that. They would only want a letter that kind of outlines some spectacular accomplishment or something that you’ve done since applying that you thought would be worth mentioning to them.”
Many schools will fall under what might be called the “Show Me You Love Me” group, where they’re interested in hearing updates of what you’ve been doing. Some schools are more coy about hearing from wait listed candidates and fall somewhere in between. Richmond says if you read and follow the instructions in your letter carefully, you’ll know right away if the school wants to hear from you or not. “One of the cardinal rules of admissions generally is, follow instructions. So I would say, look at the wait list letter. Make sure that you know whether you have to opt in or if you’re automatically opted into a wait list. Make sure that you sort of read their terms when it comes to what you can send in, whether you can send in a supplemental recommendation letter or if they’ll take a new test score or if they’ll take an essay about your fit with the program versus an essay just updating them about your candidacy, et cetera.”
For example, at Cornell, if you’re on the wait list, Dean Geiger advises you to stay involved in the application process. “A reasonable expression of interest or an update on their circumstances is absolutely a good thing to do because it tells the school that you remain interested that if you get a call later in the year, that chances are good that the answer is going to be yes.”
The wait list letter itself may be pretty generic, but at Cornell, Dean Geiger says you will have plenty of guidance. “We give them a sense of the timeline that they can expect, a general sense of how they should think about the waiting list and we invite them to submit additional materials if they’d like. Also, at Cornell we’re a little bit different from other places because we actually invite them to have an interview so we offer up an interview and that’s something that if somebody is on our waiting list, I strongly encourage them to take us up on that offer.”
If the school does want to hear from you, you can start planning your strategy to get off the wait list and the first step is to tell the Admissions Committee that you would love to be a student there. You can do that by sending your top choices a letter of continued interest or pick up the phone. If you get wait listed, check your letter for the phone number to Admissions. Ann Levine says, line up that quality face time at the school you want to attend. “You know, let the Admission Office know you’re there, you’re coming, and you want to sit in on a class, be professional, talk to the students who are sitting around you. Talk to the students who are hanging out on the quad, get names of people, follow up with them, introduce yourself to the professor whose class you’re sitting in on. If you have an area that you really have a demonstrated interest and expertise in, find the professor at that school that shares that expertise that you would want to work with and study with and contact that person. Be a professional, start networking. Just sitting back and hoping and praying is not going to get you off any wait list. That I can guarantee.”
Richmond says with this, timing is everything. “I think that it is actually a really great idea, even before you send in the letter of continued interest, to go to campus and then when you go to write your letter about why you’re interested in this program and why it’s the perfect fit for you, you’re going to have so many great data points to draw upon and people whose names you can mention that you spoke with. I would also say, don’t hesitate to let the school know that they are your top choice. Some people say, oh gosh every candidate is going to say that but it can be effective to just be straight up and say, look if I am admitted, I am coming here.”
At Duke, Dean Hoye says he can’t remember a time he admitted a candidate from the wait list whom he had not heard from at some point in the process. He says they’re looking for candidates who know how to advocate in professional ways. “Make certain that Duke knows that you’re interested and that can be by writing a carefully crafted note to us that expresses your interest with some detail. A well-written letter gets our attention, and so I would encourage one not to just shoot off of a quick, breezy e-mail but rather think about how you want to construct that message. It should be written in a business format and written very capably. That gets into your file immediately so that as we continue the review of the application, that new information would be available to us. It would also be really unusual for us ever to admit a student from the wait list who was finishing their last year in college and yet we had not received any updates on their performance in that final year. So very, very important for a candidate who is still in college this year to submit grades from the fall semester and if they’re on the wait list throughout the summer, to submit an updated transcript that shows their spring semester grades.”
Ann Levine says it is wise to contact the law school when your status changes, for whatever reason. “If you took on a new internship, you’re learning a new language. You spent the last three months traveling. Whatever it is, write a letter to the law school. Let them know. The update is important, it might show an aspect to your application, it might add to something that you didn’t initially share with the school, but it also just shows the school you haven’t forgotten about them. You didn’t just put in your application and walk away. But I do caution people against stalking law schools, there can be a find line there.”
She says you want to be professional, mature, and understanding. “You don’t want to show up at every event and hog the same person’s time every time. You don’t want to spend 20 minutes talking with someone in law school forum because you have to understand that person’s job at the forum is to talk to a lot of people. So there is some sense of, at some point, people do cross the line and become annoying or weirdoes and you have to sort of watch that because a lot of times it just stems from normal anxiety but can come off really terribly.”
You also want to be careful with what you send to the schools. You don’t want to send junk, you don’t want to be a pest, and you don’t want to bombard them with meaningless stuff. Think strategically here. Dean Geiger says Cornell doesn’t want a stack of letters that say the same thing but, “If they’ve got something to update, if they’ve had a promotion, if they’ve got spring semester grades or something like that, that’s a good reason to send a note along and that could justify maybe more than one or two, but one or two is going to be sufficient.”
Taking an honest look at your application comes next. You weren’t accepted for a reason. The law schools generally won’t tell you why you were wait listed, but Graham Richmond says that doesn’t mean you can’t make a good guess. “Most intelligent candidates, if they step back and read their file, maybe take another close look at the schools’ kind of admitted students’ profile, they’ll probably be able to identify where they fell short and that’s the first step, really, in building your wait list strategy. It’s a kind of try to understand where you might have fallen short. Is it that your LSATs are few points below their average? Is it that your GPA is not so hot or do you think that you sort of rushed through the personal statement, or didn’t do a good job convincing the school of you fit, et cetera. So I think that it’s very rare for a school to tell you right out what it is but I think if you’re smart, you can sort of go through your file and figure it out.”
You might also be tempted to take the LSAT in June, but Levine says it is not the best idea. “If you’re sitting on Northwestern’s wait list with a 165 and you get a 170, as it happened to one of my clients two years ago, then when you tell the law school, by the way I just got a 170, you’re in. I mean, not every time. There’s no guarantee, but there’s also a risk you could not increase your score and you could get dropped from the wait list as a result. So lots of things can happen. I just urge people to use common sense and not just take an LSAT for the sake of taking an LSAT. I actually think taking an LSAT is the least of what you can do to get off a wait list. If you’ve been wait listed, a law school thinks you’re qualified to attend the school. So now it’s up to showing what else you bring to the table.”
Dean Hoye agrees, saying that most candidates are graduating and celebrating about the time they would be taking their June LSAT so it may not be the best use of time. “I am less sure that taking the LSAT again in June is such a great idea, that by the time we get scores from that sitting, it maybe a bit too late for us to consider that.”
While students may want to know their ranking on the wait list, that’s not likely to happen. Most schools don’t place wait listed candidates in any sort of order so you have no idea who is going to be called next. The diverse schools have different ways to evaluate the wait list and it’s extremely variable how schools choose students off the wait list. Dean Geiger at Cornell explains. “There may be situations where you’re trying to make little adjustments in the look of your entering class. For example, we’re a national school at Cornell so we try to have students from all over the country represented here. So if there were a situation where a particular state or region was, for some reason, underrepresented in what looked like it was going to be our entering class, we might tip the scales a little bit while we’re looking at waiting list applicants to try to deal with that so that we made sure we had the look that we wanted in that entering class. So that might be something that might affect how we evaluated candidates. From a candidate’s perspective, they can’t know that.”
At Duke, for example, Dean Hoye says they encourage hearing from students. The Admissions Office at Duke views this as the student’s “advocacy challenge” and they’re constantly reviewing new information submitted. Hoye says this period of time is dynamic for admissions officers at Duke. “Well, it is, because we’re gathering new information about our applicant pool so, even at this point in time, we’re analyzing data, we’re looking at the decisions we’re making and trying to make some assessment whether we can go back to candidates we’ve already placed, for instance, on our primary reserve list and offer some space and then once deposits come in, we are going to understand at that point precisely how much space we might have. And we’re also hearing from candidates with new information and so we’re constantly making some reevaluations of files and making preparations to invite new applicants into the program.”
Ann Levine says schools will often use the waiting list to balance out the class, the sexes, diversity, and geographic representation. “I’m going to be really honest with you. A lot of times what they think they’re missing will be a GPA or LSAT threshold and so they might look, okay, our LSAT median will be pretty low if this is our class so it might grab the people off the wait list with the higher LSATs or vice-versa with GPAs. There could be any number of factors and it really depends on how sophisticated the analysis is that the law school admission dean or director is performing as to what they are looking for, and there’s really not a lot of way of knowing but it can’t hurt to be the person who is showing interest.”
So, the wait list puts candidates in a delicate situation. You want to show enthusiasm, but you don’t want to bother the Admissions Committee. You have to use your judgment and gauge when you’re pushing enough and when it’s too much. Most importantly, if a school where you’re wait listed is really your top choice, you’ll have to stay the course throughout this uncertain period. You can hear from Cornell any time up until classes begin so stay flexible in case you get a late offer. Last year, Cornell accepted 15 students off the wait list. “There’s not a lot of offers made to people off the waiting list especially at a small school so the chances of getting an offer aren’t that great, but I always tell people the longer they can hang in there and if they’re able to retain some flexibility, the better their chances of getting an offer.”
Dean Hoye says there’s no rhythm or cycle from year to year to how they use the wait list. He admits that it’s a mystery to him. In some years, there’s a lot of space and others, not so much. “So the important thing is, if you’re very interested in a school and you’re on that wait list, if you can, to remain as flexible as possible throughout the summer in the event that space becomes available. That might mean pushing back when you sign that final lease for the other city. It might mean avoiding moving up to the last moment. If you can do that, then you can remain under consideration longer than perhaps you would otherwise and that might increase your chances of being admitted if space becomes available.”
On occasion, Duke will choose candidates from the wait list right up through the very last moment and there are instances where good things can happen to wait listed candidates who are persistent, thoughtful, and appropriate. “A few years ago, I remember we had a space right before school started, it was during our orientation program. It was one space. We had not admitted very many folks from the wait list that year and yet there was a candidate who had been persistent in a very professional way throughout the entire summer, and every three weeks or so she had communicated with us properly in a very detailed way, explained why this was a good match. That made sense to us. So when we did have a space, it was very evident to us that that was the person that the space should go to. We gave her a call and fortunately she had just, as she was from this part of the country and had just arrived on the other coast with her U-Haul, but she had not yet unloaded the U-Haul, which was helpful, and so she just turned around and drove back to North Carolina and enrolled.”
Law school applicants will sometimes send in their deposits to several schools, which effectively prevents other candidates from getting those seats and leaves more of them on waiting lists, but Dean Geiger says lately, nationally, there has been less activity in admissions late in the season partly because schools have figured out how to tell if applicants are reserving space at more than one law school. “What happens now is, I think it’s about June 15th, we get a report that gives us the names of everybody who has placed a deposit with our law school and has also placed a deposit with another law school. So we get the name of that person so we can get in touch with them and say, okay, it’s middle of June. You’ve had an offer for six months. Have you made up your mind? You can have a sort of one-on-one dialogue and figure out what are the person’s plans. In the past, we were just shooting in the dark. We had no idea whether people had made commitments at four law schools or just our law school.”
Ann Levine says there’s another aspect to being wait listed. “Sometimes I think law school applicants get caught up in the game of it and they want to be able to say they got into more law schools than anyone else, on law school forums or discussion boards, and I want to urge people to keep this in perspective. If you take yourself off a wait list, then there’s a spot that can go to someone else and if someone does that at the school where you’re wait listed and really want to get in, you could be the beneficiary. So there’s a little bit of karma that needs to go around here.”
Graham Richmond has this advice for wait listed applicants. “People do get in off the wait list. I’d say that’s the one thing to take away from this. That it does feel like purgatory when you first are placed on a wait list, but the earlier on that you get the news and the earlier that you can sort of begin your campaign, the better off you’ll be. And they wouldn’t have the list if they didn’t take folks off of them. So there are people who get in and you don’t want to sit around and wallow and say, gosh, I haven’t been admitted, I’m just on the wait list. You want to be positive and try to take a glass half-full approach and take steps to sort of bolster your candidacy wherever possible.” Dean Geiger of Cornell offers these words of wisdom. “The main point that I make to people on the waiting list is stay active and stay flexible. If you do that, you’ll be in the best position to both get an offer and be able to accept it.”
Being wait listed means that a school likes you, you’re competitive, you’re qualified, but that somebody else might be a bit more attractive or competitive. While it’s a sign of interest from the law school, it can be frustrating for those who end up there. Our experts tell us to read your wait list notification letter carefully, follow the directions precisely, and if it suggests you submit additional information, do so prudently and efficiently as this is yet another test of your judgment, your analytical skills, and your written and oral advocacy skills. With increased numbers of applications and more applicants reserving multiple seats, there is that chance you will end up on a wait list at one of your top law school choices. To increase your odds of getting in, stay flexible, engaged, and optimistic.
For more information, a transcript of this show, or to sign up to receive more law school podcasts, visit www.lawschoolpodcaster.com. Look for us on Facebook and Twitter to get the latest news and insight into the world of law school. I’m Diana Jordan with Law School Podcaster. Thanks for listening. Stay tuned for more shows as we explore another topic of interest to help you succeed in the law school application process and beyond.