Admissions: What They Do

Last updated: July 7, 2013

The Role of the Numbers

There was a time when numbers (GPA & LSAT) were about the only things considered in the application process. Now, though numbers still are the most important elements, especially at the point of initial consideration, other factors do come into play once the applicant has made it beyond the initial threshold. If the numbers get the applicant into the pool, then three other factors come into play: personal statement, recommendations and activities, in that order. Please note that none of the three can get the applicant into the pool; but once in the pool these factors can play an important role.

Your Index Number

At many law schools, the decision will not even be made on the basis of your LSAT and GPA. About half the nation's law schools use a formula that is designed to predict your first-year average at that law school. The ingredients in the formulas vary among law schools:  some weigh the GPA and LSAT differently, and others include the writing sample.

Law schools send ETS information based on their validity studies of the best predictions of law school success. ETS takes the formula submitted by the law schools and plugs in your GPA and LSAT scores. Along with your LSDAS report, the law school receives your predicted average (called the "index" or "index number"). It might be 78.35 at one school and 2.879 at another. Index numbers are released to applicants.

I wish to stress that it is the law schools that provide ETS the formulas with which to compute the index number, and that the index is in most cases merely another statistic to be considered. But given the application crush and the human predilection to let the numbers rule (the easy way out), I fear that many law schools base their decisions primarily on the index number. It should be noted, however, that Duke students can fare very well under this system since Duke is highly regarded by law schools. A Duke student with a lower index number than that of a person from some of other school, may still enjoy an advantage.

Administrators vs. Committees

Law schools vary in their decision-making methods. The more "objective" schools establish cut-off levels above or below which people are automatically accepted or rejected. Assistants perform this function, which is called "administrative action."  Schools that consider more subjective factors (as well as the entire file) generally rely on faculty admissions committees. These 3-5 person committees either review the files collectively during meetings, or the files are circulated for consideration and individual voting. Some schools employ a combination of administrative action and committee. Students above a predetermined level are automatically admitted, those below are canned, and the middle range goes to committee for final decision.

The Long Wait

The earlier applications are filed, the earlier you will hear. For many law schools, though, it may take a long time to receive a decision. Schools that use committees often do not begin sending our notices until March. Except for the "totally objective" schools that may reach a decision as soon as they receive your LSDAS report, you will be lucky if you are accepted anywhere before second semester begins. It is not at all uncommon for a person to graduate with several applications outstanding. If you are placed on a waiting list, you are not likely to be accepted until August (if then). The majority of decisions, however, are mailed in March, April and May.

You may find yourself "squeezed" in that one school that demands an acceptance deposit from you before you will hear from another place. If this occurs, I suggest that you let the first school know of your dilemma. My experience is that law schools are surprisingly understanding in such situations, and will probably honor a request for a month's extension. Further, despite disclaimers that deposits are non-refundable if the applicant fails to enroll, they frequently will refund deposits if you later get a really attractive offer and loss of the deposit would be a hardship. You've nothing to lose by asking--law schools are not out to screw you.

Waiting List

A waiting list is just that--you wait until vacancies occur in the class, and you are accepted if they reach your name on the list. Vacancies occur up to the day classes begin, and people are commonly offered admission on such short notice. (Some Dukees have actually enrolled and begun classes at law schools, only to withdraw when offered a place in a school they like better.)  Life on a waiting list is uncertain and precarious, and you should never bypass an attractive alternative in hopes of eventual acceptance where you are wait-listed.

Unfortunately, because of the terrific crunch of applications, more than a few law schools have large waiting lists of people who have no chance of admission but whom admissions officers cannot bear to reject. It is grossly unfair to the applicant to string him/her along all summer, hoping for the acceptance that will never come. Granted, most schools use such phrases as "the likelihood of eventual admission is small."  But as long as even a tiny ray of hope is indicated, nearly all students will keep their names on waiting lists. I believe it is unfair for law schools to keep any people dangling beyond the number of likely vacancies in the class. If you are placed on a waiting list at a school that you would attend if admitted, please talk with the Pre-Law Advisor.

Pressure and Pull

You will hear lots of stories about people getting into law schools because they had "pull." In 95 percent of the cases, these stories will be fabricated or grossly exaggerated. Admissions get requests for special treatment from university administrators, athletic coaches, influential alumni, prominent attorneys, politicians, and well-heeled contributors. Since admissions people are pressured all the time, they are relatively immune to it. There are limits, of course, to everyone's resistance, but on the whole you had better not count on being helped anywhere by people recommending you.

The above should not be construed to say that any admissions office is able to resist pressure. To the contrary, probably every law class has one or two people who were admitted as result of some type of pressure. At most universities, for instance, the president has the unchallenged right to order a person admitted to any school in the university (referred to as "wild cards"). But while there are always people admitted through pull, the number is probably smaller than one would think.

Special Summer Trial Entrance

Some schools have instituted special programs to allow borderline or rejected applicants another chance to begin law school in the fall.

The programs vary in length and subject matter, but generally consist of an intense summer program (perhaps a course on a first-year topic, perhaps on something else) in which the student is evaluated by several law school personnel. If the student makes a certain grade, he or she may then be offered a place in the law class entering that fall.

Often the school will have as a stipulation for students taking its special summer program that normal application must have been made for the fall semester and that the applicant was not then admitted. A list of schools offering such programs can be found in The NAPLA/SAPLA Book of Law School Lists.

Law Schools Offering 3-3 Programs

Some law schools will admit students who have completed only three years of undergraduate work, thus offering what is commonly known as a 3-3 undergraduate law school course of study. A Duke student is awarded an undergraduate degree in a 3-3 program only if the student attends Duke Law School.

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