This installment of the series is posted per xiaoningning’s request.
When to apply?
As early as possible. I am not the first one to offer this piece of advice but it is so important that it’s worth repeating. Applying early has the following advantages:
1. know your results earlier. First round admits typically come out in December. It will be a huge relief to know before Christmas that at least you are going somewhere next year.
2. if you don’t get in as a first round admit, this gives you time to add additional materials. In a way, you get a second chance to augment your application.
3. to yield-protecting schools, applying early shows your strong interest in the school and you are less likely to be yield-protected.
4. there is always the chance that admission committees admit too many candidates early on in the cycle and have to tighten the belt towards the end to compensate. (In fact, Michigan admitted too many and over-enrolled last year and same happened to Yale this year.)
5. your essays are likely to get a more careful read.
Here is an ideal timeline:
June or earlier: take the LSAT.
July-August: most schools should have posted their application kits online. Read them. Look at essay questions and think about what you are going to write, hard.
August-September: write your essays. Then rewrite. Then show them to a native speaker if you are (like me) not one. Rewrite again. Read it out aloud. Read it to your family, friends, strangers (OK I didn’t do the last part, but you get the idea). Then rewrite again.
September: As soon as your profs are back on campus from their extravagent vacation to those international conferences, ask them for recommendation letters. Also prepare the Dean’s Certification forms if required.
Late September: send in all applications. Monitor the progress of your recommendation letters and dean’s certificates. Past experience shows that these can take a long long time to be ready if you don’t follow up constantly upto the verge of being annoying.
October: monitor application progress at each school. Make a spreadsheet to keep track of the status of applications — whether they are sent, received or completed, along with the dates and contact info. Also, heaven forbid, retake the LSAT if you have to.
Early decision, early action, or regular?
If you follow the timeline above, you will qualify to apply under the “Early Decision” (ED – not to be confused with the organ malfunction that Viagra treats) or “Early Action” (EA) tracks. Basically this allows you to send and complete your application early and get a decision from the school before Christmas.
The result from EA/ED can be one of the following three: Admit, Reject, or Deferral. The first two are self explanatory. Deferral basically puts you into the pool of regular applicants to be considered again sometime in the Spring.
The difference between ED and EA is that under ED, you are entering a binding contract with the school and must withdraw all other applications and matriculate at this school if admitted, although a deferral will release you from this contract. With EA you are not bound by this agreement.
So should you choose ED, EA or regular? My opinion is that you should always apply under EA whenever possible, but be very careful with ED. By applying ED to a school, you are not only comitting to the school’s admission offer, you are also giving up the opportunity to compare financial aid packages from its peer schools before making a decision. (I ended up applying EA everywhere such an option is available, and didn’t apply ED anywhere — and in retrospect I am glad I didn’t.)
The only advantage to applying under the ED option is that schools will cut you some slack if you are a borderline candidate. I’ve seen people with creds that’s almost certainly reject/waitlist at Chicago and Columbia getting in under the ED option at these places. So yes, applying ED boosts your chance of getting in, but use it only if you are sure you absolutely want to attend this school regardless of financial aspects.
Online vs. paper
This is an easy one. Online, absolutely. Why bother with paper applications any more? Do it via “LSDAS CD on the Web.” It’s well worth the price. It saves you trouble and saves trouble for the adcomm as well because there is less data-entry to do.
How many, and which ones?
LSDAS makes it very easy to apply to a lot of schools by auto-filling most of the form fields for you. But don’t over do it. The average number of applications per applicant, if my memory serves, is 8-9, although anywhere from 6 to 12 is normal.
My strategy in choosing where to apply — if it can be called a strategy — is to select the schools I will happily go to if admitted. Admittedly there are a lot more such schools than I can reasonably afford to apply to at $60-80 a pop, so I ended up applying to all of T14 minus Northwestern and Berkeley. Don’t ask me why not these two. I just couldn’t see myself in those two schools.
My case is perhaps not typical, as I have a good-paying job that I actually like and increased family duties, so my opportunity cost is high and thus I am aiming high accordingly. The traditional wisdom in choosing schools is a four tiered system:
a few high reaches: schools that you have little chance of getting into.
a few reaches: schools where you are borderline.
a few targets: schools where your credentials should be competitive
a few safeties: schools where you have better chance winning the lottery than being rejected from these places.
A quick glance over the ABA data on lsac.org, records on lawschoolnumbers.com and the U.S. News charts will give you an idea of what your reaches, targets and safeties are. For those who are not desperately hoping to get into law school, I’d suggest dropping the last tier (safeties) altogether.