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Because the law school admissions process is rolling, those who apply early in the fall have the highest odds of acceptance. Some applicants seek a further edge by applying either early decision or early action.
Early decision and early action applicants submit their complete applications months before the general application deadline. In turn, their applications are evaluated promptly and they receive expedited decisions of acceptance, rejection or placement in the general application pool.
Early decision is a binding commitment with just a few exceptions. Applicants accepted early decision typically must commit to attend the law school that accepts them, withdraw any outstanding applications and not apply elsewhere.
In contrast, early action is nonbinding. Applicants accepted early action can still apply elsewhere, secure in the knowledge that they have one certain option. While dozens of law schools offer early decision, early action is rarer. Only a handful of law schools offer both options.
Since early decision programs are more common and more limiting for law school applicants, it is worth considering the benefits and drawbacks.
The Pros of Applying Early Decision to Law School
Applying early decision signals to admissions officers that an applicant is so interested in attending their school that he or she is willing to forgo all other applications if accepted. Law schools prefer such highly motivated applicants because they raise campus morale, they don’t need to be wooed and they make it easier to lock in a balanced incoming class.
Admissions officers are therefore a bit more lenient toward early decision applicants whose grades or LSAT score are lower than the school median. This gives their chances of admission a little nudge.
Furthermore, the early applicant pool is smaller than the general pool. Applying early means less competition from other applicants with academic, professional and personal profiles similar to yours.
It can be a relief, moreover, to receive an early notification of admission. Many law schools will give their early decision applicants a decision by the end of December and some aim for a turnaround of a month or less. Meanwhile, general applicants might need to wait until March or April to hear back, which can feel stressful and uncertain.
However, many early decision applicants are deferred to the general admission pool, which releases them from the binding commitment and leaves them no better or worse off than if they had applied later.
The Cons of Applying Early Decision to Law School
The commitment that early decision applicants make to attend a school if accepted is enforced, except in the few exceptions where a school has made its early decision nonbinding. Admissions offices notify other schools about which applicants have accepted early decision. Breaching a binding contract is not a promising start to a legal career.
Because of this commitment, early decision applicants have little leverage to negotiate for higher merit-based scholarships or to defer admission by one or two years. Once you’ve bought a car, it’s a lot harder to ask for a discount.
However, note a couple of caveats here. First, applicants tend to apply early decision to law schools that are just within reach, where they are least likely to receive merit-based scholarships. Second, some law schools automatically provide additional funding to early decision applicants, like the University of California—Berkeley School of Law and Northwestern University’s Pritzker School of Law.
Finally, early decision applicants must have all their materials together in time to meet early decision deadlines as early as October or November, although some law schools have a second-round early decision deadline later. Meanwhile, general application deadlines tend to be around February or March.
Early decision applicants usually cannot submit later LSAT scores or updated grades unless bumped to the general pool.
Making the Decision
Applicants often try to game out where they can apply early decision to maximize their odds of admission to a highly competitive law school. This can be a tricky balance. Applying early to a school where your odds are slim is unlikely to make a difference, while applying early to a school where your odds are more solid will bar you from taking a shot at higher-ranked schools.
Applying early decision thus makes the most sense for applicants who fit a law school’s profile in most ways but are lower than the median in their grades or standardized test scores.
Ultimately, however, applying early decision should be a personal choice rather than a strategic gamble. If you are going to commit to a law school in advance, it should be one you would be overjoyed to attend. Indecision about where to apply early decision may be a sign that you should apply to a range of schools through the general process and hopefully end up with multiple options to consider.