Why Law School Waitlists Are Way Up for Law Schools in 2021

Notre Dame’s rush to accept is the latest example of a crazy admissions cycle


In what was expected to be wild and crazy law school admissions cycle for prospective students has turned out to be a wild and crazy admissions cycle.

Indeed, it’s maybe even more wild and crazy then expected …

Notre Dame Law School had so many qualified applicants that it was concerned it would over-enroll its Fall 2021 Class if too many students accepted its admissions offer.

So the school sent an email telling applicants that it was possible that they would not have until the April 15 deadline to send in a non-refundable $600 deposit to hold the seat. The school warned it would cut them off “when we reach our maximum number of deposits.”

That’s tough on students. Some want to wait until the deadline to see if they get a better scholarship offer from another school. They may get accepted into a more prominent school that they’ve yet to hear back from. Some may not have that kind of cash readily available …

However, an offer from Notre Dame is pretty sweet and many did not want to risk it. That led to a wild and crazy run on seats. On the morning of April 6, the school sent out an email noting that it had reached nearly 70% of deposits. By 5 p.m., the number was 80%. By 6 p.m., it was over. The school had maxed out.

Those applicants who didn’t put in a deposit were then put on the waitlist. Many complained they didn’t even know the run on seats was happening because they didn’t open their email in that timeframe.

One student told The Observer, a newspaper that covers Notre Dame, St. Mary’s and Holy Cross, that he was working that day.

“I was either driving the work truck around or at a job site, so I had no ability to be able to check my email during the day,” the student said.

The school said it had no option, given how it wants to keep class sizes small. A spokesperson told The Observer: “Therefore, the deposit policy is designed to prevent over-enrollment and to maintain our small law school environment for students.”

But it’s not just Notre Dame that’s struggling with how to handle the increase in applicants. They are up more than 30% this cycle, with the pandemic cited as the primary reason. The economy remains sketchy, so students are being drawn to law school. Not only is the number of applicants up, so are their academic credentials, particularly LSAT scores.

For law schools waitlists, it’s a new world. Applications fell dramatically a few years after the Great Recession took hold. That’s because the legal field had become saturated with recently graduated lawyers. Applications only began to rebound — and just slightly so — a few years ago.

This current surge is causing many schools to not accept applicants — even those who may have qualified a few years ago — or waitlist them.

On Reddit, many students voice their anxiety. “How does waitlist work? I’m waiting to hear back from my top choice, should I still pay [the] seat deposit at the safety school which accepted me?”

One exclaimed: “Six months of being on a waitlist!” 

One asked “What are you guys doing to stand out and try to get off these waitlist? One reply: “Bribes and praying.”

So what’s going on? A number of factors are at play, experts say.

“Schools are waitlisting students more than in past years and have been slower to hand out decisions, in part because everyone is still working from home but also because of the uncertainty COVID posed to last yea’s and this year's admissions cycle,” said Rachel Margiewicz, director of Prelaw Services at JD Advising. “Some of the uncertainties related to COVID have been reflected in the application pool with more people taking the LSAT and applying than is typical in past years.”

The larger and stronger application pool is incentivizing schools to hold out for those stellar applicants who might be apply later, she added.

Also, many schools offered more deferments last year because of COVID. Some students wanted to wait a year rather then enter during the pandemic. So that’s affected waitlist growth as well.

There will be waitlist movement, she added.

“There always is and I don't expect that to change this year. This will likely start in a few weeks after seat deposit deadlines pass and schools have a chance to reassess how they are doing relative to their targets.”

Mike Spivey, founder of Spivey Consultants, said in a recent podcast that it’s tough to predict how this will shake out because this kind of an admissions cycle has never happened before. So there’s no past data to go on.

“No school right now knows how it’s going to break,” he said.

Interestingly, he noted how some students may become “psychologically attached” to a school that admitted them early versus ones that put them a wait list for months. That may mean a school’s yield — the percentage of admitted students who actually enroll — could be higher than in past years.

Margiewicz advises students to stay in contact with schools where they are waitlisted.

“I’d advise them to put down seat deposits at more than one school. Law schools don't love this, for obvious reasons, but students should keep their options reasonably open. There's no need to put deposits down at every school they were admitted to, but don't only deposit at a single school unless the student is 100% committed to attending there.”

This could drag on until late spring and into late summer, which could force students to scramble for housing and such when admitted.

“If they need to move at the last minute, a furnished Airbnb might be an option upon arrival,” she said. “Or, they could at least begin looking at housing in the area of their waitlisted schools to get an idea of the cost and what a good location for them may be. This way, should the decision come late in summer, they'll know exactly where they will want to live.”

Students have noted how difficult and stressful this year has been. Surya Swaroop, a writer for the Daily Nexus, the University of California Santa Barbara newspaper, put it this way:

“COVID has resulted in a monotonous way of living for many of us and waiting to hear back from schools was no exception to this. I started a consistent routine of checking my email first thing in the morning, attempting to busy myself with school work, checking my email throughout the day and then feeling resigned when, more often than not, there was rarely any news.”














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