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Navigating the law school waitlist

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No, this is not how you actually get into UCLA School of Law. (BTB illustration)

As people start hearing back from law schools, there is much celebration and often some disappointment. However, there is also a third possibility that not much is written on — being waitlisted.  I was waitlisted at nine (you read that correctly) law schools, including eight in the top fourteen. Hopefully, this article can provide some guidance for those who are navigating wait lists.

So, what is a waitlist? A wait list is a tool that law schools use to ensure they have sufficient enrollment given that their yield (students who accept offers) might change from year to year. Law schools want to make sure they don’t end up in a situation where more people accept offers than they have seats (overextending resources) or that fewer people accept offers than they have seats (where they’re not accepting as many students as they could). The wait list helps them fill in the gaps.

Who gets put on a waitlist? The people who get put on a wait list are people who they think could be successful at the law school and are qualified to attend, but aren’t a slam dunk for whatever reason.

In my case, this is because I was a “splitter” meaning that my LSAT and GPA diverged quite a bit. Accepting me would have had the impact of pulling up most schools LSAT average but lowering their GPA average. Law schools are also trying to build a class with diverse experiences and interests so that students can learn from each other. That can also factor in.

What can you do to get off of the waitlist? There is not much to do to get off of a waitlist. You’re on the list because they think you’re qualified to attend the school. It’s a matter of luck and them getting the numbers right on their end.

I think the one thing you can do is be clear with your first choice school that it is your first choice. I think it is good to sound enthusiastic and passionate about your first choice school. This gives that school confidence in making an offer to you because they know you will definitely accept. I was told by people who advise on law school admissions at the time that it is unethical to tell more than one school that they are your first choice and it is possible that schools could check with one another. So, I’d strongly advise against telling more than one school they’re your first choice.

What are letters of continued interests? Some schools allow students to send letters of continued interests updating the school on new information that might impact your application and to let them know you are still interested. Make sure to respect the school’s policies on sending letters of continued interests and supplemental materials (some let you send an additional essay or letter of recommendation). You don’t want to signal to a law school that you can’t follow their rules when they’re literally going to be teaching you about the law! Also, you want whatever additional materials you send (i.e. essays or recommendation letters) to provide more context and information, rather than repeating things that they know from the rest of your application.

Should you stay on a waitlist?. If you have been accepted to schools that you are more interested in, then there is no reason to stay on the waitlist. If like me, you are on a number of waitlists, I think it’s important to know your personal preferences.

I visited schools that I could visit at a reasonable cost for me (i.e. in my city or near my parent’s or a train ride away). I was not invited to admitted students day (obviously) but would go at other times and ask to sit in on classes as though I was considering applying. I spaced out my visits based on my work schedule and when I had days off. My preferences were shaped some, but not entirely, based on law school rankings. I wrote about how to choose a law school here.

I found that having a sense of my personal preferences helped a great deal. When I got accepted to the first school off of the waitlist, I removed myself from the wait lists of four other schools that I liked less (including one that was ranked higher). This quickly shrunk the schools that I was waitlisted at from nine to four.

This helped with my anxiety because I felt that I was in control of the process. It also meant that I wasn’t choosing a school based on which got back to me first. I had clarity on what my preferences were and wasn’t suddenly scrambling to learn about the schools.

About a month later, I got into the law school that was the fourth on my list of the remaining four schools where I was waitlisted. I made the choice to let go of my non-refundable deposit for a second time to shift to this school. I thought of losing these deposits as a small price to pay for going to the best school that I could. I also thought it was a small amount of money compared to the tremendous amount of loans that I was going to be taking out.

However, it was a privilege to have access to resources that allowed me to make that choice. It is reasonable to make a different choice based on your circumstances or to ask the law school if they might consider making an exception to their policy.

How long should you wait? I know people who allowed their anxiety to drive how long they were willing to wait to hear back from their top choice school. I strongly advise against this. You can live with the anxiety. I think more practical considerations like, when you have to move to a new city and when classes start, should drive how long you are willing to wait for your top choice. I know students who were at orientation for one school when they heard that they got into a different school which was starting a week later and left to move to that new city. I was almost in that situation.

I gave notice on my apartment in NYC, where my first choice law school (NYU) was based, because I needed to start searching for an apartment in the city where the law school I  was planning to attend was based. I found an apartment in that city and was about to sign a new lease when I got an email from NYU asking if I was still interested in attending.

From the various law school blogs, I learned that many law schools send a similar email to students on the wait list prior to making an offer as a way of protecting their yield numbers. I told them I was and told my landlord I would not be moving (he was about to start showing my apartment and apartments in NYC can go very quickly). Within a few days, I received a call from NYU offering me acceptance. It was a week before classes started.

I then removed myself from one of the other law schools on my waitlist. I stayed on one waitlist (at a school that was ranked higher than NYU)  out of vanity even though I wouldn’t have gone there over NYU. I think it’s okay to do this if it will bother you not to know if you could’ve gotten in. However, I’d be mindful not to do this for every school because the time they spend waiting to hear your “no” delays their offer to someone else. I ended up getting my rejection from that school after I’d already started at NYU.

Above all, as you navigate wait lists remember that the anxiety is temporary and you’ll end up in the right place for you! Good luck!

Aditi Juneja Aditi Juneja is a lawyer, writer, and activist. She is a Communicator at Protect Democracy. She co-created the Resistance Manual and OurStates.org. She also created and hosted a podcast on Self Care called Self Care Sundays. She graduated from NYU Law in May 2017 and was recently named to Forbes' 30 under 30 for Law and Policy in 2018.