The Law School Waitlist: What It Means & How to Get Admitted

Danielle Early, a partner at Spivey Consulting Group and a former admissions officer at Harvard Law School, talks about waitlists.

So, you’ve been waitlisted. Well, what does that mean and how do you get off the waitlist? These are big questions that everybody has.

Let’s start with, “What is the waitlist?” Well essentially, it’s the way that an admissions office is going to reach out to people and say, “We haven’t made a final decision on your application yet, but we recognize that you need to make a decision right now about where you’re heading to school because other schools have deadlines.” So they’re sending you a decision that basically says, “We’ll get back to you later.”

It doesn’t mean that you are being admitted, it doesn’t mean that you’re going to be denied — it just means no decision has been made yet. So when a school has a waitlist, how do they decide who to admit off of it?

A school needs to find out if they actually have space to take a person off the waitlist first, so they’re going to wait until their deposit deadline or right around it and count the numbers, see if they still have space available. Most schools want to work off of their waitlist, so there probably will be an opportunity to get off the waitlist.

They’re first going to look at all of the data about who their incoming class is. They’re going to look for things like what their LSAT median is, what their GPA median is, what their demographics look like, and again, do they actually have enough people yet? Schools want to know that they’re going to admit people off the waitlist who are actually going to come. They’re concerned with their yield, which is something that goes into the US News and World Report rankings. It’s something that they’re paying close attention to, so they want to know that you’re actually interested in them. And then they want to find the people that they like. So we know that when schools are thinking about who they’re taking off the waitlist, they’re thinking about what they need, they’re thinking about who’s likely to come, and who they like.

What can you actually control out of those things? You can control what they know about you, and your likelihood of coming, and helping them get to like you a little bit more. Once you’ve been waitlisted, the first thing you’re going to do is submit whatever they need to tell them, yes you want to stay on the waitlist. Then start doing your due diligence — find out more about the school, find out as much as you can in your own research to help you decide if this is a place where you’d want to go.

If you get the opportunity to visit, great, if you have the opportunity to talk to alumni or current students, wonderful. Do whatever you can to learn more about the institution. Then you want to write a letter of continued interest to the school. That letter of continued interest is going to do a few different things: it’s going to help them understand how interested you are in them, and it also can serve as an update for any new information that you have since you’ve sent in your last application or any additional information.

If you’ve had a promotion at work, if you have new grades, if you’ve had the opportunity to do something really fascinating, absolutely add that into the letter of continued interest. Let them know a little bit more about you, but spend the time also telling them why their school is the right fit for you, why it’s where you want to be.

That’s when you can go back to those conversations that you’ve had, the visit that you did, and actually draw upon real experiences to tell them that you’re interested in their school. So what else should you keep in mind when you’re on a waitlist? Well, number one is that you want to make sure that you do check in with the school but you don’t pester the school.

There are great opportunities to reach out and update them on different things — you have a new telephone number, you’ve moved, you visited campus and you want to send a thank you note — these are all really good reasons to reach out. You don’t want to reach out just because you are anxious. Anxiousness is not a reason to reach out to a school. So when you’re thinking about the outreach that you’ll do to an institution, you want to think about how long it’s been since the last time you reached out to them.

If it’s been less than three weeks since the last time you reached out to them, it’s probably too soon unless it’s really important for you to reach out like your contact information has actually changed. But if it’s been about six weeks, it might be an opportunity to reach out again, but somewhere in the middle of that is an okay amount of time to reach out to a school. Don’t reach out to them every week. Remember that each school is different, and so some schools may have a lot of waitlist movement early, take a lot of people off the waitlist; some schools may waitlist a lot of people.

Each school does things the way that they need to, and you don’t want to assume that when one school does something that every other school is going to follow suit the same way. The biggest thing to know about the waitlist is that the name is pretty accurate. You’re going to find yourself waiting, and waiting, and waiting. A lot of movement does tend to happen in May very soon after the deposit deadline happens, but the truth is people are admitted all through the summer. I’ve seen multiple people who have already started classes at one school when they get the phone call from their dream school.

Sometimes, you’ve seen them pack up and move and show up at that new school the next day, other times they’ve made the decision that it’s a little bit too late for them. But the admissions do happen all the way through the summer, so that idea of waiting really is something that you have to get used to.

Be patient — anytime that you’re starting to get really, really anxious or worried, don’t reach out to the school; reach out to a friend, get them to distract you, go for a run, go out for a little while, go back to work — whatever it is that you need to distract yourself. Just don’t reach out to the school simply to make yourself feel a little bit better.

The last thing that you should do when you’re on the waitlist is get excited about your current plan, because it might be what you’re doing this fall. The waitlist might be an opportunity for things to change a little bit, but it’s not a guarantee, so you want to make sure that you send a deposit to the school that you would otherwise go to and start making those plans. Get excited about it and allow the waitlist to be a happy surprise if you’re admitted off of it.

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