Podcast: How to Crush the Second Half of the Law School Admissions Cycle

In this episode of Status Check with Spivey, Mike gives an update on 2022-2023 cycle data and discusses admissions strategies for the second half of the application cycle: waitlists and letters of continued interest, tips for asking for scholarship reconsideration, and handling the waiting/anxiety. (It may surprise you how impactful that last item can be to your outcomes!)

Mike recorded this episode before final January 2023 LSAT data was out—you can find the latest update on our Twitter, here. A few other Status Check episodes are mentioned in this podcast as well:

You can listen and subscribe to Status Check with Spivey on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, YouTube, SoundCloud, and Google Podcasts.

Full Transcript:

Welcome to Status Check with Spivey where we talk about life, law school, law school admissions, a little bit of everything. Today we're going to cover really the remaining, we'll call it 40% of the cycle, although that's misleading. Because if 60% of applications have been submitted and 40% have not, there's at minimum more than 50% of admits to be made. So let's actually just call it halfway through the cycle. And the theme of this podcast is basically, it's going to be structured into four parts, but it's going to be how to crush the second half of the cycle.

The four parts I want to talk about are handling the waiting and the anxiety that the waiting causes, which believe it or not, of all the four, is the most important. It's the most in your control and I'm going to start off with that. Because I really hope people that listen to it, and if I can word it the right way, people who find it helpful, are going to be the people who are going to kill it on the waitlist. The second part we're going to talk about is the data, where the data is now, where the data is taking us, and what that means to you as an applicant. Then I’ll talk about letters of continued interest and the timing is going to be different this year than in previous years. And then I'm going to focus on scholarship negotiation, the timing of which is going to be different than previous years. So everything I talked about by the way we've talked about before, but every cycle is also unique. What I'm going to add are the sort of splashes of differentiation this cycle. But we're going to link a whole bunch of stuff. We're going to link as far as the anxiety part, Dr. Guy Winch, a three-time TED Talk speaker, bestselling author who literally was on our podcast talking about how to handle waiting, how to handle anxiety, so forth, so on. So let me get to that part and why it's so important.

I saw someone on Reddit say the other day, maybe rightfully so and I'm certainly not picking on this person—I'm really glad they chimed in—but they said that they had been on the board or the subreddit two or three years, and they had never seen the hostility get to where it's gotten. And I would actually probably disagree, having been on message boards all the way back to Law School Discussion and then Top Law Schools, there's another one, AutoAdmit, and now this Reddit. It follows a pattern. We sort of identified it years ago at our firm. And the pattern is early on, everyone is each other's friends. It's really neat to see team ethos because you're in the admission cycle together. So, you know if there's an enemy maybe it's the LSAT or the LSAC and their pricing, but it's not each other. And then what happens is people start getting their first rejections. If anyone wants to leave in the comments how to do this, I need to find a better way to message early in the cycle. Look, if you apply in September or October or November, A, you might not hear back until March, April, June. That's every cycle I've seen. And B, people who have applied in December and January/February might hear back before you. I talk about it every year, but I talk about it I almost think too early and then I see long threads that sort of leave me feeling for the person who originates them and everyone chiming in, “I can't believe it’s January 30th and I applied in September and I haven't heard.” That's actually every admission cycle. That's the way it meanders. I'm not saying it's fair, I'm not saying it's right. I'm not saying if you and I were to create our own law school and you were to be my Dean of Admissions that we would have set dates like Harvard. But that's the way of the world, and that creates a whole lot of anxiety.

What happens is it's natural and by natural, I mean, I've seen it for 24 straight years now, is that collective worded together approach starts becoming for some subsets, “these are my competitors, they're getting admits and I'm going to be hostile towards other people.” My biggest concern always obviously is admissions because it's what I do for a living. And my second biggest concern is people’s mental health and wellbeing because it's sort of the second half of my life. It’s what I do for a living, what I'm writing my second book on. But let's talk about admissions.

The best way if you're below a median, below both medians to get off a waitlist to get admitted is to stay upbeat, ebullient, professional throughout the entire process. And we could link a crazy story, it's a sad story actually of someone having their scholarship and offer rescinded because they got so bitter towards the law school. I could give you hundreds of examples of people who had offers rescinded because of their abrasive behavior during the admissions process. If I could give you hundreds of examples of offer rescissions, I could give you tens of thousands of people who probably were right on the bubble, but most likely either purported way too much anxiety towards their law school, so sending emails every week, even like eager to hear from you replies to emails. I mean, when I speak it that sounds fine, but in written form, there's almost a passive-aggressivity to it.

So the anxiety that law schools feel, and trust me, I mean, I talk to Deans of Admissions almost every day in my life. These are some of my best friends. They feel your anxiety. Maybe it makes them want to read applications faster, maybe it doesn't. But it certainly doesn't make them want to admit the people that are wearing on them. So I don't bring this up in a sort of pejorative, judgmental fashion at all. I just mean that when people are getting more anxious, attacking others, making up stories, or being intrusive upon admissions officers, that decreases their likelihood of admission.

On the flip side, if you're still helping one another, cheering for each other, being incredibly upbeat, and I could give thousands of stories of this. People who get off the waitlist because they're always professional, upbeat, and they measure their pace with admissions officers, it is so important. I'm talking about it now because just like I said, when I talk in June about how slow the cycle is going to be, sometimes I don't think it really registers. People don't start thinking about it until January. If you're thinking about being upbeat when you're reaching out to admissions officers, don't start thinking about that in the summer, do it now.

I can think of one student who helped a custodial worker, who was older, who had never lifted weights. He just kept taking him to the Rec Center at Vanderbilt, when I was at Vanderbilt and taught an older gentleman how to lift weights. And then I could think about students who the stress gets to them and they start lying about their school, lying about their classmates. You heard that story, I mean there's many of these. But you heard two Yale Law School students, they got kicked out of law school, not be able to sit for the bar because they made up stories about a female classmate of theirs. I mean every year these things happen. If it's happening now to anyone, that's your sort of red flag maybe to not sort of self-medicate against others online. A, it’s deleterious, as I just talked about in the admissions process, it's harmful. But B, it's a red flag that it might be even more harmful as a law school student.

And then case after case, and tragic story after tragic story of people making up things about their classmates or being hostile towards their classmates or professors. You see it with professors, you see it with the faculty. You saw that Columbia video, imagine that adjunct professor at Columbia, I see it on Twitter. I see faculty members on Twitter where their lives are based on likes, and then they have a controversy and they have these public meltdowns. I’m not naming names, I can think of three at the top of my head.

And then sadly, when the pressure really mounts, and then I'm going to get to the data, which is what I think most people are here for, you see it in the law firm legal employment side of the world, often in the form of substance abuse disorder, which is why we had Dr. Gabor Maté on this podcast. And I would just say that if you're at any stage of this process, if you're self-medicating with substances because the process is so understandably stressful, please listen to Dr. Gabor Maté, Dr. Anna Lembke, who was on our podcast, Dr. Judson Brewer, who was on our podcast. These are professionals. They're not judging.

I remember when Dr. Gabor Maté asked me, “Mike, is it natural to want to escape or numb pain?” Of course, it's natural. Even at this level, you see it, you know, I was an Assistant Dean at two law schools, and I was the one that people had my cellphone number, had to call me at 2:00 in the morning for rides home or because they're in jail. And then you see it even worse at the law firm level. I'm not going to hammer on this anymore. The takeaway here is sort of a self-help one, it's in your best interest to try to stay as upbeat as possible. I know it's hard. It's hard for me, right? I’ve put a lot of work into myself, I'm 50 years old, and I'm not upbeat, ebullient, effervescent every day. But the days that I am are the days I connect with people. And the best way to get admitted to a law school, particularly if you're below medians, or splitter or reverse splitter particularly in a school cycle, is to connect with people.

So what does the data look like going forward for the rest of the cycle? We actually did a podcast pretty recently, “Will medians stay as high this law school cycle?” Which not much has changed. And I think that was a pretty crisp, concise, and hopefully accurate podcast. You might want to check it out. We're still looking at some interesting effects, and there is a little bit more information. Here's the funniest part. As of tomorrow, today is Tuesday, I’m recording this podcast on Tuesday, the 31st. As of tomorrow, we'll know a lot more and we'll tweet the January LSAT specifics. How many re-takers, first-time takers, how many exactly. But this podcast won't be published until like Thursday or Friday, then you can call me out for how wrong I am.

It looks to us like January is going to be slightly up. When you hear this, I'll have already tweeted it. And then looking at February and April, April is not a big one to be concerned with because it really is going to impact waitlists but not initial waves.

On the bad news side of things, February is going to be up as far as takers. Again, we don't know if that's just a bunch of retakers, which does not add more applicants to the pool. It could just be because the cycle's so slow. The other thing about February is, it's generally a very small test. So in the grand scheme of things, even if it's—if a small number is up, it's still probably a small number.

So let me talk about the data for the rest of the cycle. I think we were fortunate and lucky enough to get it right the last two cycles. Two cycles ago, we said the applicants would be down 12%, and they were down like 11-point-something. This cycle, we said down 1 to 5%, and they right now sit down at four—applicants sit down at 4.3%. Obviously, that's in your favor. But let me be clear, it is my deeply considered opinion, not just based on having done this for many, many years, but also talking to law schools that at the macro level, law schools are going to increase their class sizes. Increase. I'm not recording this at 3:30am. right after I woke up, like I did on the last podcast and mistakenly said decrease. That was a mistake. Also, my COO is going to listen, like we normally have a process in the least.

Law schools in general are going to increase their class size, and applicants are down. That is a wonderful effect. Now, we calculate percent increases and decreases differently, we think more precisely than LSAC. So if you go to the LSAC Volume Summary report, applicants with LSAT scores 170 to 180, they show down. We show up. So we screenshot the exact numbers every day. So the reason why our data is different than what LSAC publishes is that LSAC reports only an applicant’s ultimate high score, only. Even if they don't achieve that score until months or even years after the date in question. So they go back and they erase their previous score.

For example, if someone applied in the 2021-2022 cycle with a 160, and then re-took the LSAT the following fall and scored a 170 to reapply in the next cycle, the 2022-2023 cycle, LSAC would include them as an applicant with a 170, even in the previous cycle. So to avoid this effect, what we do is we record applicant volume daily in real-time so that we can compare it versus the actual date stamp last cycle, the cycle before. Our percent changes are going to look different than LSAC’s. I don't quite understand why LSAC doesn't change their method to be more precise. I have guesses and most of them aren't flattering to leadership decision-making at LSAC. Maybe if you're a de facto, I hate to use the word monopoly, you know, I said de facto, but if you were the only player in town, maybe you could just do whatever you want even if it's not precise. So that's one possibility.

But when we look at our data, which is captured more precisely, 170 to 180 is actually slightly up in LSAT scores. And that could be because people are retaking more often, it could be because people are studying more. It's weird that that bubble has stayed up at the top. It benefits LSAC for you to retake the test multiple times, they get money every time. So we don't know what's going on.

For many years, the stability of that bell curve has been very similar. And now, ever since LSAT Flex, high scores have been up, disconcerting to us at almost at a principle level, but also it makes things for law schools harder to predict. So we'll see next year if you're applying next cycle if the curve finally normalizes. But right now, there's still a bubble of 170 and above. That's going to impact, as we said in the podcast I referred to, the elite of the elite schools, the schools with medians 170 to 180, because they may try to hold steady. I don't think anyone in that score band is going to be increasing. And when you look at 155 to 170, that's where you see the real decrease in LSAT scores. So again, if you look at the macro level, I can't speak for any one school because there will be a few schools decrease class sizes. But by and large, if you add larger class sizes, and then this chunk of fewer scores in the 155 to 170 range, 169, that's in your favor.

Why has it been so slow is because of the multiple changes going on. The U.S. News methodology and how much they weight change. And here's the crazy thing, we're not going to know unless they announce, and they've pretty much told the world they're not going to. How they weight GPA, not W-A-I-T, W-E-I-G-H-T. How they weight GPA and LSAT. Usually rankings come out mid-March. Usually I'm lucky enough to get a copy of them a week or a day before they come out. So maybe I'll know a little bit early, but maybe rankings will come out late this year. I know they delayed their survey submission date.

So put yourself in the shoes of a Dean of Admission, you might not know until late March if the LSAT is diminished in rankings weight considerably. There's also 20% of the metrics that are getting thrown out. So it might be increased as far as weight. It might go up to 12.5% of the rankings. But that increase might pale, in fact, will pale in comparison to how much U.S. News is going to put in the bar passage and employment outcomes.

So maybe if you're a dean of a law school and you have the scholarship budget and I'm going somewhere with this, okay, so bear with me. And you're holding on to this money and all a sudden you see that bar passage and employment is taking up this huge chunk of the rankings. Well, then there's rules about this, but you can have one-year fellowships for unemployed students. So maybe you pour that money into the employment fellowships. Or if the LSAT is still a strong part of the rankings and is on the margins, it can be moved, maybe you pour it into someone if the LSAT goes up or if the GPA goes up. We'll see, to be determined.

The bad news is it is going to feel incredibly slow. Even with waves of admits coming, your scholarship information is going to feel slow. The good news is that at some point the levee will break and scholarship money will flow and admits will flow. And I think there's going to be a sweet spot between mid to late March, U.S. News release and the late probably June SFFA v. Harvard's SCOTUS decision on affirmative action where schools are going to want to make a lot of admits and give out a lot of scholarship money.

So if you're waiting, you're still going to be waiting. But I think what you're going to see is you’re going to see the vast majority of scholarship offers, the vast majority of admits even off the waitlist, in the past you see July and August waitlist offers, having talked to an Admissions Dean, to a friend of mine. I think that they're so concerned about this SCOTUS decision sort of bunking with the whole entire cycle and how they generally make decisions and take admissions notes, etc. You're going to see a lot of waitlist admits, March to June, a lot of scholarship money coming in March to June which ties in beautifully with when to send the letter of continued interest and when to talk about scholarship reconsideration. I would never ever once say ‘negotiation’. This is a word that admissions officers don't like to hear.

So your letters of continued interest. What's a letter of continued interest? When I started in admissions many years ago, we didn't even want them. It's not this huge formal thing that has to be done. It's just a touch point with law schools so that they know if they admit you, you're not already committed to another school.

There's a third part of the admissions metrics, it still goes into U.S. News rankings and that's selectivity and yield is part of the selectivity equation. So law schools want to know if you're interested. You can do it in a beautiful, elegant, formal letter of continued interest or you can find real reasons. Let me be clear on here. The worst idea in the world to reach out to a law school is to soothe your feelings of I haven’t heard from that law school in a while. There is your litmus test. That's your matrix of decision-making. Am I reaching out to the law school with a legitimate question? Can I visit? Is there the best time to visit? That would be a legitimate question. A legitimate update? “Hey, I have a new LSAT score.” “Hey, I have a new job.” “I just published a paper with a faculty member,” etc. Those are all legitimate.

So if you're emailing on a weekly basis, just to soothe the fact that you haven’t heard from that law school, then don't do it. But if you're reaching out for a good reason, one letter of continued interest, maybe a week after you get a waitlist decision, that's a good reason. And that's not your entire cycle. The people that get admitted off the waitlist tend to reach out a month and a half later, and a month and a half later, concisely, professionally. Again, in a very upbeat way, “Just wanted to let you know, I've been lucky enough to receive some great offers, but you're still my top choice.” Those kinds of things, not overdoing it. If you can do it, I am a huge fan of connecting with admissions offices. So visiting if they want you to, reaching out about visits is a great way to reach out, doing Zoom sessions, not as great as visiting, great way to reach out? Pick up the telephone.

Think about it this way. Hardly any applicants these days are calling the admissions officers because it's awkward. Right? It's hard. You've never done it before. First time I had to make cold calls in my life, it was excruciating. Practice on your friends or practice on schools lower on your list. But by the third call, it should be really easy. Admissions people are generally hired because they're friendly, outgoing people. Call the law school and just say, “Do you have three to five minutes that I can connect with an admissions officer? I just want to express my interest.” Then you talk to that person.

Again, why would you put yourself in this uncomfortable position? Because no one else is doing it. So you're differentiating in a very positive way. Don't sell yourself, just sell the school, “I love your law school for these reasons.” That is such a great way to get admitted later in the cycle. If I could be you for a day and make this phone call for everyone I would. Because it's a lot easier than you think and it's a lot more powerful than you think. Particularly because this is a slow cycle. It gives you more time to connect.

You haven’t heard from a school? Feel free to reach out to them right now. You know, “I know there's a lot of changes here, and I don't have a decision yet. So I'm simply emailing to let you know. You're still at the top of my list.” Or if they're legitimately your top choice, just tell them, “You’re my top choice.” That sort of falls in the letter of continued interest.

To me, letters of continued interest are one big timeline of measuring your pace, but reaching out in realistic, optimistic ways to show the school that if they reach back out to you to see if you're interested, they only want to take people later in this cycle, they only want to take people off the waitlist who they think would come.

There's a classic call we made in admissions. It still goes on, “hey, we're looking at maybe making 5 to 10 admit offers. We're just calling to make sure you're still interested.” Because if you say, “no, I’ve already deposited at Princeton Law School,” then we say, “okay, well, can we withdraw your application?” And all that means is can we deny you so that you don't count against us in that selectivity. There's so much of just little stuff that admissions offices do, unless you do admissions, you have no way of knowing about it. I mean, we do have a book out now, but it might be too late for this cycle people.

As far as scholarship reconsideration, I do think schools are going to be holding on to their money. And I do think, depending on what U.S. News & World Report does, there's going to be money left over to get increases in scholarship after the U.S. News rankings come out and the weights are seen.

Let me tell you this, it is completely fine to ask for reconsideration. You never want to be the very early part of the process. So you don't want to be the applicant that gets a scholarship offer January 1, and then January 15 is already asking for more money. If you get one, they're still giving out money. So when they’re overextended, they're not going to give you more. The only thing worse than that is, and this sadly happens every year is being the person that says, “Hey, I've done billion-dollar deals, just hear me out because I know the game we're playing.” It's not a negotiation, it's a reconsideration.

I think late March, April, May, June, July, you have believe it or not, two to three times if you're super nice and super professional, and if you mix up the way you do it. So if you email maybe once or twice and then call once, they're going to ask you incidentally what are your offers at the other schools. So have those handy. If you call, you can say it over the phone and you can say, you know, “I'm happy to scan them or forward you the emails with the scholarship offers.” They're going to want to know that.

The thing about scholarship reconsideration is you have leverage. Admissions is fascinating in so many ways. It almost can be the title of this podcast. But one is the equation flips entirely, they have the power but you have the power once you get that offer. So it is completely natural, normal if you do it in a very polite way to ask for reconsideration, not once, not twice, but even three times.

So let’s just touch on a sort of summaristic, if that's a word, part of this podcast. Yes, you're probably feeling anxious. Almost all of us are feeling anxious. We live in the most toxically anxious society in the history of humankind. The admissions process creates anxiety off the charts. Social media, message boards, seeing what other people claim, incidentally not everything is true, right? So people are going to say things going forward that are untrue. Just to get in your heads because they want to be the one who gets the bigger offer. So just take everything with a grain of salt.

The more professional and happy you can be towards admissions officers when you interact with them, the greater it impacts you more profoundly than you probably realize. There's nothing magical about being a Dean of Admission. There's nothing magical about being an admissions officer. I was one, right? I'm just some dude who gets up in the morning and tries to get a workout in. So these people aren’t these like mystical creatures, they want to be talked to in a pleasant way. And if you do, they're going to appreciate you more than the person that's anxious with them. So even though the anxiety is completely understandable, I just would try to hide it when you speak to admissions officers.

I think this cycle data is interesting because this is a much better cycle than the last two. You have 4.3% decrease in applicants. In other than 170 to 180, you have LSAT scores down versus the previous years. You have class sizes enlarged that are getting bigger. That bodes well. Maybe things are going to slow down until January-February LSAT scores come out. I mean, February, if I were an Admissions Dean, I wouldn't really pay much attention to because it's such a small number. But look, when the January numbers populate, then you could see wave after wave. And these waves could very well benefit you. At best 50% of admits have been made.

So more admits are coming, the cycle data is in your favor. You can send multiple letters of continued interest. They just don't have to be letters. It can be letter 1, and then email 2, and then phone call 3, and then phone call 4 later in this cycle. You can scholarship reconsider twice, three times. You have more leverage as the cycle progresses. This is a great note to end on.

If you have a 179 and a 4.0 and these wonderful things and you’re admitted to 12 schools, as the cycle progresses, you've probably at some point said no to 11 schools. So if you're that person, you're giving everyone else more leverage. Think of it that way. This is Mike Spivey with the Spivey Consulting Group.