University Career Center

A couple of red traffic lights against a blue sky

Today, NIU College of Law’s Director of Admissions Sarah E. Scarpelli explains the law school “waiting lists” phenomenon, while providing tips on how to navigate them.

It’s February, and you might have started your law school application process late last semester. Decisions are beginning to populate your mailbox or your e-mail inbox. You may have been consistently checking the online status checkers available through many law schools’ websites. Perhaps you have received good news and learned you have been admitted to a few schools. You may have already had your heart broken a time or two through a denial letter. But arguably, the most confusing, maddening and frustrating decision of all is this:

After careful consideration of your credentials, the Admissions Committee has decided to place your name on our waiting list.

I believe this is the most accurate, eponymous “decision” in the admissions arena because you will definitely need to wait. And wait. And potentially wait some more.

I understand how you feel. Many years ago I was placed on two law schools’ waiting lists. Although I felt punished, I ultimately enrolled in law school unscathed. I graduated and have spent the past 12 years counseling students just like you as they try to make sense of this situation.

I will try to demystify this situation for you. Please note, those of us in the law school admissions arena are also operating under conditions of uncertainty. We are charged by our deans and college presidents to enroll classes of certain sizes with certain qualifications. The admissions committee may rely heavily on past years’ data to determine how many students we may need to accept in order to yield a number that comes as close as possible to the goals set by our institutions. That said, as the overall market fluctuates, so does the number of students that may accept offers of admission at any given law school. I have worked at three different law schools over the years and have witnessed considerable shifts in the size of the applicant pool as well as in the number of students called off of the waiting list. For example, right after 9/11, the interest in legal careers was at an all-time high and the admissions committee at my first law school employer admitted just ten candidates from its waiting list. Nearly a decade later, with the economic recession and a smaller applicant pool, almost a third of the entering class was invited from our school’s waiting list.

To respond to these kinds of challenges, many law school admissions committees create what I liken to an insurance policy. Simply put, if hypothetical ‘Law School X’ does not yield enough students through its regular admission cycle, ‘Law School X’s’ admissions committee will begin to admit candidates from its waiting list/insurance policy. Also, (and this is particularly true during the summer months leading up to first year orientation at most law schools), ‘Law School X’ may lose previously-committed students to other law schools. Again, ‘Law School X’ is able to fill those vacancies by admitting talented students from its waiting list/insurance policy.

Please allow me to share these candid and heartfelt suggestions as you navigate your own waiting list experience:

  1. Do not take this news as an ultimate rejection. Remember: your candidacy is attractive to the admissions committee for a number of reasons and your file will remain under consideration.
  2. Read the waiting list decision letter and all materials/instructions carefully. If there are additional forms or steps to complete, do so. Many admissions committees will provide you with specific instructions. For example, the committee may pass the baton back to you and ask you if you wish to remain under consideration. If you do not follow up, those schools are likely to remove you from the waiting list. Please recall that the committee is striving to mitigate uncertainty. If you do not appear interested in ‘Law School X,’ they will move on to another candidate. Oftentimes, you will be asked to complete a brief form that details your intentions. For example, you will need to check a box that indicates whether or not you wish to remain under consideration. You may also be asked how long you wish to remain under consideration. Many schools keep their waiting lists open until the first day of classes in August. Over the years, I have witnessed a significant amount of waiting list activity during those final days of summer. If you are passionate about attending a particular law school and you are able to pivot, to mobilize, and to change your plans at the last minute, you need to inform that school’s office of admissions.
  3. Be pleasant, not pesky. Many law schools will invite you to submit additional materials to build your application. Some may encourage you to visit. As I wrote in #2 above, read each school’s instructions carefully. As time marches on, you may feel pressured to call ‘Law School X’ everyday to reiterate that ‘Law School X’ is your number one choice for your legal education. There is a very fine line between being eager and pesky. Daily calls may be seen as over-the-top and you may jeopardize your chances for being called off the list should a vacancy occur within ‘Law School X’s’ entering class. In addition to forecasting how you will perform academically at ‘Law School X,’ the admissions committee is also working to gauge whether or not you will fit within its community. Intangibles, particularly on the interpersonal level, are important when the committee is entering the final hours of the admission cycle.

If you are placed on a law school’s waiting list, there are definitely aspects of your candidacy that the Committee values. That doesn’t necessarily take the sting out of the situation, but please know that I have witnessed many waiting list success stories through the years. Ultimately, there is a law school community for everyone. Strive to navigate the process with patience and respect and you will find your way. Please do not hesitate to email me with questions or concerns. My address is sscarpelli@niu.edu. I hope to hear from you.

Photo credit: Horia Varlan / CC BY 2.0