With the law school application season in full swing, now is the time to decide where and, equally importantly, how you are going to apply. Many law schools offer either an "early decision" or "early action" program.
Both of these options typically require you to submit your application well before the regular deadline. As a result, you will likely receive your admissions decision significantly earlier than you otherwise would.
The main difference between early decision and early action relates to your obligation to attend the school if admitted. If you are accepted early decision, you are required to attend that school and withdraw all other applications. Early action does not carry such a requirement. Since early decision programs are much more prevalent at law schools, those programs will be my focus here.
Early decision is not the best option for every applicant. Here are some pros and cons that will help you decide if it is the right path for you.
Pro- Early admissions notification: Most schools will give their early decision applicants a decision by the end of December, months earlier than you might find out if you apply regular admission. Receiving an earlier acceptance from the school of your choice will help you begin planning your transition (moving to a new city, quitting a job, etc.) and relieve significant stress. Remember, however, that as an early decision candidate you could be wait-listed, which essentially puts you in the regular admission pool.
[Avoid these law school application mistakes.]
Con- Early application deadline: Early decision applications are generally due in late October or early November. That means your entire application must be completed, including final drafts of all your essays, completed recommendations, and an LSAT score.
Note that you cannot take the LSAT in December and use that score for an early decision application this year, so you must already have a score or plan to use your October score. If you do not yet feel adequately prepared for the October exam, you should apply in the regular admission cycle so that you can take the December LSAT if necessary.
[Get tips on studying for the LSAT.]
Pro- Less competition: Your early decision application will be among the first batch that the law school admissions committee reviews. They will not have yet filled many seats in the incoming class, so they will likely be more open-minded when reviewing your application.
Later in the admissions cycle, you may be denied admission because the school has already accepted numerous students with your specific academic, professional, and personal profile. By applying early you minimize this risk.
Con- No choice: Applying early decision automatically communicates to the law school that they are, without a doubt, your first choice. This makes them more likely to accept you since they are confident you will attend and thus improve their yield, a key admissions metric.
Most early decision programs, which as I mentioned above are binding, also do not allow you to defer your acceptance for a year, as you can often do through regular admission. If at this moment you cannot choose the one law school where you know you will want to enroll next fall, early decision is likely not right for you.
Pro- Better chances at a stretch school: If your LSAT and/or GPA are under the average for your dream school, you should seriously consider applying early decision. By committing to the school—and thereby increasing their yield if they accept you—you make it significantly more likely that a school would admit you even though your numbers are outside their traditional range.
Con- Less financial aid: When applying early decision, you are already committed to the school. As a result, the school knows it does not need to win you over with scholarship money to convince you to enroll. Consequently, you may receive no or much less merit-based financial aid than you would otherwise.
However, if you are admitted to a stretch school, you would be unlikely to receive merit-based aid even if you applied regular admission. Thus, applying to a stretch school early decision can represent a compelling option.