The final deadlines to submit Fall applications to the country’s top law schools are just around the corner – but savvy applicants already know that, at schools that practice rolling admissions, the ‘real’ deadline for fall admissions may already be past. Under rolling admissions policies, applications are reviewed as they come in and admissions offers are made to qualified applicants as they are identified. That often means that most of the seats in an incoming class have already been filled before the final application deadline arrives.

Does that mean that you should give up all hopes of entering a J.D. program this fall if you haven’t already sent in your applications?

Not necessarily – although, if you’ve waited this long to submit applications, you will certainly be facing an uphill battle.

You should probably cross the very top law schools off your list. February 1 marks the final application deadlines for Fall admissions to Harvard, Yale, Stanford, UC Berkeley, Columbia, Chicago, Georgetown, and other schools. Unless your application genuinely needs just one more spit-and-polish before it’s ready to submit, it’s too late in this year’s application cycle for you to have much hope of compiling a successful application.

(If you do have an application that’s almost ready to submit, wrap it up and submit it immediately. The only thing you should even think about taking any additional time to do at this point is to add a brief explanation of why you were unable to submit your application sooner.)

If you’re truly committed to the idea of beginning a J.D. program this fall, however, and you’ve already completed major parts of the application process (including taking the LSAT), not all hope is lost.

March 1 is the final application deadline at a number of excellent law schools, including Boston University, Fordham, Baylor, George Washington University, William and Mary, and the University of Connecticut. March 15 is the final deadline for Vanderbilt. Several law schools have even later deadlines.

You will have put yourself at a serious disadvantage in the competition for admission to any competitive law school by waiting until the final weeks of the application season to submit your applications. However, depending on the number and the quality of applicants that a school has received this year, you may be competitive for one of the remaining seats in this fall’s class – if you are a strong enough applicant and if you submit a focused and compelling application. As a general rule, the longer you wait to submit a law school application, the stronger your application has to be in order to win the admissions committee’s approval.

One question you should ask yourself before deciding whether to proceed with an application at this point in the admissions cycle is whether you truly want to attend the school in question. You shouldn’t apply to any law school on the basis of its application deadline alone. Being admitted to the wrong law school may be a worse admissions outcome than not being admitted anywhere at all. Your most likely choices would be either to continue a program you don’t like or to abandon your law studies, as second-year transfers from one law school to another are possible but very rare.

Your remaining option, of course, is to put your law school plans on hold for another year. That option may not be as painful as it sounds. The top law schools will start taking applications this September. You can use the months between now and then to research your school choices, talk to your recommenders, polish your personal statement, and perhaps to re-take the LSATs. The pay-off for your patience and hard work could be winning admission to your top-choice law school – which is a reward you would benefit from not only through the three years of your J.D. program, but throughout your career as well.

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