I am a senior in college and am planning to work or teach for a year or two after graduation. If I know I will be taking time off, is it better for me to apply now and defer, or wait until I'm ready to go to law school? If the former, how easy is it to get a deferral from YLS?
Your question is a good one, and the answer really depends on how clear your reasons are for attending law school. There are advantages and disadvantages to each option, but there is a middle ground that might be helpful.
Basically, the advantage to applying while you are still in school is that you're probably in a better position to put together your application. Obviously, you need to take the LSAT, if you haven't already, and most people probably find it easier to prepare and take the exam while they are still in school, both because they have more time to devote to it and because they are already in an academic mindset. I do see often that people who wait to take the LSAT until after they graduate find that the demands of their job don't give them enough time to study, and many students who end up working abroad encounter a lot of logistical difficulties in taking the test.
In addition, it's easier to get recommendations from professors who know you well while you are still in school. Most of the professors from whom you are likely to solicit recommendations have had you as a student within the past year or two, and so your performance in their classes are still fresh in their minds. Again, I often find that students who wait until they are out of school for a few years sometimes have difficulty getting detailed recommendations from professors, or will submit employer recommendations instead, which, in our faculty-driven admissions process, could hurt them.
Finally, applying while you are still in school and deferring just gives you peace of mind, since you have already "locked in" your plans following whatever it is that you plan to do for one or two years. It can make for a much more relaxed time period, and you can focus more clearly on whatever path you've chosen to take in that time.
On the other hand, students who wait to apply until they've had some real-world experience tend to have richer personal statements and are better able to clearly articulate their reasons for applying to law school. Often, the experiences they have had working or teaching clarify a lot of things they are passionate about and interested in, and they just have more reference points -- beyond just coursework, extracurricular activities, or summer internships -- to draw upon. In other words, students who have been out of school have the opportunity to offer a slightly more mature and nuanced perspective on how the path they have taken thus far corresponds to their future path in law school and beyond (though that will, of course, depend on the self-awareness and writing ability of the individual applicant).
One possible middle ground you can take is to go ahead and take the LSAT while you are still in school, and to also get your recommenders to write letters for you while you are still fresh in their minds. Your LSAT score will be valid for five years, and if you open an account with LSAC you can also put your recommendations on file for up to five years as well (many schools also provide a service through their career development offices that will hold recommendations on your behalf). You can then pursue whatever job you would like to take and, in the fall/spring before you're ready to matriculate, you can put together your essays and submit your application. This sacrifices the "peace of mind" point I made above, since you will have to devote some time and endure some stress during your time off applying to law school and waiting for decisions, but this path can combine the best of both worlds.
If you do decide to apply while you are still in school and defer -- and many people do this -- you should note that we have a "tiered" approach to granting deferrals. Generally speaking, we are very generous in granting one-year deferrals, provided that they are requested by our deposit deadline. You do need to make a formal request, and outline why the experience you're considering will enhance both your personal development and your legal education, but unless you're planning on living in your parents' basement for a year playing Guitar Hero, you should be able to meet this threshold. Once our deposit deadline has passed, however, we do expect a little more structure and focus in deferral requests, since at that point we have more or less finalized our class and would need to fill your spot with someone else from our wait list. So we would at that point only grant one-year deferrals on a case-specific basis.
For two year deferrals, the bar is a little higher. We generally expect requests for two-year deferrals to involve a commitment that in some way requires two years to complete. Examples of this are scholarships like the Rhodes or Marshall, Teach for America fellowships, or the Peace Corps. Other types of programs and commitments will be considered but we will want to know why you need two years, rather than one.
I should note that if you are already working at the time you apply and are admitted, the need to stay in your current job for one or two years isn't looked on too favorably. In other words, we expect that if you have already been out of school doing something and have applied to law school, it's because you're ready to go to law school. If you think that you need more time to complete projects in your current job, get a promotion, etc., then please wait to apply until you're ready to matriculate.
We do not grant three-year deferrals except in extreme cases. In fact, the only time I have granted a three-year deferral off the bat is for military service. In rare instances I have granted an extension of a two-year deferral for personal or medical reasons, family hardship, or for academically compelling reasons, like you are just about to finish a dissertation. And, regardless of the reasons, we do not under any circumstances grant deferrals or extensions beyond three years: at that point, a student's only option is to withfraw from Yale and to reapply, and readmission is not guaranteed.
I hope this answers your question, and that you'll enjoy your time off, regardless of when you apply!
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