Yield Protection: myth or reality? Or a little of both?

A couple of weeks ago, I did a looooooooong interview with Don Macaulay of AdmissionsDean.com—his questions were very good (opening with a question about a fictional alumnus captured my attention utterly), and brought out the blab in me (never a Herculean task, admittedly).  After he posted the interview, he kindly sent me a link to a different online admissions board where he said the interview was being well-received. I ended up meandering all over the site because it had been a long time since I’d had an in-depth admissions-board visit.  In the course of my meandering, I saw a long discussion about “yield protection,” and was reminded that this is the time of year for that phrase to be bandied about, as the denials and waitlist decisions begin to get issued in earnest.

Now, there’s a whole jargon about admissions employed by law school applicants on discussion boards that is not actually widely used by the admissions officers themselves.  Examples include “AdComms” for admissions committees (a phrase that sounds vaguely likely a Soviet missile to me) and “TTT in decline.”  (Well, honestly, I did start using that latter one all the time once I figured out what TTT meant.  I love a new insult.) 

While “yield” is definitely a term admissions officers use (shorthand for the percentage of people accepting a school’s offer—that is, the number of enrolling students that is “yielded” by the offers, like the number of tomatoes yielded from a row of plants), “yield protection” seems to have been invented by applicants.  Used to denote a school’s denying or waitlisting an applicant on the ground that the applicant won’t come, the premise is that the applicant is otherwise desirable but that the yield-protecting school thinks that some other school higher up in the food chain will snap that candidate up.  The presumed motivation for the counterintuitive behavior of not admitting a well-qualified someone is USNWR rankings, one factor of which is the percentage of people admitted from the total applicant pool.  The smaller that number is, the better your ranking–not admitting people who certainly aren’t going to enroll means that a school needs to admit fewer people in order to enroll a class, and thereby at the margins may improve its ranking.

Oh, there are so many things wrong with this reasoning!  And yet… and yet the phenomenon, or some version, certainly occurs, to a greater or lesser extent at different schools.  So let me try to unpack the low-brow cynicism while being realistic about the kernels of truth.

It is certainly true that if one charts LSATs and UGPAs in a grid, the highest LSAT and UGPA combinations will, for every law school, have the lowest “yield.”  The LSAT and the UGPA are the two quantifiable predictors of an applicant’s first-year law school performance, and it is no secret that schools value them as general measures of ability.  People with the highest scores tend to get the largest number of offers, and thus have many choices; offers to such people will “yield” fewer enrolling students. But since even schools accused of yield protection admit  loads of high-number people, how are they making distinctions, choosing to admit some and not others? 

Even the most truculent of the yield-protection accusers would acknowledge that some high-number candidates have characteristics that make them legitimately unappealing to an admissions office.  They may quibble about how bad a negative has to be to outweigh a 180, and they may even quibble about whether admissions officers ought to care about some negatives.  But the general premise is accepted:   a lack of work experience,  some poorly explained incident of misconduct, unenthusiastic recommendation letters , an incoherent or offputting personal statement—none of these show up in a grid of LSATs and UGPAs, but they are all present in many files.

And frankly, there are reasons other than dramatic negatives that make an admissions officer disinclined to offer admission.  What about the applicant who is just …. fine?  There’s nothing wrong, but there’s no zing, no sense of connection, no firm conviction when you close the application file that you want to have that person in the class.  Isn’t it reasonable for schools not to make offers to such candidates, if the school is in the fortunate position of having more than enough candidates who are academically strong and who do have some zing?  What about the applicant who shows a strong interest in a field in which the school has little to offer?  The student wouldn’t be happy there, and it seems to me entirely rational—and entirely not devious—not to admit. 

Every week, I admit some people who don’t appear fantastically interested in Michigan (in fact, last week, I wrote a little note on the file of one admit that said “won’t come”—just a little bet I was making with myself), because on the whole, the balance of all the other factors cuts in their favor.  But sometimes, the balance tilts in the other direction. If an admissions officer reads an application file and thinks, “wow, this is a really talented candidate who really seems like the kind of person who thrives here, and I would really like to have him/her in the student body,” and then marks “deny” because the LSAT and UGPA exceed some self-imposed ceiling—well, that’s just wrong.  A decision not to admit a well-qualified candidate for no reason other than a belief that he or she won’t enroll is “yield protecting” and inappropriate—but it’s pretty rare in making an admissions decision that there is just one isolated motivation.  There’s a lot of gray.  All that gray is why some schools choose to adopt holistic admissions policies in the first place, and to employ humans to implement them in a very time-consuming process, rather than just constructing algorithms and going about the process blind to any factor that doesn’t fit in a database.

-Dean Z. Assistant Dean and Director of Admissions