We're now a few months into the 2019-2020 application cycle, and while it's still pretty early, a few trends are starting to emerge.
First, let's take a look at the top line changes from last year.
We're currently up in all categories compared to the 2018-2019 cycle. Applications are actually far outpacing overall applicants, in fact, about 60% of schools are currently seeing an increase in their application volume.
We're a little bit surprised by the increase in overall applicant volume. Why? Well, let's take a look at the LSAT registrant data so far (LSAT-takers still drive the vast majority of cycle volume).
As you can see, the overall test registrant volume through November's administration is actually down very slightly. Of course, actual test takers will vary. There are always no-shows on test day, usually ranging between 5 and 10 percent of the number of individuals registered on test day. Overall there should be slightly fewer test takers through November than last cycle when all is said and done. Further, this doesn't even account for the number of July cancellations. Half (11,500) of the test takers for that administration cancelled their test, well above the normal 3 to 5 percent who do so for other administrations. That's when things get a little weird.
If you do account for July cancellations, we only have about a thousand more LSAT scores available (i.e. scores that were not cancelled) from tests administered so far this cycle. And since you can't apply without a score, the number of people with an LSAT score is what really matters for analyzing volume. So why are applicants up 5% when our volume of available LSATs is relatively flat?
Are people applying earlier and earlier? If more applicants with an LSAT were applying earlier in the cycle, that could certainly offset the rather small difference in available LSAT scores/test takers. And we definitely did see a more frontloaded cycle—especially in high score ranges—last cycle. The problem is that it's impossible to verify this theory until much later in the application cycle.
Another possibility is that the "yield" of test takers to law school applicants has increased this year. Not everyone who takes an LSAT uses it to apply. It's certainly possible that those registering for the LSAT this cycle are more serious about applying to law school, which could help increase our applicant volume even with relatively flat LSAT registrants and takers.
It could be that there are more first-time test takers this cycle, as a proportion of actual test takers. For volume purposes, if someone takes the LSAT three times, it won't impact applicant volume any more than if they took it just once. But it will certainly inflate LSAT registration volumes. For the past several years we have seen a steady trend of each administration of the LSAT being made up of more and more retakers. That has grown LSAT registration volume without the accompanying level of growth you might expect in applicant volume—though applicant volume grew, just not quite as much as might be expected by LSAT registrant volume.
This decline in first-time registrants remained the case in the June and July exams this cycle. The problem? Those July registrants who cancelled and get to retake for free are almost certainly going to skew the subsequent September/October/November/January first-time test taker ratios lower than they otherwise would have been. So it'll be difficult to use first-time numbers to compare cycle over cycle until we have the full first-time taker volume for the entire 2019-2020 testing period. But, this is the likeliest explanation for why applicants are up despite a relatively flat number of available LSAT scores: those folks who cancelled in July have now retaken the test and joined the applicant pool. We'll get a better idea of this once we see the October/November first-time test taker proportions. But it makes sense, especially when you consider that year-over-year volume was pretty flat until October scores released—the first test where applicants could use their "free retake" if they cancelled in July. After that, it went up.
Enough of that! Let's take a look at how applicant volume is changing in each LSAT band.
It might also be easier to view the changes in chart form.
We know our numbers are different than LSAC's. This is for two reasons: LSAC's volume report runs on a date+1 reporting schedule, and we record data daily—so it reflects applicant high score as of that day. LSAC data is reflective of retakers getting a higher score. Our data is more accurate for day-to-day comparison between cycles.
As you can see, the vast majority of the growth in LSAT applicants to date comes from the 160+ range. That makes sense when you consider that July cancellations were probably primarily from the <160 population and thus those scores were eliminated from our applicant pool.
The growth in the 165+ range, by percentage, is extremely unusual. Will it correct? Probably yes—to a degree. We have a good deal of the cycle still left to go. We are fairly confident that 175+ applicants are going to end up higher than last cycle though; there's just so much of a lead there, it would take a miracle (or disaster, depending on your perspective) for that range to end up being down.
As for 170-174 and 165-169, it depends. At this point last cycle we had about 55% of our final 170-174 volume in. We had 46% of our final 165-169 volume. So there's a fair amount of prior cycle applicants left to hit the data and "catch up" to this cycle. This is especially the case since November and January test scores haven't hit yet—more on that later.
For ranges below 165+, things are more flat—and also more variable. These ranges generally have between 80 and 50 percent of their applicants left to come, based on prior cycle data. So it's too early for any conclusions regarding those ranges. It's definitely heartening to see a decline in <140 scoring applicants though.
It seems like every couple of weeks a new school announces they're accepting the GRE as a valid admissions test. That's definitely a factor. Last year we ended the cycle with about 3.75% of our total applicant pool as non-LSAT applicants. That's higher than any cycle we've looked at. Of course, not all of those are GRE applicants, but there's good reason to believe a majority are.
So far this year we have 1,096 non-LSAT applicants, which makes up 5.8% of the total applicant pool. This is actually about a hundred fewer overall non-LSAT applicants compared to this time last year and a smaller proportion of the applicant pool. But, this makes sense. There's a very noticeable phenomenon where each time there's an LSAT administered the number of non-LSAT applicants drops. Given that we didn't have an October LSAT last year, it makes sense that our total number of non-LSAT applicants is lower than this time last year. They didn't have a chance to take a test last year, so we're "early" in how we measure non-LSAT applicants. We won't be able to make good year-over-year comparisons until after the November score release date. Generally, this data does show that the GRE won't be going away soon, and may be strengthening its position.
Applications are way up, at over 10% more applications submitted to date compared to last cycle.
We're also seeing more applications per applicant than last year. We've got 5.6 applications per applicant submitted to date, compared to 5.3 at this time last year. This may not seem like much, but it does help explain why our application volume outpaces the growth in overall applicants. Or, it could be that applicants are being more consumer-conscious in their applications—"looking for the best deal," as Dave Killoran of PowerScore puts it.
It's definitely also possible that LSAC's new CAS/application fee bundle is contributing to more people applying to more schools.
What does it all mean?
First, more LSATs does not equal more applicants. We talked to Dave Killoran about his input on this, and he had this to say:
This to me is entirely expected. Having more tests wasn’t suddenly going to draw more students into the pipeline.
That's not to say more tests is a bad thing. More flexibility for applicants is always good. That said, more tests is definitely causing LSAC challenges in administering the test. Personally, based on registrant patterns we're seeing and how application cycles tend to work, we wouldn't be entirely surprised to see LSAC eliminate one of its February/March/April administrations.
Second, it's probably going to be more competitive on the higher end of the LSAT scale. There are just so many additional high scorers so far; it's going to make it possible for schools to be choosy. Why are there proportionally more high scorers? This is difficult to say. The LSAT isn't a forced curve. The extreme ends, such as 170+, are subject to quite a bit of variation. Even minor differences between the performance LSAC predicts and actual performance can make large impacts. Or maybe more high scorers wanted to apply this cycle. Whatever the reason, it's going to have an effect on applicants in this range.
Third, will the problems with the November LSAT administration impact applicant volume? Not likely. Dave Killoran had some more input on that topic:
While there were widespread problems, many of those affected were (or will be) able to retest, and those that couldn’t are shifting into January for the most part. So, I think at the end of the day it will be a wash in terms of numbers.
We tend to agree. The vast, vast majority of folks affected by the problems will still be able to test this cycle. That doesn't make what happened okay, but it won't change the numbers.
This is where things get a little interesting. For those who applied in the fall, it may feel like this cycle has already lasted a decade. But really, we're just starting to ramp up and get into the busy part of the year. There's lots of cycle left. Each day that passes we'll see more and more applicants—both this year and last.
Looking at LSAT registrant volume, the November test this cycle was about a third smaller than last year's. When we reach the date when scores hit last cycle, we expect to see our volume compared to last year start to level out. November's test last year was enormous—over 34,000 people sat for it. That's a huge influx of applicants. This year's number will probably be closer to 23,500. We should also consider January. As of today we have about 29% fewer registrants for that test than last year, and there are only two days left to register. The final registration day number will probably be closer to a 20% decline in registrants. But, that number will only go down. We predict at least a 25% decline in January LSAT registrants compared to last year when test day rolls around. That would mean that we have a substantial shortage of test takers for November and January compared to last cycle. If we're ever going to "even out" compared to last year, that's when it will happen.
Basically, we think that between December 15 or so and March 1, we should be running behind last cycle in applicant and application volume, but not in the upper LSAT bandwidths of 165+. If we don't start running behind, well, then we think we can officially label this cycle as being weird. If those 165+ numbers just nose dive, look for a long pause and then some dramatically good late game results (we don't think they will nose dive that much).