Happy New Year everyone! This marks the start of the "2020" part in the "2019-2020" application cycle. Last cycle, we had about 42% of our final applicant count at this point, although things are a bit different this year.
Applicant and application volume looks very different compared to our December 1, 2019 update—in a way that is good for applicants.
Applicants are down, very slightly. The release of the 2018 November LSAT, which had significantly more test takers than the corresponding 2019 LSAT, saw us fall behind last cycle. Overall, there is a very slight decline in total applicants, about 74 fewer compared to last year.
Applications are up a bit. More schools are seeing an increase in applications than a decrease.
What is Driving Applicant Volume?
Unsurprisingly, we are a bit behind where we were during the 2018-2019 cycle. Why? Consider the number of LSATs administered over the application period to date.
Only a 1.4% decline in LSATs administered to date. But—and this is a big but—remember that July 2019 is artificially inflating the total count. 50% of July test-takers cancelled their score and are taking advantage of their free retake. So when you consider the number of first-time test-takers, you get a bit of a different story.
Each 2019-2020 cycle test has had fewer first-time takers than its prior cycle counterpart. October didn't have a 2018 test, but did have the lowest first-time test-taker percentage that we are aware of in LSAT history.
We don't know the November 2019 first-time numbers yet, but it seems reasonable to conclude they are following the trend of declining first-time takers. If we were to assume that 50% of November test-takers were first timers, we would have about a 5% decline in overall first-time test-takers from June through November.
The math is simple: the more first timers in November, the closer we are to last year; the fewer first-timers the less we have.
Why do we care so much about first-time takers? Because they are the primary driver of applicant volume. As increasing numbers of applicants take the LSAT more than once, registrants become less reliable as a barometer, and first-time takers become more revealing. The decline in first-time test-takers shows why the decline in applicants makes perfect sense, and why it's likely to continue for the near future.
Breaking Down Applicant Volume
First we will take a look at our different LSAT score band changes.
Note: we know that our numbers are different from LSAC's. This is because ours are based on comparisons to last cycle's data as recorded day-of, meaning the score band percentage changes are based on applicants' highest LSAT score at this time last cycle. LSAC's comparison data takes into account the eventual full-cycle high score of any applicant who had applied by this time last year, even if they had not yet achieved that score by this time last year. This does change the numbers somewhat, but we feel it is a more accurate representation of what schools and applicants were actually looking at, data-wise, at this point last year.
Technically the 160-164 band is down by 1 applicant, so we're still down in every single score band below 165. High scores are still up significantly. Overall, the 165+ group has increased by 15% compared to last cycle. Conversely, the lowest three score bands (those below 149) have declined by 15%.
However, those numbers aren't necessarily set in stone, because applicants in different score bands apply at different times.
High scorers apply earlier than lower scoring applicants, quite significantly. And while the addition of new test administrations in the later half of the cycle could change patterns somewhat, it is quite clear that we have already received a large majority of our 165+ applicants. That category seems likely to remain notably up compared to last cycle.
Meanwhile, the fact that we have received relatively few of our final number of <150 applicants makes its very possible for that group to recover compared to last cycle. The addition of February and April tests—particularly April—could entice some applicants who otherwise wouldn't be part of this cycle. Schools still accepting applications at that point tend to be those with medians in the range where there is currently an applicant deficit. These new tests could be very good news for them.
Here are some graphs showing applicant volume in each LSAT score band.
We believe it would be very difficult for there to be a decline in 165+ applicants at this point. It looks pretty inevitable that those categories will be up when all is said and done. Good news for schools in that range; not so great news for applicants. However, things aren't quite as extreme as they were earlier in the cycle—the November tests moderated the increase. If that continues, it's evidence that the higher score bands may have been more front-loaded than last year, though we will have to wait until late spring to really know for sure if this was the case.
Non-LSAT applicants are, as the name implies, anyone applying without an LSAT score. ABA regulation does not necessarily require applicants have any test score to apply to law school in certain circumstances, so some of these applicants will be those who just haven't taken any test. However, given the ever growing number of law schools accepting the GRE, we feel it's quite likely that the bulk of these applicants are those applying with a GRE score.
Non-LSAT applicants are an increasingly significant part of the application picture. To date this cycle, we have 1,150 non-LSAT applicants compared to 970 at this time last cycle. They make up 4.6% of our applicant volume to date, compared to 3.9% last cycle.
There is likely a significant population of non-LSAT applicants left to come. At this point last cycle we had less than half our final population of non-LSAT applicants. If non-LSAT applicants were able to stay above the 4% mark by the end of the cycle that would be quite significant.
As a side note, from recently released ABA data, we also know that the number of matriculants without an LSAT is growing: from 271 in fall 2018 to 478 in fall 2019.
Applications continue to outpace applicants.
Applicants are, on average, applying to more law schools this year than 2017-2018 or 2018-2019. This is why we are seeing a net increase in applications despite the decrease in applications.
We have speculated about possible reasons for the increase in applications per applicant before: LSAC application fees didn't increase this year, which combined with their new application bundle may be encouraging increasing numbers of applications. Fewer schools are charging their own application fees, another possible contributor. An increase in applications, if paired with a decline in applicants, could make managing yield a bit tricky, though it is too early to know if that will be a widespread problem.
What does it all mean?
How your cycle goes is really going to depend on which score band the schools you are targeting are in.
At the top, things are going to be more competitive. That doesn't just mean that applying with say a 168 is going to be harder at schools at or above that number. It means schools can be more selective about applicants in ways beyond just their numbers. "Soft" factors become more important anytime schools see a surplus in applicants.
In the score bands below 165, it really depends on the next couple of months. Is there a large pool of <165 applicants sitting on scores waiting to apply? Are we going to see more test takers in the January–April period? That is what will determine how things go in those ranges.
The change in LSAT schedule is definitely having an effect, spreading out applicant and application volume. We are seeing smaller but more regular waves compared to the past.
It will be very interesting, and significant to the cycle, to see how the January/February/March/April test volume turns out. Right now we have a decline of about 18.5% in January registrants compared to last year. We expect that to end up at somewhere between 20 and 25 percent total decline when test day rolls around with late withdrawals and no-shows. Meanwhile the February exam, which didn't exist last year, has 9,009 registrants with 5 days left to sign up. It seems very likely that February will end up being either the smallest or second smallest LSAT administered.
The decline in January registrants means we are unlikely to see significant applicant growth for a while, at least until February 2020 LSAT results hit. In another ten days or so it will be clearer whether we are looking at a slow decline until then, or rough parity. Unfortunately, the combination of holidays and month's end makes the daily volume tough to compare. Hopefully by then we will also have first-time November test-taker volume to help assess just how large an applicant pool we have to work with.
Long term, we wonder whether registration volume for February/March/April might be something that causes LSAC to reconsider the number of tests it offers in the second half of the application cycle. The expanded testing schedule is great for applicants and schools alike, but running each test administration is neither easy nor cheap. If there is particularly low demand for an administration—like February looks to be having—it might motivate LSAC to consider dropping one of the four tests over the January/February/March/April period. Three tests over four months would still be plenty, and could ease some of the strain LSAC is under administering the still relatively new digital test. Just something to keep an eye on.
We are in the later half of the cycle now. Things should start heating up, decision-wise, as schools get back from the holidays and assess their application pools. The changes in testing schedule, along with somewhat strange applicant volume, could mean long waits for many applicants as schools try to sort out how to handle their applicant pools. But decisions will come, even if they seem like they take forever to arrive.