We’re a couple months into the 2020-2021 application cycle, and so far our increase in applicants hasn’t slowed down. If anything, it’s sped up. In this post, we will look at past data on specific LSAT score bands' volume throughout the cycle, then project what final LSAT score volume may look like this cycle, if this cycle follows the relatively stable pattern of past cycles (which, of course, it may or may not).
Note: This post will focus on LSAT applicants, but it's important to mention that all applicants (i.e. inclusive of those without an LSAT, generally using a GRE) are also up significantly.
First, an overall look at applicant volume by LSAT score band as it stands today. Here’s where we are today compared to the last two application cycles on the same date (11/9):
As you can see, the increase in applicant volume goes up the higher the score band, with the largest increase being in the 175+ range, and the smallest differences coming in the <155 score bands.
Applicant timing tends to relate to their scores. Higher scoring applicants submit earlier; lower scoring applicants later. This is consistent from year to year. You can see here a comparison of the prior two application cycles and what the percentage of final applicant volume in that score range had submitted by November 9 of that cycle below:
The year-to-year percentage of final volume is remarkably close and consistent in all ranges, with the slight exception of the <140 category (this may be an artifact of the unique cancellation option available in one test last cycle; it may also be a reflection of the small volume in that range).
You can see this fairly clearly on the graphs below, which map out the cumulative number of applicants in each range daily over the last few cycles.
Each range tends to follow pretty close trends to its prior years. There are shifts in when volume spikes, generally related to changes in LSAT score release dates from cycle to cycle, but the overall trend is fairly consistent. You can compare different dates over the cycle and get similar results — for example, here’s what the percentage of final volume in each score range was the last two cycles as of January 15:
Again, pretty close. Overall, applicant timing the last couple years has been fairly consistent. That’s why you can’t simply average the number of applicants received daily in each range so far and project it out over the remainder of the cycle. It would be misleading: you’d vastly overestimate your high scoring applicants (who tend to drop off precipitously after January) and vastly underestimate your lower scoring applicants (who pick up the pace around then).
But you can try estimating based on what we know our day-of share of final volume is, since that somewhat accounts for the changes in applicant pace over time in each range.
Let's project what final applicant volume this cycle would look like, using a simple average of the prior two years' final volume. For example, assume we have 41% of final 170-174 volume, the average percentage of November 9 final volume for the prior two cycles:
And here’s how that projection would compare to the final volume of the prior cycles:
And the resulting final percentage difference in each range:
This gives us a look at what final LSAT score volume might look like at the end of this cycle, if this cycle follows the familiar patterns of prior cycles. However, there are many reasons to believe this cycle may not look just like prior cycles:
This cycle is different, as everyone knows. COVID-19 has changed a lot of things. We’ve heard from many applicants that remote school has meant they have more time to prepare applications; this may translate to applicants being more prepared earlier in the cycle. It might also be causing applicants still in school to be worried about their post-graduation job prospects in an economy still suffering the impacts of the COVID crisis. Scared applicants are motivated applicants; they may be rushing to apply to guarantee themselves options once they graduate, and hence applying earlier.
We all remember the “Trump Bump” of 2016. This year, we anticipated that political considerations would lead to an increase in applications in general. However, in that cycle the surprising results of the election generally meant the surge came after the election. This year, the heightened tension of a high-stakes election may have led to much of that energy being channeled into anticipatory applications that came early.
Self-Perpetuating Volume Increases
It’s fairly widely known that this cycle has seen a significant law school applicant volume increase. Many commentators have been discussing the likelihood that this cycle would see more applicants since early summer. Since fall began there have been regular news articles, blog entries, etc. about the substantial increase in applicants, and some schools are mentioning it to applicants at information sessions. The perception of an increasingly competitive cycle may well breed earlier applications as applicants attempt to gain a competitive edge.
LSAT Date Changes
LSAT dates have changed. Right now, we’re in a part of the cycle where we’re one test “ahead” of prior years — October 2019 hadn’t released scores yet, and there was no October 2018 test. So there are more LSAT scores available than there were last year at the same time. The October 2020 results are almost certainly inflating projections, particularly for the higher range scoring applicants who are likelier to apply quickly after receiving their score. It will be helpful to compare the data in late November, after last year's October scores have had some time to influence the score volume and make the numbers more comparable. That will give us a more accurate read on prior-cycle comparisons. Still, the October difference almost certainly doesn’t account for everything; we were still well ahead of prior cycles before those numbers were added.
Effects of Earlier Applications
Changes in applicant behavior can have tremendous influence in the final volume. All of the above caveats are things that could change/influence that behavior, and hence have an effect on the projections.
If more applicants are applying earlier, then it would significantly throw off the final results — there’s a huge difference. If, for example, we have a 10% greater share of our final full cycle 170-174 volume now compared to prior years, we would end with about 500 fewer applicants in that range than this projection shows. So more applicants earlier this year equals a misleadingly high final projection.
LSAC has changed their reporting so that test-takers who have not taken LSAT writing do not get their scores until that has been completed. That policy took effect for the September test. Based on LSAC data, there are about 9,000 or so test-takers from those administrations who have not completed the writing section yet and hence don’t have a score. That means there’s a fairly large “reserve” of potential applicants who simply need to complete those writing samples to get a score and be able to apply.
We’re a bit more comfortable with the cumulative final number projection than the individual ranges, especially the higher ranges. Given the LSAT registrant/taker volume, outstanding scores, etc., there’s plenty of reason to believe this cycle could end up at a ~25% increase in total LSAT applicants. But we’re automatically skeptical of projections that have twice as many 170+ scorers. It could happen — we never thought we’d have almost 800 175+ scorers in early November. First time for everything. But still, intuitively it’s a bit hard to believe.
None of these projections should be taken as gospel. They are informative only, and only informative insofar as we mirror the prior two cycles relatively closely.
We will re-run the numbers on 12/1 to evaluate if the final projections have changed as last year's October LSAT results hit. It’s worth noting that the final numbers in a couple of ranges have trended down a bit since the beginning of the month, though other ranges have trended up a bit, so the cumulative amount hasn’t really changed.
So, try not to panic too much. We already all knew this cycle would end “up,” but how much still remains to be seen.
Quick note on availability to work with us: we have now reopened our waitlist for prospective clients for this cycle (see this blog for more information) as well as a reservation list for next cycle (see this blog for more information).