Podcast: Law School Admissions Now vs. 10 Years Ago

In this episode of Status Check with Spivey, Anna has a conversation with Joe Pollak—one of Spivey's consultants and a former admissions officer at the University of Michigan Law School—about differences and similarities in law school admissions today vs. ten years ago. Anna brings the perspective of someone who was applying to law school a decade ago, while Joe brings his perspective as a Michigan Law admissions officer at the time. They talk about changes in the competitiveness of admissions, the LSAT, the availability of standardized data and good information, what applicants are doing differently, what admissions offices are doing differently, and more.

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Full Transcript:

Anna: Welcome to Status Check with Spivey, where we talk about life, law school, law school admissions, a little bit of everything. I'm Anna Hicks-Jaco, Spivey Consulting's President, and today I'm going to be talking about how law school admissions has changed over the last 10 years, with one of our Spivey consultants, Joe Pollak. Ten years ago, Joe was working in the admissions office at the University of Michigan Law School, and I was applying to law school, and both of us have been immersed in the law school admissions world ever since. So we have two different angles on this topic. We talked about what's different in law school admissions, what's the same, how and why the competitiveness of law school admissions has changed, what applicants are doing differently, what law school admissions officers are doing differently, and what trends we expect to see continue in the future. So without further delay, here's my conversation with Joe.

Hi, Joe!

Joe: Hi Anna, how are you?

Anna: I'm great. Do you want to introduce yourself for the listeners, since we've already chatted a little bit despite my “Hi, Joe” and “How are you”?

Joe: Sure thing. I'm Joe Pollak. I'm a consultant with Spivey Consulting Group. I'm a former admissions officer; I was the Associate Director of Admissions at the University of Michigan Law School for several years. Before I was in admissions, I was a lawyer; I was an associate with a big law firm in Washington, D.C. And that's me!

Anna: Yeah, so you have that sort of experience of both applying to law school, being a law student, being a lawyer, and then being in admissions. Which, the topic of this podcast is law school admissions now versus 10 years ago. And what were you up to 10 years ago?

Joe: Yeah, so 10 years ago, I was in the admissions office. I was a relatively new admissions officer, I'd been through a couple of cycles at that point, and I worked and I had a lot of contact with applicants. I spoke with applicants over the phone, I gave law school tours, I organized other students to give law school tours. We're recording this in February, so I think in February 2014, I would have been pretty deep in planning for admitted student weekends, which would have been coming up probably in March of that year is my guess.

Anna: Oh man, yeah, that's a big event, certainly, in the year for every admissions office. You were there, you were in the weeds doing the day-to-day functions of admissions 10 years ago, and then you've been in admissions ever since, so you came directly from the University of Michigan to Spivey Consulting. You've been working with applicants to law school, specifically applicants to Michigan, and now applicants to a wider range of schools ever since then. So you've really seen the development over time.

I will say, from my perspective, that I was applying to law school 10 years ago. I was getting ready to apply. So I've seen things change since then, I've been immersed in the admissions world ever since then as well, but from sort of a different perspective. So from your perspective, Joe, what do you think is the biggest change that has happened over the last 10 years that has impacted applicants in the most significant way?

Joe: Yeah, that's a great question. Especially since there is something that changed almost exactly 10 years ago, and I know this because I was a law school applicant in the years before that, so the difference even further back is even more stark. What changed in 2014 is that the American Bar Association changed their interpretation of Section 509 of their accreditation rules, and I know that sounds pretty technical. There's a lot of accreditation rules; most applicants probably aren't reading all of them, but admissions officers do. This is critical stuff. So this change started in 2012, and then there was a process of implementation, and then by 2014, ten years ago, the big change is that schools were required to report accurate information about employment after graduation.

So just think about that for a second, because before this time period, schools weren’t required to do that. So more than 10 years ago, they were supposed to be truthful about it, but there was nobody looking over their shoulder to say what they were supposed to say to make sure that the information they were giving was correct, or to make sure that they were giving information that was comparable to other schools. So I'm not saying that admissions offices were doing anything nefarious here, nothing like that—although maybe, who knows, right, I don't have any evidence of that—but the difference is pretty big now.

Now, every law school has to put, in a prominent place on their website, information about how many people got jobs after graduation in the most recent class year, what kinds of jobs those were, other information about salaries and locations, and things like that. And they also have to present that information in basically the same way for each school. So it's possible for an applicant today, and I would certainly encourage applicants to do this, to look at the schools that they're interested in and say, if I'm deciding between these two schools, I really should look at these different employment statistics and make a decision at least partially based on that information.

Anna: Yeah, absolutely. That is a huge difference. I think it's easy to take for granted the fact that law school applicants have access to standardized, comparable information on employment and first-year class statistics for every single ABA-accredited law school. But there are many grad school programs, many academic programs where that is very much not the case, and it's great that applicants have access to this information. abarequireddisclosures.org—check it out, lots of great information; you can find it all for every single school.

I agree, that's huge and has been really positive for applicants, for sure, to be able to have that information. I think we're going to talk a little bit about other differences, but first, what are some things that are the same?

Joe: The number one thing is that the experience of applying to law school is actually pretty similar. Literally typing in the information on the application, how you use LSAC's website to submit your application, those things, they look pretty much the same today as they did 10 years ago.

Anna: Yeah, we were just talking about how, when I was applying to law school 10 years ago, I very much remember the acute frustration of having the LSAC website tell me that I had the LSAC website open in another tab or something and it wouldn't let me access my applications, and having these tech issues. And I see people posting about those exact same tech issues today, which kind of boggles my mind.

Joe: Yeah, it's a shared generational experience that today’s law school applicants, when they become junior associates in the law firms that they go to, the senior partners in their firm will be able to share the same experience that they had 10 years before applying to law school.

Other things that are the same—really the feeling of applying to law school, the process of saying, “I'm going to write my application, I'm going to write an essay, and I'm going to really try to get into a law school,” and then you just have to sit and wait, and then the timing of how that happens, it always feels like it happens a little bit too slowly. That process is the same, too.

I'd also say that the rankings have been remarkably static over the last 10 years. If you took a look at the rankings from 2014, and I'm talking about the rankings published by U.S. News & World Report, and you look at the rankings that were most recently published, there will be some differences; there will be some schools that have gained and lost. But if you look at the top of the rankings, if you look at the top 14 or 15 schools, remarkably similar schools, slightly different order, but almost exactly the same schools over the last 10 years. So those rankings really have not shifted, which is interesting, because there's a significant possibility that coming up, they may start to shift.

Anna: Certainly there have been schools that have really increased in the rankings or really decreased in the rankings, but that tends to be outside of the top schools, which, as you said, have been remarkably stable. So it'll be interesting to see if those start to change significantly now with this sort of new ranking scheme, that I think a lot of it is a lot better for applicants in that it is all based on that standardized publicly available information. You know, they got rid of the expenditures metric, which schools could report pretty much anything they wanted. It was not audited; there were several cases where it seemed like something very fishy was going on. We won't get into that. But now it's all this publicly available information, and it's very focused on employment outcomes, which I think is good for applicants, ultimately. I think it's good for law students for schools to be focusing on getting their students employed. But that's a whole conversation that we probably don't need to get fully into.

Joe: Well, there is one interesting implication here, which is that 10 years ago was when that employment data first started to be publicly reported. If you were really good at comparing schools or looking at statistics as an applicant, then you could go in and you could see some differences, but it's actually pretty difficult for the average applicant to say, “Okay, I've got all this data in front of me, and I can see big differences, but do these small differences mean anything?” And there's a possibility that the rankings are really going to start picking up on that going forward. Because if the rankings proceed the way we think that they're going to proceed, which is to put a much more significant influence on employment outcomes after graduation, maybe there will finally be an easier way for applicants to take a look at rankings and get a gauge of employment outcomes. That may be good or bad. That may be good in the sense that it's helpful to applicants, but it may be bad because it may continue to affect the primacy of U.S. News & World Report’s rankings in the minds of applicants, which I would argue is maybe not the most important thing they should be looking at.

Anna: Yeah, rankings have had a pernicious effects, I think, on legal education. But that really is a huge topic. I agree that some of the employment information can be difficult. I mean, if you go to abarequireddisclosures.org, you can export a spreadsheet that you're going to have to decipher what those column headlines mean. There are places to get the information in more digestible ways; our site My Rank, is a pretty good one; Law School Transparency is a pretty good one. They have lots of information that makes it easier to compare law schools as opposed to trying to do your own statistical analysis on a giant spreadsheet.

I do think that one of the biggest differences in general is the quality of information that is available to applicants now. Certainly, the required disclosures, the employment information is huge; that's a massive component. But I also think that law schools are putting out better information now than they were 10 years ago. I'm biased, but coming from us, I think we put out a ton of good information from the perspective of actual former admissions officers, versus for a long time, online spaces were almost exclusively the blind leading the blind, were almost exclusively fellow applicants trying to give each other advice based on guesses on what had worked in their applications and what hadn't, which is tricky because you don't know if you got in in spite of something you did in your application or because of it without that direct admissions experience. But there's also admissions deans out there doing podcasts and things. There were blogs from admissions deans 10 years ago, but I think the quality of the information and the breadth of the information is a lot stronger now for applicants than it was a decade ago. Is that your impression?

Joe: Yeah, and I think that certainly the admissions offices which are good at this, which are good at producing this kind of information, have done a great job of adapting to the new technology. Podcast technology 10 years ago was nothing compared to what it is now. It is so much easier for them to produce videos or drone shots of their campus or virtual tours. None of that stuff was available 10 years ago; if it was available, it just wasn't really very good. So yeah, a lot of admissions officers have really stepped their game up in a way that's quite positive for applicants.

Anna: So let's talk about it from that angle specifically. There's the side of, what are applicants doing differently now, but what are law school admissions offices doing differently now, from your perspective, than they were 10 years ago?

Joe: There's several things that I think are pretty different. One that's interesting to note is that almost all admissions offices today are digital. That means that the admissions officer, the admissions reader, the reviewer, is reading files on a screen, right—probably a tablet because those are nicer on the eyes, but they're doing something on the screen. And sure, they could print out an application if they wanted to or for some reason that made sense. But almost all admissions officers now are reading digitally. Ten years ago, that was an option for admissions officers, but it was much more common, there were many more, we'll say, "old school" admissions deans, who were reading application files on paper. And in fact, LSAC, they used to print out new LSAT score reports, and they would send them by UPS overnight to the law schools. There would just be, every day, there would be envelopes and envelopes from LSAC full of new applications or new LSAT score reports or new transcripts or things like that that were flowing in that way. It's got a lot more efficient for the admissions office. Now, admissions officers can work from home. They used to have to maybe lug a whole box of files home if they wanted to review files from their house. It's just a lot easier these days.

In terms of what they're looking for, it's remarkably similar in most ways. Admissions officers are still looking for people who are academically qualified for their school, people who are good bets for employment outcomes, and people who, you know, were going to fit in the sort of mythical "fit" in their school, the people who are going to have the right personality for that particular law school. The ways that they're looking for these things are still pretty similar. They're looking for your LSAT score, they're looking for your GPA. But there are now alternative tests law school admissions deans are looking at more and more. Ten years ago, that really wasn't a thing. And these days there's, you know, GRE that many schools accept, there's GMAT that a couple of schools accept, and there's also things like JD-Next which are emerging these days, and although that's quite new, those are things that admissions officers are looking at to try to get the best candidates for their school.

Anna: Yeah, absolutely, that is becoming broader, it seems. In particular, if we're looking at 10 years ago—which would not have been the case, I think, 15 years ago, but in particular looking at 10 years ago—applicants were down, overall. It was sort of an applicants’ market 10 years ago to a much greater extent than it is today, when I think things are more competitive, notably, in a lot of ways.

And things were less competitive in that particular way, that I think applicants could tailor their applications in, sort of, a less specific way than I think makes strategic sense now. So, when Mike Spivey founded this firm and was starting to give out admissions advice... I'm thinking particularly about how our personal statement advice has transitioned and developed over those 10 years. When Mike first started giving advice, I think it was very strong advice to tell people that your personal statement did not necessarily need to directly address the question of "why law," for example, you could talk about some other aspect of your life, and if it touched on qualities, characteristics that would be a positive atribution to the legal field, that was sort of enough at that point. And I think that has changed, that has developed over the last 10 years, where I do think applicants at this point need to start getting more specific. And part of that, also, is not just the competitiveness, but—we have Rob and Jordana at our firm, who do a lot with employment, who do a lot with law school preparation—and the legal hiring process for law students has just been moving up and up, as we’ve heard from Rob, as we've heard from lots of people. And I think that might be part of it. You can't go into law school anymore just wanting to explore and figure things out your first two years, three years. Things are starting pretty quickly. What do you think? Was that good advice 10 years ago on the personal statement?

Joe: That's absolutely right. I think 10 years ago, the sort of law school and legal market, the job market, the whole industry was still in the Great Recession. They were just coming out of it at that point. In 2009, 2010, there were law firms that were laying people off. There were law firms that, there were a few of them that don't exist anymore because they had made some business decisions that led to their downfall during the great recession. And there was a time period when there were really very few applications to law school relative to how many there had been just a couple of years before. So you're right. Starting almost exactly 10 years ago, the number of law school applications has steadily increased, although if you looked at this from a broad lens of the last 20 or 30 or 40 years, it wouldn't look the same—but for the last 10 years, it has definitely gotten more competitive.

And that's definitely right, law schools are more interested in admitting people on the front end who are going to succeed on the back end. Who are going to get a job after graduation and contribute to their employment numbers.

Something else that affects a certain subset of people is that the market for international students has really changed quite a bit. And this doesn't really have anything to do with what law schools are doing; this has everything to do with the U.S. government and the immigration system. But it used to be relatively easy to make an assumption that a graduating lawyer who is not a U.S. citizen or permanent resident would be able to get visa sponsorship—if they could get a job, then they could get visa sponsorship. And nowadays, the way the H1B visa process works, it's a total lottery. It's much more difficult for international students to be sure that they can get a job after graduation, and that affects the applicants, but also, it's starting to affect the admissions process too. We're starting to see schools that I think are becoming more wary of admitting international students unless those people have a really strong story about why they are going to be able to get a job after graduation.

Anna: Yeah, that's a great point. We actually have one of our next episodes, I think next week I'm going to record with a couple of our consultants who really have a focus on international applicants, we're going to record a whole episode on JD admissions for international students. So if you're interested in that topic, be sure to follow us and tune in in a couple of weeks, because we have that episode coming up soon. That's definitely a difference, and we'll talk about that more.

So we talked about sort of the admissions office side. From your experience—you were talking about how you had a lot of interaction with applicants when you were at Michigan, and obviously as a part of your work with us you have tons of interaction with applicants—so, what do you think applicants are doing differently now than they were 10 years ago?

Joe: Yeah, that's a great question. My impression is that they are gathering more information about law schools before they even apply. And to some degree that's because they feel, rightly so, that it's more competitive than maybe even, you know, a few years before. So they feel like they need to do that. And to some degree it's because I think that information is more easy to come by and it's more readily available. So I think applicants are definitely targeting which schools they are thinking about applying to earlier. I think, even, they’re being more strategic about it too, being more strategic about saying, “Which are the schools that I think I could get admitted to? Okay, but maybe which schools can I stretch and which schools can I feel extra confident about?” Applicants are also a lot smarter about tailoring their applications to individual schools. I think that has emerged as a strategy that works differently for different law schools but in general is a good idea. The more that an applicant can tell their personal story and the more that they can make their personal story work with what a particular law school is offering, the better off their application will be.

Anna: You were talking about tailoring applications to different schools. One thing that has changed more recently is the fracturing of law school applications—I guess fracturing has a negative implication; I don't necessarily think it's a negative thing. But I think law school applications used to be more standardized. There used to be fewer schools giving all of these different optional essays. Certainly, there have always been schools giving optional essays; there have always been schools—for a long time, at least for the last 10 years—that ask for "Why X" essays. But we are seeing, especially this year, way more optional essays. Essays apart from the personal statement that are required, I think is interesting; that's not something that was really around before very recently. And I think this sort of goes hand in hand with the fact that more and more law schools are interviewing, which also goes back to the employability discussion we've been having. Which stems, I think, in part from rankings, but also stems from applicants, as we've been talking about, and savvier applicants, and the availability of these employment statistics and the fact that applicants have access to this and are increasingly using them and care about them and are telling law schools, “Hey, this is what we care about.” So employability is this huge focus, which I think interviews can be really helpful for gauging employability for law schools, because you're going to have to interview for jobs, and seeing how you act and how you hold yourself in that sort of environment I think can really speak to that. But not all of the optional essays have to do with employability, but I do think that that's one component that is coming into the admissions process in ways that are more varied than they maybe used to be. And then there's Kira interviews, which were not really around 10 years ago. Michigan doesn't do Kira interviews, right?

Joe: Not for admissions. They have used similar technology for scholarship interviews in the past.

Anna: So if you're listening to this and you don't know what a Kira interview is, Joe, do you want to explain what a Kira interview is, real briefly?

Joe: This is a video interview technology—and there's actually a couple of different vendors out there that law schools are using now, but initially, it was the Kira platform was the one that really got into the law school admissions office. I'm pretty sure that one of the founding partners of that company is a law school graduate, is a lawyer; that's how they targeted law schools for this. But it's video interview software where law schools can set up a series of questions, and then the applicant records the answer to them. And then, on the back end, there's some viewing software that the admissions office can use where it just cues up the answers, so the admissions officer doesn't have to watch the repetition of the same question over and over if they're watching 10 different interviews. They can just get straight to the answers, the responses.

Anna: Yeah, it's a different experience, I think, from talking to applicants. I didn't do any Kira interviews, because I think they were a thing shortly after 10 years ago, but 10 years ago, I don't think any schools were doing Kira interviews. I'm not positive on that, but I know I didn't do any, and I don't think they were on my radar as a possibility when I was an applicant. They became a thing relatively shortly thereafter, I believe, and more and more schools are using them, which I think is interesting. I certainly understand why schools are using them, being able to sort of approximate an interview without the immense hours of time that it takes admissions officers to interview applicants. I do think that they tend to be sort of an awkward experience for applicants. It can feel a little bit weird to be talking at a screen after it asks you a question. But that's not the worst thing in the world. It's very interesting though, seeing how those have increased and how interviews in general have increased. But I think it also makes sense with sort of the trends of what's happening in law school admissions.

Joe: You were saying something about the differences between different law school applications, how they're fractured more. I think we're going to see that more and more. Whenever an admissions office adds a new essay question, or they change an essay question, or they make a big change to one of their instructions on the application, they usually don't get it quite right. I mean, of course they say what they want to say, but then they send it out into the world, they get a thousand applications back, they read a thousand essays on the topic that they just asked people to write about, and they say, “Ah, okay, some of these people didn't quite get it the way I wanted them to get it.” So they may, very often, edit those essay questions or change them around again in the next year, and maybe again in the next year after that. So, given that we've seen a lot of schools in this cycle really change their applications—either really significantly revamp even the ways that their personal statement prompts are written, or add new optional essays, or add new required essays—I think we're going to see the text of those prompts change.

Law school admissions offices really don't look at other law schools' applications when they write their own applications. They're really doing their own thing, and then they set it in motion, send it out in the world, and see what happens. It's possible that, if they really didn't get a response that they wanted, if they really felt like a particular essay question was a dud, maybe they'd have to look around and see what the competition is doing to get a better idea. But for the most part, they develop these things independently. As we see more and more essay questions out there, I think we're going to see, just, different ways that those questions are asked for each different law school.

Anna: Oh man, that's interesting. I know that some of the consultants at our firm have talked about how they anticipated something similar to what you were talking about, where admissions offices have put out these different prompts and then, with it being the first year, they're going to get back a bunch of essays and maybe aren’t going to necessarily get what they were looking for in some of those cases, or might get a bunch of answers that just look the same, so it just doesn't end up being valuable. But I think there's been some speculation of, oh, will they just remove those essays and, you know, sort of collapse back into the standard essays that were expected for a long time? So it's interesting to note that you foresee it being even more differentiated school-by-school in the future.

Joe: That's the bet I’m going to take. It's interesting, because as consultants, you and I, we look at applications over a long period of time, because we work with clients from cycle to cycle. Hopefully, as an applicant, you hope that you're only applying once. Maybe twice if you have to, but really, you hope you only apply once. So for an applicant, you just look at one year's application, and you see how those essays look, and you see what the instructions look like. So from the perspective of, you know, a consultant who works with applicants over many cycles, it can be really helpful to understand just how exactly a particular essay question has evolved. What did it used to look like? What do they seem like the admissions office is trying to get at, what they're looking for from that particular essay? And all that information is apparent to you and me, right, as consultants. It's not so easy to figure that out as an applicant.

Anna: Yeah, that's actually an interesting point of seeing how schools refine their prompts over the years, because that absolutely can tell you, “Oh, they took out this section. They probably don't want you to emphasize that little bit that they used to have in their prompt that then they removed.”

Switching gears a little bit. We talked a bit earlier about how things have gotten more competitive and some different angles of that. I think one way that is very obvious and plain to see on paper that things have gotten more competitive is with the numerical qualifications, with LSAT medians and GPA medians, and how much those have changed and increased over the years.

My example that I tell to friends who applied to law school around the same time that I did—and I am not meaning to pick on this school; it's just an example—but I love telling people who applied to law school a decade ago that right now, WashU, Washington University in St. Louis, has higher medians collectively than any law school in the country when I applied. Harvard, Yale, and Stanford included; they have higher medians—which, it blows people's minds when I tell them. What do you think are some factors that have led to these increased medians? Because I think there are a lot.

Joe: Yeah, I mean, 10 years ago, high 160s—like 168, 169—like, that's the median for some of the top 14 schools. And today, it's like 170, 171 and up. So I think a big factor here has to do with the changes to the LSAT. I mean, these days, the LSAT is a four-section test, there's three sections that are scored, you take it digitally, you can take it at home if you want to. Now you can take it at a test center. You get the score back in about three weeks. If you don't like your score, you can cancel it using score preview. If you want to take it again, there's probably another test within a month and a half. Ten years ago, the LSAT was on paper. You used a number two pencil. I don't even know if applicants to law schools these days know what a number two pencil is or what it's like to bubble in those sheets. It was a five-section test then. It was four scored, one experimental. The LSAT writing, you hand-wrote that thing with your number two pencil on the morning of the test. And it made the whole process longer, because you sat around hand writing a writing sample for half an hour or 35 minutes. And then you took five sections of the test. It was a whole-day event—and certainly it feels like that for the LSAT these days, it feels long enough for anybody who's taken the LSAT recently, but it was even longer. But the other thing is that LSAC only offered the LSAT four times a year. Now it's eight. And at least if you're in North America, you can take it almost every other month.

Anna: I'm glad that they've done that for sure.

Joe: Yeah, it's much better for applicants. You get your score back within about three weeks. It was about six weeks before. If you missed your chance to take the LSAT in, like, October, your next chance was December. The score didn't come out until after January 1st. It was really a much higher-stakes test in that sense that you really had to nail it in the opportunities that you had. On the other hand, the fact that you can take it more frequently benefits some applicants who say, like, “Oh, man, that test didn't go so well for me, but I think I got it figured it out now.” They can retake it, they can get a new score pretty quickly. But on the other hand, it means that there's a lot more applicants who are retaking the LSAT, who are taking it more frequently, more than once, more than twice even.

Anna: Yeah, I think the retaking is definitely a component of it. Ten years ago, there were still some remnants of the myth—or what was a myth at that time, and had been true some previous times, but was not true 10 years ago—there was this idea that some law schools looked at your average LSAT score, and that was the LSAT score that mattered the most to them. I don't think applicants really think that anymore. And it has become so, so common to retake the LSAT; I think that has definitely led to increasing scores.

I certainly think that the changes to the LSAT have also contributed. I think right now it probably wouldn't be that big a deal to me to have to go in at 8 A.M. at my local university to have to take the test; that wouldn't be too unreasonable for me now. But I will tell you, as a college student, having to wake up early to trek over to a testing center at 8 A.M. was such a hurdle for me. I planned my weeks prior to the LSAT trying to become accustomed to waking up early enough to take the LSAT so that I wasn't just exhausted. And then, not being in your own space, obviously there's state-dependent learning. If you're taking the test in the same place that you're studying, your brain doesn't have all those extra hurdles of being in this new novel place, which—there were applicants at the time, and I was one of them who, I went to my testing center, which was not my university. I just waltzed into Florida International University and found a lecture hall and took a practice LSAT in an empty lecture hall at FIU in order to try to approximate that experience.

Joe: That used to be the advice!

Anna: And I do remember actually reading a post on advice on how to bubble in your answers correctly and common mistakes in bubbling, which now looking back is very funny, and I'm glad that applicants don't have to worry about common mistakes in bubbling.

Joe: I took the LSAT more like 20 years ago, and at that time, LSAC’s advice to schools was to look at the average score. So it really hasn't been that way for 20 years. For the last 20 years, it's been to look at the highest score, not the average score. But at that time it was the average score, 20 years ago, which put a lot more pressure. And I remember also, I think that you weren't allowed to have digital watches in the test center. Maybe there were, like, some kinds of digital watches or something—there was something about digital watches that could potentially get you banned from the test center. And there was a company, I think it might have been a test prep company that, if you signed up for their program, you got this free—they were selling an LSAT watch, and it was just a regular analog watch, except instead of numbers, it only went up to 35 for each of the 35-minute sections. I think the idea was that you set it to midnight, and then when the proctor said to begin the test, you just started the thing, and it ticked up to 35 minutes. That's how it worked.

Anna: Fair enough. I think another thing that has contributed to increasing LSAT scores is also the proliferation of free and low cost LSAT prep. Khan Academy, I think, is huge, the fact that applicants are able to access a decent amount of LSAT preparation resources without having to pay hundreds of dollars for them. There are also a number of LSAT prep companies that do discounts or free services for applicants who have fee waivers from LSAC. I think that stuff is great. So I think there are some real positive factors that have led to higher LSAT scores, even if the result is a more competitive and more difficult process.

Joe: I think that's huge. I was at an LSAC conference where they announced that partnership with Khan Academy, and kudos to LSAC, that was the right move to do. I mean, you could pay a subscription fee to LSAC, and yes, you have to pay for it, but there are fee waivers, to get access to their actual practice materials, to get access to actual questions; you used to not be able to do that. LSAC used to only license that to big test companies that would pay huge fees to them. And again, right, that's a good move I think on LSAC's part to make those resources more available to applicants, and certainly at a price point that's just a lot more affordable and with protections built in for low-income applicants.

Anna: Yeah, absolutely. When I was applying, I do remember that a lot of discussion was around like, “Don't use this prep company” or “Don't use that prep company,” because a lot of prep companies were using made-up LSAT questions, were you know, creating their own LSAT questions that approximated what an LSAT question looks like but is much worse preparation than using actual former LSAT questions. So that was this big—less savvy applicants are using these prep companies that are just not preparing you well at all, I think that to some extent that's always going to be somewhat of an issue, but the fact that real actual LSAT questions are much more widely available, I think is hugely helpful for the applicant pool as a whole.

So we've talked a lot about the LSAT. I think we probably don't have to talk too long about GPA inflation, but I think that's certainly an effect, certainly not for all applicants at all schools, but overall for the pool collectively, you can see that GPAs are inflating over time. Would you agree?

Joe: Oh, yeah, absolutely. I mean, that's nothing new, right? I'm sure that somebody who went to college 50 years ago feels like—

Anna: Oh, people were complaining about GPA inflation then too, I'm sure.

Joe: I'm sure, right. But that has definitely shown up in the medians, in the law school medians for GPA. Ten years ago, I think that there was maybe one or two law schools that had a GPA median that was above 3.9.

Anna: I know that the highest medians were 173 and 3.93, because I really wanted to be above every single law school’s medians. So I ended up with a 174 and a 3.94 I think.

Joe: You memorized this.

Anna: They were so stuck in my brain; I was so obsessed with the admissions process when I was applying. It was like my whole world.

Joe: One of our colleagues who's a former admissions dean told me that, when he was in the admissions office, they had a specific strategy to not increase their GPA median beyond 3.89, even though he was at a top-ranked school—they could have done that—because they didn't want to appear too difficult for admission.

Anna: Interesting. Nobody's doing that nowadays.

Joe: Yeah, well, and they can't. I don't think that law schools can afford to do that, because the grade inflation has increased across the board. Probably there's a lot of admissions deans who feel like they would like to do that, and yet they are compelled by other reasons to focus on getting the highest qualifications they can get.

Anna: Yeah. I could go on for a long time about rankings, so I will try to limit myself, but one thing that I will say right now is just that, due to the way that the rankings work—especially when applications are increasing and competitiveness generally is increasing—the tricky situation that law schools find themselves in is that, if they stay static, if they aren't increasing, they will go down in the rankings. Which, like it or not, has impacts on current students, alumni, donors, and applicants. That's sort of the world that law schools have been dealing with. And we've done lots of podcast episodes about changes to rankings, so go listen to those if you're interested in that.

Let's look forward; I think that's probably a good way to end for applicants who are applying this cycle or potentially looking to apply in future cycles. Among the many trends and differences and changes that we have talked about in the last 10 years, what do you think is going to continue into the future? What trends are you seeing that are going to continue to grow in significance, in your view, at least in the next sort of few years?

Joe: Yeah. I think that for admissions offices, I think that they're going to have more of a shift towards admitting applicants based, in addition to their academic qualifications, also on their expectation of employment after graduation. I think what that is going to look like is that law schools are going to have to figure out, what's the analog that they're going to use to estimate somebody's potential? So I think we're going to see, probably, more interviews, because people have to do job interviews, so I think we're going to see more admissions interviews of various different formats. And I think that we're going to probably see some shift toward a preference for applicants who have spent time in between college and applying to law school. So people who have spent a year in graduate school or a year or two working or whatever it is that they have. That already exists to some degree right now, and I don't think that this is going to be a huge shift, but I do think that we'll start to see that; I think that'll be the trend of the future.

Anna: Yeah, that emphasis has been growing, I would expect to see it continue to grow at least for the next few years. Because employment obviously is incredibly important to everyone involved. To the law school, to the current students, to applicants—that's the point of going to law school; it's a professional school. There are a few people, I'm sure, who are going for their edification, because they're wealthy and have a lot of time I suppose. But for most people, the point of going to law school is to become a lawyer, to become an attorney. So that emphasis on how good a law school is at getting their graduates to gainful employment as attorneys, makes sense to me as a point of emphasis. And I think that is going to continue, I agree.

Okay. So any advice for applicants who are maybe applying this year or in the future, based on our conversation so far?

Joe: Well, my advice to applicants looking forward would be to be true to themselves. Express their authentic story, tell the admissions office about themselves, use their opportunities in the application to do that, use their opportunities, if they're interviewing at schools, to do that. And you know, if they end up on the waitlist or something like that, and they're going to send in a letter of continued interest or have other sort of contact with the admissions office, just be true to themselves. I think the more applicants try to be the sort of mythical, "perfect" applicant, I think it makes it harder for them. I think what they should do is, they should differentiate themselves from other candidates, and even if that means it's a little risky, it's a little scary because they are going to present themselves in a way that looks different from other applicants, I think ultimately that's a good move. I think ultimately that's the strategic choice.

Anna: I think that's great advice. Because especially with applicants being on the whole collectively savvier and more strategic and tailoring their applications to specific schools and things like that, what's going to stand out is you being genuine, you being very sincere, and the admissions officer reading your application and saying, "this person is being incredibly genuine and sincere." Totally agreed with that. I think that's a great note to end on. Thank you, Joe, for taking the time. I think it's been a really interesting conversation.

Joe: Thank you for having me on.

Anna: And thank you to our listeners!