Hi everyone, we're back with another data update. February is over, and it's been an interesting month for applicant and application volume. At this point last cycle, we had about 75% of our final applicant volume.
As expected, the decline in first-time LSAT taker volume to data finally caught up with us. Took long enough. This past month saw a decline in LSAT applicants and overall applicants by several percent when compared to late January. We also have our first sustained drop in application volume since mid-October.
We're actually also behind 2017-2018 in terms of overall applicant volume.
Individual applicant volume is down at about three-fifths of law schools.
What is Driving Applicant Volume?
Like we mentioned, we've finally seen a sustained drop compared to the prior cycle. Why did we expect that? The drop in first-time LSAT taker volume to date. There are about 9,000 fewer first-time test takers through the January LSAT administration. Not only are fewer people taking each individual test, but there are fewer first-time takers in each test administration. January's LSAT actually had a historic low of only 40% first-time test takers.
Based on initial data, February's test (for which scores have not yet been released) is unlikely to be much above 50% first-time takers. So that test isn't going to reverse the trend much, if at all.
Breaking Down Applicant Volume
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.
Continuing a trend, the growth in high scoring applicants (165+) has moderated from our last update. Much of that can be attributed to growth in the total numbers, but we have seen fewer actual applicants in those categories over the period. Meanwhile the situation with <165 applicants continues to be very good for applicants and very bad for law schools. This is particularly the case for programs that draw primarily from the 155 and lower LSAT applicants — which is about half of all law schools.
The other problem for schools in that range is that by this time last year we had a majority of our final applicant volume in all score bands, including <150 applicants who tend to apply later.
Now, every year is different. We're not saying that the above numbers are also exactly where we are this year, and we'll talk later about why the change in LSAT schedule could mean that we get a late cycle surge.
Here are some graphs showing applicant volume in each LSAT score band.
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 and won't take 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.
So far this cycle we have 2,592 applicants who did not apply with an LSAT score. They make up 5.8% of the total applicant pool. Last year at this time those numbers were 1,968 and 4.2%, respectively. Non-LSAT applicants are continuing to make up an increasing amount of the applicant pool.
Applications continue to outpace applicants, but we are down in our overall application volume.
Applicants are, on average, applying to very slightly more law schools than last year, but fewer than 2017-2018.
What makes the next couple of months hard to predict is that LSAC has added 2 tests to the winter/spring testing schedule: February and April. Last year the only post-January LSAT option was March.
The February exam had about 11,000 people registered (the smallest in LSAT history). Of those, maybe half will be first-time test takers. The March test has about 10,800 (and the registration deadline has passed) — but that number will continue to drop as we get closer to the test, and could easily be as low as 9,000 on test day. Combined, February and March of this year will likely have about as many test takers as March 2019 did. The difference? Between February and March, there will need to be 17,750 first-time test takers to bring us to parity with last cycles first-time numbers through the March test.
Let's explore that. Consider a reasonable, conservative estimate that by the time the March administration rolls around we have a combined 20,000 registrants over February and March. Let's also assume that 5% of those registrants don't show up on test day (historically 5% is the lower-bound of no shows; 7.5% of January 2020 registrants did not show). There would need to be a 93-94% first-time test taker volume over the February and March tests in order to just get us back to parity with last year. Obviously that won't happen (in fact, with February's first-time numbers that we already know, it would quite literally be mathematically impossible). The much more reasonable outcome, a 55% first time taker volume, would get us a chunk of the way there, but we'd still have about a 10% deficit of first-time LSAT takers compared to the same point last cycle.
The wild card is the April 25th examination, which has about 9,000 people registered right now and a week left for new registrations. The April LSAT scores will come out well after the vast majority of law schools' application deadlines. Last year, 93% of all applications had been submitted by May 15, the earliest date April scores will possibly come out (actual release date has not yet been announced). The cycle is basically over at that point. But basically over isn't the same thing as actually over. Those test takers could make up a portion of our missing volume, or even get us to an increase, but it would be distributed unevenly — schools with late deadlines, or no deadlines, would derive most of the benefit.
If I were running a law school with a <160 median, I would be exploring the idea of extending my application deadline to try to attract some of those March and April test takers. The addition of more non-LSAT applicants could alleviate some, but not all, of the pressure.
We will also keep an eye on daily volume the next couple weeks. There are some non-definitive signs that applicant volume is a bit more spread out over the month compared to prior cycles, and not as densely concentrated in big, end of month surges. If true, it would be good news for schools. But if daily volume remains low, it's probably a sign we've just exhausted much of the available applicant pool.
It's worth noting that, year over year, we have a greater ratio of first-time takers to applicants than we did last year. That's something we'll be looking at when the cycle is over, to see if maybe more people taking the LSAT were very serious about law school. That could explain a flat or increased volume of applicants with fewer first-time test takers.
What does it all mean?
The top scoring bands remain very competitive, certainly more so than last year. This has caused a general slowness as schools carefully manage their admissions to try to take advantage of a larger pool. It's definitely possible, even likely, that there will be some median increases (GPA and LSAT) across some top tier schools. And with less number pressure schools can be more focused on selecting the applicants with great stories, interesting work experience, or other "soft" factors.
Below the top, though, there should be reasonable opportunities for applicants to over-perform relative to their LSAT score. Scarcity is the great equalizer. If the current trends hold (and they might not!), then there are going to be a lot of schools who need more applicants. February, and then March, when they release scores will alleviate some but not all of that shortage.
It's also going to be tough for schools to increase class size and maintain or increase medians on our current trajectory. In fact many schools will face challenges just maintaining both class size and entering class profile.
Waitlist movement this year might be interesting and messy. Usually waitlist movement starts at the top and flows down through the ranks. But this year, with top schools having no real shortage of applicants, they might not need to pull as extensively from their waitlists. That could lead to lower ranked schools having to act more haphazardly, and a lot of mess. Again, this assumes the current bifurcated volume (high scorers up, lower scorers down) holds up.
We know it feels slow, but the decisions are coming. The more deadlines pass, the faster schools will be making decisions. Be patient, and good luck!