I get this question from a lot of clients and with growing frequency in emails and private messages on Top-Law-Schools.com. Some of the lack of clarity in a binary “yes” or “no” answer derives from the unavoidable fact that there are two prominent variables that cannot categorically be accountedfor, namely individual applicant bias and school bias. But let me try to explain some macro level road-map guidelines that should help.
In the go-go years of huge application volumes and increases, taking the Feb. LSAT alone would be a patently bad move. This is for two reasons. (1) Schools were easier to get into early. They often set goals based on the previous year, would admit people at the medians from the previous year, and would see as the cycle went on that they had a better applicant pool and start focusing exclusively on higher scores. (2) Similarly they would admit too many people too early based on the number of strong applicants they had and pickings would get very slim later. So the class would be almost full and it would put an applicant at a huge disadvantage to apply late. Much of the belief that it is an advantage to apply early is based on this antiquated data. Additionally, there is a mythology around the term “Rolling Admissions”, which the vast majority of law schools use. Rolling Admission at any law school worth its salt in admissions does not mean your file is read based on when it goes complete. It means admits go out in rolling increments and that THESE files are read first (the strongest are read earliest). Even a very quick skim at law school numbers and admit/waitlist/deny decision dates will show how emphatic this point is. So to believe you need to get an application in early because of “rolling admissions” is almost entirely a misnomer — you need to get a good application in.
Also keep in mind that admission offices are inexorably data serfs. The more data they have early, the better decisions they can make across a variety of goals (LSAT, uGPA, ethnicity, gender, scholarship, etc) for their incoming class. Schools want you to believe that getting an application in early provides a bump. They likely have data to support this, but that data is horribly confounded by the fact that you get the majority of your strongest applications in early.
So is there a real “bump” for an application in this application environment? If you are on the bubble, likely so. With all things being equal submitting early is your best bet. You have more of the focus of the file reader(s) (come March all applications start sounding exactly the same), you come across as more likely to matriculate (yield protection), and you do not run the risk of a class filling up more quickly than anticipated.
But, what is much more important is to submit a strong application. To the question at hand, should I rush and take the December LSAT or hold off until February or next cycle let me give you the three possibilities, in rank order of preference:
1. Take in December first. Unless you somehow know you are going to bomb December relative to your potential, e.g. you have yet to study, your practice tests are never getting better or are going down, personal extenuating reasons, this is your last LSAT test administration allowed until the next year(s), etc., you still have a risk free test to take. Worst case is that you do not perform as well as you know you are capable of. If this occurs you can still take it in February AND you will likely do better in February simply for having taken it in Dec (a vast amount of empirical data confirms this). So if you are registered for Dec and you want to push it off because of nerves or fear, I would say do not give in to these feelings. Give yourself the chance to retake in February and try to catch lightening in a bottle in Dec.
2. Apply next cycle. Again, in a vacuum it is better to get things in early. So yes take the Feb LSAT but simply wait until next cycle and have your application submitted in Dec with the chance to take the LSAT again or a few more times. The two reasons NOT to do this are (1), you really prefer to start law school ASAP, which of course if an entirely personal reason and (2), you have no idea what the applicant pool will look like next year. What if there are some atmospheric conditions that elicit a spike in applications? Things can get much more difficult quickly, scholarship money can get cut off, etc at the blink of an eye. We are sitting at the bottom of an unprecedented ebb in law school applications and at some indeterminable point the tide will shift in the other direction.
3. Give yourself some peace of mind and take in February. This is not the end of the earth, because the vast majority of law schools will extend their deadlines, especially for stronger applications, and the vast majority of law schools (perhaps all) will be craving a good score. If you have good reasons (perhaps some of the ones I outlined in (1) for not taking the Dec. LSAT AND you need to get started with law school this fall it is more than “ok” to wait until February. There may be a school or two that says “we won’t take an application past our deadline”…you may get wait listed at some schools who consider you a yield risk (particularly at the top of the food chain) and perhaps you will forfeit some scholarship money if the schools continue to give out larger amounts earlier. All of that said, admissions offices are in a bad way. The pressures being placed upon them to hold the numerical line (namely LSAT, uGPA, and now enrollment) are greater than they have ever experienced. Any dean of admissions would be crazy to not let you apply and to not admit you if you have a competitive score because they are acutely aware that they will be fighting 6-12 other schools for that exact score in the medians/USNWR rankings. For the most self-serving reasons of all, self-preservation, you can take the Feb LSAT and still be fawned over by just about every school you apply to this cycle. There will be a few exceptions to this (but likely for other reasons like C&F or inherent application problems) but the data will bear this out this cycle.
Good luck whichever option you choose!