Brief Application Cycle Update

There has been some chatter lately about the 2021-2022 application cycle, so we thought we'd provide a brief update.

As of today, applicant volume is down by 10.1% compared to 2020-2021. 50,814 individuals have submitted applications so far compared to 56,519 last year. There are fewer applicants in all LSAT score bands compared to the prior application cycle.

Application Volume by Score Band as of March 10th

This probably represents about 78% of final applicant volume for the year.

The total applicant pool looks like a middle ground between the pre-COVID cycles and the 2020-2021 cycle.

Applicant Volume Compared to 2021-2022 Cycle

However, when you look at the below table, you can see some clear differences between this cycle and historical ones. The table shows the total (#) and percentage (%) difference in each score band between the respective cycle on March 10th, and this cycle on March 10th.

Changes in Applicant LSAT Bands Compared to 2021-2022 Cycle

What jumps out? Substantial differences between this cycle and historic cycles in the highest and lowest LSAT score bands. This cycle has fewer applicants in the highest-scoring 165+ bands than last year, but it has thousands more than the pre-COVID cycles. Applicants in the highest-scoring 175+ group are still double what they were in 2019-2020, and more than that for 2018-2019.

Meanwhile, the number of applicants scoring in the lowest scoring bands has gone down. That trend started a couple of years ago, but has continued — there are now 18.1% and 16.3% fewer applicants in the <150 LSAT score bands than the 2017-2018 and 2018-2019 application cycles respectively. The decline in low-scoring applicants isn't driving this year's applicant decline, but it is contributing to a continued shift in the distribution of applicant LSAT scores towards higher score bands.

You can see both these trends in the below chart, which shows how much each score band makes up of the total applicant pool in each cycle as of March 10th (note that the final percentages will shift for each year in favor of lower-scoring bands, which tend to apply later).

Percent of Total Applicant Pool per LSAT Band as of March 10th

What does all this mean? Basically, while there are notably fewer applicants this year, the 10.1% decline isn't making the cycle look as much like pre-COVID ones in terms of how competitive it is, because the applicant pool still has higher percentages of the strongest LSAT scores and a smaller percentage of the lowest-scoring LSAT bands. Consider that if those high scoring 165+ applicants represented more of a "normal" share of the applicant pool, there would be 2000-2500 fewer of them. That wouldn't change the total number of applicants, but it would shift the competition down the scale a bit. While the scoring bubble from last year has deflated somewhat, the difference isn't dramatic, especially when accounting for the smaller total applicant pool.

What is interesting about this application cycle is how frontloaded it has been. On October 1, 2021, there were 12.5% more applicants than last cycle, and 48.4% more than the year before that. By December 1, 2021, there were 4.5% fewer applicants than last cycle, and 30% more than the year before that. By February 1, 2022, we had 6.7% fewer applicants than last cycle and 12.2% more than the year before that. Now, there are 10.1% fewer applicants than last cycle and 8.1% more than the year before that.

The declines in applicant volume from early in the cycle make sense when you look at LSAT test-taker volume and composition.

LSAT Taker and First Time Taker Volume

Each test from July on has had a smaller number of test-takers compared to last year, and a smaller percentage of first-time test takers. LSAT takers still make up the vast majority of applicants to law school, and so declining numbers (especially declining first-time test takers) means less "fuel" for the cycle.

There's also no sign of any impending surge in applicants to buoy volume in the coming weeks and months.  With about 7,800 registrants, the March 2022 LSAT is going to be the smallest administration in decades. It's true that some of that is likely due to an expanded LSAT schedule with more test dates available for prospective takers. However, that doesn't explain all the difference. From January to March, there will be about 12% fewer test-takers than last cycle, and about 18% fewer first-time test-takers (both these include conservative estimates about final March volume).

We don't know what April numbers will look like yet. However, with less than a week to sign up, there are currently 8,221 fewer registrants than last April's test. There are always last-minute surges in registrants. Still, even if 13,000 people signed up between now and the 16th (when registration closes), we'd likely only match last year's numbers given normal post-registration attrition. Pretty much any reasonable estimate of April test-taker volume has fewer total takers and first-time takers. The January-April 2022 testing period is likely to see between 10-14% fewer test-takers and 17-20% fewer first-time test-takers than last cycle.

If the slow-down in applicant volume continues, then this cycle might actually end up being pretty close to some of the pre-COVID cycles in total volume. A 9% decline in applicants would mean this cycle was 2.4% and 3.4% larger than 2019-2020 and 2018-2019 respectively; an increase of around 1,500-2,500 total applicants. Anything more than an 11% decline in applicants this year and we would start being smaller than recent pre-COVID cycles. We'd still be very surprised if that happened, but we'll take another look when we have more complete March/April LSAT numbers.

Given where this cycle started, things have certainly trended in favor of applicants. High-scoring applicants are still far above normal volumes, but perhaps this cycle is clearing out the excess from last year, and coming years will see some return to normalcy. It will be very interesting to see if schools are able — or even want — to keep their larger class sizes (about 10% more incoming 1Ls in Fall 2021 than Fall 2020). Likewise, we'll keep a close eye on things as we start getting hints about the 2022-2023 cycle.