Well, it's finally 2021, so we'll take a quick look at how applicant volume shaped up in the 2020 part of the 2020-2021 application cycle.
Here's where we stand in the different volume categories as of 12/31/2020:
Making up the vast majority of applicants, this is the most important category by far. So far in the 2020-2021 cycle, these applicants have significantly outpaced prior application cycle volume. On three out of every four days this year LSAT applicants have outpaced where they were last year; at no point this cycle has LSAT applicant volume dipped below last. It's ranged from as "low" as a 27% increase to as high as a 41% increase.
The last couple weeks have seen a decline in the relative increase — going from an almost 40% increase in mid-December to the current 29% increase. That was to be expected given LSAT score release timing. The November test results this year came out a few weeks before when they did last year, so we had a couple weeks where volume was down relative to last year, though not by much — the gap in the raw number of LSAT applicants only decreased by a thousand over that time.
Here's what total volume has looked like (we don't have data for early September this year):
As for each individual score range, applicants remain most substantially concentrated at the very top ranges, though they are up in every score category.
The 170+ scoring range has seen, frankly, absolutely extraordinary increases in applicants. In that range, total LSAT applicants have already exceeded the entirety of the 2019-2020 cycle. If we didn't get a single additional applicant in the 170+ range for the rest of the year (obviously impossible, but let's pretend) then at the end of 2020-2021 we'd still have 35% more total applicants in that range than the entirety of 2019-2020, an increase of 1,181 such applicants. Every day that passes is just more on top in that range.
Here's how volume has trended in each score range:
Now what's interesting about all this is, as some have pointed out, we don't have an especially large increase in LSAT takers this year to fuel the increase in applicants. So far there are 56,151 first time test takers this cycle, compared to 55,163 at this time last cycle — a measly thousand-person increase. That presents us with two questions: what's fueling the increase in total applicants, and what's fueling the disproportionate increase in high-scoring applicants?
There's been a lot of speculation that perhaps the cycle is just very front-loaded, with applicants applying earlier, and that there will be a course correction later on. That's not a very compelling argument for a couple reasons. First, applicants are not monolithic. They don't behave as a group of "applicants" but rather as sub-groups of applicants — 173 scorers, 166 scorers, 153 scorers — each tending to move with their own score and those within a tight score band of a few points. In general, higher scorers apply earlier, and lower scorers apply later. At this time last year, we had less than a third of our final applicant volume in the 150-154 range, but almost 55% of our final volume in the 160-164 range. If we were simply seeing earlier applications, you'd expect that in those ranges where we have typically had a significant majority of our applicant volume by now (160+) the gap would have narrowed starting a few weeks ago, as we ran out of fuel this year and last year was able to catch up. That hasn't happened. That's not to say people aren't applying earlier at all. Over the last couple of years, applicants have tended to apply slightly earlier each cycle. This year, given the fact that applicants are more cooped up, it's natural to expect things are happening a bit earlier — but there's no evidence that that's the main cause of our current volume change.
A likelier explanation is that we're just yielding more applicants from the test-taker pool. That makes sense in the current environment, i.e. the economy. It's normal for people to try to ride out a challenging labor market in graduate school (applications to business and medical school are also up significantly). People taking the LSAT this year are likely more serious about attending law school — if only because they lack better options.
The other issue is that the highest scoring applicants are disproportionately up beyond any explanation related to how early they might apply. Fortunately, we do have something of an explanation now: LSAC has confirmed that individuals taking the LSAT-Flex exam are receiving higher scores than LSAT-takers were last year (and for what it's worth, test-takers last year were doing noticeably better than the years before it — so we're getting inflated scores on top of already inflated scores). That means we have a much larger pool of higher scoring applicants to draw from, which is being reflected in the incredible increases in those applicants. There are a lot of potential explanations for the phenomenon, and it's probably a result of multiple causes. The reasons aren't really important right now, though they'll become more important in the future if LSAC keeps the Flex going into the 2021-2022 application cycle.
The fact that applicants are scoring generally better on the Flex does not mean schools will view an applicant's Flex score any differently. While some might harbor reservations about the Flex compared to the normal LSAT (we know some do), they don't have the luxury of acting on those reservations, because there aren't nearly enough non-Flex applicants to fill their class needs. So if you're a Flex taker, don't worry about that at all.
This includes anyone who is not using an LSAT to apply — GRE, SAT, ACT, MCAT, GMAT, no test at all. The ABA has started publishing limited data on these individuals; if you're interested, check out this year's 509 reports.
Right now there are 1,721 non-LSAT applicants, an increase of 51% from this time last year. We expect the majority of those to be GRE applicants, and another significant chunk to be individuals who submitted without an LSAT but are signed up for the January or February tests.
Applications are up even more than applicants are — there's been a 45% increase in the number of applications to law school.
Law schools are naturally seeing a greater number of applications this year compared to last — only 4 schools have seen a decrease in the number of applicants. Over half have had increases of greater than 40%.
This is all being fueled not just by the increase in the number of applicants, but by the increase in the number of applications per applicant this year.
We'd generally take this as evidence that applicants are somewhat better prepared this year, and are therefore getting all their applications in more quickly. It's also possible that applicants, having done better on their Flex test than expected, are submitting applications more broadly now that more schools are in their target range.
Looking Forward to 2021
It's obvious that this application cycle will be more competitive, with an increased total number of applicants. How much more competitive remains to be seen. LSAC recently shifted their language from predicting a 10% increase to a 10-20% increase, which we think is more realistic — and if applicants apply in the same pattern they did last year, that increase could be 25-30%. We're really in the thick of the application cycle now, so if there's going to be any significant course correction, it would have to happen in the next month or so. But we don't see any sign of that. For example, look at the January 2021 LSAT. It currently has twice as many people registered for it as January 2020 did. The final number will be lower — probably closer to a 75% increase — but still a very large number of people will be taking the test. February 2021's LSAT registration hasn't closed, but that will also almost certainly be up from last February. There's no impending shortage of potential applicants. And if the higher scoring results from the Flex continue, those applicants will add even more competition than in prior years.
We're also interested in how volume trends in the new year as people become increasingly aware of the increased competition more applicants create. Will they apply more broadly to give themselves more opportunities for desirable outcomes? Will it deter some people from applying this year?
If the economy doesn't improve, it's also possible we see a longer tail on this application cycle. College students staring at an unemployed or underemployed post-graduation might decide to throw in law school applications later than they usually do. That might have also happened in the 2019-2020 cycle, though it's hard to tell if it was caused by that, or by people being forced to delay applications due to cancelled LSAT administrations (or maybe both).
We'd encourage applicants to, if possible, apply broadly and consider adding some "safety" (we dislike that term, but it is what it is) schools to their list. If schools use this as an opportunity to improve medians, particularly LSAT medians, then what might have been a target previously could be harder to get into this year. Of course, we've also mentioned previously that this does give schools more opportunity to consider factors other than LSAT when reviewing applicants.
We hope this transparency was helpful. Best of luck to all, and happy New Year!