Podcast: February 2022 Law School Application Cycle Update

In this episode, Mike gives an update on the data for the 2021-2022 cycle as of early February. He discusses what to expect for median increases/decreases after this cycle, what's going to happen this waitlist season, what to expect for transfer admissions this year, and some early preliminary predictions for next cycle.

Note: You may notice that the data Mike references in this episode is slightly different from the numbers that LSAC publishes. This is because LSAC reports only an applicant's ultimate high score, even if they didn't achieve that score until months or even years after the date in question. As a result, LSAC data overstates prior cycle high scores, whereas we keep track of the volume data as it was on the actual corresponding date last cycle.

You can listen and subscribe to Status Check with Spivey on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, YouTube, SoundCloud, and Google Podcasts.

One additional note on our availability for admissions consulting this year. If you are still planning to apply for the current 2021-2022 admissions cycle, and you are looking for full application services, we will only be taking package clients for one more week, ending February 16 (just reach out to us at info@spiveyconsulting.com to learn more). However, we also want to note that we very well may not recommend that you use our consulting services this year. This applies at any stage of the cycle, but especially now—we never want to take a cent of anyone's money if we don't think we can genuinely add value.

Full Transcript:

Welcome to Status Check with Spivey, where we talk about life, law school, law school admissions. Today we talk about data. This will be a mid-cycle—I think I heard Dave Killoran over at PowerScore saying it’s like a “State of the Union” of the middle of the year. Kind of the middle — applications, at this time last year, 63% had been submitted. And I'm going to guess that number's a little higher — every cycle gets a little more front loaded, and this cycle’s probably even more front loaded because of last year's hellacious cycle, struck out. So they applied, and they had applications ready to go, so they applied in September/October. So I'm going to guess we’re between 65 to 70% as far as applications submitted vis-à-vis the entire cycle. So we can start drawing some pretty decent conclusions.

Keep in mind that that percentage is not submitted monolithically — in other words, if you want to look at things in score bands, which is — we'll talk about that being down — the higher score bands tend to submit earlier than the lower score bands. We’re probably at 90%+ of the 170 to 180 test scores that have probably already submitted, but about 50%, for example, 150 to 154. So they're not evenly distributed, but as a macro-level matter, I'm guessing 65-70% of the cycle has already been submitted.

The numbers are down, and you probably know that. The number of applicants are down 7.7% from last year. The number of applications, down 5.2%. That delta between 7.7% and 5.2% is interesting, and it presents multifaceted considerations, some good for you, some challenging for you. As far as score bands, we compute our score bands a little bit differently than LSAC, so I'll give you ours, because we think ours are perhaps a little more precise, and we will explain why that is in the blog. I don't want to get into it in detail. I'm sure LSAC has their reasons for computing score band percentage changes the way they do, but we certainly have reasons for presenting them the way we do.

So from 175 to 180 — LSAC does five-point incremental score band starting at 140 — 175 to 180, things are down 13.4%. 170 to 174, applicants are down 12%. 165 to 169, down 10.1%. 160 to 164, down 10.3%. 155 to 159, down 5.2%. 150 to 154, according to the way we calculate it, it's up 1.1%. 145 to 149, down 1.7%. 140 to 144, down 7.7% and 140 to below, 120 to 140 down 11.7%.

So at face value, it sounds like everything I've given you so far is good news. It’s good news relative to last cycle. But last cycle was historically probably the most difficult admission cycle ever. Numbers that are down from large numbers are still going to be large numbers — I guess that's the best way I could put it. And if you look at two years ago as sort of like a baseline for the typical cycle, numbers are still up. Let's take the top three score bands, 165 to 175, down 10.1%, down 12%, down 13.4%. That's good at face value. It is good. It means it's not going to be as competitive as last year.

But the numbers themselves aren't dramatically down, particularly when you divide them out by the schools admitting and matriculating in those ranges. It's not like 13.4% is just going to be impacting Yale. All those 175-plus test scores are applying to multiple other schools. So, when you even things out, they're not down that much, plus class sizes were by and large higher last year, and they'll probably drop down a little bit.

And deferrals for some schools were larger. A number of schools had to give out more deferrals because of the way last cycle unfolded. So if they gave out deferrals more than normally, they're starting off with a larger class. They don't have to make as many admits. And/or if they're decreasing their class size, they don't have to make as many admits. This is what you're all seeing and feeling right now. This is sort of the reality on the ground. So the numbers are one thing, but what's happening vis-à-vis the numbers is that we have an exceptionally slow cycle.

In some sense, some schools could have even done better last cycle — but they did last cycle what they do every cycle, which is make a number of September, October, November, December admits. That's very status quo for law schools. Last cycle, though, what happened is, the schools that made a number of September and October and November admits, when they started seeing the data shake out and not drop down, they pumped the brakes. I mean, there was like last year, if you remember, if you applied last year, there was this period — December, January, February, March — where essentially no admitting was going on. So this year they pumped the brakes at the beginning of the cycle, September, October, November. And you're starting to see, I think we saw really what I would refer to as our first real wave last week. You're starting to see that, and more are going to come, because schools have to enroll students.

The other thing is they actually probably have to make a little bit more admits. They might have to make a little bit more admits because if the typical applicant is applying to more law schools this year, which is true, maybe one to two more. It might be a little bit more competitive early on if more applicants are applying to X Law School, but X Law School is not going to yield as well, because more applicants are choosing to go elsewhere.

So much indicates that, later on, this cycle is going to be hit by late waves of admits, waitlist admits, and maybe even waitlist scholarships. I mean, I really want to talk about four things. What's going on now, which we're covering. What's going to go on with the waitlist, which I'm about to cover. What's going to go on with transfer admits—you're not going to like this if you're applying as a transfer student. And then what's going to go on next cycle, which I'm a little averse to make strong statements on because we don't quite know yet. We usually do a June blog, a very detailed demographic- and data-oriented blog about the upcoming cycle. So that's the one, if you're applying next cycle, you really want to tune into. But I will take a stab at next cycle.

So what's going to happen with law school medians based on the numbers I'm looking at now? I was hopeful earlier that you would see a lot of -1s. In other words, a 169 becomes a 168, a 172 becomes a 171. If I'm factoring in the fact that, even though things are down a little bit off of a high number it’s still a pretty high number, if I'm factoring in deferrals, if I'm factoring in possible lower class sizes, I would actually tend to think of it as, medians probably won't go up. You're not going to see a 175 median LSAT. I would stake a lot on that. Maybe not my reputation, if I even have one, but I would bet a good deal of money that you're not going to see a 175 median LSAT.

So medians, probably, you're going to see all around +0 most cycles, we tell the applicant pool expect the+1 — so if you're targeting schools, don't look at a 168; if a school's median is a 168, look at it as a 169, because that's going to be their aspiration. I think most schools — in fact, I talked to a number of schools, so at least the schools I talked to, but I'm going to extrapolate to this being most schools — are really gunning to keep their median the same and slightly increase their GPA. That's a look behind the curtain. The admission strategy, by and large for many schools this year, is go slow (as you've seen), maintain the median LSAT that jumped up last year, and increase the GPA.

I think some people have picked up on reverse splitters are doing a little bit better or maybe getting a little bit faster decisions rendered this cycle. It makes sense, because reverse splitters are more coveted. I think more law schools every year are figuring out that the LSAT, as far as U.S. News & World Report rankings, has a point of diminishing returns. In fact, I think at about 171 there's no more return for U.S. News & World Report ranking purposes. So a 99.3 percentile versus a 99.5 percentile gives such an infinitesimally small raw score. I mean, it's just a — it’s not even a rounding error. So a GPA of 3.8 versus 3.85 gives much more of a U.S. News & World Report rankings boost.

Now, do keep in mind that the LSAT overall contributes more to U.S. News & World Report than the GPA. And one thing you might not know, I think most people don't know, is last year for the first time in maybe the 22 years I've done this, but the first time in a long time — because U.S. News played with the metrics, because they added 16 billion library categories and then they had to change that, because they're hiring new people, because their chief rankings guy has been doing this for a long time and they're probably transitioning to the day he retires (his name is Bob Morse) — they seem to be playing with the different inputs and metrics and weights for rankings. And one thing they did is added a bunch of library metrics and then diminished the admissions metrics.

That's actually really interesting if you think about it. If admissions contributes less to U.S. News and World Report rankings, how will law schools follow suit? I don't think they're going to make any short-term changes, in the long term and not this cycle, so there's no reason to panic. You might see less merit aid, less what I call “remission,” and a little bit more dedication to outcomes, bar passage. U.S. News asks — no one will know this, because you don't see the questions that U.S. News asks law schools — but this year U.S. News & World Report asked the law schools some interesting questions about bar passage, which leads us to believe that either this cycle or next or in the upcoming future, they are going to not just focus on two states that the law school applicants go to for bar passes. They might look at all states or their, most likely, top 10 states, and then take an average of that.

This won't impact you, but it might impact you as a student in a good way. You might see more focus on bar passage prep and more focus as far as school resources on career services outcomes, and maybe a little bit less of admissions. But admissions is a funny thing — even if they're not really contributing to rankings as much, they contribute behaviorally, psychologically to law schools.

I remember the first four LSAC conferences I went to, so four years in a row, the first question always asked is, “What's your median LSAT?” You know, you talk amongst yourselves. “What's your median LSAT going to be?” And then there was never a follow up question, “What's your median GPA going to be?” So that's interesting. Schools do now put more focus on GPA, but I wonder — and I don't go to LSAC conferences anymore, I don't think LSAC is going to invite me to be a guest speaker, I had my disagreements with them last year about the data — I still guess they revert to “what's your median LSAT?” even though GPA might impact them more in the rankings.

So where am I going with all this? Well medians, at the sort of macro level, mostly +0. I think you'll see more -1s than +1s. So I don't think you’re going to see a school at a 174 go to a 175, or a school with a 173 go to a 174. Those will be either +0 or -1. So it's going to be competitive, because schools realize this, because schools realize that maybe last year things would've worked out differently for them as far as over enrollment or maybe even medians if they had admitted in January, February, and March. That's why you're seeing this ridiculously slow cycle. I mean, the slowest cycle I've ever seen.

So what this leads me to — as I said I would talk about waitlists and scholarships — is I think you're going to see deadlines extended. Let's say someone had, like, an April 1 deposit deadline, but they're admitted April 1. Well then you can't give them that April 1 deposit deadline. I think you're going to see a lot of later admit deadline extensions for fee deposits. You might see deadline extensions for submitting applications. I think there’s a January, February, March, April LSAT. So there's still test taking going on, and I suspect most schools will take the February, March, and many schools will take the April LSAT. Even if it says on their website that, you know, you have to have your applications by, submitted by March 15th, and you get your March LSAT score in April.

Almost every year I've done this. Almost every school will make room for a very strong applicant. And there's going to be room which transitions well to the waitlist. There's a heck of a lot of waitlisting that's going to be going on, that has gone on, which means there's going to be more admits off the waitlist. You can look at this as good news or bad news. Many more people on the waitlist, which makes it more competitive, many more admits off the waitlist. I don't think most applicants realize that some schools, many schools take 40%-50% of their applicants off the waitlist. Again, if someone's applying to your school but they're applying to eight others, so if their average is nine, that school's going to, in theory, land one out of every nine admits. You can only matriculate to one school. I mean you can matriculate to multiple schools, but it takes multiple years. So as they lose people — and they will; again, applicants are applying to more schools this year — as they have waitlisted more people, as they have gone more slowly with initial admits, as they lose more people as the summer continues, we're going to see what I would call, particularly relative to last cycle, heavy waitlist movement all throughout the summer, going into August, late August. There's just going to be this domino effect. Schools at the top lose people, they take people from schools right below them, which lose people. This is very classic. I mean, this is admissions 101. All the waitlist movement tends to happen — well, last year was an exception — but tends to happen these rolling dominoes. So you'll see these rolling waves, they're not going to be Interstellar — my favorite movie of all time — Interstellar-like waves of massive admits off the waitlist, but they're going to be rolling, rolling. Just think of a tide coming in every night, slow but steady, but sure.

I also think there's going to be more scholarship money available later, because I think schools haven't given out as much scholarship money. That money doesn't carry over to the next cycle. So if you're given $15-$20 million by your central university or by your dean to offer scholarship money, that means you probably have $5 million to matriculate, at the end of the cycle in August/July, if you're at $4 million, you have a million to spend.

So, this could be an interesting year where you see not only more waitlist admits, but you see people on the waitlist getting scholarship money unlike before. Or you see the people that were admitted earlier — with more leverage, because there's more money available — getting more scholarship increases.

We did a podcast on scholarship negotiation. Please don't ever use the word ‘negotiation’ when you're talking to admissions officer. Scholarship negotiation is the least favorite part of their jobs, by and large. Don't turn it into a negotiation. I'm not going to dive into this, because I already did on a recent podcast.

To sum up, things are down. They're down 0.7% as far as applicants today, but they're down from a very large number. I don't think you're going to see much movement in medians. You'll see GPAs go up a little bit. You'll see LSATs either probably stay the same or go down. You're not — I mean, of course there'll be some winners, so you'll see some schools go up +1 LSAT, but by and large — it's going to be +0, and there'll be more, if I had to guess, -1 versus +1 LSAT movement. There will be very little +2 or +3. You know, last year we had +3s and +4 LSAT, you're not going to see that this year. I would be surprised if a single school goes up three LSAT points this year, whereas last year there were like 12 and then a couple that went up +4.

For transfer admits, I'll be brief, and I'll be sadly pessimistic. This is going to be a brutal transfer year, because last year schools were over enrolled, which means they already have too many bodies in the school. Trust me when I say, you have a tenured faculty member who has say in policy making, they would much rather grade 100 essays, final exams, than 200 final exams. And they carry weight. Trust me when I say, law school deans are very cognizant of the fact that large classes are harder to place, by and large, which hits your outcomes metrics, and transfer students tend to be even harder to place. So, I think you're going to see diminishment of transfer class sizes equal to or perhaps even larger than the percent increases in class size in 0L and 1L class sizes you saw this past year. So if you're transferring for good reasons, cast a wider net, because it's going to be a tough year to transfer.

So now let's finally go on to next cycle. As I said at the beginning, I'm a little bit wary of talking this early to you about next cycle because — just please don't make a micro-level, individual-level decision based on what I'm saying at the macro level. If you're happy with your results, if you're content with the law school or schools you are going to or have admitted to you and with the remission or merit aid, as you might call it, that they're giving you — by the way, I call it remission because, and I think this is important to know for scholarship negotiation, they're not giving you money. They're just decreasing the tuition. And when you think about it in those terms, I wouldn't think about it as, “Wow. This school is so generous. They gave me $15,000 a year. So they're giving me $45,000.” No, $45,000 off of your sum total three-year $180,000 you have to pay. So it's remission of that $180,000. And to me, if you psychologically think about it that way, it's a little bit easier to ask for $20,000 over $15,000, because they're not giving you $20,000. They're just taking down the sum total tuition. So, that's why I'm kind of particular about that one word.

So next year. There are more reapplicants — and putting it in the exact opposite terms, less first-time test takers this cycle — than we've ever seen before. So that tells us that more people who are taking these tests are applying this cycle, which tells us the demand for next cycle might be going down. Demographics — I usually do a much deeper, like I read this 40-page report by the National Statistics Higher Education Something or Another, and I haven't read that report yet, I don't even think it is out yet — but what I do think I have seen is that the trend line for students graduating from college was pretty precipitously up for many years. Last year, it was flat as far as people graduating from college. And I think it's going to be flat again this year before it starts going back up again, that was one graphic I saw based on macro level, historic data and then algorithmic projections.

So next cycle, if the number of college students graduating this year, next year is relatively flat, and demand as far as test-taking is down, you would expect — although I wouldn’t make life changing decisions off of this, don't go backpack across Europe in, please don’t backpack to Ukraine based on what I'm saying, just to apply next cycle — but if I had to guess, and I can't guess the sort of LSAT scoring bandwidths, but I will guess that the number of applications next year continue on a downward trend. There will be less people applying next year than there are this year. I'm guessing. We'll guess with a lot more data and authority this summer. This thing's always a pendulum.

So, I’ll end on that note. Admissions will swing to a buyer's market where it's easier for applicants, and then it'll swing back to a seller's market better for law schools. Right now, we're still sort of at a seller's market, but the pendulum was at the far right of that last year, and it's swinging back. And I think it's going to continue to swing back. So waiting, yes. Competitiveness, yes. As a marker, this is an 8.5 competitive year. Last year was a 10 competitive year, and maybe next year now, I'm speaking with much more speculation, maybe we'll see like a 7.

This is Mike Spivey with Spivey Consulting Group. I hope this was helpful. If it was, we'll do another data update. You can hit subscribe. We're going to have Dr. Judson Brewer; he's sort of the world's leading authority on overcoming anxiety. We're going to have him on early next month, early March. So, we'll have that one up, and hopefully that'll help with the wait.