A Look Into The Most Difficult Law School Admissions Cycle We have Ever Seen


This isn't a full post-mortem on the 2020-2021 application cycle, because it's not over yet. But we're at the point when we can start to get a feeling for what happened this year. Obviously the main story is the increase in applicants and applications, and the results of that increase.

The Sources

More than any year in recent history, this cycle has seen a huge increase in applicants. As of June 4, 2021, there are 17.6% more applicants than there were on that same date last year, which comes out to an additional 10,205 applicants.

That increase is notable on its own, but what has made this cycle even more chaotic is the tremendous and disproportionate increase in applicants in higher-scoring LSAT ranges. Note: Our data is different from LSAC's because they report an applicant's ultimate high score, even if they didn't get it until months or years after the date in question. So their data we believe overstates prior cycle high scores because they replace past cycle scores with new cycle high scores.  

It's normal for there to be some variability in the highest (and lowest) score ranges. However, what we've seen this year goes far beyond normal. There are 38.1% more 160+ LSAT applicants than this time last year. That's enough to fill every seat in the Fall 2020 classes of every law school ranked 1-111 (which is actually 115 schools, because rankings are silly) with a 160+ applicant. In Fall 2020, 64 law schools had a median LSAT of 160 or higher.

So what happened? Well, for one thing, we know test takers did better on the LSAT this year. A lot better. The LSAT is not a forced curve. However, historically, LSAC has done a very good job of keeping score result variability from year to year pretty minimal. This started to change in the last few years, but really took off in the 2019-2020 testing cycle, when the mean LSAT score increased by 0.89.

We don't have the final data for the 2020-2021 testing cycle yet, though that cycle has concluded as of the April LSAT. But we do have a bit of information on what test-taker results looked like through the November 2020 LSAT administration:

In a slightly more organized visual:

From 2015 to 2018, 79.5% of test takers scored below a 160. From May to November 2020 (six tests, taken by 106,000 total people), 69.25% of test takers scored below a 160.

Now, it's important to note that test takers in the earlier part of the testing cycle tend to score higher than test takers later in the cycle. So the percentages will probably come down — but in 2019, the 25.48% scoring 160 to 180 from May-November turned into a 23% for the entire test taking cycle. Not a major change. In 2018, the 22.98% scoring 160-180 from May-November turned into a 20.8%. Again, not a major change.

To put it into perspective, if the 2020 LSAT results had been the same as the (already inflated) 2019 results, there would have been about 5,600 fewer 160+ LSAT scores over the same period. If they had been at the more normal 2018 levels, we would have seen about 10,000 fewer such scores. There isn't a 1:1 ratio of scorers to applicants, so the actual reduction in applicants in those score ranges would be less.

You can see some of the effect this had on the applicant pool when the score bands are broken down into their proportional contribution to the overall applicant pool.

The decline in the lowest scoring bands is also notable. LSAC will probably attribute that to the availability of free prep materials on Khan Academy. That's certainly a plausible explanation. Another factor to consider is the availability of LSAT Score Preview, which allows test takers to see their score and cancel it if they don't like it. Low scoring test takers are probably likeliest to cancel.

There were also just more people taking the LSAT overall this cycle. LSAC administered 21,000 more LSATs this year compared to 2019-2020, and there were about 13,000 more first-time test takers this application cycle. More people taking the test means more applicants. Combine the increase in test takers with the higher scores they were getting, and you can see why things were so up at the top.  Why were there more applicants? An obvious explanation is the economy. It was not a great time to be a recent or soon to be college graduate. The increased awareness of social justice issues may also have contributed.

The Responses

Schools responded in a variety of ways to the increase in applicants and the increased test scores. Some schools chose not to adjust their admissions goals; others decided to target modest increases in median LSAT and/or GPA; some chose to swing for the fences and try to substantially increase median LSAT and/or GPA. Some schools also delayed rolling out admission decisions, or went much slower than they had in prior years. Some didn't, and continued to make fairly high volumes of early cycle decisions.

This probably seemed erratic to applicants. But after nearly a decade of declining or flat applicant volume, the sudden surge, combined with the challenges of remote work and inconsistent, unclear or just wrong messaging from LSAC, created a perfect storm. There were red flags around Flex scores as early as the release of July 2020 test results, and those red flags were noted by multiple individuals and organizations involved in legal education. However, it was easy to miss for most law school admissions offices — after all, by that point the vast majority of schools had closed applications and all but finalized their classes.

By October 1, 2020, volume reports showed massive percentage increases in applicants. All score ranges except for the <140 group had increased, and the highest scoring bands were up the most, with 160+ LSAT applicants up by 51.7%. That should have raised some alarm bells — October 1 is still early, but not so early that you can't start to see where things are headed (especially in the higher score bands, applicants who apply earlier on average). Still, we'll admit that at this point we were still uncertain about what exactly we were seeing.

By November 1, 2020, the general situation was even more apparent. Applicants were up by 37.5%. 160+ applicants were up by 59%. The number of 170+ applicants had already reached 70% of the final 2019-2020 cycle volume. Between September 23 (when 2020-2021 volume started reporting) and November 1, there had only been 7 days with lower applicant volume than the same day during the 2019-2020 cycle. We were on the phone with LSAC around this time asking why their message was still "everything should return to normal levels" — already an impossibility at that time — but they continued to message about a relatively normal cycle, both to applicants and law schools.

By November 13, 2020, LSAC finally felt it had to address the situation (apparently in response to inquiries it was receiving from schools inundated with high-scoring applicants). Their communication to law schools noted that scores had shifted "slightly higher" for the May-August tests. They listed a number of possible explanations, repeatedly emphasizing a possible shift in test-taking timing patterns due to COVID. On December 17, LSAC provided an update which included the October and November 2020 tests (the most recent LSAT administration data we have, and the source of the data above). They noted a "significant return to more typical patterns" in scores for those tests, which was something of an overstatement. They also, again, emphasized possible timing changes. Publicly, LSAC continued to dispute the idea that Flex tests were causing higher scores, despite the fact that their own internal data clearly showed inflated results.

The message LSAC was sending was, at its core: things will normalize, and it's too early to draw conclusions. But while it was too early to draw precise conclusions about volume (we certainly were off when we tried, though somewhat in our defense we didn't have full information on the changed score distributions), it certainly wasn't too early to know where things were going. By December 1, there were already 13.8% more 170+ LSAT applicants than the entirety of the 2019-2020 cycle. There were 36.2% more applicants overall. It wasn't a question of if applicant volume was going to increase; it was a question of how much.

While LSAC's communications were somewhat helpful in that they confirmed applicants were scoring higher on the Flex, the message could have been much more useful. A more straightforward message would have emphasized that scores were higher among a larger group of test takers, creating a much larger pool of well-qualified applicants. At the very least by the November message there should have been a clear indication that the application cycle would be much, much more competitive than prior years.

LSAC might have been concerned such a message would panic the market. But it likely would have been beneficial in pushing schools and applicants to adjust their thinking, and change plans accordingly. As late as February we were still hearing schools and applicants who insisted that things would normalize. At that point, it was already largely too late for them to change course.

The Results

The outcome of the applicant increase, score bubble, and generally confused relaying of information led to one of the most stressful application cycles we can remember, for both applicants and law schools. Applicants were being shut out of schools they'd considered safe targets. Law schools weren't sure if they were going to be able to fill their classes, because they'd aggressively targeted improved medians — or were worried they would over-enroll because they hadn't been aggressive.

A brief word on why schools were so interested in improving their LSAT and GPA medians. First, the LSAT is a useful predictor of first-year performance; to a somewhat lesser extent, so is undergraduate GPA. Schools want to enroll classes that are the most likely to succeed. The second reason is less virtuous. Anyone involved in law school admissions who is being honest will tell you that there is tremendous pressure to enroll classes with better medians to help the school's U.S. News ranking.

This all led to a deposit season unlike any other. We all remember the Notre Dame deposit fiasco. Notre Dame was the canary in the coal mine — it seems that yield was higher across the board. A number of schools have reported that they are significantly above their target deposit numbers. Some law schools are actively soliciting deferrals from their admitted students. According to a survey done by LSAC, 55% of the 141 responding ABA schools indicated they had exceeded or would exceed their deposit targets. 23% of those providing data indicated that they had exceeded or would exceed the target by at least 20%. Only 2 schools reported they were or would be below the target.

Probably not coincidentally, 55% of the respondents reported they anticipated larger Fall 2021 entering class sizes for their schools.

The winners of this application cycle will probably be schools that bet big on substantial improvements to their incoming class profile. Anecdotally, most schools seem to have gone for a +1 LSAT median, but many have also targeted +2, and we know of schools that are sitting at a +3 (as of now; this could change) with improvement to GPA too. It's not common, but it seems to be happening. One other positive is that we're hearing pretty widespread reports of increased diversity in the incoming Fall 2021 classes.

On the other hand, there are schools that won't see their numbers improve as much. These will probably be schools that made a lot of early decisions, or were cautious about targeting larger class profile improvements. They could lose ground relative to some of their peers. Those schools may also have accepted students who would, due to the competitive nature of the cycle, yield at higher rates and cause some of the over-depositing we're seeing. That's not to say those schools won't or shouldn't be happy with their results, but they may regret not quite achieving as much as they could have. Especially next March, when the U.S. News rankings come out.

The Implications for 2021-2022

What happened this year has a number of implications for the 2021-2022 application cycle.

This year, the data suggests there won't be a ton of waitlist movement. There will be some (and we've already seen schools draw on their waitlists), but schools are generally full and might even welcome losing some students to summer melt. This means a potential increase in the number of reapplicants in 2021-2022.

Another issue is the wave of schools soliciting deferrals. This could reduce the number of seats available in the 2021-2022 application cycle. It will depend on how many deferrals they are able to get, and whether the deferrals are binding or not.

We expect many schools to move much more slowly when making admissions decisions next year. A lot of schools got burned this cycle by making decisions without a clear picture of the application pool. They were burned by LSAC's messaging. When you've accepted 1000 applicants by mid-November, it's hard to change course. Slower moving decisions will understandably increase applicant anxiety.

It's hard to imagine LSAC doesn't do something to address the score bubble. It's probably the right thing to do, but that will only add to the confusion of next cycle. Schools that benefitted from the substantial increase in high scorers this year may put off decisions as long as possible in hopes they can hold on to their new and improved medians. It will also make year-over-year comparisons (which schools and applicants often rely on when planning) harder. More confusion means slower decisions, or mistakes by schools which lead to the kind of results like this year's over-enrollment issues.

The increase in applicants, especially applicants with high LSAT scores, also creates some worry for scholarship fund availability. Schools typically award most scholarships based on merit as a way of attracting applicants with high LSATs and GPAs. After this year, schools may think (probably rightly) that they don't need to give out as much aid to attract a highly qualified class. One of the things keeping the tuition bubble in check has been a steady increase in the availability of scholarship funds. We worry that availability could take a step back.

This probably isn't good news for the 2022 transfer market either. If schools have classes at or above their target capacity, they may respond by reducing the number of transfers they take.

Conclusion

This really was the hardest, most chaotic admission cycle we've seen in a long, long time. Ever really. Right now it's too early to know what will happen next year. It's impossible to know if LSAC will be more forthright in their messaging. It seems like good business practice to say, "We were wrong, we are going to fix that and move past it," but thus far LSAC seems to place much more emphasis on protecting the LSAT's reputation than accurate messaging. It's also impossible to know how schools and applicants will react to an unprecedented year. Either way, we do think we'll be feeling the effects of the 2020-2021 admissions cycle for quite some time.