Is this year’s application cycle going to be much more competitive?

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Michael Spivey, one of the most well-known law schools admissions consultants, just released some data on the number of LSAT test takers this year and the current admissions cycle. Unsurprisingly, the numbers are up across the board, continuing a recent trend. But after years of law schools having trouble getting “good” applicants with high LSAT scores, the number of people applying to law school with scores between 165 and 180 has increased disproportionally this year.

To put that into perspective, the number of applicants has gone up 14.2%, compared to this point in the application cycle last year. But the number of applicants with an LSAT score between 165-169 has gone up 36.4%, applicants with a score between 170-and 174 has gone up 16.6%, and applicants with a score between 175 and 180 have gone up a whopping 86.6%. So applicants are up overall, but a number of “good” applicants is up a lot. What does this mean for applicants this cycle?

Over the past few years, I’ve told students that it is a “buyer’s market” when it comes to law school admissions — schools had to shell out in order to maintain a strong median LSAT score, and thus high rankings. The question that this new data raises is whether law school admissions has reverted to being a seller’s market, where schools have an abundance of options and the cycle becomes far more competitive.

Just to put that concept in perspective, here’s my anecdotal experience with the two types of “markets.” My brother and I applied to law school almost exactly three years apart. His admission cycle was before firms started laying off junior associates or deferring their offers. The job market was good, so the number of applicants was very high. I applied after the recession, when potential applicants were more wary of attending law school. My LSAT was marginally higher than his, and his GPA was significantly higher than mine. If anything, I’d say he had a stronger overall application package. However, we had markedly different results. I received offers of admission — and financial packages — from higher ranked schools than him. My anecdotal experience, combined with the overall application numbers, is representative of the seller’s market versus the buyer’s market.

At this point, I believe the pendulum is swinging back toward the seller’s side. As one caveat, it is worth noting that the numbers may not give you the full picture. The results discussed in Spivey’s survey were current as of the end of November, which is still early in the application cycle. It stands to reason that people who scored well on the LSAT are likely eager to get their applications in earlier in the cycle. Until less motivated applicants — and those applicants who took the December LSAT — start applying, it is hard to get the full perspective on whether there is an actual uptick in high scoring applications.

Nevertheless, the snapshot of the applications that we have, along with the higher number of test-takers, leads me to believe that it will be a more competitive year for getting into law school and getting merit-based scholarships. As we move farther away from the recession, potential applicants are losing the fear that drove applications down previously. Combined with the allure of a recently increased starting salary at big law firms, going to law school is starting to look like a less shaky investment. I personally believe that this is driving the increase in applications and that the increase is likely to allow more selectivity from schools, especially if the overall numbers are consistent with those in the data provided here.

The upshot of all of this is that applicants should be very careful about the offers they choose to accept, since it appears likely that schools are going to be more selective than in recent history. No matter how much rosier the outlook appears now that the recession is in the rear-view, law school is still incredibly expensive and incredibly unpredictable.

When it was a buyer’s market, schools tried hard not to lower their standards when putting together a class of students. Now that it is going the other direction, students should try equally hard not to lower their standards in terms of selecting a school that gives them a real opportunity to succeed without taking on an insurmountable amount of debt.

2 Responses

  1. Sara says:

    I have benefited from the Blueprint course and recently sat for the December administration of the LSAT (meh). Prior to, I read an article here where you considered the effect the GRE’s growing acceptance by law schools may have on recent LSAT level of difficulty. Considering the LSAT curve accounts for the past 3 years of test data, and not forgetting that the GRE has also been an option for 2 years thus far (I believe – not certain), do you guys think that this observed trend this cycle may be partly due to decreasing level of difficulty on recent exam administrations?

    • Hi Sara!

      Good question! It’s tough to say. I would tend to agree with your assessment that the last exams were on the easier side (without totally punishing curves accompanying them). So I think a few “easier” exams in June and September could also contribute to the huge increase in 165+ scores in this application cycle. I’ve heard from most people who have taken all the recent exams that the December exam was a bit more difficult than either the June or September test, so it’s totally possible that the percentage of test takers with 165+ score will regress to the mean as the application cycle continues and more people start applying with the December exam.

      It’s also totally possible that there are a lot of people who have high LSAT scores from years past who are reading the same tea leaves we’re reading, and realizing that law school admissions might be getting a good deal more competitive since the number of LSAT takers has gone up a ton and now there’s the GRE to contend with at some schools, and realizing they should apply now before their application loses its leverage.

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