The Numbers Game

The School's Numbers, Your Numbers

Most law schools have at least ten applicants for every seat in the entering class; some have over twenty! The sheer quantity of applications makes it expedient (if not necessary) to deal with some, perhaps most, applications based purely on the "numbers" -- cumulative grade point average (gpa) and LSAT score. Most law schools hire an admissions professional (such as a Director of Admissions) whose job is to decide which applicants can be accepted or rejected based on the numbers, and which warrant further consideration by the law school's admissions committee because of diversity or academic factors. 

Law schools have been publishing 25th and 75th percentile gpa and LSAT numbers.  As a general rule, the index number calculated by using both 75th percentile numbers is the school's presumptive admit number, while the one calculated by using both 25th percentile numbers is the presumptive deny number.   If you're interested in looking at the index numbers of most law schools, click here.

If you take the LSAT more than once, a few schools will average the scores in calculating your index number, while as of 2008, most will use the higher LSAT score.  Our section on academic factors tells you more about LSAT scores and problems with them.

Most schools will use the cumulative gpa for all your undergraduate grades in calculating your index number; others will use all the grades at your "degree-granting institution." No law school will ever use graduate grades in your index number.  See our discussion of "Which Grades" for more information.

Harsh Reality

It isn't easy to get into a good law school.  There are a lot of people out there with higher numbers than yours.  There are a lot of people with more interesting backgrounds.  I discuss this in so many places on my web page I don't think I can list them all, and I'm not going to try.  I'm going to give you one example.  Suppose you have a GPA of 3.4 and an LSAT of 160.  In 2004, there were 17,000 applicants with your numbers or better -- enough to fill the seats at the top 50 law schools.  If your numbers are lower than these, and you can't name what's extraordinary about you, think about lower-ranked schools. Look here for a chart of where I think you're competitive, given 2005 data.  

"I know I can do the work."  

I've heard that twice in 12 hours, so I thought it might deserve a moment's attention.  Here's what I wrote the second of those two people:  

And why do you think this is relevant?  At a typical law school, 75% of the people who apply "can do the work."  There are still only seats for 10%

Every admissions officer I know says that rejecting the applicants who can't do the work is easy.  The hard part is choosing the few for whom they have room from among the many whom they believe can do the work.  

Let's think for a minute about, say, Columbia.  They have a median LSAT of about 170, and a gpa of about 3.75.  Nine hundred students in the applicant pool have those numbers.  Now let's drop the LSAT down to 160, leaving the gpa at above 3.75. Four thousand more applicants have those numbers.  And if we drop the LSAT to 150, there are yet another 4,000.  So the ability to do the work is the least of the admissions officer's worries.  

High LSAT Scores -- Gathering All the Causes

Between 2003 and 2008, applicants dropped a cumulative 15%.  One would think that median LSAT scores would have to drop by a point or two; yet that has not been reported.  The easiest guess -- that someone's lying -- is the least likely; both LSAC and the ABA are sufficiently involved in the reporting process that the best guess is that reported data is accurate.  But if the data is correct, how did  applicants drop while medians held constant?  

After a bit of reflection and number-crunching, I have found several distinct causes which, cumulatively, have contributed to the median LSAT's constancy at various law schools.  

Greater Yields

The yield rate (proportion of people who enroll after being  offered a seat) has increased.  What this means to you is that even though apps decline, it stays just as hard to get into a top school.  Higher yields have exactly the same effect as more applicants -- schools can fill their classes with people who have higher numbers than yours.  

Decreased Seats

There are about 550 fewer seats among the top 50 law schools, and 2,250 fewer seats in the top three tiers.  This means that there effectively are fewer seats for more applicants.  

More Test-Takers, More High Scores 

According to Law Services data (available here under Data -- LSATs Administered), the number of tests administered in between 2003 and 2009 rose to an all-time high of 171,000, before dipping down slightly (to a near-all-time-high). The number of applicants, however, has declined during the same period, to about 85,000. So that increase in LSATs is evidence of applicants competing for higher LSAT scores. Surprisingly, applicants are nowhere hear record highs. In 2004, they topped 100k.

I know -- you HATE all these numbers. Let's try a chart or two:

Registrants (the red line) are lower than applicants (the green line). That means people who registered a year or more ago are applying again. And look at how the number of LSATs (that top line) has headed for the sky once law schools started taking the higher score. Meanwhile, the number of offers (that black line) has remained ominously steady.

The data adds up to people taking and retaking the LSAT until they hit the jackpot, even if they have to re-apply next year. That's how the Numbers Game is getting played in 2011.

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