What to Expect for JD Applications This Cycle

Published September 2021

Applications to US law schools reached their highest volume in a decade, and the pandemic has greatly affected the process. What does that mean for law applicants this cycle?

LSAT Changes

The Law School Admissions Test (LSAT) used to be the only test used to evaluate law school applicants. It is administered by the Law School Admissions Council (LSAC). The test has changed significantly in the last few years. Formerly it was administered via paper and pencil and only offered four times a year, which did not offer much flexibility. I felt pressure to take the June test administration because I knew my job was going to be very busy in September, which was the next available test date. Back then, the LSAT was five sections of 35 minutes each – two logical reasoning, one reading comprehension, one logic games, and one experimental section that could be any topic. They also had a writing section that had to be taken at the test center which asked students to write an essay in 35 minutes after doing five multiple choice sections, which made for a very long test day. The writing section is ungraded; in my experience, admissions officers do not pay much attention to it unless English is not your first language or you are an international applicant.

In recent years, the test has been offered more frequently and transitioned to a digital format. Starting in July 2019, about half of test takers received a paper and pencil exam, and the other half were assigned a digital one. In September 2019, the test was digital in all of North America. Around that time, LSAT also allowed for the writing section to be completed at home with a remote proctor at a different time from the multiple choice sections, which allowed applicants to feel more rested when taking it.

In response to the pandemic, LSAC changed the format of the exam. This new version was called the LSAT-Flex and was used during the 2020-2021 academic year from May 2020 through July 2021. It got rid of the experimental section and only had one logical reasoning section instead of two – to only have three sections total of 35 minutes each. It was also offered at home with a remote proctor due to the pandemic. During this time, the LSAT writing section was only administered remotely. In order to release your test score to yourself or other law schools, you had to have at least one LSAT writing section on file but that could be taken at a separate time than the multiple choice sections. You only need one writing sample on file with LSAC even if you take multiple LSAT administrations.

As of right now, LSAC will continue to provide the LSAT in a remote proctored format at home through June 2022. Starting in August 2021, they have increased the remote LSAT to four sections – one of each section as well as an experimental section. There is now a ten minute break between the second and third sections. Currently the LSAT is offered about 9 times a year. Due to the newer format, students are given a window of about one week when their test might be for a certain testing period. According to LSAC, this version of the LSAT will be used for a minimum of 2-3 years.

Now that the test is digital and offered remotely at home with a proctor, many people had time on their hands and took the LSAT. The range of students with high scores increased. According to LSAC, applicants with high scores of 160 to 180 were 35 percent higher in July 2021 than a year prior. It may be more comfortable to be in your own surroundings while taking the test. Also LSAC allowed Score Preview starting in August 2020 which provided the opportunity to those taking the test for the first time to see their score and decide whether to keep it – which was a huge advantage. It certainly is more relaxing to be able to know you can see your score and cancel it as needed!

GRE Expansion

More JD programs are accepting the Graduate Record Examinations (GRE) General Test, administered by the Educational Testing Service (ETS). As of right now, a few dozen law schools, including Boston University, Columbia, Cornell, Georgetown, Harvard, NYU, Northwestern, UCLA, University of Pennsylvania, USC, Virginia and Yale do take the GRE. Law schools have said they are doing this to expand access to legal education.

The GRE consists of the following: analytical writing which has you write about two different issues that are 30 minutes each, verbal reasoning that has two sections that are 30 minutes each which tests reading and sentence structure, and quantitative reasoning which has two sections that are 35 minutes each. There also will be one of the following: either an unscored section which is unidentified and can happen in any order of the exam that evaluates if these questions are of comparable difficulty to others on the test, or possibly an identified research section at the end of the exam to help the company test out new questions. It is delivered on a computer and the verbal and quantitative sections adapt to how you are doing – if you are doing wonderfully, your questions get harder. You can preview your scores at the end of the test since they provide you with them automatically when you are finished (except for the analytical writing section – which takes time to grade). You can cancel your scores but all sections must be cancelled for that test as well.

Having taken both the LSAT and GRE, I find the GRE to be significantly easier and offer more flexibility with testing as it is offered almost every day. There is the option to take it at home almost any day of the year and on weekends as well; they also offer the option to take it at a test center, so they are much more accommodating than the LSAT.

The data on GRE test scores for law school applicants is a bit murky. Law schools say they tend to compare the GRE to the LSAT based on percentile. It is only recently that law schools report average GRE scores to the public through their annual standard 509 reports that are required by the American Bar Association as well as US News & World Report. However, the number of students who took only the GRE and are enrolled in law school is quite small. For the JD class that began Fall 2020, Harvard Law only had 36 GRE students and Georgetown Law had 44. So GRE enrollees are less than 10 percent of their respective class sizes. Other schools such as Cornell and Penn only had 10 each.

Although it might be helpful if you are a great GRE test taker, I see it more for a non-traditional applicant who perhaps already attended graduate school prior to enrolling in law school or is a career changer after working in another field for years. It is still my strong recommendation that people generally take the LSAT over the GRE. I have not had a single law client that submitted only the GRE to JD programs; if they did take the GRE, they also had taken the LSAT. The LSAT will give you the most as options as every law school accepts this exam, and it was designed for law school applicants.

Application Volume

Law school applications are cyclical. However, last year was extremely competitive. There were several reasons that may be the case for this. The pandemic left a lot of people staying at home and having more time to focus on studying and preparing for law school. Applicants tend to apply to graduate school when the economy is not doing well, and there was a lot of uncertainty with the job market. There was a lot of civil unrest and attention to the constitutional process with Supreme Court changes. According to LSAC, as of July 1, 2021, there were 15 percent more applications and applications were 28 percent higher than a year prior. It is important to keep in mind that these overall numbers are still much lower than the highs seen from the law school application pool between 2001 and 2011.

Timing

Law schools rely on rolling admissions. They give out acceptances in batches through the cycle; so applying earlier usually has an advantage. There are exceptions – Yale relies mainly on faculty to review the applications and applying close to deadline does not affect the outcome. This is a rare exception, however.

I used to recommend to clients that they finish applications by mid-December, but due to the rise in applications and enormous volume, I feel it is better to submit prior to Thanksgiving. A good number of applicants do wait till close to the regular decision deadlines to submit, but that is not ideal especially for top ranked law schools since they do start sending out acceptances in the late fall. In one case, a former client who only wanted to apply to the T14 waited to submit their applications on the day of the deadline for every law school despite advice to finish much earlier – and was only accepted to one law school which shows how much procrastinating can affect the outcome.

Standing Out in the Process

Test scores and GPA certainly can affect law school acceptances, but there are other ways to stand out. When more students are scoring higher on standardized tests, admissions officers must look deeper to distinguish between applicants. It is important that your personal statement tell your life story in an engaging manner and make clear why you want to attend law school. A well-written statement that shows how much you have to offer and what you hope to do can make a difference. Be careful of whom to ask for your letters – professors that know your work well and have a positive outlook of your academic qualities help. If you have graduated college, a strong work or internship reference is highly recommended.

In addition, make sure that your resume and activities really showcase your leadership and involvement and use action verbs and demonstrate impact on others! Carefully read all directions that the law school provides – if they ask for 12 point font with two double spaced pages and you submit a statement that is four pages and in 11 point font, they will definitely notice! Lawyers need to follow the rules, so it is important to make sure you are paying attention to their prompts.

Best of luck with this cycle!

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