One discovery I’m fond of is identifying the “law-school tipping point,” the moment when people with LSAT scores in hand decided to forgo law school entirely. I hypothesized that one could detect the tipping point by comparing over time the ratio of LSAT takers to subsequent applicants. Sure enough, the ratio spiked in the 2010 application cycle, which is the last applicant peak.
Here’s an updated version of the chart I created for that post:
The arrow focuses on the pronounced gap between first-time LSAT takers in the 2009 calendar year and applicants for fall 2010. I took this as evidence of what I suspected had happened: Many people with LSAT scores in hand chose not to apply to law school the following year, presumably because they realized it was a really bad idea. In the three prior years, the ratio between first-time test takers and subsequent applicants was 1.08 on average. In 2010, it jumped to 1.19, accounting for 8,800 test takers who were not found in the 2010 application cycle. The ratio has since fallen to about 1.15 going forward.
The LSAC, however, recently published a report titled, “Analysis of LSAT Taker Application Behavior: Testing Years 2009-2010 Through 2015-2016” (pdf). It is an update of a similar report published in 2013, which I don’t recall seeing and cannot find, and it contains a table showing when test takers applied to law school.
Curiously, there’s scant evidence of a drop in test takers applying to law school, going by the first three columns of the table. People who took the LSAT between June 2009 and February 2010 pretty much all applied, save for 1 percent (~1,400 test takers). It doesn’t look like they delayed their applications either, which would cause them to appear in the rightward columns. (I don’t think the fact that I’m looking at calendar-year LSATs as opposed to June-February LSATs changes the results significantly.)
I have a hard time explaining the diverging results. It would certainly help to see previous years’ data, but my best hunch is that test-takers’ application behavior stayed the same while the frequency of their test-taking rose. In other words, perhaps many of these first-time takers simply retook the LSAT. As evidence, the LSAC report provides another figure (not shown) indicating that non-applicants tend to do very poorly on the LSAT, though they overlap with the low-end of applicants. These non-applicants may have doubled-down and chosen to retake the test again in 2010-11, and applied with whatever score they got then. Moreover, the ratio for second-time test takers to subsequent applicants (not shown) remained elevated after 2009-10 at about 0.42. Rather than walking away from the process potential applicants simply tried harder to beat the pack.
It’s a discouraging thought, but either hypothesis is valid at least to some degree until better information comes along. In the meantime, one thing the LSAC report teaches is that by and large people who do poorly on the LSAT are not as unsophisticated as they’re often portrayed. They tend to self-select by dropping out of the system. That doesn’t matter much to me since I care more about applicants, admits, and matriculants than LSAT takers, but whenever folks focus their attention on the smart people not applying to law school, just remember that many people who aren’t so good at standardized tests have been making the right choice all along.