How Competitive Will the 2022 Law School Admissions Cycle Be?

Welcome to the latest installment of Law Admissions Q&A, a feature that provides law school admissions advice to readers who send in inquiries. If you have a question about law school admissions, email us for a chance to be featured in a future post.

I heard that last year the law school admissions cycle was unprecedented in its competitiveness. Do you have any updated news on application numbers for this year and the status of how you anticipate the 2022 cycle? — SM

It is true that last year’s admissions cycle was unexpectedly competitive, flooding many law schools with more applications than they could handle.

[Read: Law School Applications Rise: What It Means for J.D. Hopefuls.]

According to statistics from the Law School Admission Council, or LSAC, nearly 71,000 people applied to law school for the 2021 enrollment year, roughly 13% more than for the prior year. Those applicants tended to have higher grades and LSAT scores than in previous years, partly because the pandemic left them with more time on their hands to study.

The number of total applications submitted rose roughly 27%, showing that applicants hedged their bets by applying to more schools in response to heightened competition.

While many applicants may have ended up falling short of their hopes, most law schools did increase their class size to partially offset the influx. The total number of first-year students enrolled in law school increased more than 10% from 2020 to 2021.

Putting the Last Cycle in Perspective

Swings in law school applications occur frequently due to the economy, political events, demographic changes and other factors. Historical data shows that the number of applicants to American Bar Association-accredited law schools peaked at more than 100,000 in 2004 before steadily dropping to a low of fewer than 55,000 applicants in 2015, although a methodological change five years ago means that data is not directly comparable to more recent numbers.

So, it’s safe to say that last year’s admissions cycle was the most competitive in a decade, although far from unprecedented. Just like previous peaks, last year’s flood of applicants is likely to ebb. The question is when.

Many of the forces behind the rise seem fleeting, including the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, economic instability, widespread social justice protests and a contentious election that put lawyers in the limelight. With unemployment now relatively low, many potential law school applicants may pursue other opportunities rather than contend with another potentially tough admissions cycle.

[Read: The Impact of the Coronavirus on Legal Education.]

As of mid-December 2021, LSAC data shows the number of applicants down 4.6% from last year, and the total number of applications submitted down 3.6%. Typically, over 40% of applications are in by this point, so it would be surprising if that gap closes. If anything, more applicants are likely submitting their applications earlier this cycle to get ahead of the pack after last year’s rush.

Likewise, LSAC data on LSAT registration shows the overall number of test-takers in August, October and November of this year to be slightly lower than during the same months in 2020.

Implications for Current and Future Applicants

Current law school applicants may be relieved to hear that this year’s cycle is shaping up to be slightly less crowded than last year’s. Unfortunately, they may be jostling for fewer seats.

Since last year’s oversaturated applicant pool caught many law school admissions offices by surprise, some law schools ended up overenrolled, meaning that they encouraged or even incentivized applicants to defer admission. Other applicants chose to defer due to uncertainty about the pandemic. Those deferred applicants leave less room for law schools to admit new students.

[Read: How to Defer Law School Admission.]

This issue is unlikely to persist next cycle, as law schools are now better prepared. Applications likely will continue to wane next cycle in the absence of another crisis.

As word spreads about the increased competitiveness of law school admissions, potential applicants will think twice. The long-term trends that caused applications to plummet from 2004 to 2015 seem unlikely to fully reverse. Applicants are now better informed about the price and payoff of law school than they were two decades ago.

Of course, recent events have shown the hazards of trying to predict the future. Rather than obsess about admissions trends, aspiring lawyers are best off getting a head start building a strong application.

More from U.S. News

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What First-Generation Law Applicants Should Know

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