With your LSAT score in hand, it's now time to consider what that number means for you in terms of your admissions odds. Everyone knows that an LSAT score is almost universally prized above all other factors—often counting more towards an acceptance than GPA, letters of rec, personal statement, and resume combined! Often, if you can believe it, several times more than that collective "other"—but exactly what does the number you've attained mean to the school (or schools) to which you intend to apply? Let's investigate.I should start by noting that I consider this a companion piece to an excellent article written by a colleague, Anne Chaconas, and that I think anyone intrigued by this topic would be well-served to read. What follows is an expansion on the numerical quantifiers law schools report to signify entrance based on LSAT score; Anne's post fills in a number of critical details elsewhere, not least in suggesting that an analysis like the one below is equally applicable to GPA statistics. LSAT just happens to be on everyone's mind at the moment, so it's there that I'll focus.
Each fall, law schools send their quantitative applicant matriculation data to the American Bar Association (the ABA), which then reviews the data as part of the accreditation process. You can read more about this process, and see the list of accredited schools, at this link. The methodology has changed slightly over the years—most notably about ten years ago with the lifting of the requirement that schools submit entrants' average LSAT scores, allowing only the highest score to be reported—but essentially what it means is that there is a wealth of statistical information available that potential applicants can, and should, consider as they make decisions about where to apply. Why? Because this data provides a tremendous amount of insight into your likelihood of acceptance at a given school, based on how that school has treated similarly-qualified applicants in the past.
More specifically (or more numerically, at least), the most commonly tallied LSAT figures, and the ones you'll encounter over and over in your research, are a school's median LSAT score, 25th percentile LSAT score, and 75th percentile LSAT score for those applicants that are accepted and choose to attend, and each deserves a quick look.
This is the most obvious, although not necessarily the most informative*. What this number tells you is the point that divides accepted applicants who enroll exactly in half: the number who enroll above this score is exactly the same as the number who enroll below it. For reference, here's a great resource with the top 50 or so schools from the 2015 US News and World Report rankings, released a few months back. As you can see, there's an extremely high correlation between median score and rank, with schools in the top 5 all at or above 170, dropping all the way to a median of 160 for schools closer to 50th. Certainly a great many factors go into rankings beyond just LSAT scores, but it's no coincidence that higher-ranked schools prefer higher-scoring attendees, and vice versa.
So what does a median score mean for you? Well, statistically, at schools where your score is the median it means that on score alone you have a coin toss's chance of acceptance, since presumably that is the dividing line for yes and no ("presumably" because these numbers apply to those who were accepted and chose to attend, not just those granted the option of attendance). Nothing to bank on, but not bad odds either. If you find yourself then very near your target school's median, you need to do all you can to ensure the rest of your application, from GPA to essays and everything between, is as good as it can be to tip the scales in your favor!**
* That's also why I hesitate to call a near-median score informative: it simply an aside at that point, where your acceptance hinges much more on everything else; your LSAT is enough to open the door, but you'll need to shine elsewhere if you want to stay in the room.
** It should come as no surprise that post-LSAT the rest of your application takes center stage, and will figure prominently into the points made here.
The math is much the same as with median, but the implications are quite different. In the same way that a median score divided attending applicants exactly in half, the 25th percentile splits them into a 1:3 ratio, where only one of four people with that score or lower got in and enrolled. It takes little imagination to recognize the peril here. In essence what an LSAT score at or around the 25th percentile for a school means is that you're not out of contention—1 in 4 succeed from that position, after all—but it's going to take something extra special to make the cut.
Essentially, as Anne puts it in the article linked above, you "have to write your way into the school, using your softs [non-LSAT and non-GPA] to try to convince AdComs [Admissions Committees] that you'd be a solid addition to their incoming class, despite your low numerical indicators." This is no small feat. The rest of your application needs to be absolutely stellar, impeccable really, to compensate for the fact that letting you in is going to potentially lower the school's LSAT average (and consequently ranking, whether the school would admit to as much or not), and is risky: don't forget, schools put weight on LSAT to the extent they do in large part because it's considered a predictor of success, and coming in with an LSAT score lower than 75+% of your fellow 1Ls is some cause for concern among the administration.
Understand I don't mean any of that to imply that you shouldn't apply, or won't get it in, or can't succeed if you're admitted! I only want to impress on you the reality of your situation and the necessity of an application that excels everywhere else. I typically encourage people to apply to a few "long shot" schools if they're interested in potentially attending, but to throw a few safeties into the mix as well. Which brings us to...
This is a mirror image of the 25th percentile, where 3 of every 4 applicants at or above are accepted and attend. Similarly inverted then tends to be the optimism about one's chances. There are few sure-things in law school admissions, but an LSAT score around a school's 75th percentile marker makes "yes" an awfully good bet. To again borrow from Anne, following a performance of this caliber, "your job is to make sure your softs are good enough that they don't ding you—in essence, you're doing the opposite of what you'd be doing if your numbers are at or below the 25th percentile: You're making sure you're not writing your way out of the school."
Just about the only thing you can do to get denied with a result in the top quarter of accepted students is to have something else on your application that negates the score. Sometimes that's unavoidable—the anchor that is your 1.8 undergrad GPA, say—and at the very best schools literally everyone is so well-credentialed that a 175 is more requirement than deal-sealer, but presuming your GPA is strong and your target school a touch more modest, then it's really snatching defeat from the jaws of victory if a 75th doesn't get you in.
Again, it all hangs on the rest of your app, although here it's ensuring it doesn't hurt you somehow, instead of relying on it to redeem your 25th percentile efforts. In fact all of this, it should be unmistakably clear, comes down to what you do next. How are you going to land on the desired side of that median, or be that 1/4 who overcomes the odds, or guarantee that all your hard work and success to outpace three-fourths of your competition carries you through to the finish line? The answer, in every case, is that the remainder of your application needs to be perfect. You're in the home stretch. Don't blow it.
And finally, I want to make you aware of one of my favorite resources for researching data on nearly all of the ABA-approved schools in North America: LSAC's LSAT/GPA Calculator. This tool allows you to input your undergraduate GPA and your highest LSAT score, and get feedback on where each stands relative to attendees at individual schools, as well as your likely odds of duplicating that result on those figures. It's not a crystal ball of course, but it should give you a reasonably accurate estimation of how you'll fare as you send off applications in the fall.