Sarah Zearfoss, senior assistant dean for admissions at the University of Michigan Law School, is sometimes amazed to find herself providing guidance to wannabe law students. “It’s surprising, because I honestly I feel like I was spectacularly bad at figuring out where I ought to apply to law school,” says Zearfoss, who sent in her applications in the late 1980s. “I really didn’t know what I was doing, and so it’s sort of funny that I’m now in this position of helping to advise others. I could’ve used a little help myself.”
But Zearfoss, who earned her JD from Michigan in 1992, has long been qualified to sell the school to potential applicants. “I applied to Michigan really just because someone I knew was urging me to do it,” says Zearfoss, who had gotten her psychology degree from Bryn Mawr College three years earlier. “I mean, I could’ve just as easily left it off, frankly, and it ended up being the school that I most loved and most got excited about.”
She liked Ann Arbor so much that she decided not to move back to Philadelphia, her hometown; instead, she stayed at the quintessential college town and practiced law in Detroit. But after seven years, the commute began to get tiring. “In the course of sort of casting about for what might be a good next step, I stumbled across an opportunity to work at the law school again as the judicial clerkship advisor,” Zearfoss explains. “A couple of years after that, was asked to apply for the admissions position. And here I am.”
Zearfoss’ entering class in 2013 was an impressive bunch. The median GPA for the class is 3.71, while the median LSAT is 168 (with a 25th percentile score of 165 and a 75th percentile score of 170). Three out of every four students had taken at least a year off after completing their undergraduate studies. It’s a highly selective group. Michigan Law admitted 27% of its 4,877 applicants last year, enrolling a class of 315 students from 41 states and 16 countries. The largest group hails from Michigan (26%), and the average age is 24.
In the age of social media and lifehacking, Zearfoss calls herself “a little bit old-fashioned.” She doesn’t think the LSAT is gameable, she doesn’t believe in Googling candidates, and she thinks personal statements provide more than enough information on applicants—no need for bells and whistles. Her caring and pragmatic approach can be summed up in one line: “I try to give people advice that their mothers would give them if their mothers were law school admissions deans.”
What makes Michigan stand out from other top law schools?
I loved my experience here. I think loving your experience in law school is relatively unusual, and I think a very high percentage of Michigan Law grads would describe their experience in similar terms. It’s a really collegial atmosphere, one where people are kind to each other. It isn’t Nirvana—this is still a gathering of high-achieving, driven people who want to be lawyers—but it definitely is a priority in our culture, in the ethos here, to treat people with respect and kindness, and it makes for a very pleasant experience.
What does the ideal candidate look like to you?
We have about 320 people. I like to see 320 quite different people who are going to learn from each other and benefit each other. But I would say the common thread among them is working and playing well with others. Not everybody here is super extroverted, but they’re all people who are willing to engage with others, and we look for evidence of that in the application. It sort of works out, because when people come to visit, they see how much a part of the culture that is, and people who don’t feel well-suited to that end up making other choices.
Admission consultants often say that law school admissions mostly a numbers game? Are they right?
Students are very convinced of that, and it is really hard to shake that notion. We have two metrics that we rely upon: the LSAT and the GPA. As standardized tests go, the LSAT is very predictive, and I think that’s why law school admissions officers often reply upon it strongly—perhaps too strongly—and why people feel that admissions is a numbers game.
But at least at Michigan, people write themselves into and out of law school every single day. There are many, many numerically strong candidates who I just don’t think are right for Michigan. On the other hand—and I love this about Michigan—this school wants the admissions office to have the freedom to admit people whose numbers aren’t reflective of their abilities, who offer a great deal to the class and are good admits regardless of their LSAT scores. But I don’t want to paint an inaccurate picture. We certainly do care about the numbers. They are useful tools; they just aren’t the beginning and end of the story.
But isn’t the LSAT highly gameable? If you study hard enough, aren’t you guaranteed to at least do somewhat well?
That is certainly not the case—no. The Law School Admission Council (LSAC) is a volunteer-run organization, and I have served a couple of terms on a subcommittee called the Test Development and Research Committee, which is all about trying to make the LSAT better. LSAC has an enormous amount of data showing that the test is really not gameable. For example, the vast, vast, vast majority of people who take the test multiple times score within two to three points of their original scores every single time. So no, I don’t think it is gameable, and that’s one of the things that makes it a good test. Again, it is not a perfect test, but I think the LSAC is to be commended for taking it seriously and really doing a lot to protect its integrity.
Should people just start taking it cold?
Going into it completely cold versus being familiar with the way it runs would result in a fairly good gain, I would guess. I don’t really know, but that would be my guess. After that, though, it’s very hard to make additional improvements.
So it makes sense to study, but not to devote a year of your life to the LSAT?
Exactly. Honestly, I can’t tell you the number of people whose scores are modest at best who say that they’ve been working on it for a long time.