In this episode, Mike has a conversation with Dean Sarah Zearfoss (also known as "Dean Z") about a number of admissions topics, including the prevalence of bad admissions advice and how to identify and avoid it.
You can find Dean Z and much more admissions advice on her podcast, A2Z.
Mike: Welcome to Status Check with Spivey, where we talk about life, law schools, law school admissions. We’re on this series of interviewing law school admissions deans. And today I get to interview someone I've not only known, but also learned from and admired for many, many years, Dean Z of Michigan Law. And I think it's going to be a really open, candid, thoughtful conversation. We cover a number of topics, but we cover at length that admissions advice, things said online, things said by other entities, authorities, etc, that are said with confidence that people tend to believe them and then want to replicate that advice — but it's actually not what you want to do.
So we spend a good portion of this podcast, identifying ways to detect bad admissions advice, how to avoid it, and maybe how to use other resources, just to verify things you're hearing — Sarah has a world of experience — I think rightfully so.
She is very recognized not just amongst admissions officers, which she is, but also among applicants as someone who's transparent, someone who knows what they're talking about, and someone to go to. Without further delay, let me turn it over to our conversation with Sarah.
I am honored to be on with a friend, someone who I would, dare I say, call a mentor in admissions. Dean Z of Michigan Law has done admissions longer than I have. She's been in the spotlight in admissions much longer than I have and dealt with it with a lot of grace and a lot of good information to the public. So welcome, Sarah.
Sarah: Thank you so much, Spivey. I'm really happy to be here. And I am honored that you would think of me as a mentor in any way, because I feel like I've learned a lot from you. So that's the way it goes, two-way street on mentoring, right?
Mike: It’s gone in both directions and I still will keep learning including from this podcast, hopefully. But let's start off with you. You're both a lawyer or you were a practicing lawyer up till recently I believe and a Dean of Admission. I'm curious, and I think the last time we looked at it is something like 88% of the top 50 Deans of Admission at least had a JD.
Sarah: Oh, is that right?
Mike: Yeah. It was preponderance. Now, we looked at it years ago. It keeps changing over time. What's the difference between practicing law and being an admissions Dean?
Sarah: They're wildly different, I would say. And that is why until recently I practiced full time for seven years and then I went to work at the law school, but I stayed active, mostly with the ACLU as a cooperating attorney or volunteer attorney until a couple years ago. And the reason it was possible for me to make time for the ACLU work is because it's such a different work. So it didn't feel like just doing the same thing on top of my regular job.
It just felt like a real pivot. I mostly, I would say, I do almost exclusively appellate work when I practice. And so it's just a ton of long writing and reading long opinions and doing a lot of research and analysis. And in law school admissions the work that I do tends to be very quick, I answer a lot of e-mails, I read an application and then I read like 200 more applications. It's a very quick turnaround on most of the work. There's not the opportunity often or occasion to dive deep into any one thing. And I really enjoy both types of work, honestly. But I haven't practiced, I will say, in a few years because I've been away from, I've been doing it on my own for so long, I began to get worried that I would start committing malpractice if I kept it up.
Mike: Your malpractice is a good jumping point to a story I just thought, an anecdotal story from my admissions life of the Venn diagram of where practicing law and practicing admissions actually overlap in the middle. I'll tell you the story and you can tell me if I'm A, violating FERPA law and in which case we'll delete the story and B, I'm curious, where you would have landed on this.
When I was at Vanderbilt, we had a 12-year-old, she was 11 at the time she would have been graduating at 12. Maybe she applied to Michigan and you had to make a similar decision, but applied to Vanderbilt Law School. And we were talking about the dynamics of a 12-year-old, the pressures on the 12-year-old starting with a cohort of 20 to 30-year-olds and the pressures that law – there's a lot of research. I think we're going to try to have someone named Patrick Krill on the podcast, research on how law school can damage a certain number of people through the three years of the law school process. The stresses that can make them less kind, more prone to substance abuse. We had that discussion, but where we landed on and there were no JDs in our office. I do not believe.
I think the Dean of Admission had an EDD, no one had a JD. I think we maybe, we got the General Counsel's office involved, but we landed on, it would be age discrimination to read the file as this person is 11 would be matriculating at 12. We couldn't factor that into admission. Have you ever seen anything like that?
Sarah: Yeah. All the time, there's all kinds of information that appear in an admissions folder that is not information that you can – is a potential for discrimination, I suppose. So, for example, if people talk about their religion, if people talk about their age, if people talk about a disability status. There is a fine line between understanding the candidate as a full human being and understanding what they will contribute to your institution and not using that information in a discriminatory way.
I think it's always complicated. I would say for your 12-year-old, that what you can't do is say, “We don't admit 12-year-olds.” What you can say is, “I'm reading this application and the person sounds like they have the maturity level of a 12-year-old,” and that is not great for being a lawyer. You can have a 12-year-old who is extremely mature and so you can't look at that age.
Mike: Right. You should speak at LSAC conferences, I'm sure that they've never had to do that before.
Sarah: I've done that a few times.
Mike: I heard you. I can literally quote some of the talks I’ve been to, hence the mentorship. We'll talk a little bit more about your experience as the Dean of Admissions. You're universally known in the admissions world amongst applicants as Dean Z.
Mike: I’m sure there's some things that people assume about your job that are accurate, that you love and then I also assume, and let's talk about that and I assume there's some stressors that no one who's ever done admissions would ever think about, if you want to talk about each.
Sarah: Yeah. I love my job. I really do. But I read – shoot, this is not great because I'm going to quote somebody and I don't remember who it is. It's an admissions person, an undergrad admissions person who is famous, but I'm just blanking on who it is, famous in the small world of people doing admissions. But I think it was Bill Fitzsimmons from Harvard, said that doing admissions is balancing tradeoffs 24/7.
When you're putting a class together you have a vision of it. You want it to be a certain size, you'd like it to be composed of people from across the country. I, for example, I need to think about having about 20% of the class has to come from the State of Michigan. You have all these ideas about you want some scientists, you want some Poli Sci Majors, you want some people who have come straight through, you want some people who have some work experience. You have this whole general idea and you have people who also have ideas on the faculty in the student body of what they want to see.
So I'll have student groups who will say, “You haven't been admitting enough people from XYZ Group that is in our student group and we really want more representation.” And usually I have been really fortunate that those conversations have all been always great, I would say with our students. We work together at when that happens. Everyone you admit comes at the expense of someone else you don't admit. So you're balancing tradeoffs.
Mike: Yeah. I think something I've learned over time is every time – you have to learn as you progress in this world to say ‘no’ more than you have to as a teenager or a 20-year-old. And what I've learned is every time I say no to something, I'm saying yes to a different option.
Sarah: I think that's really true. And it's certainly true in admissions in a very literal sense. I can admit a certain number of people to get a certain sized class and they're, and I'm so fortunate to work for a place where if I'm admitting about 850 people, there's at least another 850, if not more, who I would also be very happy to admit. And that's what makes the job exciting and challenging.
Mike: I think one of the interesting nuances of admissions is every time you say it’s medians not means, not averages. So if you say he has too enough people at a certain – like last cycle would be a classic example where the LSAT distribution particularly 170 to 180 tremendously up, that actually led to more opportunities later in the cycle to say yes to people below the medians, because everything was locked in.
Sarah: Yeah. I heard you discussing that with Dean Perry on a couple weeks ago. I thought that was an interesting –
Mike: Do you know her by the way?
Sarah: A little bit. Yeah. I will share with you that Dean Perry has a really great vacation home on Lake Michigan.
Mike: I know. She doesn't want the public to know that.
Sarah: Okay, well then, we'll have to cut that out.
Mike: No, she’s good. I don't think Lake Michigan narrows it down.
Sarah: I won’t even tell you what State it's in. Okay. It's pretty, yeah, you can walk around the whole lake and see if you can figure it out. But we have a tradition of getting together for a weekend in January or February and reading files. And then at night after we’re done reading files at night, we drink and eat and it's delightful. And sometimes we use like a nice face mask, that's the other thing we like to do.
I would say, I did not actually feel like I had that experience and I don't know if the way I do admissions, I don't know that I ever would, I mean, it definitely can happen in the waitlist part. But the way I try to go through the season is at the beginning of the season, I figure out making a guest based on what I can see in August and early September actually all the way through like mid-October is when I'm looking to see what are the patterns looking like? How many people seem to be applying? What do the LSAT distributions look like? What do I think reasonable target median is? Now, frankly until last year that doesn't usually change for us, a 169 has always been our target for many, many, many years. And that seems just right for us. I don't really have the ambition as a general proposition of having it be any higher. Last year was exceptional.
But anyway, at the beginning I set my targets and I proceed accordingly and I anticipate that I will be admitting a certain number, who are over on both numbers, a certain number who have high LSAT, low GPA, certain number, high GPA, low LSAT and a certain number that are under on both numbers.
And then I try not to fill up any one of those categories too quickly as I proceed through the season, because I like to see the whole range of who is in this pool. It's heartbreaking if you just immediately spend all your money as it were in a given category. And then you're in March and reading the application of someone who applied on the deadline and you adore that person and you don't have room because you've filled up all of one category. I try not to do that.
Mike: I would suspect that there's a very strong correlation between years of experience and admissions and rate at which you, ‘fill up those buckets.’ The longer you've done the admissions, the slower you fill up those buckets.
Sarah: I'm sure that is – I can say that is certainly true for me. I have gotten a lot more controlled and confident, frankly, over the years. Confident not in myself, but in that the pool is going to have lots of wonderfulness in it and to just space myself.
Mike: Okay. So speaking of, over the years, you've been at Michigan Law your entire career.
Sarah: Oh yeah baby.
Mike: That’s rare.
Sarah: I love my job, but a huge part of it is because I love Michigan Law School and because I'm alumn of Michigan Law School and I loved my time there deeply. And so that's a huge part of my joint satisfaction is feeling like I am working with an institution I deeply admire.
Mike: Yeah. I can vouch that you would never leave, because I've tried to get you to join our team members by the consulting 632 times. I can back check the emails, but I think that's right. I can vouch that you're never leaving Michigan Law. What do you like about being there?
Sarah: It's a 100% - I shouldn't say 100%, but a huge part of it is just the people, certain person who has traditionally been attracted and enrolled at the school. And I'm from the East Coast originally so I was very skeptical of the Midwest when I came here for law school. And then it turned out that in my heart, I am a Midwesterner. I realized this. There's just a different ethos, a different way of interacting with people and a bit more kind I would say, like less whatever. I'm not going to insult the East Coast my home base.
Mike: It’s my home too and I insult it all the time, I also adore it.
Sarah: But I found it a very comfortable place to be and I love the people here. And so looking for people who I think are particularly well suited for this traditional ambiance, if you will, that we have at Michigan, I very much enjoy. I just actually, shortly before we started talking, I got a text from someone who an alumn from, I think like four or five years ago, who I just have been stayed in touch with. And she just got engaged and she's like, “I'm coming to the football game. Can I swing past your house to introduce you to my fiancé at 9:00 AM?” And I was like, that's just thrilling. I get to be an auntie to – so far, I've admitted something like 6,500 people who are now alumni of Michigan Law School. So that's pretty awesome because I basically like them a lot.
Mike: When I was at Vanderbilt, I used to always do a personal trip to Michigan and I would take like 6 to 10 admitted students to Gratzi out the dinner. The reason why I would do that Dean Z is because my boss or the Dean of the law school, Kent Syverud who you know who is also my mentor now.
Sarah: Mentor to me too.
Mike: Right. I think he won the teacher of the year award or whatever in Michigan, but he was Michigan alumn and a Michigan faculty before he became Dean at Vanderbilt Law in his, I think his early 30s. I was like, “Oh yeah, I know how to impress the Dean of the Law School. I'll get like our 10 best in Michigan admits and take them out to Gratzi and they'll certainly all 10 will come to the Vanderbilt. But it didn't quite work like that, but that was a wonderful restaurant. Is it still open to this day?
Sarah: It is still open. Yes, it is. I like Gratzi, but it's not my top 10. So that I think was your mistake.
Mike: I didn't know you at the time. I was like 24 years old.
Sarah: Yeah. I was actually thinking maybe you took them to Gratzi because it wasn't like the best that Ann Arbor has to offer and so you're like, “See, this is –”
Mike: Right. Come to National, we have better dining –
Sarah: Just come to National has been –
Mike: Yeah, you’ll not have to eat this tortellini. Okay, shifting gears, we'll get more serious and I know we've both messaged this to the world. There's a lot of bad admissions advice out there, in fact, some of them not great.
Sarah: So much.
Mike: The Genesis of this on my side of the firm, part of it was just reading people with no admissions experience, say with great confidence, “Do this.” And they would say it with so much confidence, a hundred other people would repeat it with confidence. I would hear law school saying something that they said it not as an absolute, but as a suggestion.
And then all the applicants took it as like not only an absolute for that law school, but an absolute across all law schools. You know these stories as well as I do. I can start off with a story about admissions advice that probably became universalized, or you could, it doesn't matter when we have so many.
Sarah: I just want to echo before we get into the specifics, I want to echo how much I agree with the idea that there is almost say could even make this a universal statement, I just in general, I think universal advice is flawed, right? You need to know the actual applicant you are speaking to and understand that person's story. You need to understand, yes, different schools have very different approaches.
So there is great, but it's a fine line because you want to be useful to people and give general lessons, but you don't want them to hear it as meaning, you must never deviate from this and there can be no exceptions. It's a hard line, I think to walk to be useful and not to be taken as meaning more than you do.
Mike: I did a podcast on bad admissions advice and I said, one of the detection mechanisms for like your early warning signal, that bad advice is coming is when anyone says something as an absolute.
Sarah: Yeah, totally agree. I also think you need to be careful about taking advice from people who are not currently working in the field. I think lawyers who applied 30 years ago will give you advice that might've been good advice 30 years ago and they may not really know much about admissions or about law schools in this particular year, right. So you’ve got to be careful.
Mike: Yeah, it literally comes from every angle, parents, lawyers, pre-law advisors, and I'm going to reiterate, I don't mean every parent, some have great instincts. I don't mean every pre-law advisor; some are just incredibly knowledgeable and I've hired two of them. That's how knowledgeable we trust in them. But it can come from LSAC. It can come from admissions consulting firms and we're not immune to this.
I'd probably have said things with too much confidence that don't hold true for every school in the past. I'm certain I've made predictions that haven't come out exactly as I thought they might. It could come from law, school admissions officers themselves. I'll give you one story of many ago, I was in an LSAC forum and the brand-new admissions person next to me kept misquoting her school’s LSAT. I knew her school LSAT and she didn't.
When she was quoting was their median LSAT of their admitted students, not the matriculate median and eventually, I kind of like tried to – this is obnoxious, but also helpful maybe, I tried to like explain the difference or bring up the difference. And then she corrected, but for full forum long, she wasn't expressing her school’s – now, that's a very silly trivial example maybe, because people could look that up online, I'm sure you have many examples than I do too.
Sarah: Yes. So who wants to start?
Mike: Well, I just gave one, so your turn.
Sarah: Okay. So now, I have to do one. Okay. I think one of the things that people love to give advice about is how to choose where to enroll. And they like to say with great confidence either go to the school that is cheapest, go to the school that is ‘best’ and I put that in quotes, air quotes because what they I think typically mean is most highly ranked, which does not mean best in any way.
Go to a school that is in the area that you want to practice. All of this like where you should go advice, that is so nuanced and so particular to a given candidate and what that candidate’s goals are and what the particulars of the schools are that a person is choosing among, it is ludicrous to just come up with some kind of rule. You really need to ask a lot of questions.
Now, if someone were asking me, “How should I decide where to enroll?” My answer would be probably long and tiresome, but it would give you a number of factors that you need to be thinking about and you need to think about what they mean to you. It would be sort of a rubric as opposed to some quick and easy, “Here's the rule.”
Mike: Even with our clients, I'm hesitant to say – because we get asked understandably so, it's in some sense our fiduciary responsibility to weigh in. But we get asked, okay, I've been admitted to these 10 schools, where should I go? And my response is often, “Well, I don't know, because I don't know your life history, your parents, your aspirations, as well as you do. I can tell you where I would go, knowing as much about you as I do. But what I know about you is a fraction of what you know about you. So ultimately, I can't tell you where to go.” My goal is to try to get you into as many schools as possible help you navigate the process.
Sarah: Right. I am often asked, “What should I write about in my personal statement?” My answer is almost exactly what you just said, I have no idea because I do not know you, but I can tell you how you should approach figuring out what you want to write about in your personal statement. You should be thinking about what is it you want the admissions office to think about you when they stop reading? What impression do you want to leave them with? What are the traits, your traits, what are your characteristics, what are your skills that you want them to be aware of? And what about your story isn't clear from the rest of your application materials that you need to perhaps emphasize for the admissions office? And that can be done in so many different ways. If I can give another piece of advice that I hate, is that okay?
Sarah: So sometimes admissions officers will say, “I don't like essays about–” And then say whatever it is. I don't like essays about study abroad or personal statements about study abroad. I don't like personal statements about Teach for America. Things like that, experiences that a lot of people have that affect people often in a very similar way. And what the admissions officers means when they say I hate those essays is they are often very similar, right? And so you don't really stand out when you choose that topic. But it's a dumb thing to say, because obviously, you can have essays on those topics that do reveal important things about the person that are not the kind of essay that anybody could write, right. That it’s very particularized. And so just to knock out a huge topic or a class of topics from the topics of a personal statement, I think is – I understand what they mean when they say it, but it's not good advice.
Mike: Well, again, so it hit the circuit breaker that was spoken as an absolute, and there are no absolutes. If you're writing to impress an admissions office, horrible idea, if you're writing for yourself, it's probably going to – even if the topic is not differentiated for 99 people, your one story for yourself might be the one out of a hundred that is differentiating. We had an applicant who wrote about a freaking cat when she was eight. She got into so many schools above her medians. Why did she get into so many schools above her medians? Because that story mattered to her. They took – her crazy neighbor had lawyers with fancy words in big suits that scared her come away and take your cat, as a child.
Sarah: What the hell was wrong with that cat that –?
Mike: Nothing. It’s what’s wrong with the neighbor, not the cat. But she was writing this as a paralegal who now was no longer intimidated by lawyers in suit with fancy words, because she understood those words. That cat story was a formative story. So yeah, if someone called me and said, “Hey, I want to write about my cat Jazzy.” I would say, “Maybe, maybe not.” But I certainly wouldn't say as an absolute, never or never not. It's just so much is about the story. Is it my turn to give an example?
Mike: There was I think a threat, well, every year there's a threat about people upset with their pre-law advisor’s advice. And to be fair, there's a lots of pre-law advisers out there that give good advice and there's lots of brand-new pre-law advisors or pre-law advisors who are political science professors who have never seen a law school application before. But I always think back to the story that a Dean of Admission at a conference I was at said, it's a conference, it's the merger of pre-law advisors and admissions people, which is a great idea, by the way, it's good to have conferences.
Sarah: I agree.
Mike: And admissions people often are onstage giving advice and particularly the new pre-law advisors are taking in the advice, also good. The Dean of Admission says to 200 pre-law advisors, probably a hundred of which are brand new. Someone asks about engineering versus political science and this person said I would always take a 3.0 in engineering over a 4.0 in political science. Well, a couple of things, one, boom, there's that ‘always’, an absolute.
Number two, that's not really the case. You and I both know you're not going to always take a 3.0 because they have engineering or you're going to bring in an engineering class with a 3.0 and this school’s entering GPA was probably like a 3.8, no. Number two, that's patently false. I can empirically show that.
But here's the most deleterious part of all that, now, you have 200 pre-law advisors. Think about the multiplying effect, go out and let's say each one of those pre-law advisors has 100 advisees. That's 2000 students that are potentially being given the absolute wrong advice because someone took that bad advice and believed in it because it came from an authority.
Sarah: Right. I mean, I am sure what that person meant to say was maybe, the GPA itself is not particularly instructive, what is instructive is the entire academic record. I can't tell you that I'm not going to admit somebody with a 3.0 even though I don't admit many 3.0s, because maybe that person was majoring in something incredibly difficult that I value in my class. And I can't tell you that I will always take a 4.0, because maybe that person was taking classes that were less challenging, or they just don't have an impressive overall record even though they have this great GPA. I'm sure that's what that person was trying to convey, but yeah, it is misleading to say it in those terms, and if not actually – I think ‘deceitful’ is a strong word, so I won't say that. I mean, Poli Sci majors are the most common major in I'm going to guess everybody's law school class.
Mike: Yeah. Almost every year, I think the data the LSAC produces shows that. The forgiving way of interpreting that is maybe that Dean of Admissions just slightly misspoke and shouldn't have said, “I would always.” The much less forgiving way to interpret that is, well, I'm now going to have these pre-law advisors send me a bunch more applicants. Who knows?
Sarah: Yeah. But I will say, okay, so that's a good pivot to other advices that does drive me crazy, which is people telling applicants, “Your numbers are below that school's median. So don't bother because it is all LSAT and GPA and you won't get in.” That's just incorrect. Now, it doesn't make it more likely that you will get in if your numbers are below the median, it makes it less likely. That's just likelihood. That is not a flat-out rule.
And this is actually a tautology I think. I was going to say my favorite candidates are often the people who are below medians, my favorite candidates that I admit, but that's that it's a tautology because of course that's true. I have fewer of those spots to give away. So of course, it's the people who are most interesting and exciting that I am giving them to and those are the ones who really stick in my mind in a given class.
We also have really interesting people who have numbers that are not per our median, but like I said, I can't admit a ton of people below the median. So those are the ones that get me most energized and optimistic about the future of the profession. And so like every year there are people like that, obviously. And if you're an applicant who thinks you've got a lot to offer and that your numbers are the things that are holding you back, well, many admissions officers may feel the same way as you do about yourself if you present yourself well.
Mike: One way I also conceptualize this is for 22 years, I've seen people, obviously numbers matter probably the most, but I've seen people with the same numbers, some of which have been admitted, some of which have been indefinitely wait-listed and some of which have been denied, but the same numbers, same diversity or ethnicity or gender.
There's obviously, there’s multivariate mix of things that come into an application. If you could take 60 people with the same numbers in a cycle, exact same, ‘stats twins’ they would say. And some are getting into that school and some aren’t the application does matter, obviously.
Sarah: Yes. I mean, sometimes you can find breakdowns, quadrants of LSAT, GPA plotting against each other and little squares of how many applicants were in a given category, how many people were admitted and how many enrolled in a different category. And, I obviously know Michigan's numbers and not that familiar with any other school’s numbers. But there is no little square like that where we're admitting even 50% of the people in a square. And that's like 175 and up, and 3.9 and up, those are great numbers, but not everybody seems right. I get to make a lot of choices and I make choices in all those categories. And then 3.0 and 157, I met people in those categories too.
Mike: Would it be fair to summarize this as follows, and I'm going to speak as an absolute, ironically. Don't take anyone's advice universally including Mike Spivey, including the Dean Z, including anyone, because nothing is universalizable and ping things off other people to the extent that you can. But also, don't worry if someone stands on a stage and it says whatever law school behind that stage and they say, “You have to have a one-page resume.” But that school's application says, “We don't have a resume preference.” Follow the applications and don't worry about what one person says they might be brand new or they might be having a bad day, or they may have misspoken.
Sarah: That’s true. I agree with that. I will say though, that sometimes schools write things that are not accurate. I spoke so slowly then which is so different from how I normally speak, but I was trying to be careful.
Mike: Yeah. I read an entire book while you're saying that.
Sarah: Yeah. But I think you know about me Spivey, I try to be very transparent, very open. That's been like my way of going through this career since I started in 2001 trying to be as honest as I possibly can be. Like I started at the beginning saying every admissions officer is balancing trade-offs at all times, right?
And so a school may say, “We are happy to take a two-page resume,” but may really feel like, “I'd really rather just have a one-page resume.” They may say two page and mean one page and maybe that person who was on the stage was being honest in a way that the school maybe doesn't want him or her to be.
Mike: Yeah. Before we panic the market, I'm going to guess because people have already applied to your school or will be applying with 20 years’ work experience, they do have a two-page resume.
Sarah: Right. I will say, I personally would always rather have however much information you think I need to have. I mean, I want it to be well edited. I want you to be thoughtful about what you include. I don't want you to just spit everything out without taking any time to clean it up, right. And I will say, like, I don't know anybody who feels like, “I don't want a two-page resume.” I don't know anyone in admissions who feels that way.
And I guess I don't – what I'm trying to say is sometimes I don't know that you can take the writing, you have to get information from a lot of sources and analyze it for yourself and think what really makes sense here and you have to exercise some judgment. You can't just take an answer or advice and assume it is correct.
Mike: Yeah. I double-click on the reference multiple sources. But like things I probably said when I was in admissions, I would undo after 10 years of this side and getting to know applicants so personally. Finding in one case I think 30,000 e-mails with one of my clients, please don't do that anyone.
Hundreds of hours on the phone or 50 hours on the phone, what you start learning is things that are said by what seems like definitive authorities, I know you are transparent, to begin with we wouldn't have anyone on our podcast who we think is not transparent. The person who said I think are the pre-law advisors I would never have on my podcast and you're at the highest end of transparency. Sometimes we even fool ourselves in admissions I think, and we fool ourselves in life with the stories we tell ourselves might not be – there's this story and then there's that story and then in between is reality.
Mike: Right. I think we're hopefully; we're learning is trust your instincts. Don't just trust one person saying one thing on one day might not be what you want to post on Reddit and say, “Everyone should do it this way, always.”
Sarah: Yes. And recognize that when someone is stating a general rule, it is a general rule. It is not a rule that applies in every single circumstance. So, although I do think I have one rule that I came up with yesterday that maybe is across the board.
Mike: Bring it.
Sarah: On our website we have a list of everyone on the admission staff, including the person who is our first reader of applications. That person's job does not involve talking to students or interacting with the public at all. That person is a specialist for reviewing applications. And I put her info there because, again, transparency, I think that is helpful to know who is doing that job if you want to know. We got a question from someone who said, “I want to write to her to let her know all about me, so that when she's reading my application, she can really be thinking of me.”
Now, that's a bad idea. Don't send e-mails. Look at how the school tells you to communicate with them and then do that, right. Whatever that school is saying about who you should be communicating with and how, you really need to follow that advice. Because e-mailing people who are not being held up as spokespeople to the public is a bad idea, and will be deeply annoying to the people you reach out to.
Mike: Yeah. We talk a good deal on our blog about boundaries. Another way of thinking of a very universalizable truth is just be kind through the process. You might be having a bad day. So don't call the law school that day. If you can't control your impulse on that day, I mean we all have bad days where we're going to be more sleep deprived days. The only days I ever show agitation at people at my firm are days I'm really sleep deprived.
Sarah: Or days you didn't work out, I'm guessing, that makes you cranky.
Mike: I'm in a boot right now, stress fracture boot from running on a stress fractured foot for a year. So yeah, I might be agitated right now. I'm sorry. I apologize. I apologize there for all my agitation.
Sarah: You're making me cry, Spivey, stop it.
Mike: It’s been four weeks, it's intolerable. But if you can be professional and kind throughout, this is to me professional, patient, persistence. And I don't want to over fine-point the word ‘persistence’, but if you stay in touch with schools professionally and very kindly, slowly at a measured pace over time, it can't possibly hurt you. It's only going to help you. If in turn, you're showing up at their parking garage where their car isn't sitting on their car that happened to me once, yeah, that's a boundary that you don't want to cross.
Sarah: Yeah, that's right. Yes. I think all admissions officers have occasional stories of people who are alarming in their enthusiasm.
Mike: Can you share us a story?
Sarah: I actually don't have specific – oh, you know what, I have one from many, many years ago, where – this isn't quite on point, but it’s close. We had someone who had admitted and we had a deposit deadline and this was probably 15 years ago. The deposits were mostly coming in by check, exclusively, we were not taking credit card payments. You say the deposit deadline is April 30th, but if you get a check on May 1st or May 2nd, that cuts right, when you have an April 30th deposit deadline and people have to mail things in.
Anyway, for people who didn't send in their deposit, we sent a little email that said, “We didn't get your deposit. We assume you are going elsewhere. If we've made a mistake, please reach out and let us know. We're happy to figure out what's going on.” It was a very non-threatening kind of e-mail. And this person got it on a Friday, got that communication on a Friday and first found my home phone number in the book and I was traveling for work. He got my husband at 11:30 at night.
And my husband is like the calmest person in the world. And my husband just said, “She's not here.” And the person said, “Well, I'm going to try the Assistant Director then.” My husband said, “Take my advice. Don't do that.” But the person did do that, went on to call the number two in my office at the time and woke her up then at midnight and long story short, that person was not extended – we did not extend that person's deadline to submit their deposit.
Mike: I'm not surprised. They probably also don't know, I'm going to tell something personal about your husband, that he's 6’6, 300 pounds and he played football for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Sarah: He's not. He's none of those things, but he is a Federal Prosecutor.
Mike: That's even better. I wish I had told the truth. Speaking of telling the truth, let’s end on maybe this note, is it fair to say, I don't want to go too deep down this path, do you think it's fair to say that – because I know you've seen 20 plus well, plus years that probably when social media message sort of popping up, there's a feeling amongst applicants that schools are reading all their posts and so I think there's an overemphasis on that.
But I also think, and this is very important to point out. I think there's an underemphasis on if a school does zoom in on you, because you're saying some inconsistent, incoherent things, it's a lot easier to figure out who someone is on social media than I think people realize when they're posting. Because they're posting 50, 100, 200 or a thousand comments and over time, they're reviewing things that align with things in their application. And I just remember being on the other side, you can start putting two and two together.
Sarah: Yeah. That is absolutely the case. I will say, I never look at these things. Because my personality is such, it would just really – I understand people are blowing off steam and they're being negative but it would just ruin me. I would not be able to enjoy my job as much as I do if I was really paying attention to those things. But I usually have people in my office who are maybe made of sterner stuff than I am, and they look and they will tell me it is for trends, right. You want to know, like, what is bothering people, what are people's anxieties? It helps us do our job better if we have this information.
And so they'll say, the students think that, “They don't understand this message that we sent out,” or whatever it is. But I have a very firm policy against trying to figure these people out because I do think, you can't take it seriously. You can't judge people by what they post anonymously online. You can't really understand them, I don't think. But it takes about three data points to figure out where everyone is, even in a giant applicant pool, right.
Mike: The literal definition of triangulation right there.
Sarah: Exactly. That's right. You are absolutely right. And I know that not every school has my philosophy on this. Insult Michigan because we're not going to figure out who you are because it's against my rules, but don't insult other schools because they might.
Mike: The first thing I think I ever read about myself online, I was in my early 30s and someone said, “I love Dean Spivey but boy, does he need to be on ADD medication.”
Sarah: I think I wrote that.
Mike: Yeah. Thank you. At the time I didn't know anything about ADD medication maybe I should have, but it was definitely kind of like, “Ouch! That stings.” To the extent that people have impulse regulation mechanisms, don't insult Deans of Admission even if they had a bad day, because more often than not, this is how I read it as a 49-year-old, if someone attacks anyone personally online is a statement about the place that person writing the attack full statement is. What they're doing is they're numbing, self-medicating and exercising their pain by anonymously attacking someone else.
And that's really, you got to like kind of look inward and say, “Why am I doing this? Why am I making up stories about this school, false stories to numb my own pain?” Also, if you're making up false stories about a school, that's when they're going to start triangulating.
Sarah: Right. I will say just personally, I think you just exacerbate your own unhappiness when you're lashing out that way, ultimately. But I will say this, I don't read – you can say anything you want about me, I'm not going to see it. I don't believe. If it's nice stuff, I don't feel like it's good for my personality or my ego to like stroke my own ego by reading anything flattering. And if it's mean, that's what my children are for, saying mean things to me. My children are delightful. They don't.
Mike: They have a 6’6 300-pound father so they are going to back up.
Sarah: Sure, that's my boyfriend, my husband doesn’t –
Mike: I met the wrong guy. Okay, I keep getting them confused. Is there anything I didn't cover that I should have asked anything you have to ask me?
Sarah: Yes, I have a suggestion for a future podcast that I would like to listen to myself, which is, so I don't know if you know this Spivey, but my son went through law school application process last year and did not go to Michigan. So, if any Michigan students are listening to this, don't worry you're not sitting next to my son. But it was very interesting for me to go through that from the side of a parent.
And I would say that, it became clear to me that one spot in which our industry is I think really failing is in clarity about financial aid. And I think we need to get our crap together on that and be very straightforward about what we do and don't do in financial aid. And I, again, this is something I have always tried to do, and the perspective I got last year made me try even harder and I will continue to try.
But I think there's a lot of good information out there about how to apply to law school and do it well and I don't think there's a lot of good information about financial aid. Getting some financial aid experts on, I think would be perfect.
Mike: Yeah, we just had Lauren Williams she has a crazy interesting story. She won the Olympic Medal in both the Summer and Winter Olympics as a sprinter. And she's one of I think only five people who have ever done that in the world, ever. And she's also a student, thank you for not noticing, but she's also a student loan expert. She was on the podcast recently. But I do take what – it's a very well-stated point.
The two things we really emphasize mostly admissions and the other one is self-care, mental health. We have someone in this September who's a world best-selling author who's going to write about your relationship with yourself, self-esteem, self-confidence. But we have, I think one of our blind spots is that we only have one or two podcasts or blogs on financial aid and we can do a lot more on that in that area.
Sarah: I mean financial aid, frankly is admissions now. 25 years ago, it wasn't that way, but it really is. You can't separate the two and –
Mike: Housed in the same department, housed in the same office.
Sarah: Correct. Right. And so I'll go back and listen to your other episodes. I was pretty proud that I listened to several. I listen to a lot of podcasts. It's hard to keep up.
Mike: Please don't feel like listening to things you know 100% about it, because you do it all day is important for your busy day. Speaking of your busy day, I very much appreciate having you on. It's great to see you over Zoom. I haven't seen you in a long time.
Sarah: I know, it is great. This has been delightful. Thank you for asking me. I'm very flattered to have been asked.
Mike: If I happen to be in Ann Arbor, I won't invite you to Gratzi, but maybe somewhere else, deal?
Sarah: Yeah. You can come over to my house and I'll make you a cocktail. I'm a great cocktail maker. So, we’ll sit on the back pouch.
Mike: You'll be disappointed in how little I drink, but I'm happy to come over your house and we'll figure something out.
Sarah: It’s one high quality cocktail.
Mike: Yeah, yeah, I'll do it. Done. See you in a couple days.
Mike: Take care.
Sarah: Thank you Spivey. Have a great rest of your day.