In this episode of Status Check with Spivey, Mike has a conversation with Dean Sarah Zearfoss (also known as "Dean Z"), who in her role as Senior Assistant Dean at the University of Michigan Law School has overseen the admissions office for the past 23 years. Dean Z also hosts the popular law school admissions podcast A2Z with Dean Z.
In the interview, Mike and Dean Z discuss whether popular law school admissions advice is "overrated or underrated," including applying early, retaking the LSAT, making choices based on the new rankings, visiting law schools, and typos in applications (they agree about most, but engage in some debate about others). Then they answer some questions from Reddit about "Why X" essays, addressing "why law" in your application, applying as an international student, LSAT scores from 5+ years ago, second bachelor's degrees, and leaving application questions bank.
Mike and Dean Z mention My Rank in this episode, a free tool for applicants to make their own customized law school rankings—you can use My Rank here.
We also wanted to briefly elaborate on one topic—in this episode, Mike and Dean Z discuss whether and how to incorporate "why law" into one's application. Most applicants probably shouldn't write their personal statement with the intention of trying to answer "why law," since most often this results in explaining a series of different experiences they've had and classes they've taken to explain their reasons for wanting to attend law school, which typically ends up relatively generic/non-differentiating. However, that is not to say that it's not prudent to have clarity about why you want to go to law school—at bare minimum for yourself, but also, from an admissions strategy standpoint, so that you can answer that very common interview question. You may also incorporate part(s) of your "why law" in your personal statement or elsewhere in your application, but we don't encourage most applicants to write their personal statement as an answer to the prompt, "Why do you want to go to law school?"
Mike: I am joined today with Dean Z, Dean Sarah Zearfoss, of Michigan Law School. She's been the longstanding—how many years, Dean Z?
Dean Zearfoss: This is 22—sorry, 23!
Mike: 22-ish years. “Legend” is a strong word, but I would say one of the most prominent people in the field. And we've done a few podcasts before. What we at Spivey Consulting like is that Dean Z doesn't spin, she doesn't sell her school, and she tells it like it is. And some of that telling like it is, is, even if she's like, “no, Spivey you’re wrong”—and we do this offline too from time to time—we'll have fun discussions, and we're going to do it. This is Part 1, and then we're going to do Part 2, where we're going to talk about rethinking admissions.
Dean Zearfoss: That is my goal. I want to have that conversation with you. Now is the time to be thinking about these things. A lot of changes in the world of admissions.
Mike: Definitely, another huge one coming in the next two or three or four weeks.
Dean Zearfoss: Sometimes between now and June 30.
Mike: Yeah, we’ll do Part 2 maybe right after that, we can talk about rethinking admissions vis-à-vis the U.S. News changes, the SCOTUS decision. So since it's the start of a new cycle, we thought we would do something where we talk about common admissions questions. And then I'm going to pose to Dean Z whether the common lore is overrated. Let me just give the starting example. When you submit your application, submitting it early, is the myth that that's important overrated or underrated? And we'll both chime in. Why? So let's start off, timing of submitting in September and October, some people make a huge deal of it. In fact, some consultants and even admissions officers have made a huge deal of it. Others don't. What do you think? Overrated or underrated?
Dean Zearfoss: Wildly overrated. Wildly. There isn't an advantage to applying sooner rather than later. But by sooner, I mean, I always think of it before January 1st. And that's usually because many schools take off in between Christmas and New Year’s and are closed down. So they get back after the New Year and are faced with a week and a half worth of mail, so things just really slow down. And it's an advantage to the applicants to get their answer earlier but the amount of difference it makes in terms of your outcome is very marginal. And certainly, there is no advantage to applying in September or October, as opposed to November or December.
Mike: Yeah, we're so we're in agreement here. I would say not only is it wildly overrated, when a consulting firm said, “if you don't apply in September, don’t apply at all,” I think that's almost malpractice if you think about the time, value of money. I can see your face, you're agreeing.
Dean Zearfoss: Yep.
Mike: The way I think of it is, yeah, if your best possible application, test scores, GPA, and buttoned up, sincere application are ready in September, sure. There's no reason to hold up.
Dean Zearfoss: There's no reason to hold up. And there’s certainly a sense of relief in checking a box when you submit. But there's no point in rushing in order to meet some made-up deadline that you arbitrarily pulled out of the ether.
Mike: And sometimes the ether is actually people saying wrong things online. So submit your best application. And if it's ready in September, great. If it's ready in November, literally what we see on our end, no difference. If you control for the fact that if they’re submitting in September, they’re probably done taking the LSAT, they're happy with their score. Their application is ready. So every time I post online, “there's no real difference between applying in September and October and November, December, as far as your application strength” someone will say, “well, I have two friends who applied in September, and they got into their dream schools.” Yeah, they had strong applications.
Dean Zearfoss: I like to think that there are people who apply in February who get into their dream school. I certainly admit people who apply in February and I hope Michigan is some people's dream school. I want to make one distinction here. There's a question of outcomes. Does applying earlier make it more likely you get admitted? Which I think is what you are focusing on with this question. And I completely agree that this is wildly, as I said, overrated. However, then there is also the question of when you get your answer. And because law schools are rolling, you’ll get your answer earlier if you apply in November than if you apply in February and many schools have deadlines that are April. So there's an advantage to you just to apply, as I said, a little bit on the earlier end, so that you can get your answer more quickly and figure out your options. But in terms of whether you get in or not, this is at best a marginal advantage if you apply earlier.
Mike: Okay, so we can close the door on that one. That's because we’re not debating it. I am curious, were you at the LSAC conference?
Dean Zearfoss: I was.
Mike: Okay, also 22, 23 years of doing this, what percentage of Deans of Admissions would agree, that's a huge myth that you need to apply?
Dean Zearfoss: I don't know all admissions deans, even though I've been doing this a million years. And the ones I talk to, everybody agrees with this. You said, it's not just consultants giving this advice but some admissions officers. I've never heard anybody do that.
Mike: It's outliers. And I think it's oftentimes either brand new Deans of Admission without much admissions experience or early data is great from the admissions side. So of course, they would rather get the data early. You would probably say they'd also rather get the best application later.
Dean Zearfoss: For sure.
Mike: Very small number of admissions officers, and it’s mostly just an online myth that hopefully we just killed.
Dean Zearfoss: And I hope so. I don't think we will, and there are many online myths that I have been endeavoring to crush over the course of my career. So far, not really seeing a big turn of the tide, but this could be it, Spivey.
Mike: I got it. But here's one that's most wouldn’t crush, retaking the LSAT and we'll even nuance it further. Retaking it till you get the score that you think is the score that puts you in the game you want to be in. Overrated or underrated?
Dean Zearfoss: I think that's overrated, but of course this is one that is a little more challenging because there's a wide range of LSAT scores. So depending on are you looking to get a 180 or are you looking to get a 160? Those are very different propositions, and are you off by one point from what you think your ideal score is, or are you off by 20 points? Those are different. And then this is one that I always think, “do you have any reason for thinking that this score is not reflective of your true score?” Are you seeing very different results in practice tests? And if so, are you sure that you are timing yourself correctly? But if you're not, I like to think that the best route is to make your peace with what that score is. And make all the other parts of your application over which you have considerable control the best they could possibly be.
Mike: This is one we're going to diverge; I’ll say underrated. It certainly was underrated when applicants thought schools literally took all LSAT scores, took out a calculator, averaged them, and reported the average to the ABA. Which they did many years ago as you know?
Dean Zearfoss: Yes, not even that long ago during my career, so please.
Mike: Twelve years ago is around when they changed?
Dean Zearfoss: Yeah, in fact, the person who was, I believe, Chair of the LSAC board when that change was made was your friend and mine Kent Syverud, Chancellor at Syracuse. And LSAC used to calculate the average for us and that was the one we had to use. But yes, now that we can use the highest score that definitely changes the calculus. So you say your defense and then I want a rebuttal.
Mike: I guess my point would be a couple things. One, the standard measurement of error for the LSAT, they haven’t released it in a long time. Which is interesting because LSAC usually, if they have a correlation report, LSAT versus first-year performance and they’re strong, you get that almost the date it spews out. But if something isn’t favorable, then you see these long interludes between the releases, but the last release of the standard measurement of errors was 2.6. So a 160 could be a 163 or a 157. Even the standard measurement of error on a given day could make for the difference between an admit or a deny or $100,000 of merit aid if there's a six-point swing. So that's number one.
Number two for me is I have found in doing this that people, not everyone, tend to feel more comfortable and less anxiety. And this is where people have to be introspective. But if you said yourself, if I put myself in a great set of mind, if I keep taking practice tests and hammering away, and I objectively think I can turn my 165 into 168, I don't see any downside to trying that in that range up to three times. It's when people with a 175 or 174 retake, where I think it looks really bad on their application.
Dean Zearfoss: Yes, okay. So I agree it depends on the range. I agree with if the person objectively thinks do you have a reason for thinking that or is it just a feeling, that makes a huge difference. There is the specter of you made the point about three scores. And that's I think a pretty good rule of thumb. I just think in general, if I'm looking at four or five scores, even if it’s that they score something tremendously strong, if there are four scores before that are quite weak, it really diminishes the value of that extremely high score. And one wonders, as if you see five scores, like why did it take so long to get the score that you wanted? What was going on there? And I also want to say I don't think there's any downside to taking it twice, if you feel like you really want to. But if you have taken it two or three times, what is preventing you from getting the score that you think you deserve or you can earn? And whatever that is, fix it, don't keep repeating the error.
Mike: Yeah, and it's often anxiety on test day. I’m not an LSAT prep expert, but one thing we try to get our clients to do is set conditions on their diagnostic test as stressful as they can. Even to the point where we say give yourself two and a half less minutes.
Dean Zearfoss: That makes total sense. That's great advice I’d say. Yes, I totally get the point of anxiety. But I guess that's the point. Do something to address it. Taking it over and over may diminish it a little bit. But if you have anxiety about taking the test, that’s the issue you want to deal with by some way better than just repeating it.
Mike: And I would say if for the person that takes it three, four, or five times, you better have a pretty nice concise but reasonable addendum. Here's an example. I worked with someone who was in Korea and his wife was in New York City. He really, really, really needed to be in New York City because his wife was in New York City. So he took it until he could get the score that got him admitted to a school in New York City. And on his fifth test, he got a great score and he got admitted to Columbia and NYU, but the addendum that he wrote made sense, strong reasons.
Dean Zearfoss: I think it's just helpful for the applicants to recognize that if an admissions officer is seeing a long litany of scores, it raises a question mark and it's best to address the question.
Mike: Yeah, a 165 three times and then a 175, you're going to pay a lot of attention to everything in that application versus a 173 and a cancellation.
Dean Zearfoss: Yeah, I feel like we've run this into the ground probably. I totally agree.
Mike: So U.S. News changes and there's two parts of this. There's the static changes that happen every year. So the volatility. And we can talk about this more maybe on this podcast. And then when we talk about rethinking admissions maybe the bigger change to me which was having what they call selectivity as the admissions metrics of GPA and LSAT. GPA is now 4% of U.S. News weight. LSAT is now 5% of U.S. News weight. Selectivity stayed at one. I don't think anyone really anticipated this, because they had already diminished them a little bit a few years prior. So U.S. News changes.
Dean Zearfoss: I know I should know this. But it was 25% total before, right?
Mike: Correct. And now it's 10%.
Dean Zearfoss: So big, big, big decrease.
Mike: We’ll take the first one first. One or two-year volatility, I’m not going to name any schools. But the school you've been dreaming to go to, oh wow, they went from 20 to 31st. Hopefully, there's no specific school that did that, because I don't mean to be naming them. Oh my gosh, are they a worse school? Underrated or overrated?
Dean Zearfoss: Totally overrated. Because of course, that could be a mistake in data or there are a million reasons why a school might change for one year in terms of its ranking. But institutions do not change quickly. Those of us who work in institutions sometimes lament that, you know, you may want a quick change in something or other and it is extremely hard to do that.
So for example, let's say, what would be something that would make a school change for the worse and that would be reflected in rankings at some level. Let's say 10 faculty left and the school can't replace them. That would be a significant, substantive diminution in the quality of an institution. And it would take a long time for that to stay out in the rankings. Part of that is the reputation that a school has, it would diminish that. But it takes a long time for people to change their minds about the perception of an institution. Bottom line, if a school changes dramatically in one year, the chances are it is some one-off cube, it has nothing to do with something that has actually changed in the school.
Mike: Yeah, a classic example would be a school sends a lot of people to one state for the bar. And that bar decides they're going to test 14 subject areas instead of 8 like they did the year before. The bar passes gets lower, and they take a huge U.S. News hit, you brought up a good distinction. Can a school get better or worse? Absolutely. Can rankings in a one-year slice of the timeline reflect that? Absolutely not. They don't. The faculty leaving is an interesting example. When I was at Vanderbilt, we hired Kip Viscusi and his whole team from Harvard Law. So he had three tenure-ships, law, political science, and economics, highest paid faculty member of Vanderbilt. He brought his entire law and economics team down with him. Did we get better as a school? Heck yeah, he's the second-most cited economist in the world and he does amazing things. Our assessment ranking got worse the next year and our running joke was every school ranked us the same except for Harvard who dinged the hell out of us. So things that matter are often not reflected at all in the rankings. Which is why we don't need one media source telling us, “hey, this is how you should value things.” A diffuse ranking system to me is the coveted goal out of all this rankings nonsense, have multiple ranking systems.
Dean Zearfoss: I totally agree. Everybody will emphasize different things, will draw out different strengths and they can get creative because there is so much more data available. Those ranking organizations can get creative about what they're actually going to pay attention to. I actually had a very fun conversation with our Director of Financial Aid during the odyssey of when they released the rankings, but then didn't release them, etc.
Anyway, he and I were like, what would we be ranking, if we were going to design a ranking system? And it was a ton of fun. He's great. He's very good with data. So it was a lot of fun. So that will be my next gig coming up with my own rankings.
Mike: My firm has one that’s free for – it’s not free for me. It's a lot of data entry so we have to pay and pay to get the data. It's myrankbyspivey.com. And the reason why we like it, although I hope U.S News does it better, with a better interface, is you could pick what matters to you.
Dean Zearfoss: I love that.
Mike: We'll put in the show notes the link to it. So the second part we can talk about on Part 2, because it's probably a long conversation, although I tend to agree with you, the change in higher education, legal education happens slowly. In this part of our Part 2 anyways, is admissions going to change with this de-emphasis on selectivity and that’s a long answer.
Dean Zearfoss: That is. I would say it certainly is possible that there will be individual institutions who under particular circumstances are going to say, “this year, I'm not going to worry as much. There are institutional reasons why an LSAT of one point lower than last year's LSAT, three LSATs, works for us institutionally.” Maybe because they don't want to give out less aid. Or they want to increase the size of the class or whatever it is. And so that's a trade-off that will now have slightly fewer consequences for our school. Whereas in past years, keeping your same medians or improving has been a constant pressure for schools.
So the pressure will be decreased slightly. But schools have all sorts of reasons why they still value metrics. They're the two objective indicia of your ability to succeed. It's not responsible as an admissions office to cling too tightly to medians in a mechanical and unthinking way. That is poor admissions practice. But we believe the LSAT and we believe the GPA do have the potential to indicate something about your future academic capacity. So there's all kinds of incentives that have nothing to do with the rankings. When I applied to law school a little bit before there were U.S. News rankings that involved LSAT scores.
Mike: Were you on the 1 to 40?
Dean Zearfoss: 48. I think it's 10 to 48. But I knew that the LSAT was very important. Everybody knew that, even though there were no rankings.
Mike: So my very short answer and then we'll discuss ad libitum on part two, would be how could it hurt you to have your best possible GPA and your best possible LSAT as an applicant?
Dean Zearfoss: GPA is trickier. I do lament the idea that you're taking classes for the sake of getting a particular GPA that you might not take a class that you’re interested in because you want to maximize your GPA. That seems like a less than ideal way to go through the educational process. So there is a little downside to focusing too highly on your GPA.
Mike: Well we'll brawl about that on Part 2.
Dean Zearfoss: Okay.
Mike: In short term, my personal takeaway is have a strong GPA, have a strong LSAT if you can. Neither is going to hurt you. Those are good aspirations and we'll deal with all the nuances on Part 2 of the U.S. News changes. Visiting campus in person, you know, that was shut down for a while, overrated or underrated now? Visiting the law school, not the campus.
Dean Zearfoss: Yes. Overrated pre-admit.
Mike: It's fascinating.
Dean Zearfoss: I think there are reasons why people want to check out a campus, but the cost of applying, the effort in applying to each additional school is pretty minimal. And I think that if you are visiting before you're admitted, you're not asking the same sorts of questions, you're not really kicking the tires to the same extent. You don't know if you're going to get in or not. And it costs a lot of money to do all these visits. So I would wait to see what schools you are admitted to, and then I think it is extremely important before you enroll at a school if you possibly can visit it.
Mike: Because you think fit is one of the most important, and the media keeps saying to me, “okay, in a world without U.S. News, how should people choose what law school to go?” Of course to me, fit and debt reduction and all those things that aren’t reflected in rankings are the most important.
Dean Zearfoss: That and I do think career opportunities are extremely important as a thing to weigh. But it allows you to dig in and it allows you to ask tough questions about the numbers or just get a sense of who are these people? Do I click with this community? This is the fit piece. Or do I get the sense that they are spinmeisters, right? Or do I see the substance when I go? There's a lot of things you could pick up in a visit and actually getting to meet people. Student happiness. You get to see other students, current students, do they seem content? Do they seem like they for the most part think positively of their institution? That's I think an important indicator.
Mike: Yeah, in-person student feedback is so much better than online, because online is usually the unhappy people that make posts. I could hug someone this morning on Reddit, someone asked about our services and this person was like, “there’s good things and bad things and there's also fake reviews.” And we can spot the fake reviews pretty quickly because they'll say things that we don't do. I think more and more people have the wherewithal that a student might be upset with X school and then they might make up a whole litany of fake things they’re upset about just because they have a grudge against one faculty member or the dean.
Or in a more extreme example, student gets denied, I hate the word rejected, so gets denied from a school, and then a year later this happened. “Oh yeah, I went to the school and I transferred out because it was miserable.” No, they're just in a maladaptive way trying to vent off what felt like a super-sized rejection.
Dean Zearfoss: Yes, that certainly happens. Every school and of course, you’re going to have some people who are unhappy, law school is hard. And it's a big group of people and there's no group of 500 to 1000 people anywhere where you're not going to get people who are unhappy. However, you do want to sort of get the context and see the extent of their unhappiness and judge it for yourself.
But to go before you're admitted, I don't know of any law school that rigorously tracks that kind of engagement and uses it as an important part of their assessment. I don't know of any school that does that.
Mike: Well, I think some do. It’s almost yield protect measures. Like the law school asks, “why our school? We’ll say Princeton Law School. Why do you choose Princeton Law School? We’ll say you lived in New Jersey or New York City, and you're able to take the train for $5 to Princeton Law School. And you can say, “X professor invited me into their classroom and even let me ask a question,” or “two students said, hey, you look like you're visiting. Do you have any questions?” “The campus was amazing. The fit felt beautiful for me at Princeton Law. So for reasons that have nothing to do with your flashy website, but how comfortable I felt being on your campus, this is what brings me to Princeton Law School.”
Dean Zearfoss: Yes, I just think that there are ways to get content for a ‘Why Princeton Law School’ essay that don't require a visit. And if it's easy to do it, sure, no biggie. But people spend a lot of money flying to different places in order to check them out at the front end. I feel like that's the wrong place to put that investment.
Mike: So we're going down on the record. I think it's underrated. You think it's overrated and people are going to listen to you over me. So United Airlines is going to be upset with you, not me.
Dean Zearfoss: Oh my god, I hope not. I have to fly United later this month. Next week and I've never flown it before.
Mike: I'm in Denver, it's their hub.
Dean Zearfoss: That's where I'm flying actually. I'm flying to Aspen.
Mike: Oh yeah, yeah, yeah. So AI in admissions, as you are probably more aware than I am, I imagine this was brought up at the LSAC conference, people are going to see more and more applications that are not done by the applicant but are done by a bot.
Dean Zearfoss: There was a good session on this. I mean, I think about it all the time. What’s the specific question?
Mike: There are companies out there now that say, “hey, we are AI driven in helping particularly down at the undergrad level, helping you with your application.” Is that helpful do you think to the applicant? So if it's helpful, it would be underrated or is it harmful and then it would be overrated?
Dean Zearfoss: I think I'll say overrated with an asterisk there. When we're reading essays at Michigan and at schools like Michigan, we're really hoping to get a strong sense of who we think you are in non-academic ways, right? What's your character? What’s your personality? What drives you? What motivates you? What kind of student are you going to be? The essays are very useful for telling us all about that. And we aren't going to be admitting any bots to law school. If you're leaning heavily on ChatGPT or some other AI instrument, it’s going to be hard for you to really insert yourself into that document. And I think that's a danger. Like the bland, anodyne essays where I don't get a sense of human life there, they already existed before ChatGPT existed. Those people don't get admitted.
I just came up with an example or an idea about how hard this is. So the idea would be that you're writing your essay, you give it a prompt just to get a rough draft. And then you edit it up and insert yourself in. That might be the way people want to use ChatGPT.
And when I first started in this job, my predecessors had a very different communication style than I do. And it probably took me a decade to thoroughly review all our correspondence and put my voice in there, the way I wanted it to be. It just took a long time, many, many iterations of editing to make that happen. And so if your intent is to get the rough draft in ChatGPT and then make it your own, I think that might be harder than people think it is. And by the time you do all the editing that will be necessary to do that, you might as well have just written it yourself.
Mike: Yeah, I mean, I see this as a huge win for our business. Because what do we do? We try to get to know our clients, find out what matters to them in life. Derek Meeker, who you know well, calls them the MWECs, Moments Where Everything Changed. I just say, you're sitting on the couch and you're thinking about your life, what makes your hair stand up or makes you just get up with excitement about an obstacle you overcame. To date, I can’t imagine ChatGPT can come up with that form of sincerity.
So as you alluded to, the common, banal, redundant essays that they would come up, you'll be the canary in the coal mine not us. But I think you'll see pretty quickly that these don’t have a theme to them. They're going to seem similar. There's an LLM personal statement that's going around that someone wrote in China, some admissions firm in China, is essentially the same personal statement with small permutations throughout that goes out to so many law schools. And when they see it, they deny the applicant because it's not their personal statement. You could almost see picking up on bot-created applications and default towards, “wow, I'm really distrustful of this person.”
Dean Zearfoss: One thing law schools in my experience try to avoid is taking risks. You don’t want to admit people who are actually not going to be successful in law school, not going to thrive. There are a lot of ways we look for what might be risky. And having a personal statement that seems to have been written by a bot is one of those risks I think people will want to avoid.
I also will say that for many years, I paid almost no attention to the LSAT writing sample because it was handwritten, it was impossible to decipher mostly. It's always a prompt that doesn't grab you. So I really paid very little attention to it. But then when it started being typed as it is now, I started paying a little bit more attention. We are definitely going to be paying more attention to the LSAT writing sample going forward.
I have developed a rule but I'm not going to tell you what it is, but it is certain things that we're going to be looking for that I developed in conjunction with one of our writing faculty about just very quick ways to get a sense of, “is this a strong writer or a weak writer?” So maybe like a 90-second evaluation of that writing sample.
Mike: Have you come across anyone who's typed in in the writing sample? “If you're still reading this...”?
Dean Zearfoss: Yes, all the time. It hurts our feelings.
Mike: It's amazing to me the risks people take in the admissions process. Like the stakes are so high in their minds, in many applicants’ minds which I would argue the stakes aren’t even as high as people make them out to be because most schools are really good. But given that the stakes are so high that people would also take risks like doxing themselves online, bad talking a school online. You can read every user's comments and it’s not hard for an admissions office to figure out who someone is. Or in the case we're bringing up, why would you ever take a writing sample and start talking halfway through, “I know you're not reading this so my cat fluffy is the greatest creature on the earth, hahaha fluffy.”
Dean Zearfoss: I don't know. I do want to clear up one thing because you know that I do not go online. Some people in my office like to go online and see what the mood is, but we have a pretty firm rule, “Don't go and try and figure out who it is.” Because I do think it is possible to do it, often probably easy, because sometimes people put their actual name in there so that's easy. But I think there's the higher chance of making a mistake on our end and painting someone with someone else's sins. So we don’t do that.
But you’re right. Many schools do, it is entirely possible that will happen and it’s silly. Some people call my office and are rude and they’ve left their name. That's strange. You think I don't talk to the person who answers our phones? I’m not going to admit someone who's rude to the person who answers our phone.
Mike: Yeah, I was a Dean of Career Services during the Great Recession and jobs were not being handed out and I can think of a few students who had jobs in hand and then were rude to the front office people at the firms and got their jobs rescinded. You just killed the start of your career by being a jerk.
Dean Zearfoss: Yeah.
Mike: There's no win. And this could be a next question, being upbeat and ebullient and kind in the admissions process, to me that is so underrated. We could almost data mine this. Like if there were a metric as construct to measure ebullience, the people who don't let one denial get them down, who still approach the world, not just admissions offices, with kindness, they almost always seem to win at the end of the cycle.
Dean Zearfoss: Yeah, it's not just your rational, it's not just like, I like to be around nice people because this is my personal predilection. No, it does indicate a certain amount of confidence and certain ability to succeed. Like your ability to engage with negative events and still keep going is a very strong indicator of success in life. And yes, I care about that a lot. Let’s talk about that in Part 2. That's one of the things I think about as a potential problem, the content of that is, but to be continued on that.
Mike: So we'll do one last overrated and underrated and then we'll get to a couple of questions people had asked online for you. They don’t care about my answers. Several typos or mistakes.
Dean Zearfoss: One typo is fatal. Just one.
Dean Zearfoss: No, that's a joke. Don't believe me. That was a joke.
Mike: So there's a lot of anxiety. I just submitted my application and I saw five typos in a 12-page application and I'm doomed. What do I do? So overrated, underrated, is that a mistake?
Dean Zearfoss: It's a mistake. So it's totally overrated. Now there are typos that are worse than others.
Mike: Like wrong school name.
Dean Zearfoss: Actually, that one I try not to worry about the wrong school name too much. Usually makes me laugh more than be outraged. It's in the very first line if you've got a missing word or a big misspelling or something like that, you just set the tone in the very first line. It's harder to come back from that.
Mike: “It was a dark and calm night,” instead of ‘stormy’.
Dean Zearfoss: Right. So you really want to proofread that first sentence, that's my big advice there.
Mike: And also not use, “It was a dark and stormy night,” as your first sentence.
Dean Zearfoss: Yes, don't use that. But yeah, five typos over the course of the whole thing, I just think it’s petty to worry about that. And when I practiced law, I don't think I ever turned in a brief when I went back and re-read it after submitting it and didn't find some typos. I don't like it either. I hate finding typos. But it isn’t the thing that's going to make the court rule against you.
Mike: Yeah. So you know much more than I. But I can remember when I was in admissions, I would say roughly 98 or 99 of every 100 applications had typos in them.
Dean Zearfoss: Again, as I say, sometimes they're particularly hilarious you know, because someone used the wrong word so that gets your attention. Often people will use a word that means the opposite of what they mean. Or when it's in the first sentence it just sets a tone and it’s not the tone you want the admissions office to have when they're reviewing your application. But I've actually tried lots of ways in the last few years to tell people like, “don't worry about it. Please don't worry about it.”
I have an annotated application on our website, I don't know if you’ve ever seen that. Where I give tips and tricks about this is what we're trying to elicit with this question. And in there, I specifically have, you know, a comment that says, “do not worry about small errors.” And then people write to us and tell us, “page three, I made this error, and I'd like to correct it.” We always write back and say, “we'll happily add this to your application. But please don't worry about this.”
Mike: Yeah and, “Dear office of emissions,” even that one I would get once a year and I would laugh. Let's shift gears. That was good, right? We're agreed and disagreed and that's always fun. There were a couple of questions for you. When answering the ‘why law’ question on applications, how specific do schools expect you to be?
Dean Zearfoss: That's a great question. I would say, first of all, when you say ‘expect’, I don't expect that everybody's going to have specific reasons that are unique to Michigan for why they want to apply to Michigan. Because again, it's hard to get to know a school from the outside. But if you don't have them, the utility of that essay really diminishes. If you could substitute in the name of five other law schools for Michigan, in your ‘why Michigan’ essay, it's probably not going to be helping you very much. So maybe at least for Michigan, my advice would be that's why we give you nine different prompts, pick a different prompt that will show me that you’re engaged, that will show me that you're making an effort and you don't need to blow smoke about how great Michigan is to get my attention.
And if you have a specific reason, I really find that winning. I do like that. If someone says, “this is what I know about your institution, this is why it appeals to me,” you name specific courses or specific professors or something about the area or some of your connection to the area. There’s a lot of different things that people can be specific about. And that does move the needle in a way that a bland one will not move the needle. It won’t count against you, it just doesn't really give the value-added as the business school people like to say.
Mike: The things in the category of ‘it doesn’t count against you’, I always think of as some negative though because the whole part of admissions is you have these objective numbers after you submit your application, obviously you can retake the LSAT. But a decision is going to be rendered based on two buckets, objective data and all these tiny things you can stack up. So if you're not stacking up these tiny things, I don't try to over-hype this, maybe it's 1%, but if you stack up 20 of those, it really can make the difference.
Dean Zearfoss: Could not agree more strongly. Yes, it's just wasted territory. You know an opportunity that you didn't take, if you have an essay that you've written and it doesn't move the needle.
Mike: Just for anyone listening, how to approach every application is every word matters. And we can talk about this on Part 2. I love the schools that ask, “here's six questions, pick one or two. There also might have been a second question which is, and I think this one's overrated. So many applicants think that they have to address why they're applying to law school, my default when I read applications was, if you're applying to law school, you've addressed why you want to go to law school.
Dean Zearfoss: I assume you know what you're doing. Yes, I’m assuming that there’s a reason.
Mike: Some schools like it more than others.
Dean Zearfoss: I think it depends on the reason. For me, like some people do have very specific reasons grounded in certain experiences that are interesting stories. But most people are applying to law school for fairly general reasons that don’t make an interesting story, “And I'm imagining this sort of career. I'm interested in this sort of type of issue. I like writing,” whatever it is. Those aren't too compelling. So if you have a compelling reason, great. But if you don't, lots of other topics that will be much more engaging and get the attention.
Mike: The worst possible opening line to a personal statement would be, “It was a dark and calm night and all my life I've wanted to be a lawyer.”
Dean Zearfoss: There we go. My vote to the worst start is always the Robert Frost, the road less traveled. I don't believe in starting with quotes from someone else.
Mike: Yeah. I mean, anything that doesn't differentiate can be as bad, and starting with a quote is not differentiating as so many people do. “I really want some insights regarding international applications, especially non-GPA!” Exclamation point. There's a big one, pressure’s on. “I believe Dean Z discussed this topic briefly during one of our application readings. In general, what is the most important aspect that adcomms want to see from international applicants? Is it a stronger ‘why law’?” We talked about that, “Or ‘why US law motivation’ and considering the non-GPA context, does it become more important in such circumstances?”
Dean Zearfoss: So I think the thing that I might have addressed in our A-to-Z episode is that if you don't have a GPA, if you know you were foreign-educated and it doesn't translate into a GPA for the Law School Admission Council purposes, then the only metric, we can see your transcript and we can understand mostly whether you performed well or didn't perform well. So we'll substantively know how you did.
But the one metric, the one data point we will have is the LSAT. So without a GPA and without a ton of knowledge about any individual non-US school, because we will obviously get many fewer applications from any non-US schools. We don't have the same base of foundation or information about it. Your LSAT takes on a lot more weight. That's just something to think about. If you have a zero for GPA, we’ll be looking more closely at your LSAT score to make sure that we think that you could do the work.
And then in terms of other things that you can do, even though we just talked about, you don't have to explain ‘why law’, there's exceptions to every rule. So sometimes if someone is really changing careers, then I am more, a little interested in seeing a ‘why law’ essay. Like you've done 15 years in this one thing, and now you want to be a lawyer and that's a big change. So I'm obviously curious about that. What would make you want to do that?
And by the same token, if you're an international applicant and you want to come to the United States to study law, that’s a huge undertaking and upheaval in life, so I might be more curious about that. I’m curious if you agree with this. I think the undertaking when you're putting an application together is to step back and think, what questions are going to be raised in the mind of someone who doesn't know me when they look at these materials and how can I address those questions. Whether directly, you know, with an addendum or indirectly by my essays or by letters of rec writers who might speak on my behalf. That sort of thing.
Mike: If you're curious if I agree with it, I would say the foundation of our 12-year running firm, is it's impossible with no admissions experience. It's not impossible, because some people actually have really good instincts and you can see it. But it's easy to do an application the way you think you should do it. It’s incredibly difficult to put yourself not in your shoes, but “hey, this Dean of Admissions has been reading applications for 23 years. She's read 80,000. How do I put myself in their shoes?” That's not just admissions. That's part of life. It's trying to see perspective. It's very difficult as an applicant to see things from an admissions perspective. And because there's so much false noise out there, you see it all the time. I'm sure people tell you about it, then it becomes even harder.
Dean Zearfoss: I agree. And I also think there is by some applicants an unfortunate reluctance to listen to the signal, right. Sometimes people ask me advice and I will give it to them, and it's not the advice they wanted and they will either argue with me or just walk away clearly having rejected it, which is certainly their prerogative. You know, there’s no piece of advice that is universally true. Like I have different points of view from you. We both have different points of view from other admissions officers and so forth. So I'm not claiming that any advice I give is certainly correct. But you understand what I'm saying. There are people who have particular ideas in their head and it's very hard to sway them regardless of what kind of good advice they might get.
Mike: Yeah, like the expression, ‘Thou doth protest too much’, there’s a great book, Think Again.
Dean Zearfoss: I have that. I love that book.
Mike: Adam Grant, is that?
Dean Zearfoss: Yes. You probably recommend that to me! Somebody recommended it to me. Since you're saying it now, I’m guessing it was you.
Mike: All I do is recommend books so it's possible. He talked about at the very beginning, people who changed their test scores on standardized tests actually do better than people who say, “my gut instinct was option A, so I'm going to stick with option A.” So they've studied this at the macro data level.
Dean Zearfoss: Interesting.
Mike: So based on, this is not Mike Spivey or Dean Z speaking, but based on Adam Grant's research, if you have time and you’re thinking about a question, and you think your answer was wrong, you should change it. The macro-level data is trust those instincts. Just a side note.
Now we have do schools see LSAT scores that are older than five years old. Do those scores matter?
Dean Zearfoss: The answer is no, we do not see those. In the olden days and some point in the past, I believe we did. And LSAC has now changed it so we just don't see those.
Mike: So I remember when you could see them back from eternity.
Dean Zearfoss: I was thinking, so I didn't just imagine that?
Mike: No, it was like that. It’s an interesting change. Oh, I know why they did it. I bet because of LSAT Flex and how it changed from three sections to…
Dean Zearfoss: I think it's also because they put a lifetime limit on how many times you can take the test.
Mike: Okay. So they had the reasons for doing it. So the answer is no, that was a simple one. “Hey, Spivey, any chance you can ask Dean Z how admissions generally views second bachelor's degrees?” Just the broad idea as second bachelor's degrees aren't exactly common in the United States.
Dean Zearfoss: Yeah. As a practical matter, the initial bachelor's degree you earn is going to be the GPA that we use for our data and we will use as part of our assessment of whether or not we think you can do the work. Because that is the piece of data that LSAC uses for all of its correlation studies. And it's the piece of data that the ABA wants us to declare when we’re giving our data. So the first bachelor's degree will have more importance than the second. It's quite rare that anybody applies with two bachelor's degrees. And it's one of those things, it just raises a question I mean for me, why did this happen? Why did you go back and get a second bachelor’s? So I would think if that's your situation, it would be smart to just give me two or three sentences about that and it's like additional information. It's useful information. So it seems like a positive as a general proposition, but again, I'd want to know why did we go this route?
Mike: Yeah, my heuristic is generally don't leave a question unanswered. By the way, just filling in ‘Yes’ ‘No’s’ in the applications, just don’t leave anything blank if you can answer it.
Dean Zearfoss: Yes, when we're putting the application together, you know, we can say, this is required or this is not required if we're giving the question. And when you're designing an application, you want to, you don't want to make someone have to answer a question that they might not have an answer to.
So for example, we ask for information about up to two parents or guardians. Some people may only have one parent or guardian. So I don't want to force you to answer a question about a second parent when that may not be your situation. But then again, it really raises an eyebrow for me if someone only lists one parent and then elsewhere in the application makes it clear that they have two parents and talk about two parents. And I think why did you not give me that other parents' information, such a small thing? And it just makes me think, this is someone who is cutting corners.
Dean Zearfoss: It's a very small little bit of info, but as you said earlier, yes, these small bits of information add up to getting in or not.
Mike: No, I would say this is a good note to end on, cutting corners in any part of the admissions process is overrated. You don't want to do it. So be thorough. Proofread, don't rush. Don't submit on an arbitrary deadline. Always put forth your best foot on every nth nuanced degree.
Dean Zearfoss: And to the extent you can, do step back and think if someone doesn't know me, how does this application look to them? What kind of person appears to be applying to law school based on these bits of writing and this resume and these bits of data.
Mike: Yeah, it's hard. Introspection is hard for all, but yes, stepping back and saying, “okay, before I hit submit –”
Dean Zearfoss: Just to be, clear, I think it's perfectly appropriate to have someone else read your application or a couple of someone else’s to say, “does this sound like me? Am I adequately and accurately portraying myself in here?” I think that's an absolutely fine thing for people to do.
Mike: Yeah, and I think most people do it in some form or another.
Dean Zearfoss: Right. I didn't want to leave anyone with the impression that this is all on you and you’ve got to figure it out on your own. And it doesn't have to be, no offense to your people, the consultants at Spivey, but it doesn't have to be someone who's a consultant. A friend who's not a professional can still give you very good advice.
Mike: 100%. We're seven minutes over our timeline. I gotta jet, you gotta jet. We're going to pick it up maybe after the SCOTUS decision for Part 2?
Dean Zearfoss: Yeah, I’d love that.
Mike: Looking forward to it.
Dean Zearfoss: All right. Thanks, Spivey.