Podcast: Dean Z on the Future of Law School Admissions + Other Admissions Questions (Part 2)

In this episode of Status Check with Spivey, Mike continues his 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 this second episode of the series, Mike and Dean Z discuss the future of law school admissions (as it relates to the recent Supreme Court decision on race-conscious admissions and in terms of other recent legal education-related developments such as ChatGPT), then they talk about other common admissions topics/questions that tend to come up at the start of a new cycle (including chance predictor websites, how law schools interpret GPAs/undergraduate transcripts, and more).

You can listen to Part 1 of our interview with Dean Z here.

You can listen and subscribe to Status Check with Spivey on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, YouTube, and Google Podcasts.

Full transcript:

Mike: Welcome to Part 2 of Status Check with Spivey where we talk about life, law school, law school admission, a little bit of everything. I say Part 2 because I am joined again with Dean Z, a day after her birthday and a day after the Fourth of July. She looks completely coherent and ready to go. I wanted to get her up at 6 a.m. to do this. Sarah, are you okay?

Dean Zearfoss: He did. Yeah, it was pretty rude. It was rude and cruel, but here we are. I made it.

Mike: For the record I didn’t know it was your birthday until just now.

Dean Zearfoss: I know, I know.

Mike: Until you told me what a jerk I was for trying to get –

Dean Zearfoss: No, I don't mind. If you're born on the Fourth of July, your birthday isn't that big of a deal. Other things outweigh my birthday. So that's how I was raised, so it’s not that big of a deal.

Mike: You ever read the book? I read it when I was in high school. Born on the Fourth of July, it was about the Vietnam war.

Dean Zearfoss: I have not.

Mike: So let’s dive right in, we're limited on time.  Are you redoing your application this year?

Dean Zearfoss: No. We're not redoing the application this year. I did that two months ago, I think. I always am way out in front on that. But I've been thinking a lot about it.

Mike: Right, and we'll talk about that. And just because that statement is going to confuse a lot of applicants, you're in Michigan. So you don't have to worry so much about redoing your application. Almost all schools are going to have to at least change parts of their application it would seem.

Dean Zearfoss: Yes, I would imagine. And I think just to be completely crystal clear for any listeners. So Michigan, we won a Supreme Court case in 2003, which preserved the right of affirmative action for the nation as a whole. And then in 2006, there was a state initiative that, as in California, said that Michigan schools, public schools, basically can't use race as a factor in admissions. Can't give any benefit to anyone or discriminate against anyone on the basis of race. So we've been race-blind since 2007. And even though we were quite sure what the Supreme Court was going to do this year, it doesn't require us to make any change.

Mike: That was Prop 3, 6 or 9. I can never remember the prop –

Dean Zearfoss: That was Prop 2.

Mike: That was definitely Prop 3, 6 or 9. Laughing. Okay, Prop 2, which came two and a half years after Grutter v. Bollinger, correct?

Dean Zearfoss: Correct, three and a half.

Mike: So a little context never hurts. We're going to start off, you know, we were just chit-chatting about those aggregating data sites where they take past data and they spit you out a likelihood of admission. I have thoughts on them. You have thoughts on them. If I were to have my principled angel on one side of my shoulder and my business angel on the other side of my shoulder, if the business angel were to win, I would have had one years ago Because that drives incredible traffic to your website. I was with a group of people on the Fourth of July yesterday, and all their kids are applying to college. We're kind of in that age range. And there's an undergrad one, Naviance or something like that. And one of the moms brought it up with a scatterplot and the entire room flocked to her laptop. Like, as much as I'm skeptical, I was like, “let’s put in this variable, let's put in this variable.” There's two huge problems.

One, self-reported data. Though that's actually less of a problem than number two. But it is a problem, because when Spivey consultants, when we look at our data pool, and we have over a thousand/year data points, it’s never aligned with the self-reported data flow. It's always skewed a little bit differently.

Dean Zearfoss: Yes, we see something similar. We have someone in, who does data, basically, reporting. And he looks at the end of the year to see what he can see about financial aid with other schools, reported financial aid awards, including Michigan. And we know that what is self-reported for our financial aid does not in any way line up with our actual financial aid. So he looks at it, but we basically discount it.

Mike: All right. So the self-report portion distorts a little bit. There's two reasons it distorts.  There'll be a few people who just want to make up numbers, they mess with people's minds. And then also it's more likely you're going to report your happy odds, your happy outcome. The second one to me is actually much more nefarious. Every cycle is different. I mean, you've done this and I've done this almost the same exact number of years. So between the two of us, well, over 40. And even when the differences are slight in number of applicants, they might be more extreme in bandwidth of LSAT or GPA or both. So you're always looking back in time.

Dean Zearfoss: Yes

Mike: So if I would have plugged in my numbers now. Let's say I had a 172 and I'm being generous with myself because I'd have a 150. But I had a 172, and I'm now I’m going to be very generous with myself because I know my undergraduate grades, and a 4.0.  Yeah, it might give me a 73% chance last year. But this year that could be 93 or 49, at Princeton Law School.

Dean Zearfoss: Yes, and as I recall actually this time last year, I think you and I talked about what we thought this coming cycle was going to be like. And I said, I wasn't prepared to give numbers. And I don’t remember how your predictions worked out. But I said, I thought it would be a down year. And I guess it was nationally a little bit. But Michigan, we were up a few hundred. So the volume makes a big difference. Completely unpredictable things like the changes to the LSAT that came about because of COVID made a huge difference. Lots of things year-to-year make a difference. And also schools tweak what they're doing. So that's another thing that might make a difference.

Mike: I'm going to brag for a second, we were just, we just spent two minutes making fun of how bad I am at planning and-

Dean Zearfoss: He's very bad at planning, people. Extremely. He thinks about three minutes in advance.

Mike: That's accurate. I get kicked out of yoga classes because if you touch your nose, I touch my ear. I don't have the ability to imitate. But for two years in a row, Dean Zearfoss, two years ago, we predicted up 12 percent and it was up 11.6. And then last year, I hedged my bets a little bit. I predicted down one to five percent and it was down two-point whatever. That’s nationwide.

Dean Zearfoss: Yeah. And individual schools will vary. So we were up a few percent.

Mike: Yes, we always have to predict at the global range. This year, if I had to guess because June was up 14 percent, and June was the biggest test. I'm going to guess it's going to be up slightly nationwide. What we're really focused on also because it slows down the cycle and makes them a little more competitive, so we're interested in that tail-end, 170-above. Because ever since the LSAT Flex that stayed up. (And if the LSAT were a perfect test, it should go back to a naturally organic bell curve, but it stayed up.) We think it's going to stay up. So we think scores 170-above are still going to be up. And it probably has nothing to do with the LSAT, per se. It's that the number of retakers keep increasing every year. So it's more likely.

Dean Zearfoss: Yeah. We should talk about that more thoroughly, I'd be interested. But yes, and then the other point that I don't like about these predictor sites, I don't have strong feelings against them. I just think they're imperfect. I definitely understand the appeal of them. You want to plug something in and be told, “You're probably going to get in.” I would love that. Yes. But if you have high odds or low odds, it’s just odds, right? And we have a hard time I think as humans as understanding that.

If you have a five percent chance of getting into a given school and then you get in, it is a hundred percent of you who got in. And if you have a 95 percent of getting in and you don't get in, that's a hundred percent of you again. So small odds and good odds don't mean perfect odds or no odds. And I think we tend to interpret them that way. And I think it's unfortunate for people because it maybe gives them confidence that means that they don't put enough work in their application and that ends up messing them up later. Or they decide to take themselves out of the running and they should have given it a shot.

Mike: There's so many books that talk about this phenomena. When you give people macro data, they individualize themselves into the macro data and how deleterious that can be for the individual. You bring up a third flaw. Just like the rankings are still going to exist, it's not a boycott and people love that word boycott. I mean, it's just not submitting private data. People love rankings for evolutionary –

Dean Zearfoss: Oh yes. People love rankings. And I have this feeling that people who want to be lawyers and lawyers, in particular, love rankings. It’s strange, there’s something about the mindset of a lawyer, in my opinion, that makes them very drawn to rankings and listings.

Mike: Well, it could be that in our profession, people's minds are always spinning. And rankings for evolutionary reasons, cut out external noise. And as we evolved, we had to get rid of all the external noise that didn't matter, so we could focus on the wolf in front of us. So the strawberry patch two miles away to make it. So either lawyers are always thinking through, this is permutation ABCDE and rankings very much simplify that. I don’t know.

Dean Zearfoss: Maybe.

Mike: There's a less generous one. Prestige is a huge deal in the legal field.

Dean Zearfoss: Yes, it is.

Mike: All right. We can move past rankings and predictors and get to your favorite topic.

Dean Zearfoss: Yes. So as I mentioned to you a few times and I'm excited to talk to you about it - I've been thinking a lot for the last couple months. Inspired by a few changes that either have arrived or I see on the horizon for potentially coming to affect law school admissions in particular. And that has led me to want to back up and think what is the best application process for us? And that in turn makes you back up and ask, what are we hoping to achieve with this? What kind of students do we ultimately want to admit and enroll? And do the tools that I have for doing that - am I using them correctly to the best of my ability to enroll that group of students?

So I'm very interested in that. I've been doing a lot of reading about admissions generally, not specific to law school, but just academic work on admissions. And it's been very interesting. I guess we should define our terms and talk about first what we see as the changes that are coming, because I think you agree with me that changes are coming.

Mike: Oh yeah, yeah, yeah. So we mentioned one of the big ones at least on the minds of Deans of Law Schools and applicants. The funny thing is I don't think it's on the minds - understandably so - of Deans of Admissions quite as much because you still have to do your job. The U.S. News, and literally no one expected this kind of evisceration, LSAT down to 5% from 10% so they halved it, and GPA down to 4% of the U.S. News weight. Selectivity stayed at 1% which is less than a rounding error. They call this broad category selectivity. You and I would think of it as admission metrics. The entire admission metrics are now only 10% of the rankings. They've been higher than 25% I think if you look longitudinally. But they've been, to my knowledge, they've been as high as 25%, now they're 10%. That is a chance for people to rethink admissions, because they don't impact your ranking as much. And you don't have to comment on this, I will.

Someone mentioned yesterday, “oh, so schools do care about ranking.” Someone mentioned that line. Yeah, most schools care. It's on a spectrum. Some can care 90% and outwardly talk about it 5%. I've seen some of the schools do that. They never talk about it, but they care a ton, and you can almost see it in the right angle of death scatterplot in admissions admit profiles.

Dean Zearfoss: Yes.

Mike: Some schools care 10% but almost all schools care to some degree.

Dean Zearfoss: Absolutely. I was a big proponent of our not submitting our internal information to U.S. News, I thought that was the right decision. But I would be challenged about it or questioned about it but I'd say, “sure, if we drop to 50 in the new rankings I'm gonna think maybe we should go back to giving the information,” you know if that caused a huge harm to the institution. I'm not insensitive to the fact that there are some things that applicants rely on, and that it is important to us to have some consistency in what our ranking is. I just also feel very fortunate that Michigan's driving animus has never been us jumping in the rankings. In 20 years, I’ve not heard people talk in those terms and that's really –

Mike: Yeah, I think your school falls on that lower end of no one from your school has ever called my firm and said, “hey, can you move us up in the rankings?” So I think your school falls lower on the hey let’s hammer the rankings. We work with law schools and universities too on rankings and if you build a better school brick by brick, foundation by foundation and some of those bricks overlap with rankings points like increasing your applicant pool, never a bad thing, that is a win-win.

So there is some good to building a better institution brick by brick, and I think schools focused on that inevitably they're probably gonna do better in the rankings. But this is an opportunity to rethink maybe admission and you've been doing it, you've been reading the academic literature. I know some people like Toma and Cross in Princeton do this. I don't know if you came across their name, but there’s actually data-mined literature.

Dean Zearfoss: Yes, there's enormous amounts of literature. The other thing that I've been thinking about is having an effect, potentially. For many years, the ABA has been talking about not requiring that schools use an admissions test anymore. So the dominant test is the LSAT as GRE plays some role in that but you know, mostly we're talking about the LSAT. And the ABA for reasons that I am not completely clear on is apparently very skeptical of the LSAT or the people who are in charge of making these decisions, some of them are skeptical. So at the moment, that conversation seems to have faded and they aren't talking about making any changes in the immediate future, but I'd be shocked if it doesn't come back up again. And that's a principal tool that people use in admissions.

And then the other two changes would be the SCOTUS decision, the lack of affirmative action, which is to say I think you said that you think it's an old-fashioned term and I agree it's a very imprecise term, but race not being a factor in admissions.

Mike: I really think of it as race-conscious, which I think is a little less antiquated than affirmative action.

Dean Zearfoss: I agree. And then the advent of ChatGPT also plays into this. I don't know if you have other things that you've been thinking about as–

Mike: Well, you and I talked a little bit about ChatGPT on our last one and it sounds like you noticed we did our SCOTUS podcast, our affirmative action/race-conscious one last week. So we've talked a little bit about that. These are certainly big driving factors along with the U.S. News change.

So there's those three, the test optional I’ll be mostly quiet on. There's some things that I actually don't think I can say since I know people on the Council, that was punted. A large number of Deans of Law Schools, some of whom I know well and few of them I'm actually close friends with, and I actually disagree with them on this. They signed a letter saying, we need more data so let's punt it. I just disagree on this one point, I'm actually a fan of the LSAT. I think some people have realized that to the point where I think if people are going to put their money anywhere, they should put it on the LSAT prep first, and admissions consulting later if they have more. And I'm also a fan of using the LSAT as a measurement as I think metrics matter, but what I don't think we need is six more years of data because we already have enough data. So the punt was a little weird.

Dean Zearfoss: We don't have a lot of data actually on test optional movements and how they affect diversity, which I believe is the driving concern for the ABA. And there is a lot–

Mike: At the law school level, we don’t have enough data.

Dean Zearfoss: Well yeah, we don’t have a lot at the undergrad level as this is a pretty recent experiment, when there's a lot of I would say conflicting factors being taken into account. But agree to disagree.

Mike: Friends of mine who are smarter than I am signed that letter, so I'm not going to go to their barbecue and say, “you're a moron,” because they'll have better responses than I do. Alright, so test optional has been punted.

Dean Zearfoss: Yeah, but I think it'll, I do think it will return.

Mike: It's going to return in X number of years, and X is more than two or three.

Dean Zearfoss: Yes, yes. I know you only like to plan three or four minutes ahead. I like to plan years ahead, so this is one of the reasons I've been thinking about this. I'm just teasing. But I am thinking about with all the changes what makes sense, and so I've been looking at what tools do we have for admissions. So one is the LSAT or some other admissions test and frankly the GRE is just not as good a test by any measure. It’s not as good at predicting what it’s supposed to predict, and it’s not supposed to predict law school performance. So I'm just going to say LSAT.

Mike: You mentioned we don't have enough data on test optional, do we have enough data on the GRE to say it's not as predictive?

Dean Zearfoss: We have a lot of data on the GRE yes, generally. Yes we do. And it's not designed to help with predicting first year grades as the LSAT is. So again, we have tests, we have the application form itself which is mostly collecting demographic and background sorts of data. We have letters of recommendation, we have the resume or some kind of job history, we have essays, and we have the undergraduate transcript, undergraduate record in general I guess. And Michigan uses all of those. We also have the LSAT writing sample, and then you could ask short questions instead of essays - you know maybe one-paragraph answers, and then interviews, neither of which Michigan has used. And then there's also some advocates of asking psychological types of questions to get at certain characteristics of–

Mike: Behavioral type.

Dean Zearfoss: Correct we don't use those either, and to my knowledge I don't know of any law school that does.

Mike: More and more law firms use–

Dean Zearfoss: Oh yes, definitely law firms are starting to use that. Everything in admissions as we’ve talked about is a tradeoff. So if you stop using one tool, like you stop using the LSAT, what are you going to substitute? What function was the LSAT serving and if you stop using that how will you get at that function? And then of course everything is a trade off in the sense that everything you select for is by definition something you are selecting against.

My favorite illustration on this is Columbia University is basically the school that invented geographic diversity as a value in admissions, and we talk about this all the time now. But the reason they wanted to expand their applicant pool from beyond the five boroughs, was because of antisemitism. They were getting a lot of Jewish applicants from Brooklyn, they didn't want to say, “let's have fewer Jews,” so they were like, “let's have more South Dakotans instead of people from Brooklyn.” That's a very problematic obviously basis to keep some group out, is a very problematic basis for adopting a particular admission–

Mike: It was like 1890? When was this, for context?

Dean Zearfoss: This was in the first part of the 20th century.

Mike: I didn't know that, that's really fascinating.

Dean Zearfoss: Yeah, so there’s a great kind of podcast called The Gatekeepers which was about admissions, you might enjoy it, for undergrad admissions. Anyway, I learned that tidbit there. Now there’s this factor in admissions, I think it's a very minor factor anywhere.

Mike: When I was at Vanderbilt, we had alums from every state but North Dakota, and we looked for an application from North Dakota and I think, look, I cannot speak for Vanderbilt now, this is 20 years ago. But what listeners should realize, we would race to read that North Dakota app, like that would zip to the top of our radar because we wanted someone to matriculate from North Dakota.

Dean Zearfoss: So I would say that for us it's a much smaller factor but here's this thing that you think of as perfectly benign, but if you're letting in more South Dakotans you are keeping out people from Brooklyn.

Mike: Right.

Dean Zearfoss: Like everything is a trade off, so that's one part I think of the affirmative action decision that is overstated for complicated reasons. But yes, it is true that if you are valuing the enrollment of certain races that has a negative consequence for other races, that's just math.

Mike: Yeah, and what I think of it is every time you're saying yes to something, you're saying no to something else. And people do that in their own lives. If I answer this phone and I know this person is going to talk for an hour, I'm going to not answer it because I have things to do. I need to say yes to taking my kids to their play. But it's very acute in the admissions process every time you say yes to some lever like LSAT, you're saying no to something else and vice versa. So LSAT, you're rethinking admission, utilization of the LSAT.

Dean Zearfoss: I think the LSAT is a very important tool, and we have experimented at times in the past with not relying on the LSAT. We had a few-year program back about 15 years ago called Wolverine Scholars where if you performed well enough in undergrad at the University of Michigan, we would let you apply before you take any LSAT and admit you without a test score. It was a bit of an experiment, and it was fine. But I feel like one of the things I learned is that process of taking the LSAT even if your score isn’t the score that you feel you deserve or you should have gotten, going through that process really heightens people's confidence. It gives them a sense of their abilities and gives them a sense of what the parameters are, of what their capacity is. And I think just going through that process for the applicant is beneficial, and then I do think it is a useful tool for admissions officers. I just think that it has to be used responsibly and can't be a be-all and end-all, “I only admit people with this LSAT or above” kind of thing.

Mike: We're pretty much in alignment. I think sometimes people think I'm anti-LSAT and I'm not anti-LSAT, I think measurement matters deeply. While there's no perfect measurement, the best measurement is LSAT plus GPA and you're still at what, 50%. There’s no test for motivation, there's no test for maturity.

Dean Zearfoss: That's exactly right. And so those are characteristics that we are looking for in the admissions process. I also want to say one other thing. So there's all these measurements right, and people talk about merit, and this has been the theme of this week because of the Supreme Court decision, the sense of merit. And I would say, what does merit mean to people? And it certainly is not LSAT and GPA, is not itself merit. First of all, you need a lot of contextual information. Like what was going on when you took the test, so suppose you were ill, suppose you got there late, suppose you were having technical problems and you were very stressed out, suppose you studied for two years, suppose you took it without studying at all. This is important contextual information that schools need to capture in order to make sense of the data that they have.

And then there's also non-contextual information like you're talking about that are also important admissions characteristics. Character. Are you mature, do you have confidence, are you a grinder? As you put it earlier when we were talking beforehand, these are all really important things to try to ascertain because metrics tell you something but they do not tell you everything.

Mike: So it's important to use the LSAT responsibly and not irresponsibly. And irresponsibly would just be any extreme whether it's incredible hyperbole for it or incredibly hyperbole against it.

Dean Zearfoss: Agree. And it's also irresponsible to just admit people without regard to the LSAT, like if someone has an exceptionally low score you should have a reason why you're not worried about what that score means. And there can be reasons. Like an admissions office can have very valid reasons for saying, “I'm not worried about this score.” But you should be able to articulate that as opposed to simply admitting people who may not be able to do the work, because that really ruins people's lives.

Mike: What about GPA then? If we are going to say, “yeah, keep a low LSAT or high LSAT in mind, use it responsibly.” What about GPA?

Dean Zearfoss: Yes, I think GPA standing alone is a very unhelpful metric. That's where you really need the contextual information. You need to know the major, you need to know the school, you need to know whether the person was working while they were earning their grades. Were they heavily involved in a sport or some other activity, how long ago was it, if it was five years ago and they've grown up or whatever it is, that number is in and of itself the tip of the iceberg about what you're trying to ascertain by looking at an academic record.

Mike: Yeah, GPA is a little more tricky than LSAT to me.

Dean Zearfoss: Yes.

Mike: The tremendous grade point inflation even before COVID, again for the 24 years I've been doing this there's been GPA inflation with the resistance - unfortunately, and this is harmful - resistance of a small number of schools like the service academies.

Dean Zearfoss: Yeah.

Mike: So when you're looking at someone from West Point and they have a 3.0, they're in the top 2 percent of their class.

Dean Zearfoss: That's a slight exaggeration, but exactly. 3.0 from Annapolis is a very different thing than a 3.0 from any other school really.

Mike: Yeah, when I started, I’m not going to name schools, but when I started admissions, there were a couple of schools that everyone who applied to Vanderbilt where I started had a 4.0 or a 4.2. And I wanted to hit my head against the table and be like, “don't do this.” And then on the other extreme, the service academies. But now you have so many people, I bet you your applicant files are just replete with 3.9s to 4.2s.

Dean Zearfoss: Yes, definitely lots. And to me it's just a complicated bit of data.

Mike: So let's get into nuance though. A 4.2 in physics from Princeton is a lot different than a 4.2 in criminal justice from state university and some small community college.

Dean Zearfoss: Yes it definitely means something different. But one of the things I think about is how people made the most of what they have in front of them. So if you got yourself to Princeton and then you pursue a physics major and you got a 4.2, that is amazing. But if you were in a position to get yourself to Princeton, and you are at whatever school and then you made the most of what you had in front of you, that's one of the things I'm taking into account. But then I'm also very forgiving of people who for whatever reason are not in a position to achieve at that level when they're 18 to 22 years old.

Mike: If someone had a 180 LSAT and a 2.5 GPA, but the GPA was 10 years ago, are you saying that you’d be forgiving for that 2.5?

Dean Zearfoss: 2.5 is a heavy lift. But one of my very favorite alumni is somebody who had, I don't remember what his LSAT was, but his GPA was very low. It was probably pretty close to 2.5. This was very early on in my career, I don't know if I'd make this choice today. But he's someone I'm very happy to have admitted, we’re still in touch and you know, I think he got in off the waitlist. He wasn’t my first admit. But yeah, sometimes that trade-off makes sense certainly in the opposite direction too.

Mike: Yeah, 100%. So I can actually name this person because he's allowed me to but I'll say who he is. Someone with a lower 150 LSAT, I've interviewed him on our podcast, so he gave his LSAT score, it was like a 154. He was our last admit off the waitlist at Vanderbilt, he now owns the Phoenix Suns basketball team, he's done pretty well.

Dean Zearfoss: Yeah.

Mike: So it cuts both ways. Which is why - again - why admissions is so tough. To begin with, you deny people who you would love to be at Michigan.

Dean Zearfoss: So that's yeah, I just read something really interesting, a great quote from somebody who I can't remember what school he’s at, it's someplace I think in Oregon. He is like the enrollment manager for this undergrad institution, and he said, “there are two kinds of schools, there are schools who have to deny people they would like to admit. And there are schools that have to admit people they’d rather deny.” Most but not all law schools are in the first category of having to deny people that they would like to admit. And that's another reason why your admissions policy and what you're doing there and what you're valuing is extremely important.

Mike: Which is why this is the most important thing in my life right now, literally. I just wrote a book on it which I showed you before we’re podcasting. Don’t take the denial, people like to use the word ‘rejection,’ I hate it. Don't take it personally. And if you do, focus on it's never why did the school deny me, it's always why is it making me feel like this about myself?

Dean Zearfoss: That's I think extremely important. This is I think another thing that gets sort of obscured in the debate over race-conscious admissions. You have to remember that getting admitted into a school is not a pat on the back for having done a good job on something, it may feel that way but that's not really what the school is doing when they admit you. They are putting together their class, their community in accordance with their values and their mission. It isn’t personal.

Mike: If you want to just globalize it for a second, because mental health is really my new passion. If someone doesn't smile at you, it's never, “why didn't this person smile at me?” The question you always want to ask yourself now going back to admissions is, “why is my response super-sized to the lack of a smile?” One of every four of our podcasts is on mental health, they're always the least possible. I always like to say that the admissions advice we give with experts like you is going to help you for the cycle, the mental health ones will help you for a lifetime. But they haven't gotten the traction as when I interview Dean Z, a little, working on it.

So back to admissions, I think that in a smoke-filled room if I was with a hundred admissions officers, a lot would say - tell me if I'm wrong you're actually good at that - a lot would say, “yeah I'm not gonna admit the kid with the 2.9 and a 180 because even if it was 10 years ago, it makes me worry about their motivation level.”

Dean Zearfoss: Maybe, I think there are definitely people who feel that way. There are very good reasons to be concerned about low GPAs or you have to be thinking about why do I want to admit this person, right? But I also think there is a purely almost cosmetic desire not, I think many schools feel like if I don't need to take a 2.9, why would I do that? But this to me is missing a little bit of the point of admissions, which is again you're not admitting two numbers, you're admitting an individual and you really want to know that whole story. That's what I'm passionate about.

Mike: So personally, I'm a huge fan of interviewing because I think the point of going to law school is not to be a law school student until you're 85 years old and then die. The point of going to law school is to get the kind of job you want and practice the kind of law you want to make a difference in the world and make a difference in people’s lives. And maybe I'm fooling myself, I think you can get a lot out of an interview, particularly not a recorded interview, but a one-on-one interview.

Dean Zearfoss: You can, but it is, first of all, it's rife with bias, we don't actually see a lot of social science evidence indicating that you make a better decision by doing an interview. But maybe that's because of course there's lots of different kinds of interviews, so that's something to be considered. And you have to think about what you're hoping to get out of the interview, are you just hoping to have a nice chat with someone who's socially appropriate? Okay, that's something that is worth doing, because yes it makes it easier maybe for people to get jobs in the legal sector. But I also think schools have responsibility for training people how to interview and that we have a role to play in that. So I think it is worth being a little skeptical of interviews for that reason.

Mike: Yeah, you don't want to take a new admissions officer and say, “trust your instincts,” with no admissions experience. I think someone who's been doing admissions for 20 years and who's met tens of thousands of applicants, I personally would be comfortable saying, “trust your instincts.” Because what are instincts if not accumulated life experience and in this case, admissions experience.

Dean Zearfoss: I agree, but you have to be also asking the questions that elicit information that allows you to rely on your instincts.

Mike: You don't do interviews, but what would be a question that comes to mind?

Dean Zearfoss: For example, education level of your parents, that's going to give me helpful context Like if you have two lawyer parents the chances are that you’ve got a lot of help that was relevant with your application. Although I had two lawyer parents and they didn't help me but that was a different time, people's parents were different then. But if you have two parents who are high school grads and are working blue-collar jobs, the chances that those parents are going to be able to help you in the same way is much slimmer. That’s just a very black-and-white question that we ask on our application that I feel like gives me helpful context. And we’ll invite people to write not just a personal statement but up to two optional essays, which if they take those opportunities, they tend to be full of information about their character and personality and motivations and values. Again, extremely helpful non-cognitive information that is relevant to admissions.

Mike: Yeah, you said non-cognitive, what's funny is I like cognitive interview questions that no one can possibly prepare for and I'll give you two examples. I used to be a part of a program at Vanderbilt called ENGAGE, Early Notification of Guaranteed Admission, it was for high school students. We would pre-admit them to law school, a tiny group, six people a year. And they would go to Vanderbilt undergrad and have a guaranteed Vanderbilt Law School admission. And I would interview them, essentially the university would weed 1000 people down to 10 and I would interview ten and admit five. And one of the questions I would ask is, “define justice.” This is an 18-year-old, they didn't know going in. This is before message boards, they didn't know I was going to ask them this, and some would just stare at me solemnly, and some would think for a second and have better answers than I could come up with. And to me that was interesting.

Dean Zearfoss: Okay, yeah so I guess the question is what are you hoping to measure with that question?

Mike: Well again, I think you want to go to law school not to be a law school student, but to be able to get employed in the arena you want so you can make a difference in the world. And obviously, people change, nothing's a perfect predictor, we've already touched on that. But the people that can think on their feet organically, naturally, independently of someone giving them an answer or without preparation, I always thought were probably going to do better in the throughput part of law school than the people that could only use preparation to give them an answer.

Dean Zearfoss: Yeah, that one makes sense. I'm not totally hostile to interviews, I'm just thinking about them. I just want to know what is the point and what am I hoping to gain from them. Because one of the things I've been thinking about is well maybe interviews are worth doing in an era of ChatGPT where the information we get from essays is perhaps less reliable, and so that's one of the reasons I've been thinking about them.

And then the other thing I mentioned was the LSAT writing sample, obviously we get that automatically. I have not traditionally put a ton of weight on that, you know I might glance at it, or look at it for a particular purpose and a given application, but for the most part I don't spend a lot of time on it. But we are going to be looking at that more closely because it will help me decide if this person has some basic writing skills that the essays may not be as reliable a tool for that anymore.

Mike: And I don’t think you come across as hostile at all with the interviews, I think you're just thinking these things through. A law school once asked - this was the interview question, I love this - “you're on an island with your favorite book,” and the poor applicant is sitting there thinking, “oh my god, I’m going to have to name my favorite book.” But they asked, “how did you get to the island?” You know what the applicant said, I loved her answer, “I know I didn't parachute in because I'm afraid of flying.” So I do like the ones that sort of throw you in one direction and then you have to think independently on your feet.

Dean Zearfoss: Yeah, so I do think that interviews might have some role to play that you know I haven’t really been open to in the past, and I definitely think possibly asking short questions. Essays do two things, essays are supposed to illuminate your writing ability and also tell us substantive information about who you are. And with ChatGPT, the writing ability is less reliable. I do trust that the essays will still reflect truthfully what the person's personality is. I can't stand to think of a world in which someone’s just asking ChatGPT to write some random essay that has nothing to do with them, I can't go down that road it's too emotional.

Mike: You're going to see, Dean Z, you're going to see these companies start saying things like, “Powered by ChatGPT” It's crazy.

Dean Zearfoss: Yeah. I feel like a short question, a paragraph answer, it will be less tempting for someone to lie on ChatGPT so that might be another tool that we haven’t explored that I might want to start thinking about. As well as, as I say some of these more behavioral-like questions that I might want to start throwing in.

Mike: I love behavioral questions, so I would be a huge fan. If you could have a tablet application where your short questions change so people couldn't prepare for them by asking each other. And maybe in five years we’re there, people are doing their application on the tablet with a timer.

Dean Zearfoss: That’s interesting.

Mike: Yeah and I had not thought of this until just now.

Dean Zearfoss: So this is one of the reasons I went down this conversation. So one of the things I’ve been thinking is maybe the right admissions process for us is three or four different processes so you can choose your strengths. “I think I would be good at interviewing so I won’t take this admissions route where they're not maybe requiring a test and no essays, but I think I'm going to be great at interviewing so that's the one I want.” Or, “Here's the one where I'm going to answer four essay questions and I will do it in some time setting so that they know I'm not using ChatGPT.”

And I just can imagine having parallel systems instead of just having one. Because I do think technologically that would be a lot easier to manage than it would have been 15 years ago.

Mike: What you're describing is a little bit about what LSAC just did and said, “you can now take it either at home and in person, whichever you're more comfortable with.” What you're saying is different kinds of processes and really generational problems, how much do you weigh one versus the other but I mean everything, every solution creates a new problem. So give an example of just so the listeners know, of a behavioral type question.

Dean Zearfoss: Yeah there’s a book that I've really been enjoying Measuring Non-Cognitive Variables by a guy named William Sedlacek, I don't know if you've ever heard of him. He seems to be kind of a big deal in this field. I hadn’t actually heard of him till I was starting this little project of mine. He has a whole survey set of questions that he recommends using. So here's one, the variable here that is being tested is realistic self-appraisal, which is one of the things that I think about a lot. Do I think this person is realistically self-assessing, because I think that's an extremely important skill for success in life.

Mike: It’s so hard by the way. Everyone thinks they're introspective and so many of us aren't as introspective as we think we are.

Dean Zearfoss: Yeah, let me go back to this then, is the applicant aware of his or her strengths and weaknesses? You could ask that directly, “Tell me what your strengths and weaknesses are.” Or you can look for it in essays and letters of rec things like that.

Mike: Hey Dean Z, name one strength of yours and one weakness.

Dean Zearfoss: I have no weaknesses and my strength is that I'm very arrogant. No, I am very organized. I would say that is a strength. I’d say a weakness is, this is a weakness that really comes home to me because of working at a law school with a lot of law professors. I'm not really a deep thinker, I don't enjoy spending time mulling about problems. I guess that is what I am doing with this, but this is very practical, right? And I really admire people who can just think great thoughts in this way and that’s one of the reasons I love working at a law school. But that is not what I am naturally adept at doing.

Mike: So you’re able to do that right off the top of your head. I think if you were to approach a stranger on the street, don't do this if you’re listening, “what are your strengths and weaknesses?” They would pause for a good while. Generally, our strength pops in our minds much quicker than our weaknesses. We've introspected more on our strengths.

Dean Zearfoss: Yes, although I also sometimes I may not want to admit all my weaknesses on this podcast being listened to by however many people. Lay’s potato chips are another one of my weakness, that's not what you have in mind is it?

Mike: I'm horribly disorganized and I'm happy to tell the world. They should know actually.

Dean Zearfoss: But so you know asking questions that might get at these characteristics is something I am very interested in. So here's an example of a question you might ask to try and get a realistic self-appraisal. “Which course and school do you expect to have the most trouble with and why?”

Mike: That's an awesome question.

Dean Zearfoss: Or, “describe something in your field that you would not like to do and why.” Or, “What kind of people would you work best with and why?” So these are the kinds of questions that I'm very intrigued by the possibility of incorporating those either in an interview setting or a short answer setting.

Mike: I wonder if William S–

Dean Zearfoss: Sedlacek, he's at the University of Maryland…

Mike: Okay, I wonder what he would think about what is a weakness that became a strength. For example, I've worked really hard at abolishing my ego, well some ego, when I started many years ago and people would talk about me on message boards that they would compliment me, I’d feel good, if they would trash me I’d feel bad, and now it's meaningless. I can't control if someone attacks me online, but if I respond to it that's just my ego elevating. And so now it's to say everything's neutral. That's one area where a weakness of mine became a strength.

Dean Zearfoss: That's self-development, that's another thing we could ask about. “Do you have the confidence to address your weaknesses?” These are all things that you might explore as an educational institution, but I don't think people really think about us thinking about. But I believe we should be. I can tell you that Michigan does and I mean I'm thinking about it in this different way right now, but we've always thought about this. This is always what we've cared about.

Mike: And if we need to end soon, one possible note to end on although we still have a little more time is the literature now is clear on neuroplasticity. Carol Dweck from Stanford, was the first to really write about it in her groundbreaking book Mindset. But we are not fixed data points, I used to say when I was a child I was horrible at almost everything. I couldn't whistle, I couldn't, there's so many things I couldn’t do well.

Dean Zearfoss: Oh that's always holding people back, the lack of whistling, that's terrible.

Mike: I know, but my point is there is the notion of, “oh, I suck at this and I can't get better,” no you can get 1000x better at almost anything because our minds are so malleable.

Dean Zearfoss: If you do it.

Mike: And I think growth would be an interesting part of the admissions process.

Dean Zearfoss: Yes, that would be something that I am very interested in ascertaining. Now the problem with these questions is they are gameable, like you could guess what the right answer should be.

Mike: Maybe a rotating where you never, I'm on an island with a book, how did I get to the island, I love these ones you've never heard. So they are less gameable.

Dean Zearfoss: Yeah, I mean I'd be interested if people listen to this and they have ideas about what they think we should be asking, doing in admissions.

Mike: Oh yeah, totally.

Dean Zearfoss: I'd be fascinated, I welcome people to be in touch with us.

Mike: Here is your freaking opportunity. If you hear this podcast, post in the Reddit thread, post on our YouTube comments, tell Dean Z what you think, not that she has the time to change her application this year. But what you think should be measured. Because there's a million great ideas out there that you and I haven't thought of yet.

Dean Zearfoss: It’s both what should we be measuring and how do we get at that? That's the ballgame, right? Those two questions. So I may not be changing my questions this year, but I made changes to our application having to do with essay topics, but I won't be making future changes.

Mike: You want to drop a huge bombshell, you could tell what those changes are now.

Dean Zearfoss: They're on our website. One of the things I believe in doing is as soon as that application is ready - even if it's not ready to be filled out by LSAC - I’ve put it on our website as a PDF. It’s annotated with guidance for here's what we are looking for when we're asking this question.

Mike: Go to Michigan's Law School's website, you can see the new application. Let’s recap, data predicting websites, directionally if you see the whole grid and you are the bottom quartile and there’s all red Xs, directionally maybe it's a little bit helpful. But if you’re right at the margins it could be incredibly harmful to overemphasize, no different than a Chance Me post.

Dean Zearfoss: Yeah, information is good, you just have to use it appropriately and not over-value it.

Mike: I may have a t-shirt that says, “chance me” that an applicant bought me, but I've never once chanced someone in their life. Because people almost always ask, “chance me,” at the beginning of the cycle when we have no cycle data.

Dean Zearfoss: And also it's really not about just the LSAT and GPAs, we've been discussing this. People come up to us at tables and say, “here's my LSAT, here’s my GPA, should I apply?” And you think, “those are helpful, those are things we care about, but there's so much more so I can't really answer that question.”

Mike: So predictor sites may be directionally helpful but I think they’re more harmful than helpful, we also both recognize people are probably going to use them. There's a lot of change going on right now, test optional may be a little bit down the road but this is the year of change, and I think it's going to slow down the application process because of the SCOTUS decision. Because people are going to have to do things, admissions officers will have to do things differently because people are rethinking.

Dean Zearfoss: Yes. And I can tell you just when you move from a race-conscious system to a race-blind system it takes longer to read applications. You have to really be you know if you're learning a new skill, you’re always very slow for the one or two years immediately following.

Mike: Two admissions officers who have had to make that change - you and I won't name the other - both said the same thing. They had to read applications a lot slower.

Dean Zearfoss: You’re going to have to evaluate, “what am I thinking about here, am I doing this right, am I obeying the law?”

Mike: This is an important takeaway because I failed miserably at signaling to the market as much as I tried. Yeah, you may apply in September but you might not hear until March or April and you still might get admitted. And people gloss that over until March or April and then they’re understandably in sympathetic nervous system mode. Why has it taken eight months, six months, five months? This cycle will be very slow. I think it’s just going to be a little more competitive, but you're smart not to comment. Any final takeaways before we go?

Dean Zearfoss: My final takeaway is just I'm not the only admissions officer who thinks about these things, so when you're filling out your application do be thinking about, “what am I revealing about myself, am I showing the admissions officer what I want to show them?” It's not just LSAT and GPA.

Mike: You’re busy, thank you for your time.

Dean Zearfoss: It's my pleasure. I enjoyed this conversation.