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Admissions of a director
By Sarah C. Zearfoss
Assistant Dean and Director of Admissions

This story was first published in the Spring 2004 edition of Law Quadrangle Notes.

Assistant Dean Sarah C. ZearfossOur admissions policy recognizes our history of educating many of the most accomplished lawyers in the country -- "esteemed legal practitioners, leaders of the American bar, significant contributors to legal scholarship and/or selfless contributors to the public interest" -- and makes plain our continuing commitment to admit only those who "have the potential to follow in these traditions." Elsewhere, the policy describes our mission as a search for students who have "substantial promise for success in law school." The overall purport of the policy is plain: an unambiguous commitment to personal and academic excellence in our student body.

With 5,500 applications to choose among each year, the Admissions Office's task is a bit daunting. How do we make a decision in an individual case about whether to admit or deny? We certainly can't admit everyone who crosses a minimum threshold of having the potential to graduate without a serious academic problem, or we wouldn't have room to move through the hallways; indeed, we must deny admission to four out of five of our applicants. There has, therefore, to be some system for rationally choosing some particularly stellar fraction of those whom we anticipate have "substantial promise for success." Devising such a system requires coming to grips with the meaning of the "substantial promise" standard. It can't reflect simply an aspiration that those we admit finish with good grades; after all, since we are not Lake Wobegon, 50 percent of any class entering the Law School will necessarily end up graduating in the bottom half. Certainly someone whose law school grades were low but who was an active campus leader, or a lively classroom participant -- and anecdotal evidence abounds that the best classroom participants often turn out to be modest scorers on exams -- cannot be classed as one of those dreaded "admissions mistakes." What about the graduates who have a distinguished legal career despite not having attained an illustrious transcript?

Institutional folklore has it that at least one of our famous graduates was a mediocre student at best -- but no one would wish to rescind the offer of admission. Or what about the people who succeed dramatically in one area of the Law School, but not in others? A patent law professor tells me that some of her most intellectually alive, deep-thinking students are not necessarily perceived as all-stars by the rest of the faculty. Further, having gone back to examine the files of all those she has extolled to me (the woman has an amazing 15-year memory for students who have impressed her), it is undeniable that very few of her favorites would have been admitted had our admissions process involved simply selecting the candidates with the highest combination of Law School Admission Test (LSAT) score and undergraduate grade-point average (UGPA).

These various students are valued at least as highly by the faculty and by the Law School community as a whole as those whose graded performance is consistently impressive. A sound pedagogical reason supports the valuing of variety: bringing diverse people and viewpoints into the classroom is critical to the Law School's mission of serving as a professional training ground for a career in a multicultural and constantly changing world. It is no surprise, then, that our office, with the freedom to choose from among large numbers of superbly well-qualified applicants, takes "soft variables" into account in assembling a class, rather than scrutinizing solely the score data.

Nonscore information in the application lets us draw conclusions about promise and potential in a number of ways. We may learn, for example, that the applicant has a history of outperforming the predictions of standardized tests, or we may learn that his college career was marred by some personal tragedy. More generally, the application "may tell us something about the applicant's likely contributions to the intellectual and social life of the institution." There is, obviously, an abundance of factors in an academic record that reveal greater academic depth than a mere number can, such as a wide-ranging, fearless curriculum, or advanced study and mastery of a particular subject. Equally important, though distinct, is the "information in an applicant's file [that] may . . . suggest that that applicant has a perspective or experiences that will contribute to the diverse student body that we hope to assemble."

We have gathered some interesting and surprising data about the extent to which those perspectives and experiences matter in our admissions process. Looking at the applicants to the class entering in 2001, and comparing the LSAT and UGPA of each student who enrolled in 2001 to the list of those who had been denied, we learned that 20 percent, or 76 students, of an enrolled class of 362 had both lower LSAT and UGPA than at least 100 applicants who had been denied; another nearly 30 percent, or 103, had both lower LSAT and UGPA than at least 23 and as many as 99 of the denied applicants. Moreover, these enrolled students comprised a racially diverse group: More than two-thirds were white or Asian, while the remainder were African American, Native American, or Latino.

In other words, our commitment to matriculating a class that is not merely promising and talented, but interesting and diverse, meant that half of the class entering in 2001 was admitted in favor of candidates whose scores were higher. Internally and informally, we at the Law School came to refer to this group as "leapfroggers," a shorthand term which has the virtue of vividness, and which we used to connote the abundance of energy, initiative, and ambition these students had demonstrated.

To some degree, though, the imagery implicitly validates the notion that the score criteria are the sole "real" measure of "merit." To the extent the term suggests that only rarely can a few extraordinary applicants persuade us to glance away from a numerical grid of LSAT and UGPA that otherwise inflexibly governs our decisions, it is misleading. Our process does not consist of framing a presumption based on the LSAT and UGPA, with a subsequent quick glance through the file to see if anything offers a rebuttal. In fact, the data show definitively that this is not the way the system works at all; if half the class are "leapfroggers," then leapfroggers are, in fact, the norm.

If we weren't fixated on scores when we were admitting the leapfroggers, what, then, were we thinking about? Going back to those files confirmed the initial obvious supposition: These students were admitted because their applications revealed them to be exceptional on the basis of their "soft variables." That is, admitting these candidates answered the exhortation of our admissions policy that we seek to admit students who will contribute to "the intellectual and social life of the institution" in ways and to a degree that their LSAT and UGPA alone fail to reveal.

Most compelling were the rare students who had overcome extraordinary obstacles that left me wondering how they were able to stand upright, let alone fill out law school applications and supplement them with highly respectable LSATs and UGPAs. People had been abandoned by their parents at young ages; some raised themselves and siblings from the time of their early teens. People had been raised in extreme poverty, to the extent that they had no running water throughout their childhood. People had suffered serious physical disability or chronic disease. Now, J.J. White [Robert A. Sullivan Professor of Law James J. White, '62] may tease me about being a bleeding heart, but scholastic achievement in the face of these odds is, to me, astonishing.

Other students had truly remarkable backgrounds of community or public service. The applicant who worked for very low pay as an investigator for a well-regarded legal services organization, and who evinced a high degree of motivation to continue such service as an attorney; the applicants who endured a high level of personal discomfort and life disruption to volunteer in third-world countries; and the applicants who challenged themselves by serving as teachers in underfunded urban schools all stood out as outstanding and desirable additions to the class.

Some applicants had backgrounds that simply set them apart, and provided them with experiences from which their fellow students could learn. Military service, entrepreneurship, Ph.D.s and M.D.s, and impressive athletic accomplishments all made a difference for some applicants. Other applicants had personal qualities that are unusual in our applicant pool and that we value accordingly: Some were non-U.S. citizens whose country of origin had significant cultural differences from the United States; some were older, returning to school for the first time in decades; some were of ethnicities that, while not formally mentioned in our admissions policy, we view as important voices -- Arab American, for example, or Hmong.

One difficulty in assessing these files and attempting to judge, after the fact, what might have made the difference for an applicant, and the extent of the difference it made, is my sense that students' stories do not fall neatly into discrete categories of "LSAT and UGPA not predictive" and "likely to contribute to social life" and "likely to contribute to intellectual life." For example, an applicant who grows up in China and learns English in high school might be someone for whom we think an LSAT score is not predictive, given the language issues, but might also be someone whose background we could reasonably expect would lead him to make special contributions to both the social and the intellectual life at the Law School.

There is, moreover, the problem of intersectionality. This same Chinese applicant might have grown up in poverty, and become a student activist during college; we have in this one applicant, therefore, the obstacle of socioeconomic disadvantage overcome as well as a strong suggestion of leadership. We must understand his achievements in light of the extraordinary hurdles in his path, but we are also attracted to his demonstrated potential for leadership, and intrigued by his unique voice. Similarly, a Ph.D. may have an extraordinary record of public service; a feminist activist may be from the rural South and, moreover, be a practicing Christian Scientist; and so on. Which factor led to admission? And which factor, had it been absent, would have put the applicant in the "no" pile? And mightn't the combination result in a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts?

Finally, we are always looking for something more than the fact of a particular experience; rather, we seek evidence that the experience will be of value in the classroom. If a student will not speak, then it doesn't matter what he has to say. If a student is inarticulate, then his interesting experiences will not advance the classroom dialogue. We find indications of willingness and ability to contribute in the candidate's power of expression in his or her personal statement and essays; in the content of recommendation letters; and implicitly, overall, in the care that is taken with the application as a whole.

Admissions is an art and not a science: Bottom-line, one candidate with certain numbers and a certain set of experiences might fare quite differently from another with identical numbers and similar background, simply because one was persuasive and one was not. The bounds of diversity are endless. But the concept is real; it is not narrowly limited to race; and it has far-reaching effect in our admissions decisions. We are committed to matriculating an extraordinary group of students to the Law School every year, and we know that "extraordinary" is not a term we can narrowly define.

Sarah C. Zearfoss, '92, received her A.B.cum laude in psychology from Bryn Mawr College and her J.D. magna cum laude from the Law School. At Michigan, Dean Zearfoss was the editor in chief of the Michigan Journal of International Law, and authored a note on women's rights for which she received the Eric Stein Award. While at the Law School, she was also a recipient of the Henry M. Bates Memorial Scholarship and of the Robert S. Feldman Labor Law Award, and was a member of the Order of the Coif. Following graduation, Dean Zearfoss clerked for the Hon. James L. Ryan of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit and then practiced labor and employment law at Pepper Hamilton LLP's Detroit office. She became Assistant Dean and Director of the Admissions Office in March 2001.