Michigan Law School Admissions Dean | Interview

This is the 3rd post in the "Better Know a Law School" series. Sarah Zearfoss is Assistant Dean and Director of Admissions at the University of Michigan Law School. A member of the Michigan bar, she stays active in the practice of law as a volunteer attorney for the ACLU. Michigan ranked 9th among law schools in US News and World Report this year.

1. To what degree do you use the LSAT's Writing Sample?

A lot of applicants appear to make an assumption that the LSAT writing sample never gets looked at–and that’s not a safe assumption!

We use it in a lot of different ways. At the most basic level, we always at least glance at it, and that means someone who uses only three-quarters of a page out of the available two pages will stand out, as will the folks who draw pictures, or write repeatedly, "I know you’re not reading this." And I don’t mean that they stand out in the way that one hopes to in the admissions process.

For some applications, we routinely take a much closer look, particularly when we have reason to be concerned about writing abilities (based on a major or something else in the background suggesting a lack of writing experience, or based on a comment in a recommendation letter, or based on writing quality elsewhere in the application). The standard in those cases isn’t a highly rigorous one, to be sure, but we’re looking for a lack of mimicry between the question and the answer, a facility with basic grammar and spelling, and a reasonably coherent argument. It’s surprising how frequently people don’t meet that minimal standard.

And apart from how Admissions Office staff views the sample, there are always the faculty, an unpredictable lot. At Michigan, faculty don’t have a heavy involvement in reviewing files, but I would say at least 50% of those who do look at files consider the LSAT writing sample as the single most interesting element of the application materials. No, I’m not kidding. My colleagues at some other schools have confirmed this idiosyncrasy.

Bottom-line, applicants would be well-served to approach the writing sample with seriousness. You have to sit there for the duration anyway, so you might as well put a little effort into it, right? Treating it cavalierly could leave a big negative impression on a reviewer.

2. What are some changes that students at Michigan would like to see, and what is Michigan doing to implement these changes?

I hear a pretty steady drumbeat of requests for a more tropical climate, but we resist this–I have the power, absolutely, but I choose not to use it because I think it would cut down on study time and ultimately result in less-prepared graduates. I have only the best interests of our students at heart.

In all seriousness, I don’t think there are any Major Issues that we see student concerns coalescing around at the moment. If there were, I have no doubt that they’d get a lot of swift attention from the administration, which in my experience is remarkably responsive. But that said, there are certainly often small coalitions around certain topics, and when they come up, sustained attention gets devoted to figuring out the right answer, a process that can take some time.

One recently solved example: we have heard from students in recent years that they would like a clinic with an international law focus. The challenge was how to put that into effect while being committed to Michigan’s vision of clinical work, which involves considerable hands-on involvement by the student attorneys–as opposed to assigning students one small paragraph in a giant brief being actually written by a faculty member for filing with an international court, an experience we didn’t think would provide much pedagogical benefit. The answer has turned out to be, one, an international transactional clinic focusing on microfinance, which just took off this year, and two, a human-trafficking clinic, which will get started next year. Both will involve considerable client involvement, a core value, while having a central international-law component. Those new clinics didn’t come about quickly; it took us a couple of years between starting to get the requests and figuring out the best way to effect the project. But the end result is terrific, and much better for not having been knee-jerk.

Another issue that has been the subject of sustained dialogue between students and administration in recent years involve public-interest funding, and how to come up with more institutional support. That’s an area where we’ve already seen some wonderful changes, such as a commitment to 2L summer funding for public interest jobs--but we’re also in the midst of trying to think of other new, creative solutions.

And a third issue that has been consuming some energy and attention recently is the question of grading and curves. There have been changes at other schools, so some students have naturally questioned whether we should reexamine our own approach–in fact, our faculty and administration raised the question themselves, independently. But that’s a puzzle we’re at the beginning of solving, and it’s not an easy one; we have concerns that moving to, for example, no grades or no curve could result in risk-aversion by legal employers about hiring our students–employers tell us that they worry a lack of grades means a lack of engagement by students, with the result being a poorly educated lawyer. No one wants to do anything that makes it harder for students to get the jobs they want, obviously. So we’re continuing to grapple with these issues; while we may not have come up with a solution yet, it’s not for lack of approaching the question seriously. That, ultimately, is what students should ask of their institution–not that they get a "yes" answer on every request, but that the requests be given attention and consideration.

3. What are some of the most common / funniest mistakes you've seen in students' applications?

Certainly the most common mistake is sending in an impassioned essay about why an applicant desperately wants to attend.... some other law school, not Michigan. Meanwhile, someone in Charlottesville is scratching his head about why the same student is writing at length as to Ann Arbor’s merits as the ideal student community. We try not to hold that against anyone, though, and only rarely do we actually weep at our sense of rejection.

The funniest kind of mistake I see is beginning an essay with a quote that is misattributed. Given that one of the most fundamental skills of a lawyer is research, this usually strikes me as dispositive. I first started as an admissions dean at just this time of year, when a lot of deny letters had already gone out. One denied applicant, very aggrieved, insisted on meeting with me. I now know how completely unproductive these meetings invariably are, but I was very idealistic at the time and agreed to the meeting, thinking I could give some helpful guidance (even though I hadn’t actually been the admissions dean who had made a decision on her application). The first thing I pointed out to her was that her essay misattributed a famous poem to the wrong author, and that the mistake made a really bad first impression. Her reaction was outrage; she said it showed beyond doubt that she had written her own essay, and hadn’t paid a professional to do it, and that was to her credit. Certainly, the quick thinking was to her credit, but doing her own work was a basic expectation, and her argument didn’t result in a different outcome.


  1. Representatives from both Michigan and Virgina indicate their university "ranked 9th among law schools in US News and World Report this year." Hmmm.

  2. Imagine if fourteen were tied...for first place, aye?