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Sarah C. Zearfoss
Assistant Dean and Director of Admissions
The University of Michigan Law School

"How do you evaluate recommendations?"

With so many stellar applicants, I've always thought that top law schools get literally thousands of recs saying a person walks on water.  What I wanted to know was, how does a top law school judge degrees of perfection, like Mary Poppins ("Practically Perfect in Every Way")? Sarah C. Zearfoss, Assistant Dean and Director of Admissions at the University of Michigan Law School, set me straight (in a manner of speaking).

Dean Zearfoss became the assistant dean and director of Admissions in March 2001. She received her A.B. cum laude in psychology from Bryn Mawr College and her J.D. magna cum laude from Michigan. At the Law School, Dean Zearfoss was the editor-in-chief of the Michigan Journal of International Law. She 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.

Sarah Zearfoss

Among her many accomplishments since graduation, my favorite is that in 2004 she argued and won a First Amendment case in support of an 82-year-old farmer who was prosecuted for leaving messages containing swear words on the Michigan Department of Agriculture's complaint hotline.

Her posted interview on the admissions process is still linked through my page on the importance of diversity, as it has been for the last several years.

Dean Zearfoss, how do you evaluate the greatest among the great? Do you ignore the good and look for those that damn by faint praise?  Do you try to read between the lines to see how well the author really knows the applicant? 

Actually, I don't think there is really a problem of an excessive number of water-walker letters because I think most letter-writers are understandably cautious about adjective inflation, and praising students too highly.  After all, many letter-writers, particularly academics, are repeat letter-writers; they want admissions officers to evaluate their letters seriously, and they therefore husband their praise for the times when they really mean it. 

As a result, I think the bigger problem for evaluating recommendation letters is the difficulty in evaluating the meaning in a positive recommendation that isn't a rave review.   Many letters are simply a 5 on a scale of 1 to 10, and just don't move an application either forward or backward; in fact, I would say that's the case for more than half.  We don't hold such letters against a candidate, but they just aren't doing any affirmative work for the candidate.  It would be nice for admissions officers if all recommendation letters illuminated all the mysteries of a candidate, but there are many aspects to an application file and we can glean helpful information from lots of places.

It is worth it, though, for a would-be applicant to put work into developing positive relationships with potential recommenders, because those water-walker letters end up carrying a great deal of weight, given their relative rarity.  To that end, I want to share a story.  Literally the very first offer I ever made as a dean of admissions was to a candidate who had a quite modest LSAT and a respectable, but not stellar, undergraduate record — coupled with four letters of recommendation from lawyers at his employer (a very well-regarded public sector legal organization), and those letters were simply off-the-charts: long, detailed, rave recommendations.  Even though I was new to being a dean of admissions, I had been a lawyer long enough to know that that sort of praise was extraordinary.  I admitted him, and I still think it was one of the cleverest admissions decisions I ever made.

Do you tend to read more or less into a letter based on how well you know the recommender?

There are very few recommenders I know well enough for this to be the case — just a handful, in fact (mostly U of M professors).  But yes, I do interpret letters from that handful with my knowledge of their letter style in mind. 

And do you ever choose to reject someone because of what a recommender says?

Well, that's a tricky question.  I have definitely received letters that were negative and that would, in and of themselves have been a reason to deny (or at least to waitlist, to suss out additional information).  But in the cases I can think of, the letters were always corroborated by other information in the file, so that the letters didn't end up being -- as we say in the law -- the but-for cause for a denial. 

Thank you, Dean Zearfoss!

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