Revisiting the Wolverine Scholars Program

June 1, 2011

Update: The Wolverine Scholars Program was discontinued in July of 2011.

Today, Assistant Dean and Director of UM Law School Admissions Sarah Zearfoss revisits the Wolverine Scholars program.  If you would like to read other Dean Z’s reflections, check out her blog, A2Z.

Back in fall 2008, the UM Law School announced the creation of the Wolverine Scholars Program, and much hubbub promptly ensued. Several commentators (e.g., MoneyLaw, TaxProf, and Legal Profession Blog) essentially accused us—a bit churlishly, in my view, since none of them troubled to talk to us about it—of engaging in a craven and transparent attempt to “game” the rankings, with the result that for many weeks, I spent a lot of time countering those claims (The short version: the Wolverine Scholar cohort is way too small to move the LSAT median; no gaming). With an almost three-year hiatus behind me now, my PTSD has abated, and in response to the cajoling of the always-charming Mariella Mecozzi, I’m game to tackle the topic in-depth once more.

First, a brief explanation for those who weren’t reading law blogs back in 2008: what is the Wolverine Scholars Program, and who is eligible?  The program invites applications from University of Michigan undergraduates who are, roughly speaking, rising and graduating seniors (so, for this year, people who will graduate sometime between summer 2010 and spring term 2012), and who have attained cumulative GPAs of 3.80 or higher over at least six semesters at Michigan. If you meet these criteria, and haven’t yet taken the LSAT, you can apply. There, that’s the big part, the part that got everyone all agitated: you do not need an LSAT to apply under this program. Why not? Because we did a whole lot of data-crunching from the quite large pool of Michigan undergrads who have historically matriculated at the Law School and concluded that people who had earned GPAs at the stated level did well at the Law School, regardless of their LSAT score. In other words, we concluded, a high-enough undergraduate GPA from Michigan did as much predicting of law school GPA outcome as we needed; the LSAT just wasn’t adding helpful additional information.

Still, you might ask—why mix things up? Why not just keep requiring the LSAT even if it doesn’t help?  It doesn’t hurt, right? Well, it kinda does.  We know, generally speaking, that although the LSAT is a very good tool, it is not a perfect one, and a weak LSAT will underpredict performance for some people, making them appear to be worse law school prospects than they truly are.  And we also know that every year, people whom we might like to admit don’t apply because they see their LSAT and conclude they don’t have a shot (Often, people would apply as transfers and tell us just that:”Michigan was my dream school but I didn’t apply because my LSAT was [insert sub-median LSAT here], and I knew you wouldn’t admit me.”). We thought that instituting a small, experimental, non-LSAT admissions program might get us a chance at a few of these applicants who we were otherwise missing. We also thought this program would be a great opportunity to strengthen our intra-institutional ties with the undergrad community, which is our single biggest feeder and at which, nonetheless, there is a persistent, unshakeable rumor that Michigan Law “does not like” Michigan undergrads. How much more of a love letter can you send to a group of law school applicants than saying, “you don’t have to take the LSAT”?

One question I frequently field about the way we’ve structured the program is why we don’t take applications from people who have already taken the LSAT; not requiring it is one thing, but why go so far as to bar Wolverine Scholar applicants from having taken it? For this, there are two reasons. One is simply my humanity. I may endeavor not to put any weight on an LSAT, but if it’s there…well, it’s hard not to look, and that’s just going to mess up the whole experiment. The second reason is frankly self-interested. I haven’t yet mentioned that the review process for Wolverine Scholars takes place in a very compressed time frame in the summer before the usual admissions season begins; so this July, we will make offers to Wolverine Scholar applicants to matriculate in Fall 2012—whereas for everyone else, the 2012 admissions offers won’t begin getting made until early November. It is our selfish hope that a talented Michigan undergrad who learns he or she is admitted in July might just forego the great joy of taking the LSAT and choose to enroll at Michigan.  If we allow applicants who have already taken the LSAT, though, that big incentive evaporates.

But we know it’s not all about us, so we actually went to great lengths to design the Wolverine Scholar application process in a way that would not disadvantage anyone—we are, after all, one big happy Wolverine family. In my view, the one potential downside to the program is not being able to sit for the summer LSAT, which most prelaw advisors will tell you is the optimal sitting (because you get it out of the way without the distraction of your regular classes, and in the event you get a lower score than you were expecting, you still have plenty of time to take it again in the fall and apply relatively early in the process). Despite this conventional wisdom (which is, to be sure, good advice), most people take the fall LSAT (for example, in the last two years, a total of about 115,000 people took the LSAT in the fall, and fewer than 66,000, or a little more than half that number, took it in the summer)—so foregoing the summer LSAT, while a cost, is by no means a fatally unfavorable circumstance.

That’s about it, though, in terms of disadvantages. We waive the initial application fee, and in the event you aren’t admitted and wish to reapply for early or regular decision, we’ll waive it again. We make the decisions in plenty of time for you to register for the fall LSAT and be assured of getting your first-choice testing location.  We never “hold it against you” that you applied and weren’t admitted (either through Wolverine Scholars, or through the regular process, for that matter); if you apply again, you have a clean slate. If you get admitted as Wolverine Scholar but want to apply to other law schools, you absolutely can—the program is non-binding, and no deposit is required until the end of April almost a year after you were admitted. Finally, if you get admitted and want to enroll but think, “I don’t actually want to go straight to law school after graduating, and would prefer to work for a little while,” we’re incredibly free with deferrals (even though we’re often kind of stinting with deferrals as a general proposition). Basically, worst-case scenario, the Wolverine Scholar gives you a dry run at the law school application process.

Apart from the lack of an LSAT, there are two big differences in the way we review Wolverine Scholar applications and the way we review regular applications: we give heightened scrutiny (to borrow a phrase from the constitutional law realm) to the undergraduate curriculum and to the recommendation letters. Both factors, of course, are important as a general proposition in admissions, but our familiarity with the curriculum and the recommenders here give them added weight. And without the LSAT as a factor, and with the leveling influence of a 3.80-GPA floor, the quality of the curriculum and the strength of recommendations are the elements that really illustrate academic strength.  Finally, because the pool of applicants is so much smaller than the general pool, we simply have the freedom and ability to spend a lot of time going over details with a fine-tooth comb.

That’s a point that leads very nicely into a topic that I’ve had lots of people raise: how hard is it to get in, anyway? The obvious data point—percentage of people admitted—doesn’t really tell you what you want to know. For our regular decision pool, we typically admit about 20% from a pool of 5500; for Wolverine Scholars, we admitted 27% in 2009 and 30% in 2010, with pools of about 50. That is certainly encouraging; it looks like it’s a lot easier to get in as a Wolverine Scholar. But the numbers mask something important: the Wolverine Scholar pool has been consistently AMAZING. It is extremely difficult to make the choice to deny anyone.  In contrast, while our regular admissions pool is full of hard decisions, there are probably always 20 or 25% that virtually everyone who reads the file would think should be a denial. In other words, our pool of Wolverine Scholar denials contains a much higher percentage of top-notch, hard-to-deny candidates than does the regular admissions pool. That reality is reflected in another statistic: of the 66 people who have been denied as Wolverine Scholars in the last two seasons, 14 were subsequently admitted in the regular admissions pool.

Overall, we’ve been very happy with our Wolverine Scholar “experiment.” I am very optimistic that at the end of our five-year trial run, we will choose to make it a permanent fixture in our admissions toolkit.


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