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TLS Guide to Personal Statements: Table of Contents   Foreword
Chapters: 1   2   3   4   5   6   7   8   9   10   11   12   13   14   Appendixes: A   B   C   D   E   F   G

Appendix D: Ending on a Good Note

Published November 2009

Application Addendum

An addendum is a document that you can choose to include in your law school application, and is most effectively used to put forth legitimate reasons for a weakness in the application. The document should be clear and concise, from just one to three paragraphs in length, and clearly labeled ADDENDUM. A useful way to look at an addendum is as an opportunity to explain any major chinks in your armor as an applicant, whereas the personal statement should be treated as an opportunity to focus on your strengths. If any weaknesses are mentioned in the personal statement, they should be portrayed as obstacles that were overcome and helped to pave a path to growth and experience.

If you think that a member of an admissions committee would benefit from an explanation regarding a particular part of your application, an addendum addressing the issue would be appropriate. For example, if there is one markedly poor semester of grades on your otherwise solid undergraduate transcript, admissions officers would most likely wonder about the lapse in academic performance, and an addendum would be useful in putting forth any legitimate reasons that led to the poor grades of that semester.

The following issues are also appropriate topics for an addendum:

  • An LSAT score that does not accurately reflect your law school potential
  • An exceptionally poor grade in a particular course
  • An overall GPA that is not indicative of your true abilities
  • A long gap in your college attendance (not a summer semester)

Explanation of a poor LSAT score is one of the most common uses of an addendum, but a low score should not automatically lead you to write an addendum regarding the issue. You should consider writing an addendum about a low score only if you are able to demonstrate prior academic excellence despite low standardized test scores. For example, if you scored a 1000 on your SAT, but were able to graduate with a GPA of 3.90, the SAT was obviously a poor predictor of your college performance, and there would be reason to believe that the LSAT might be a poor predictor of your law school performance. In such a case, you should include an official copy of your SAT or ACT score, along with an addendum discussing prior poor standardized test scores and excellent academic performance.

Explanation of a low GPA is another frequent use of an addendum. Addenda of this sort are most convincing if there was a particular semester or year in which your grades were much lower than usual, coinciding with a death in the family or a severe injury or accident. Also, if you believe that your overall GPA was not as high as it could have been due to financial circumstances, such as the necessity of your full-time employment throughout your college career, an addendum could be useful. For students with a noticeable upward grade trend, Dean Victoria Ortiz of UC Irvine recommends students “append a statement explaining the circumstances of the weaker early performance and what allowed for the upward trend.” For those with high grades earned under incredibly adverse circumstances, Dean Ortiz recommends considering an addendum that points out “how remarkable it is that even under such circumstances [the student] was able to maintain or achieve strong numbers.” Technically speaking, your addendum could be about anything you want the admissions committee to know about you that you couldn’t fit in anywhere else in the application. As Dean Edward Tom of UC Berkeley Boalt Hall explains, “you can send an addendum, one or two paragraphs on a separate page, dedicated to any particular talking points desired.” Conventionally, however, addenda are reserved for explaining less-than-ideal performances.

If a weakness of your application cannot be explained by any legitimate reason, you will probably be better off not writing an addendum, as admissions officers would most likely be turned off by an addendum centered on excuses. Also, you should never feel the need to write an addendum if there is not some glaring weakness in your application. Keep in mind that most applicants don’t include any addenda in their applications.

Most people won’t need to write an addendum, in which case their personal statement will end their application (so make the personal statement a good note to end on!). Those who need to explain something sub-par on their application, should be brief, to the point, claiming responsibility, and then be done with it. Dean Sarah Zearfoss of the University of Michigan advises students not to make a mountain of a molehill in an addendum:

People can take what is a nothing situation in my point of view and transform it into a cause for concern by being very defensive—sort of combative about it. What I’m looking to see is that you take responsibility for it—that’s all I care about. You need to be able to get yourself in a place where you can say ‘I take responsibility, I realize that was against the rules’ or ‘I was foolhardy’ or something along those lines; that’s the smart way to deal with it. Or at least be completely dispassionate about it. But don’t say things like ‘I was set up’ or ‘this is an unjust law’ or things like that. That’s just not the kind of attitude that speaks well of you.

If you write an addendum, remember it will be the last impression the committee members will have of you. Most importantly, be mature and responsible, as you should be throughout your application.

Letter of Diversity

“Diversity” encompasses a number of disparate fields. What is most important to remember is that the admissions committee wants to build as diverse a class as possible: economically, socially, geographically, disability-wise, politically, religiously, ethnically, experientially—you get the idea. But when and where should an applicant include information about their background, ethnicity, sexual preference, etc.? Dean Edward Tom of UC Berkeley Boalt Hall explains,

That’s up to the applicant, whether or not they want to share that, but we welcome any kind of that information, especially if the applicant believes that it contributed to who they are. And there’s no formal recommended place to include it. It could be in the addendum or as a separate statement. Race, ethnicity, and sex are not considered in the review process though.

“Diversity” is as diverse as the word itself suggests, and applicants are free to include a brief statement about what gives them an original, uncommon perspective. “Some diversity can be described as ethnic, racial, national, or religious—in other words, identity diversity,” explains Dean Victoria Ortiz. “There is also geographic diversity, political diversity, age diversity, gender identity diversity, and sexual orientation diversity, among others. The diversity statement is a chance for the applicant to show us what is unique about him or her.”

While an admissions committee wants to build a very diverse class, many committees are prohibited by law from giving a student any special admission advantage based on race, ethnicity, or sex. This means that students with roughly the same academic performance compete based on the diversity they can bring to the entering class. Since affirmative action mandates (like those once in effect at the University of Michigan and UC Berkeley) are prohibited, many of the top law schools now compete for the top African American and Latino/Latina candidates. The law school admissions committees cannot explicitly use different admissions formulas, but they can value any diversity one may bring to their class. If you choose to include a separate diversity statement, consider what is rare within you or what you have achieved that is rare among individuals that sets you apart from candidates with similar test scores and GPA.

Below are several examples of successful diversity statements:

1. Proud Latino Heritage

“Why aren’t we going with papí?,” I asked my mother. I was six years old, and I could not grasp why we were staying behind while my father was redeployed to Germany. My mother, concealing that my father wanted a divorce, pacified my curiosity, even if not answering my question, by saying, “He'll be back in a few months.” But months became years as I awaited his return. When he shipped out, we packed our belongings into a U-haul and set off on our own journey from Texas to my grandparents’ home in California. This became a familiar scene as we moved from city to city throughout my childhood and adolescence.

My journeys began when my parents and grandparents migrated to the United States from Mexico. Like thousands before them, they came seeking a better life for themselves and their children. As is often the case with immigrants, the only jobs available to them were the most menial and physically demanding. They became laborers in vineyards, orchards, and fields – jobs they worked with dignity and pride. (I recall going to work with my grandmother “a la pisca,” i.e. grape picking, as a child.) Owing to a strong work ethic, they kept food on the table and a roof overhead, although they later lost their home. I was born into these trying conditions, as the first of five children, the summer after my father’s high school graduation. Although my parents later married, the difficult circumstances doomed the relationship. From these experiences I learned, early in life, that the world could be as unforgiving as it was gracious.

Separated from my father by the military and divorce, I was raised by a single mother in the San Joaquin Valley, one of the most economically depressed regions in the U.S. Growing up in an enclave of Mexican field workers, an environment bereft of human and social capital, did not aid my intellectual development, but I was still an excellent student. When friends and family turned to self-destructive behavior, I found refuge from my troubled home in education. My academic success, however, was not due to superiority, moral or otherwise, but to inquisitiveness. From a young age I asked questions, but I was rarely satisfied with the answers. I recall giving Sunday school teachers fits with difficult questions to which they rarely had plausible explanations. My dissatisfaction with intellectual complacency spurred my search after answers and truth. After doing well at my crowded public high school, I wanted to further my education. However, since I knew almost nothing about college admissions, I only applied to Fresno Pacific University. Fortunately, I was admitted and given one of two full-tuition merit scholarships offered that year. It was an opportunity of a lifetime never before available to anyone in my family. I was on my way to Fresno.

At FPU, inspired by Dr. Rawls’ energy and passion, I plunged into the Ancient World, at one point studying Latin, Greek, and Hebrew in the same semester. Amid academic success, problems at home placed obstacles in my path. My mother was medically retired and declared disabled from her position at the state prison after sustaining debilitating injuries to both arms and wrists. She also went through two bouts with cancer. Needless to say, times were stressful. But while helping her recover, I continued my search after truth. By my senior year, I wanted to continue my theological education because of a growing interest in the role of religion in public life. After applying to several graduate programs, I eventually decided to attend Princeton Seminary. My next journey led me to the east coast.

I remember my first trip to Princeton vividly. It was a Sunday morning filled with a unique sense of excitement and sadness. I had loaded all of my belongings, mostly books and a few guitars, into my small Honda Civic the night before and was ready to drive out to New Jersey at sunrise. I had never driven out of state, much less visited Princeton, but undeterred, I embarked on my cross-country road trip. As I set out, my mother loaded the family into the minivan and accompanied me on the road. She had trouble letting go and wanted to follow as far as she could. Seventy miles later it was time for her to turn back. Again we said our goodbyes, and with tears in our eyes, I headed east.

At Princeton, I studied the ethical, social, and political implications of religion with Dr. Bowlin, and race, politics, and public policy at the Woodrow Wilson School and in the Politics Department with Dr. Abalos. Outside of the classroom, I developed leadership skills as moderator of the Latino student organization through which I helped organize a conference on religion, race, and immigration – the first of its kind at the seminary. I was also chosen by the seminary's administration to lead the campus deacons, an RA-like position, based on my performance as a deacon the previous year under difficult circumstances.

While in law school I would like to continue studying religion and race from a legal perspective, and later use my legal and theological educations by working on issues that intersect religion, race, and law, both as a lawyer and law professor. I am especially interested in human rights and immigration law because these areas of law address issues that will continue to be among the most pressing of a globalized 21st century. Given my background and education, I will be attentive to how religion and race influence legal discourse and vice-versa, thereby adding to the intellectual, as well as, social and cultural diversity of the incoming class.

2. Garment Factory to British Marshall Finalist (This applicant received admission to Stanford Law School with a 3.96 GPA from Fordham University and a 161/168 LSAT score.)

As the first-born in a poor immigrant family, I was forced to mature quickly. While other kids were at daycare or in the park, I spent my childhood wandering the garment factory where my parents worked. When I asked my father why he brought me to the factory, he told me it was so I would never take my education for granted. Even though I knew the real reason was because my parents could not afford daycare, the message stuck—education was salvation.

As the first in my family to attend college, my parents wanted me to apply to the best schools available. Unfortunately, I knew location and money would take precedence. My mother had recently become unemployed when the factory she worked for closed because of 9-11. I knew leaving for college would have crippled them financially and emotionally. Fortunately, with the aid of scholarships and grants, I was able to attend Fordham University and live at home with my family. By working throughout high school and college, I have been able to fully pay my tuition while helping my family with their bills.

Economist Steven Levitt and New York Times journalist Stephen J. Dubner argue that the single most influential external factor to test scores is: highly educated parents who speak English in the home and who are involved in the Parent Teacher Association (PTA). My parents never completed grade school in China, nor did they speak any English at home. Although they would have wanted to, it is precisely these reasons that they could not participate in my academic life, much less in the PTA.

But it is because of these factors, and not in spite of them, that I will graduate college in the top of my class and be the first Fordham student in four years to be nominated as a British Marshall finalist. In response to Mr. Levitt and Mr. Dubner, I improved my LSAT score from the 36th percentile to the 96th percentile on my own, using hand-me-down materials from charitable friends. For all these reasons, I am motivated to make a positive impact in the immigrant communities I will serve because I understand how much can be achieved with just a little opportunity. I know what it is like to come from nothing, and I believe that my social-economic background will only empower me to better serve as an immigration advocate.

3. Swimming Lessons (This applicant received admission to everywhere she applied, including NYU, Berkeley, Michigan, Duke, & Cornell with a 3.92 GPA and 168 LSAT score.)

Clutching my towel around my shoulders, I stepped onto the tile floor and looked around for a familiar face. Not recognizing anyone, I sat alone on the bench and waited. As my future teammates began arriving in their rubber swim caps, tinted goggles, and new Speedo suits, I looked down at my own blue rags and wished that I had stayed home. With no cap and no goggles, my first day of practice was a struggle to wipe my hair out of my face and see where I was swimming. I was embarrassed. Not only did I fail to bring the right gear, but I was by far the slowest person on the team. When practice was over, I wanted to hide under a rock and forget that I had ever considered joining the swim team. Although a part of me contemplated quitting then and there, I reflected upon the obstacles that my parents faced in immigrating to the United States and realized that I could not give up my goals at the first sign of adversity. The next day, I showed up at practice with a newfound determination and began my high school swimming career.

For me, excelling in the classroom was easy; it was finding a niche outside of it that proved difficult. Among the Chinese immigrant community, academic excellence was the standard and athleticism was the exception. Swimming quickly became my biggest challenge, and from it yielded my biggest successes. For four years, the pool was the site of my personal struggle to overcome an upbringing too poor or perhaps too different to encourage sports and a stereotype that continually discounted my accomplishments. In the end I proved that dedication and discipline can achieve the impossible. My proudest moment was winning the “Most Valuable Swimmer” award and remembering how far I had progressed since that first day at the pool.

From the lessons of my high school swimming pool, I discovered that the highest level of satisfaction is achieved when struggle meets accomplishment. For my parents, that meant overcoming political persecution and economic hardship before finally earning the opportunity to attend college and eventually move to the United States. My own journey set me in search of an identity that seemed torn between my status as a first-generation immigrant and my desire to develop independently of that fact. In the pool, no one cared about the language that I spoke or the shape of my face – all that mattered was the number next to my name. Swimming taught me that it is not where I start but rather where I finish that truly makes me who I am. With this attitude, I know that I will embrace the challenges of law school and develop a meaningful legal career.

» Continue to Appendix E: Letters of Recommendation
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