Chapter 12: Diversity Candidates (Topic)

Published November 2009

“Diversity” has so many meanings to law school admissions committees, that the once-buzzword has become stale. Still, admissions committee members value the plenitude suggested by the word. The committee members want to gather a class full of all kinds of different students, with different backgrounds, stories, and wisdom to share, with the expectation that shared knowledge brings humility and tolerance. Anyone who thinks their background qualifies as diverse, should feel free to write about it in their personal statement. As with all statements, the writer should show how the topic contributed to developing his or her intellectual excellence, tangible impact on others, leadership skills, real-world experience, and impartial perspectives. Most commonly, diversity statements deal with issues of socio-economic class, disability, and race. These statements can also focus on (among others) differences of ethnicity, nationality, religious practice, or sexual-orientation that make candidates unique in their social spheres or that caused them hardships they went on to overcome.

Diversity candidates may also choose to include a diversity statement as an addendum to their application; in this case, an applicant essentially writes two personal statements. This is significantly more work, but it allows the admissions committee to get to know an applicant well. The more reasons you offer the admissions committee to accept you, the better chance you have of gaining admission. Please see Appendix D: Ending on a Good Note, Letter of Diversity, for more information.

21. Resisting the Label “Muslim”

I’m a twenty-one-year-old Pakistani Muslim woman majoring in political science, and I have done one thing that Hilary Clinton has failed to do. I became President. Two years ago, I managed to do something that decades of girls have tried to do before me: I became the first female President of the Muslim Student Association at my university. Unlike Hilary, I did not wish to stand out from the crowd; rather, I wanted to identify myself with my various peers in ways more than just my religious affiliation.

My freshman year in high school, the tragic events of 9/11 left me in a situation where I was vulnerable to prejudice and unsolicited labeling as a “Muslim,” and that’s it. I walked through the halls with nothing more to my identity than the veil on my head distinguishing my religious affiliation. As I expected, I was verbally attacked, threatened and harassed. I’ve had claims made against me that I was passing anthrax in the halls by “accidentally” bumping into others and blatant threats made to my face such as “I’m gonna knock that cloth off your head.” For any thirteen-year-old girl, this had the potential of having an extremely powerful negative mental and social impact. For me, I embraced the challenge of having to prove to people there is much more to this girl behind the veil.

I took this opportunity to indulge myself in different activities in the interest of proving to people that I was Muslim, but I was more as well. I joined the creative writing club and became known as the Muslim poet. I ventured into different community service activities, organizing trips to soup kitchens, passing out ribbons on the anniversary of 9/11, hence making me known as the Muslim _________. My junior year of high school, I moved to New Jersey, my eighth move in fifteen years. To other fifteen-year-old girls, this would seem like a frustrating obstacle and having to start all over again. To me, this was a wonderful opportunity to broaden my horizons and enlighten a new group of people that there was something more to me than just being “Muslim.” I immediately engaged myself in various organizations, excited about showing my peers what I was capable of. I became extremely active in Model Congress, Model United Nations, Mock Trial, and got a new title for myself. I was the Muslim “Legal Buff,” partaking in several conferences around the United States, proving to people that yes, I was Muslim, but there is so much more to me than just that. I worked hard my junior year and found a spot on my high school's IPLE team. Our IPLE (Institute for Political and Legal Education) Team was an opportunity I was given to prove not only to my peers, but on a national level that I was more than just a Muslim. We competed against several schools on a state level on the fundamentals of the Constitution in the “We the People” competition and earned a spot to represent New Jersey on a national level. There, performing in front of distinguished politicians and legal scholars, my team won nationals. I felt as if I accomplished my goal: I showed the world (well the United States, at least) that I was so much more than just a Muslim. I had a potential to influence people on a national level, and it was at this point I realized I wanted to partake in the legal world. There are plenty of Muslim doctors and engineers, but there is a serious lack of Muslim lawyers. I wanted to be able to influence the world, and show the world I was so much more than the label that was etched onto me when I was thirteen years old.

This journey led me to college. As a student at XXX University, one of the most diverse schools in the United States, I thought my challenge was nonexistent, that in the population of 3000 Muslims on campus, someone must have proven to the populace that there is so much more to Muslims than just their religion. While earning my B.A. in political science and remaining active in the pre-law society on campus as well as several other organizations on campus including BAKA-Students for Middle Eastern Justice, OXFAM, The Pakistani Student Association; I reached out to the Muslim Student Association on campus in hopes that I would be able to engage with other individuals who longed to strip themselves of the label that we were engraved with a few years ago. It was then I faced two new obstacles: being a woman, and being a Shiite, which leaves me a minority in the Muslim populace not only at my university, but in the world. I have always been a leader, taking on several leadership roles of several organizations both in high school as well as in college. Now I was faced with a new challenge: I was not allowed to be President of the organization based solely on the fact that I was a girl. This bothered me greatly, not because I seek leadership and I refused to be anything less; but because I was being prevented to engage in a role for something under which I had no control. I then sought to face this challenge. I, along with several others, challenged this at the administrative level. I was also a Shiite, a minority, but I reached out to my fellow Muslims shying away from the label of Shiite, and bringing them closer with the common identities I shared with people. I identified myself as Pakistani with some of my fellow Muslims, to some I was a fellow pre-law student, to some I was a fellow woman. I fought this with great forcefulness, and it ended in the establishment of two separate Muslim organizations on campus. One was revolving around the "wahabi," or extremist sect on campus that did not allow women to be presidents, and attempted to amend the constitution to prevent anyone from being an executive board member unless they shared the same religious values as they. The other was the more liberal and accepting organization with the name “SALAM,” meaning “peace.” As soon as SALAM surfaced, I became extremely active to the point where I began as a PR officer, and was voted on as Vice President a semester later. Then, my junior year, I was voted on as the first female President of a Muslim Student Association at my university. Not only was I the first female President, but I was good at it. I used all my identities, my creative side, my innovative side, my political side, and incorporated it into running this organization to the best of my potential to the point where the organization was acclaimed by many deans to be one of the most successful new organizations on campus with over 300 active members. I did not stop there. Of course, Hilary did not have the option of forming her own government on the side and staking her claim as President, but through my hard work and successful leadership, I managed to sway in many of the members of the other Muslim organization, hence calling into discussions of coming together as one Muslim organization once again. This too, I managed to do successfully while not budging on the principles that SALAM worked so hard to develop of tolerance and rationalization.

Commentary 21: Resisting the Label “Muslim”

Structure: Personal Narrative
Topic: More-than-Muslim identity
Thesis: I am a leader who encourages tolerance.
Elements of Style: Determined, energetic language
Committee Appeal: Tangible Impact,Leadership, Multiple Perspectives
Success Rating: 7/B+

What’s Strong:

This applicant is committed to being a leader in her community. She’s spunky, outspoken, and possibly a little bit prickly because she stands up for herself and her beliefs. She is self-confident, directed, and hard-working. The committee will like her for being a strong woman. She’s a leader who has made concrete, measurable changes on her university campus. The admissions committee will agree that she would contribute ethnic diversity to her law school class. This strong Muslim woman will make her peers see the world from a different perspective, and therefore she helps balance out a class that must learn impartial judgment. This is a solid statement. It is not risky; it gives an honest picture of this serious candidate who enjoys collaboration and policy negotiation. It’s great that she includes the tangible impact her organization made on the deans; she should consider asking one of those deans to write her a letter of recommendation to verify the claim.

What’s Wrong:

This applicant’s personal statement lacks sufficient evidence of her intellectual excellence. If her transcript and GPA provide this evidence, she should have a very strong, highly competitive application. If her grades are not high, then she should consider adding a few sentences about an academic project she completed while in college. From the committee’s standpoint, this candidate runs the risk of giving too much energy to extra-curricular activities and becoming distracted from her law school classes. Therefore, she should reassure the committee of her commitment to academic excellence.

For all its thrust towards multiple perspectives, this statement is ironically a little narrow-minded. The applicant keeps telling the reader that there’s more to her than her Muslim identity, but she returns to that theme over and over. There is a difficult balance between thematically unifying a statement and pigeonholing oneself. The admissions committee will almost certainly label this person the Muslim Woman, but that comes from how the candidate presents herself in the statement. Picking a slightly broader theme would also allow this candidate to reassure the admissions committee that she is not only interested in changing others’ perspectives, but that she can also see things from the points of view of her classmates. The committee wants to accept applicants that “fit in, stand out.” The author could expand on her statement that, “to some I was a fellow pre-law student, to some I was a fellow woman.” This writer often compares herself to others forcibly, and the committee might wonder whether she’s argumentative and demanding. Some committee members will like the fight in her. But for the other members, it would probably be best to tweak her tone a little bit so that she comes across as more collegial and friendly, especially when working with a team or delegating responsibilities.

Her long third paragraph about her high school achievements should be cut down by at least half, probably more, since the committee wants to read about what a candidate has accomplished in college. She could use some of the extra space to discuss her academic achievements in college. The committee will probably question her Pollyanna claim in the third paragraph that she was excited to be perpetually moving as a teenager. A more honest claim would briefly and straightforwardly acknowledge that it was hard to keep moving, but that she made the best of it. The committee knows all their candidates are only human, and they don’t want to be blocked from giving an applicant deserved sympathy because the candidate puts a happy face on everything.

The applicant should probably compliment Hillary Clinton in a phrase or sentence at the end of the essay; otherwise, she portrays Clinton negatively, which is almost certainly not the author’s intention. Finally, the fourth paragraph is much too long. Overall, this is still a strong statement.

22. Muumuus and Moving On

As a little girl, I spent my summers at the muumuu (Hawaiian dress) factory. The rusted metal fan mesmerized me as it blew hot air around the factory, stirring up the scraps of bright fabric and bits of thread that littered each sewing machine station. The constant whirring of a dozen machines spitting out ruffles and dresses often lulled me to sleep, and I dozed off instead of keeping to my task of sewing tiny fabric triangles to form a quilt. My mother rarely looked up at me from her machine, though every once in a while she would undo a portion of my stitches and admonish me to be neater. The 10-hour days would drag by in a blur of vibrant floral prints and dust that gathered on everything in the factory, including me. By the end of every summer, I produced a queen-size quilt.

After fleeing Vietnam and two abusive marriages, my mother found work at a garment factory making upscale muumuus that retailed for over $100, earning her $3.35 an hour to support three daughters. Growing up poor was not so bad, and being young, I did not realize we were poor. I simply thought the food was bad and the hours at the factory were long. As I grew older though, the hardship of our social position set in, and I came to know the palpable fear of poverty. This vulnerability ingrained in me the importance of social equality. Later, this translated into my purpose: to study law and serve as a voice for the most vulnerable members of society.

I worked my way through school and will earn a bachelor’s degree in political science. It has been a long, but rewarding process. College opened my eyes to a world beyond my personal experience. It exposed me to the politics of economics, it forced me to wrestle with the lack of equality and efficiency in social policies, and it helped to shape my vision and philosophy. I encountered views that I sometimes found troubling. Once a macroeconomics professor lectured that since capital is free to roam, so are jobs. She said no one should think they have a guaranteed job or living conditions. While I agree in no free rides, I strongly believe that people should be afforded with some protection from exploitation, both locally and globally.

Every economic theory is based on a set of assumptions. Outside of the classroom, there are many more variables, and these variables are very real to me. At one point, my mother earned $3 per dress, allowing her and the other women to earn a more livable wage of $9 per hour. That, however, came to an end when the factory enacted a new policy under the guise of equity. Since some women may not be able to sew more than one dress an hour, the owner claimed it fairer to pay the hourly minimum wage. Even at a young age, I realized that was a lie. In reality, sewing as little as one dress an hour was never an option for these women. Yet the workers had no voice or recourse, and so the owner could exploit them. Unfortunately, this story is not unique.

While exploring social and economic factors in my college coursework, working at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Hawaii gave me an education in how these theories actually function in a corporate organization. I discovered how hard it is to reconcile social consciousness with corporate bottom lines, but I did not waver in my personal commitment to those who need the most protection. Working closely with the medical management department, legal services, and claims department, I created plans that met the corporate requirements and also integrated state and federal guidelines that expanded the benefits that health insurance companies are mandated to cover, such as diabetic drugs and childhood immunizations. As a contract benefit analyst, whether I was supporting additions of health benefits to medical plans or raising objections to cuts in benefits, I always kept in mind that we were affecting people not just changing policies.

Of course, idealism does not always work in the corporate world. But often through research and analysis, I was able to present more equitable alternatives such as streamlining benefits instead of cutting them outright. However, there were occasions when maneuvering to quash unconscionable proposals was necessary. For instance, a plan proposal called for changing the drug benefits from a three-tier system to a confusing six-tier system. This would have drastically cut the drug reimbursement rate for senior plans, disproportionately impacting our elderly members. In actuality, it was a ploy to define benefits that would never qualify for reimbursement. Fortunately, after I involved the legal department, the proposal was stopped. Though I never planned to pursue a career in health insurance, working in that field brought me closer to my goal of pursuing law, without compromising my values.

Until a year ago, I could proudly say that each of my decisions was a stepping-stone toward my goal. Unfortunately, last year I stumbled and fell. I got married, gave up my career, and put my education on hold to help my husband run his business. Given these sacrifices, it was quite an awakening when I realized that just like my mother before me, I too had entered into an abusive marriage. Ironically now, every morning I wake up in my mom’s sewing room. As I rummage through my suitcases, I often find myself staring at her sewing machine. Instead of picking up scraps to quilt, I am reclaiming pieces of my identity and putting them back together. When I told the attorney I needed to file for a divorce, he looked me in the eye and said, “It’s okay. You made a mistake.” Facing this truth has given me the opportunity to undo some of my stitching and make it stronger. Having been strengthened by these events, I can truly empathize with those who have been victimized. I know the shame and engulfing feeling of helplessness that keeps them quiet. I am reminded of how lawyers can protect and be a voice for those who are not being heard.

Reflecting on my past, social welfare is not just public and international policy-making, strengthening workplace and labor rights is not just a call for solidarity, civil rights are not just a way to prevent exploitation, and gender equality is not just an ideal. For the disenfranchised, this is reality, their way of life. Strengthened by my experiences, I bring with me a steadfast dedication to justice and the humility needed to effect social change.

Commentary 22: Muumuus and Moving On

Structure: Personal Narrative, Diversity Candidate
Topic: Growing up economically disadvantaged in Hawaii
Thesis: I protected people while working for an insurance company, and I want to do this as a lawyer.
Elements of Style: Sensory language, use of metaphor, honesty about mistakes
Committee Appeal: Tangible Impact, Real World Experience, Leadership, Multiple Perspectives
Success Rating: 6/B

What’s Strong:

This is one of very few personal statements in which an applicant employs a unifying metaphor successfully. The blanket triangles the young girl in the muumuu factory sews together become, at the end, transformed into experiences of a life stitched together, undone, and rebound stronger. Since the applicant’s mother is a gifted seamstress, this metaphor is lovely and apt. It organically rises from this particular life experience. The admissions committee will find this degree of stylistic control good evidence of the applicant’s strong writing and communication skills.

This statement is honest and compelling, and it gratifies the senses in the wonderful description of the muumuu factory. This statement is a tour de force of diversity, dealing with social class, national identity, and domestic abuse, and this will appeal powerfully to the admissions committee members.

The applicant takes responsibility for her actions. This candidate will admit her mistakes and learn from them, making amends where she can. She’s observant, makes connections, and is psychologically aware of herself. The committee knows this, for example, by her description of awakening in her mother’s sewing room after realizing she repeated the same behavioral pattern as her mother did. As this candidate begins to know herself, she has more and more tangible impact on others, including fighting for and ultimately protecting insurance benefits for a large number of elderly patients.

What’s Wrong:

The reader learns very little about the candidate’s qualifications for law school from this personal statement. One learns she grew up in Hawaii; she was poor; she took a long time to finish college; she worked in an insurance company where she seems to have authority. She had a bad marriage that lasted about a year, and she wants to go to law school to help the underprivileged. This is extremely vague.

A personal statement is a persuasive essay, but one should focus on arguing for the qualities that make one a good law school candidate, not necessarily the change one hopes to effect with a law degree. This applicant clearly feels passionately about being a voice for the underprivileged, and her essay gives credence to her claim, but pleading to be given the chance to effect social change is not necessary. She needs to try to make a case for why she should be let into law school, rather than what she’s going to do with her degree. To improve her essay, the applicant should keep the wonderful details of the sweatshop but discuss several of her qualities, backed up by specific achievements in college, or less ideally, at the work place. She needs to open out the scope of her abilities to more than just a somewhat naïve-sounding desire to help underprivileged people. The statement is average, but the visual detail of the muumuu shop rockets its human-interest element up.

A light hand and good writing go a long way. The applicant should discard vague language, such as the “politics of economics,” and discard statements that are too general or that do not add to her argument, such as the third and fourth paragraphs. The admissions committee would much rather read what someone accomplished in college, instead of a few things that person thought, which keeps a person fairly anonymous. The committee members want to read about experiences that demonstrate an applicant’s qualities, like this woman has done in her paragraph on working for the insurance company. That section is powerful because it shows the applicant to be a determined leader who impacted the lives of many. Saying how many it impacted would be even more powerful. Numbers offer a dynamite logical appeal. The story of her mother’s wages in paragraph four doesn’t do enough work for the amount of space it takes up. The reader doesn’t learn anything about the applicant or her qualities in this paragraph. The situation is unfair, but it is not an argument for why this candidate should be accepted to law school. Perhaps it belongs in the first paragraph since it adds human interest, and it helps the reader understand why this applicant is committed to social work.

This candidate would benefit from a letter of recommendation from one of the lawyers or supervisors she worked with on the Blue Cross Blue Shield project team. She also might discuss a supervisor’s reaction to her, since facts will help ground this rather idealistic essay in reality. Also, the lovely metaphor of the blanket gets a little lost in the essay. This is something to return to in the closing sentence.

23. Hurricane Katrina

During an undergraduate scholarship interview I was presented with the most poignant question I had ever been asked. One of the interviewers looked me keenly in the eyes and asked me if I thought life had been fair to Brian Carter. After some thought, I told him that, although life had not been easy for me, it had been fair. Fair in the sense that despite presenting me with obstacles, it had always equipped me with the tools, support system, and determination needed to overcome them.

My first grade teacher taught me the same cliché that everyone learns at that age: “You can accomplish anything you want if you set your mind to it.” She forgot to add a special caveat for me: “Brian, there will be more obstacles for boys and girls on the free lunch program.” The cliché only holds for those above a certain socioeconomic status, but no one let me in on that secret. I learned the truth the hard way. When all of the other kids have new toys and clothes, it is difficult not to feel inferior, knowing that all of your possessions are hand-me-downs from extended family or strangers donating to the local Goodwill. Never have I been more afraid than in the times when I wondered if one of my classmates would recognize my new shirt as an old one that he had thrown away. I grew up dreaming of being successful enough to deliver myself from the lot I had been dealt.

I remember lying in bed, wondering why things had to be different for me. Why did I have to share a room with my sister? Why was Santa least generous at the Carter home? I decided that my father was to blame. He chose drugs, and eventually prison, over his family. His father was in prison during his childhood, so he knew how badly this hurt. My sister and I visited him when I was 14 years old. Being a recently christened teenager, I thought I was tough as nails. I conjured up the harshest words I could imagine, and I intended to unleash them all upon him. My plan never came to fruition. When I saw him, I became that little boy lying in bed all over again. I cried during the entire visitation period, and vowed to never again see the inside of a prison. That was the last time I saw my father. He has been a constant example of what can happen when a man settles for anything less than his best.

Last fall, Hurricane Katrina swept through my hometown of New Orleans. In the storm’s aftermath, it took me six trying days to get in touch with my mother. She and my sister had piled into a crowded van headed for an evacuation site in Arkansas. I was able to take a trip home before they were able to re-enter the city. Our home was dry and unlooted. Hallelujah! My family and my home were intact, so everything was all right. Not so fast. The place where my mother worked was unable to reopen. With no income, how would I remain in school? I agonized daily, fearing that I might have to drop out. She eventually found a job and apartment in Atlanta, allowing me to continue my education. Through all the uncertainty, I was able to remain focused enough to do well in school. I attribute my success that semester to faith in my abilities, my family, and my dreams. For many, Katrina left nothing behind. For me, she left lessons in faith and humility. In a world where the harsh realities of life force many to give up their dreams, I refuse to do so. People tell me that I have lofty goals, but I never entertain such thoughts. All that matters to me is that they are attainable, even if I have to work three times as hard to realize them. Many challenges have presented themselves throughout my life, only to be conquered through hard work, perseverance, and faith. I am fortunate to be blessed with writing, reasoning, and speaking skills, and I will use them to contribute my unique perspective to the law school environment. I am well aware of the rigors of law school. While conventional wisdom might tell me to turn and run the other way, I am not afraid; I have been fighting an uphill battle my entire life, and I do not intend to stop now.

Commentary 23: Hurricane Katrina

Topic: Diversity,Overcoming Adversity (growing up economically disadvantaged in New Orleans)
Structure: Personal Narrative
Thesis: I will continue to overcome odds.
Elements of Style: Use of an emotional appeal when describing the effects of Hurricane Katrina and the importance of his faith.
Committee Appeal: Diversity
Success Rating: 5/B-

What’s Strong:

This applicant has done well in choosing his structure and topic: a personal narrative about economic disadvantage. Class diversity is something the admissions committee looks for, whether the school has an affirmative action program or not. There is usually a box on the application to fill in for race, but not for socio-economic status. The way to let the admissions committee know a candidate has had an economically disadvantaged background is to write about it in the personal statement or in a letter of diversity appended to the application (see Appendix D). This statement is structured as a personal history, with the main topic being the candidate’s struggle to attain equal access to education given the hardships of his life. Statements such as this one generally rely on pathos, or emotional appeals, to make their arguments. It is very good to balance the pathos with logical appeals, or examples of tangible achievements and the qualities they demonstrate.

What’s Wrong:

The opening question, “Has life been fair to Brian Carter?” has probably stuck with the candidate because it was deceptively simple. There is much more depth in that question still to be plumbed. The candidate needs to think through that question more carefully before opening his essay with it. Most law school professors will view this as a question about culture rather than feelings. Brian chose to answer the question straightforwardly, from his own perspective, rather than to see himself as part of a certain economic or social group. This forces him to take all of the burdens of his life on his own shoulders and makes the essay about his personal struggles and triumphs. The question should open up a space for Brian to acknowledge social forces that are greater than what he is capable of influencing. With this opening question, admissions committee members will, in fact, expect this level of sophistication. Reading Brian’s one-dimensional story of fighting against odds, the committee members will be disappointed that the candidate did not at least gesture at the history of class-consciousness.

Gesturing at an idea is easy to do and will let the admissions committee know a candidate has reviewed all possible directions for an argument. Brian could write in the first paragraph, “After some thought, I told him that, although life had not been easy for me, it had been fair. Fair in the sense that despite presenting me with obstacles, it had always equipped me with the tools, support system, and determination needed to overcome them. [It would be later in college that I realized that question had been a fair, although indirect, way of asking me about my class consciousness.]”

The pathos is laid on a little heavy in the second and third paragraphs. It would probably be best to cut several sentences, including, “Never have I been more afraid…” and “If we cross paths again, I will thank him.” Finally, and importantly, the statement needs to give evidence of the applicant’s intellectual and analytical qualities, with examples from college. Was he awarded the scholarship in which the essay’s opening question was asked? Has he taken courses or participated in student organizations that have taught him about social justice and economic inequality at college? The applicant needs to show the committee through awards and experiences that he has been fighting a successful battle against adversity and that he will continue his record of achievement at law school.

24. Autism

On November 21, 1986 my little brother, John, was born. As would be the case with any loving parents, mine had high hopes and dreams with regard to John. Two years later, my parents received news that would change but not crush their dreams for their son. John was diagnosed with what the doctors called “autism,” a severe developmental disorder from which there is no known cure.

Three years after the initial diagnosis, my parents wanted to have John attend elementary school just as my older siblings and I had before. The school district, however, did not want him. My mother, who graduated from law school in 1978, would not stand for this unequal access to education afforded to her son. Using all the legal venues available to her, she pressed and pressed, even to the point of threatening a legal suit, until my brother was allowed the same right to a public education as were the other children in our school district. This taught me an invaluable lesson about the power of law and a legal education to improve the world.

I learned a great deal from this experience, but it also brought two questions to my mind. First, what good could I, like my mother before me, do were I to spend my life in the field of law? Second, what about the scores of handicapped children who ran into similar obstacles from their respective schools and who did not have a parent to serve as a legal advocate on their behalf? During my undergraduate education, I considered several professions to pursue, notably journalism, but something brought me back to law; I believed I could do more good in the field of law than in any other career. Upon deciding that I wanted to work as an attorney, I determined that I would never leave my brother or others in similar circumstances defenseless. Much as journalists give a voice to the voiceless, I decided to give representation to those who could not represent themselves.

Even before I decided I wanted to become an attorney, my experience with John made me interested in working with people who have a disability. Starting the summer after my fourteenth birthday, I began volunteering with Special Olympics when it would come to my area. Though the majority of those who competed in this were different from my brother in a number of ways, I still felt a connection with them I would not have felt without growing up with John. Also, during my first summer job, I had a co-worker by the name of Osby who had a mild case of mental retardation. I always enjoyed talking with him as he stood at the entrance of the movie theater and tore the customer’s tickets. One day his aide who came to work with him, took me aside and told me I dealt very well with him and that I should consider a career working with those who are handicapped. Though I do not think she was suggesting a career in law, I believe I can use my career in law to do work for the benefit of those who are handicapped.

It was not always easy being the older sibling of a brother with autism. I was often the only child on the little league team whose parents did not make it out to the game. I was often unable to have some of the things I wanted due to the great toll my brother had on both my parent’s finances and time. But these were sacrifices I had to make. Now, with the greater perspective I have begun to learn early in my adult life, I have seen how having a brother with autism has opened my eyes to the world. Where some see only the disability, I see a little bit of my brother, reminding me this person is entitled to happiness as much as I am. Some see handicaps as tragedies, and maybe they are, but I try to view them as an opportunity to learn. It will not be easy as a legal professional to dedicate time to helping the handicapped. But, while as a boy I was forced to sacrifice for John, now and in the future I will make the choice to sacrifice for him.

Commentary 24: Autism

Topic: Diversity (autistic brother John)
Structure: Personal Narrative
Thesis: John changed my world view, and I want to help the disabled in law.
Elements of Style: Reader feels pity for John.
Committee Appeal: Diversity
Success Rating: 5/B-

What’s Strong:

This applicant presents himself as a candidate dedicated to helping children and adults with special needs. For this specific interest, and given his personal history, he may be considered a diversity candidate, in its broad sense of a unique addition to the law class. This should work to his benefit and give him a tiny bit more leeway on his standardized test scores. His structure is a chronological personal history, in which he confides to the reader that growing up with an autistic brother has been difficult for him and for his family, but that it also introduced the applicant to a section of the population who were not getting equal rights under the law. First, the applicant opens with the story of John’s birth and diagnosis, which he narrates from a first-person limited point of view. This narrative introduces the main characters in his narrative, his mother and his brother. The main story in the essay is how the mother used her law degree to get her autistic son John equal access to public education. In so doing, she is celebrated as the applicant’s main hero and mentor. The applicant also relates two examples in which he interacted well with special needs children, giving evidence that he has a gift for working with sensitive individuals. This essay depends on emotional appeals for its main argumentative strategy.

What’s Wrong:

This essay needs to balance the emotional appeals and naïve optimism with a more shrewd analysis of the reality of the situation and needs to provide more specific details that showcase the applicant’s intellectual and analytical passions. Right now the applicant seems to have doomed himself to a “sacrificial” fate, rather than being excited by the rapid advances in the field of disability law and his great potential for making even more changes as a lawyer. The essay is too much about other people, and not enough about the applicant. He should not only discuss how others influenced him, but he should also show how he has influenced others. The first paragraph needs a thesis.

This essay is vague on a number of fronts. For one thing, John is too anonymous. The writer needs to provide a description of John, so John is presented as a person and a brother with needs and emotions. The applicant could describe what kind of autism John has. Then he could introduce the reader to the kinds of problems autistic people face that could be aided by the law, so that the claim of wanting to help is given a foundation and a direction. For example: How has having a brother with autism “opened the applicant’s eyes to the world”? Relatedly, the writer seems unnecessarily cagey about his experiences with Special Olympics, writing that at age fourteen, “I began volunteering with Special Olympics when it would come to my area.” How often did Special Olympics come to his area? What did the writer volunteer to do? Did the writer’s involvement with Special Olympics change over time, or was this a very minor one-time event? The reader doesn’t want to do the work of guessing what the applicant means by a statement like this.

The applicant could better show sophisticated argumentation skills by giving a counter-argument for his mother’s actions on behalf of John. On one hand, the mother’s action could be seen as a fight for equal rights. But on the other hand, her motive was selfish too, and she could be seen as exerting her power over those who have no specialized knowledge of or training in the law, since she intimidated them with the threat of massive legal fees and much lost time. The applicant would not be hurt by mentioning in retrospect, he understands that a legal degree carries with it a great deal of power and responsibility, and that he would wield such power with integrity.

His mother fought for his brother in 1991. What has happened in the last fifteen years? All we specifically know about the candidate is that he is good with people, because we know he “dealt well” with Osby, meaning he has shown compassion for one person. The applicant commits the very common error of thinking that because he decided—out of all the fields he could pick—to study law, that the law schools should be thrilled to take him. Applicants are not doing law schools a favor by choosing them: law schools choose, and they like to be in this seat of power. The applicant should give the course of action he has taken to reach his goal and describe his qualities, especially his intellectual and analytical abilities. He can do this without disrupting the themes of the essay by mentioning research he has done into the recent changes in disability studies or how facilities for these individuals are getting better. The two examples from the fourth paragraph are from early high school. What progress has the applicant made toward his goal in college? Furthermore, to overcome the doubt in a reader’s mind that the writer is putting on a show of altruism, the applicant needs to tell the law schools what concrete things he has done to better understand, accommodate, and assist disabled children, and how he hopes to continue this in the future.

Several things should be cut from this essay. The reader did not sacrifice anything extraordinary for his brother, so the last paragraph is gratuitous pathos, and should be cut out to make more room for sentences with a higher return value. Underneath the pathos is hostility to and jealousy of John, which should be eliminated as much as possible. All of this will give the applicant a stronger ethical appeal and strengthen his argument for why he should be admitted to law school.

25. First to Attend College

I never really paid much attention to the signs placed in front of the homeless and the less fortunate as I walked past them on the streets of New York. These were the thoughts running through my head as I considered what my own sign should read. Certainly, no one was going to read it. I had just spent the night in the ATM area of a desolate Citibank branch trying to get some sleep. I had no money, no phone and no hope of getting back to school in Boston. I think I came down with the worst case of writer’s block that morning as I tried to come up with a compelling message that would entice some level of compassion from a complete stranger. Having entertained the idea of a sign for a brief moment, I put the whole notion to rest, my pride simply would not allow for it. I used my gift for gab to convey my circumstances to the bus driver and garnered some sympathy towards my cause. I had to put my Discman up as collateral in order to get a seat on the next bus heading back to Boston which seemed like a small price to pay in exchange for a piece of my dignity as I avoided having to use a sign. The next four hours on that bus were filled with intense scrutiny and contemplation. I did not need my Discman after all. The biggest question I kept asking myself was ‘how did I get here?’

I was in my third year of undergraduate studies at Northeastern and I was barely able to make ends meet financially. Being the first member of my family to attend college was both a gift and a curse. I always excelled in the realm of academia and this was a great source of pride and joy for my parents. As a member of the schools Dean’s List and a number of different clubs and organizations, I gave my family something to cheer for. At the same time, being the first family member to attend college really called for financial resources that were beyond my parents’ modest income. Like a deep-sea diver venturing into an infinite ocean with inadequate supplies, I dove in headfirst. I knew that my acceptance into Northeastern was not something I could put aside because of money. My family shared the same sentiments and agreed that this was something that needed to happen. Completing my college education and attaining that degree was a must.

However, as each year passed it became increasingly difficult to maintain a financial foothold on my college education. No longer able to keep my head above water, I found myself completely submerged and gasping for air. By my third year, I was skipping meals or simply eating candy bars that I had shaken out of vending machines for dinner. I knew I could not last long. When I voiced my fears to a concerned listener on the other end of the phone, I thought a solution might have been reached. The plan was to go back home to NY and meet up with him. I agreed to serve as a runner, transporting drugs between a contact in New York and a contact in Boston. The money seemed justifiable and the risks seemed manageable. I was completely focused on the ends and not the means at this point. I used my last twenty dollars on a bus ticket and a dream and found myself spending the night on the floor of a Citibank branch. This cold and dirty floor, like the bed of a vast ocean, was the bottom.

Fortunately, no one showed up that night. I spent the whole night reflecting on how and why I was there to begin with. I could not believe I had even considered partaking in such activities just to generate some income. I would later find out that my real dad, whom I never met, suffered the same fate. My mom shared the story of how my father lived a life as a drug dealer only to be murdered while she was pregnant with me. It was at this point that the fire was lit inside of me and the thought of what I needed to do to make my college aspirations a reality became clearer. I realized I wanted to be a different person with clear and attainable goals for my academic and professional career. I transferred to a smaller college in New York where tuition was more affordable and I moved back home with my parents. I set my ego aside and worked full time as I put myself through school working forty-hour weeks by day and attending classes by night. No longer satisfied with my easily attainable but mediocre B’s and B+’s, I studied diligently and completed my undergraduate degree with ‘A’s almost totally across the board. This afforded me a spot on a national honors society in recognition of my efforts.

There are two types of people in this world, those who take and those who make. Some people resign themselves to their fate and accept the hand which was dealt to them. That was me, nonchalant and absolutely content with any grade I received, apathetic about my lack of progress. As rough and as painful as a night in the cold and on the streets felt as it was occurring, I knew I only stood to learn from it in the long run. Now I am the protagonist in my own life instead of just being an idle spectator. My ambitions for law school have been cultivated by this vision of making things happen, not only for me but also for the sake of others. My younger sisters have both followed suit as they too have a roadmap drawn up to help them attain their college degrees. I have led by example, showing them that anything is truly possible if you want it badly enough and work hard for it. That whole experience has taught me a number of valuable lessons. I learned how to remain humble and to not let pride obscure my perception of what is important in life. I learned about resilience and about being steadfast in the face of adversity. I also became more tenacious as a result of that night. Now when I see something I want, I lock onto it like the jaws of a famished pit bull, not letting go until I devour and conquer what I set out to achieve. I know all of these qualities will help me excel in the study of law just as they have helped me arise triumphant in my turbulent undergraduate years as well as my professional career after college. This work ethic and newfound vision has transcended beyond my bachelor’s degree and into the world of finance.

For the past year I have been working as an analyst with Morgan Stanley. My ability to make quick decisions and to think analytically is essential when dealing with a multitude of multi-million dollar trades. In order to work out various trade discrepancies I serve as a liaison between brokers, traders and various sales desks on the front end. This has allowed me to hone my communication skills. Getting my point across in a concise and comprehensible manner is crucial for the company’s financial goals. I know that these skills will help me to be a better law student and I’m excited at the prospect of sharing and learning with my future classmates and professors. Now when I look back at my undergraduate years and my professional career the question is no longer “how did I get here?” instead it is “where am I going?”

Commentary 25: First to Attend College

Topic: EconomicDiversity
Structure: Personal Narrative
Thesis: I have strong analytic and communication skills.
Elements of Style: Emotional Appeal
Committee Appeal: The rebel
Success Rating: 4/C+

What’s Strong:

This statement primarily uses emotional appeals. The strongest paragraph is by far the last, which uses logical appeals and ethical appeals to good effect. The essay should be revised to include more information like this and expand these details.

What’s Wrong:

There is sometimes a tendency to use the personal statement as a kind of confessional. But the law school personal statement is a place to be conversational about your skills and achievements in such a way that the admissions committee respects your intellectual and real-world accomplishments and wants you to be part of their law school legacy. It is not a place to reveal deep psychological burdens you might take to a counselor. Be savvy in which stories you choose to tell about yourself, and always aim to make yourself come across as intelligent and self-confident. It is almost always best to leave drugs and homelessness out of a personal statement. This statement works by emotional appeals, specifically guilt, and the admissions committee is not going to admit someone to law school because they feel bad for him or her; rather, they want evidence that the applicant kept excelling even during adversity. They want people who have been high-achievers all along. This is the time to make intelligent rhetorical choices in a personal statement. This author would probably do better to continue his line of argumentation that he excelled academically in high school, and that he was the first in his family to attend college. He could include the section on not having enough money to eat in college (cutting out the section on lousy grades), and then explain that he reached a turning point in his life. But rather than a turning point in caring about school, he should present the turning point as a new interest in being responsible about finance. At this point, he might simply say “The last straw was when I had to barter my Discman for a bus ticket from a job interview in New York City back to Boston.” He should cut the part about his biological father, and end strong with his newfound talent for finance. Perhaps the introduction could be rewritten to describe one of the quick decisions he made for Morgan Stanley. Revising in these ways makes the applicant seem much more mature, and puts the admissions committee on his side. This shifts the focus to “where he is going” not “how he got here.”


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