URM (Under-Represented Minority) Application FAQ

Published March 2010, last updated June 2010

We believe that diversity improves legal education. It provides a broadening, more stimulating, and thought-provoking environment for everyone; enhances our students’ ability to see problems from different perspectives; teaches students how to represent clients who are different from them; and prepares students to succeed in the increasingly diverse world in which they will practice.

- University of Wisconsin Law School Diversity Statement

Though frequently discussed on the Top-Law-Schools.com discussion forums, the URM (Under Represented Minority) admissions process remains relatively unclear and poorly understood. Among the varied admissions literature, there is little comprehensive information available to minority applicants. The information that can be found is often scattered, vague, and contradictory. This article is meant to clarify and streamline application information to assist current and future law school applicants.

Before venturing too far into the discussion, I would like to make a couple of disclaimers:

1. This article is not an endorsement of “Affirmative Action”. Furthermore, this article makes no attempt to address the ills or benefits of this policy. Politics and personal opinions aside, the facts demonstrate that affirmative action definitely exists in the law school application process and has a quantifiable effect on minority applicants.

2. Much of this information is speculative or based on anecdotal evidence. Neither I nor any other contributors to this article have served on a law school admission committee. Due to the secrecy of the law school admissions process (and specifically minority admissions), there is simply not very much “hard” information on this subject.

That being said, let’s continue with our discussion of URM Admissions.

What is a URM?

 As noted earlier, URM is an acronym for the phrase Under Represented Minority. Much confusion surrounds the “underrepresented” portion of the acronym, thus frequently rendering the entire term unclear. A URM is, quite simply, a minority group whose percentage of the population at a given law school is lower than their percentage of the population in the country. This also means that at some schools URM applicants may be treated differently than at others.

For example, if School A has an African American population of 8% and School B has an African American population of 25%, an African American will likely receive a URM boost at School A while not at School B. For the most part, however, the URM designation is relatively consistent among schools, with exceptions arising when dealing with HBCUs (Historically Black Colleges and Universities).

Which groups are considered URMs?

 American Indians/Alaskan Natives, African Americans/Blacks, Mexican Americans, and Puerto Ricans are typically considered URM’s. Please note that there is a difference between Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, and other types of Hispanics in the admissions process. Additionally, I would like to offer a small caveat to international students, who fall into a separate category of their own.

Why are these groups (rather than others) considered URM’s?

 There seems to be several reasons this distinction exists (cue speculation):

  • One of the primary reasons we believe applicants of the above races are considered URM’s is because they are the only groups for which the LSAC (Law School Admissions Council) regularly publishes data. When the minority enrollment for a particular group is unknown, law schools have little incentive to admit students from that specific group. (The following link contains the data published most recently). http://www.lsac.org/SpecialInterests/minorities-in-legal-education-min-enroll.asp
  • The two groups listed on the LSAC published data that aren’t (generally) considered minorities are Asian Americans and members of Hispanic groups not listed above. The reason for this is clear when we look again at the definition for an Underrepresented Minority. Both groups’ presence in the legal field and in law schools in general are close to or exceed their numbers in the general population. For example, Asians make up just 4.4% of the U.S. population, but according to LSAC’s estimates, they make up approximately 10% of legal students. By contrast, those groups who are considered URM’s have a much lower law school representation relative to their status in the U.S. population.
  • Law schools (perhaps at the ABA’s prodding) have generally expressed that they would like their student body to be at least as diverse as the general population.

How do I (a mere applicant) know who is considered URM?

 Aside from anecdotal evidence, we have very few resources to outline who is and is not considered a URM. However, one powerful resource we have of understanding the URM process is Grutter v. Bollinger, a recent case that questioned the validity of race-based admissions. In this case, Grutter – a Caucasian Michigan resident – argued that the four groups considered URM’s (American Indians/Alaskan Natives, African Americans/Blacks, Mexican Americans, and Puerto Ricans) were reviewed under more favorable admissions standards, resulting in her denial of admission at the University of Michigan. From this case we are able to deduce the four groups outlined did in fact receive (at least some) “boost” at Michigan and, most likely, other law schools as well. “What about me? I was born in Laos! Law schools can’t have that many Laotians!”

You are probably correct in your assertion that there are few Laotians at XYZ Law School. However, the categories in which law schools report their admissions numbers are wide ranging, fair or not. On the LSAC’s website, the Asian category is not broken down into individual countries. So, while your dream school may not have many Laotians, they may have a large number of Asians and that is the category that (for the purpose of admission) Laotians are grouped with. Your story may make for a compelling diversity statement, but it doesn’t necessarily make you a URM.

Should I check the box for “URM” on my application?

This question (in various forms) plagues the URM forum and is a difficult one to address. In most cases, if you have to ask this question, the answer is probably no. Two general rules pertaining to this topic are (subject to disagreement):

  • The generally accepted threshold for claiming a race is ¼ (does not include Native Americans, which are a more grey area). Beyond that, claims of minority status tend to become a bit more dubious.
  • If you have never checked the box before, don’t check it now. If you have never identified as a minority, why start now? While very few educational institutes will attempt to confirm that your race is indeed your race, the Character and Fitness portion of the bar will certainly raise some questions about how you were not listed as [insert applicable minority status here] on LSAC/or undergraduate applications, but (conveniently) chose to do so for the URM-sensitive law school application process.

There are, of course, occasions where this question is legitimate. Most commonly, it comes from those applicants who are either mixed-raced persons who are concerned about checking one box and limiting themselves, or URM applicants from wealthy backgrounds who feel unjustified in checking a box and receiving an unfair boost.

There is really no right or wrong answer here; ultimately, you must choose the option that makes you most comfortable. For the former applicants, we (the authors) recommend checking the box(es) you feel most comfortable checking and expounding on any additional information in a “diversity statement”. For the latter applicant, we emphasize that you are not forced to check any box. In fact, on most applications there is an “I choose not to answer” box.

Wait! Is there any more information specific to Native American Admissions?

As I mentioned earlier, there is limited information on Native American applicant outcomes. The few things that we do know I have listed below:

  • Native Americans who provide a tribal affiliation number or who “are card carrying” members seem to have a more significant bump. This evidence is largely anecdotal from myself (an African-American/Native American re-applicant who neglected to fill in my tribal affiliation the first time I applied to schools) and various other applicants on many law school admission discussion boards.
  • Checking the box and failing to elaborate in a diversity statement seems to have a negative effect on the expected weight of the Native American boost. I contend that this is due in part to a larger number of applicants checking the boxes and schools, in turn, needing a way to differentiate between those who have close tribal ties or are closely affiliated with the tribe and those who are checking the box just to “get the boost.”
  • Finally, we do know that demonstrating current activity within the Native American community also has a positive effect on the “level” of a boost that one receives. This information was extrapolated from reviewing the LSN data of sub-160 LSAT score Native American applicants and their cycle outcomes. Those listed specific details about their URM affiliations fared far better than their counterparts who listed limited information.

Is there more to being considered as a URM than just “checking the box”?

This is a difficult question to answer because the information seems to be so convoluted. Lets start with the “no” portion of our answer. Think back to the beginning of this article where we outlined why some minorities are URM’s while others are not. We discussed that when XYZ Law School compiles its applicant data, they want it to be as simplified as possible. On a practical level, this would mean that if you checked white on you application, the admissions committee would most likely consider you “white”.

The “yes” portion of the question signals the difficulty of this subject. While the above applicant might have “checked” white on his applicant; his/her compelling (we presume) personal statement about their connection with their grandmother’s tribe might gain a boostof another sort. Many schools –Yale, for example – are known for a holistic application evaluation and willingness to look beyond numbers for remarkable applicants. With this in mind, there is only so much that applicants can come to understand about URM admissions at law schools.

What are “softs” and what role do they play in URM Admissions?

“Soft” factors, with regard to the law school admissions process, apply to those compelling components of an applicant’s package that fall outside of the objective LSAT/GPA formula. Soft factors permit admissions committees to look beyond the numbers of an applicant to get a more definitive and complete picture. Additionally, in the case of someone who has overcome socioeconomic, physical, or personal hardship, softs can put the rest of the applicant’s application in context. For example, a student who battled cancer during their undergraduate career is likely to have missed a few classes during that time which might have affected their GPA. If that student chooses to share that in a personal statement or addendum, the lowered GPA would be viewed in a more complete context.

“Softs” seem to play an even more important role for URM applicants, perhaps because their previous experiences allow URM’s to stand out among from others with similar numbers. Additionally, within the URM forum on TLS, many have contended that law schools look for not only racial diversity in URM applicants but also experiential diversity.

What are some examples of “softs?”

In looking over various law school admissions thread, I found ten commonly cited softs:

  • Being a current of past member of the military
  • Overcoming significant economic/educational barriers
  • Having a background with extensive community service
  • Participating in Teach for American, AmeriCorps, United Way, etc.
  • Authoring a book, magazine, manuscript, play, movie, article etc. that was published
  • Truman/Marshall/Rhodes Scholars
  • Having unique and/or significant work experience
  • Founding a charity or business
  • Overcoming physical limitations
  • Winning an Olympic medal

What kind of boost should I expect?

There is (with rare exception) no specific number of points that can be paired with an applicant based solely on race. I am generally unwilling to engage in any sort of conjecture on this matter but for the sake of answering the question, I turned to Anna Ivey’s “The Ivey Guide to Law School Admissions: Straight Advice on Essays, Resumes, Interviews, and More”. In it, Ivey (a former admissions Dean at University of Chicago Law School) contends that schools may give as much as a ten point boost in the LSAT score to URMs. Unfortunately, she does not elaborate on this number and fails to differentiate between the various URMs. However, before counting up your LSAT points with a boost, I have to admonish that, universally, there is limited empirical data regarding a general boost.

For more expansive numbers based answers I suggest visiting http://lawschoolnumbers.com/ (though the data is self-reported), and http://officialguide.lsac.org/SearchResults/ShowAllSchools.aspx (click on the school you choose ‘law school data’ and scroll to the bottom of the page).

What law schools should I apply to if I am a URM?

Like most candidates, it can be difficult for URMs to decide where to apply to law school. A commonly cited concern is that law schools vary in their commitment to recruiting URMs, and also vary in terms of which students are underrepresented at their school. Generally speaking though, the variations are so subtle from one school to another that such variations should not be a deciding factor in where you choose to apply.

Realistically, the most important factors cited in determining the best school for any applicant include that person’s personal and professional goals, chances of admissions, and geographical location (particularly for schools with a regional reputation). Like others, URMs should apply to a wide range of schools. However, because URM cycles are so unpredictable, the need to cast a wide net becomes even more important. In this year’s URM forum, applicants on average applied to 4-5 reaches, 4 targets, and 3-4 safeties.

Are their some schools that are “more receptive to minorities”?

With so little empirical evidence to base an answer to this question on, I turned to the two resources that we do have – http://lawschoolnumbers.com and http://top-law-schools.com. The T-14 schools that seem to show the most willingness to accept exception minority applicants with lower numbers (within a certain range) are: Harvard, NYU, UVA, and Cornell.

“Everyone keeps telling me to apply early; why?”

Most law schools employ “rolling” admissions, which can casually be defined as a sort of a ‘first come, first served’ process. Therefore, it is to your advantage to get your application in as quickly as possible without sacrificing quality. To understand why this is so heavily emphasized, lets look at an illustration:

As Dean Booke evaluates the first batch of applications at Academia Law School, he comes across a file labeled “Dualla, Anastasia”. With an LSAT about 5 points below median and a median G.P.A; she is not an auto-accept. He reads her personal statement, diversity statement, and addendum. All are well-written. He is torn about whether to admit her. With the class only ten percent full, Dean Booke decides that he can offset her lower LSAT with another applicant and accepts her.

While I made up this scenario, anecdotal evidence shows that there is indeed a benefit to applying early. While that benefit may not necessarily be a quantifiable point increase, it may be that schools are more willing to take a chance on an applicant who applies earlier in the process. The Top-Law-Schools discussion forums have demonstrated that this application timing becomes more important for those with fairly generic applications, those with unusual circumstances but questionable numbers, and URMs.

To conclude, this is by no means an exhaustive list of questions and answers and you are certainly not required to take any of the advice offered here. As long as you approach the application process with deference and a well-articulated application package, you will most certainly be on the correct path. If you do have questions, I invite you to contact me (TLS user name Anastasia Dee Dualla) and I will try to help you in anyway possible.


http://www.top-law-schools.com/forums/viewforum.php?f=14 - TLS URM Forum

http://www.lsac.org/SpecialInterests/minorities-in-legal-education-min-enroll.asp - Statistics on minority enrollment

http://deloggio.com/diversty/dvrsity.htm - Deloggio on Diversity

http://search.lawschoolnumbers.com/ - LSN search page which will let you search for URMs by numbers