Law school applications: Addenda
There are a handful of questions on almost every law school application that require elaboration in an attached statement, or addendum, if the applicant answers the question in the affirmative. The three most common addendum questions involve academic challenges, college disciplinary or criminal records (also known as Character and Fitness questions), and the so-called “diversity” question. As with the “optional” essays and the resume, these statements should be crafted in such a way as to supplement the remainder of the application, not duplicate it. But there are additional concerns involved with each of these questions in particular. (Addendum literally means “something added on.” The singular is addendum, the plural is addenda. Lawyers love Latin.)
This question usually goes something like, “If there’s anything in your educational background that requires additional explanation, please do so here.” (The addendum prompt may be even more open-ended—for example: “If there is anything about your application that you would like to address, you may submit an addendum.”) This is where you can give the admissions committees additional context to help them understand your poor performance during a particular semester, your history of standardized tests not predicting your academic performance, or serious gaps in your undergraduate career. It is not the place to explain away a single bad grade—one failed class will not doom your law school admissions (most law school admissions committee members will understand that Bio-Chem is not for everyone).
In drafting an academic addendum, you’ll want to avoid sounding defensive or making excuses. The question in the reader’s mind is not a judgmental, “How could you let this happen??” but rather, “Help me understand what happened during that time.” If a family or personal crisis was going on, don’t hesitate to simply state as much and how it affected your ability to get your school work done. You do NOT have to go into great detail about the nature of the crisis if you do not feel comfortable doing so. If the bad semester happened during your first year of college, and had something to do with your adjustment period, know that you’re not alone. A significant number of students stumble their first year (and an even greater percentage of transfer students do so—this is often why students transfer). State the facts simply, and don’t feel that you have to have learned some grand lesson from the process. It’s enough to learn that college is harder than you expected and required more focus, or that a mistaken choice of college can be fixed by transferring. If your poor academic performance is related to anything that might also raise concerns among some admissions officials about your ability to succeed in law school (drug or alcohol abuse, serious mental health issues, diagnosis with a learning disability, etc.), you should speak with the pre-law advisor about your situation.
If you are writing an essay to support your claim that your LSAT does not represent your potential to succeed in law school, you will need to present convincing evidence in the form of a history of mismatched standardized test scores and academic performance. In other words, you will need to show that your GPA far exceeded what your SAT/ACT would have predicted. If a learning disability is involved, you should discuss your essay with the pre-law advisor, as it may raise some additional concerns. Remember in drafting this essay that law students are most often graded, especially during the first year, based on a single timed test at the end of the semester (albeit an essay exam, not a standardized test), and that to become a lawyer, you will need to take a two- to thee-day standardized test known as the bar exam. Admission committee members will want to understand how you hope to overcome these prior challenges in law school, on the bar exam and beyond. An addendum based on poor test scores should be used only in serious circumstances, and not to try to excuse a slightly lower than expected score.
Many schools actively seek to increase the diversity of their student body and to that end ask a question regarding applicants’ potential contribution. As with other questions, the exact format varies from school to school, but Western New England’s is representative:
We are committed to enrolling a diverse student body. If you believe that because of your race, ethnicity,national origin, religion, socioeconomic status, age, gender, sexual orientation, disability, or any other reason, you have developed a unique perspective especially useful to the study or practice of law, please submit a statement explaining the factors that contributed to the development of that perspective.
The first question to ask yourself before drafting a “diversity” essay, is whether you in fact have something to say on the matter. If it’s a stretch to conceive of yourself as “diverse” in any of the ways listed above, then it probably is a stretch, and you shouldn’t offer up a potentially laughable essay. On the other hand, if you do believe that your background has given you a unique perspective, you should absolutely use this space to describe it. In particular, though, you’ll want to focus on not the fact of your diversity but how it has shaped your perspectives on life and the law. It’s not enough to say, essentially, “Oh, and by the way, I’m gay.” You’ll want to demonstrate to the admissions committee how that fact of your life has contributed to how you view the world. You should not however feel that you need to link your background to your future career. In other words, just because you’re a member of an oppressed minority, don’t feel you have to want to be a lawyer on behalf of that oppressed minority. You don’t even need to make the case that your background will shape how you perform as, for example a black corporate lawyer. The law schools are most interested in knowing how your background will shape your contribution to the law school community, not that there is some connection between your background and the legal career you aspire to.
You may find that there is some overlap between elements of your personal statement and your diversity addendum. Some overlap is fine. The key is to ensure that you’re using the additional space wisely, for example, to amplify a point you may have made in passing in your personal statement, and not to duplicate much or all of the statement.
As with all documents you submit as part of your application, you should feel free to ask the pre-law advisor to review any addenda you submit.