Overcoming Obstacles

What Counts as an Obstacle?

"My father was an alcoholic, and I did anything I could to stay away from home. I chose that college because it was the farthest away. But I hated it there, and didn't do very well. Then I began to worry that I'd flunk out and have to go home, and of course my grades just got worse."

"My mother was a drug addict. She did everything a person might do to get money for drugs. Often we didn't have food in the house; if there wasn't money for both, drugs came first. I ran away when I was sixteen, and never even finished high school. They figured that out in my third year of college, and made me take an equivalency test."

"When my girlfriend got pregnant, we decided to keep the baby. I had to work two jobs to support us, three during the summer. So my grades aren't so hot."

"They found out I had bone cancer in my senior year of high school; I hurt my knee playing basketball, and it wouldn't heal. I've had six operations in six years, along with the chemotherapy. But it didn't interfere with my studies; what else could I do in the hospital anyway?"
Each of these cases was presented to me by my clients in my first two years of business. These clients all had two important things in common. The first is that they overcame incredible obstacles which would have completely demoralized many other people. The second is that, in every single case, the client was embarrassed by these events, and wanted to hide them.

"Why should I talk about my problems?"

Let's step back into the admissions office for a minute. The faculty committee is reviewing the files of two applicants. Both have a 3.4 GPA and a 157 LSAT score. They're the same age and race, and both went to local colleges. But one is in good health, while the other has suffered from a lifelong kidney disease. They only have one seat left. Which applicant should they admit? They could toss a coin. Or they could decide that, in some cosmic sense, the person with kidney disease "deserves" the seat.

Now what if you're that person, but don't want to tell the law school about the kidney disease, because you don't want to sound like you're asking for favors? You leave them with the option of tossing a coin. Or even worse, they can sense that you're hiding something, but have no idea what. They decide to admit the other, safer applicant.

Overcoming significant life obstacles of any sort is evidence to the admissions officer that you have the determination to succeed in law school. You've already shown that you have the will to survive; you're not a quitter. And who you are is measured, at least in part, by how far you've come.

Learning Disabilities

Law schools vary enormously in their response to any kind of disability.  All of it is behind closed doors and litigation-proof.  Here are some good general rules:

  • Be prepared to explain the nature of your disability and the accommodation you are presently receiving in detail. An unexplained disability could be perceived as a risk.
  • If Law Services gave you accommodation for the LSAT, most law schools will consider your LSAT score the same as if it were taken under normal conditions.  They will also give you reasonable accommodations at exam time.
  • If Law Services denied your request for accommodation, you may have difficulty getting accommodation for your law school exams.  You should be prepared to have your undergrad disabilities office contact the Dean of Students at your law school to see what documentation they'll want.  You should get any promises of accommodation in writing before you make a final decision to attend.
  • If a learning disability caused "split grades" (bad grades before you were diagnosed, good grades afterwards), you should point this out in your personal statement or addendum.  You might want to mention what treatment, learning technique, or accommodation caused the improvement.
  • If your grades were not consistently better after you received accommodation, schools will be less accepting.  After all, you haven't proven your case.  Be prepared to apply to more schools, several with lower median gpa's.  
No law school will consider what your LSAT score "would have been" had you been granted accommodation.  At most, some will compare your LSAT score with your SAT/ACT score and your college record, to see whether you outperform your standardized test predictions.

"I don't want to sound like I'm whining."

Of course you're right to believe that you can't just sound like you're whining. But go read those examples at the beginning of this section another time. What's whining about "I had six operations," or "my girlfriend got pregnant"? Reporting the relevant facts in your life isn't the same as complaining about them. It can often be done tastefully, without blood and gore and without melodrama.

But what if the admissions officer doesn't like you? What if her father was an alcoholic, and she doesn't want to think about it? You're absolutely right that someone won't like your story. But you don't need every school to like you, only one. Take the risk, and it might be the one you want.


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