Diversity and Adversity Statements

Who needs a diversity statement?

If a law school specifically asks about racial and ethnic minorities, you should not include yourself because you are poor or disabled. Those are statements about adversity. But if your parents were born in another country, you may avail yourself of the opportunity to explain your culture and how it shaped your life. This is especially true if English was not your first language.

Many schools will ask you whether you are a member of an ethnic minority, economically disadvantaged, or otherwise feel that you have overcome any obstacles which may affect the admissions decision. You should take advantage of this opportunity to tell them about your socioeconomic and demographic diversity as compared to the rest of the applicant pool. You might want to tell them of coming from a blue-collar background, of a rural or urban lifestyle, or of a particular physical or emotional problem (including a learning disability) you have overcome.

We address these essays in a separate section,
called Adversity Statements.

If a law school asks about diversity generally, you may take a free hand in describing religious, cultural, economic or geographic circumstances that make you different from the rest of the applicant pool.  If a law school asks about disadvantages or obstacles overcome, you may use this as an opportunity to explain a weak GPA or LSAT score, as well as the circumstances which caused it.  

How do I know whether I'm different?

I once asked a client what made him unique. Has answer was, "I'm a CPA."  After a lengthy discussion, we determined that being a CPA might make him unique in the neighborhood where he grew up, but being from that neighborhood made him unique in the applicant pool.

In identifying your diversity, you may find it particularly helpful to have an objective viewpoint.  Your prelaw advisor or other members of a prelaw group may be able to tell you how different you are from other applicants.  You could pop into the bulletin board for the school you're attending or the one you're applying to and ask, "Is anyone else out there from India?"  Or you could e-mail me for some quick, free advice.  

"This School Doesn't Ask for A Diversity Statement"

The school I hear this about most often is Harvard, and my answer is, "Yes they do; find it."  The answer to this difficult question is that the Personal Statement page of the application states, "The Committee makes every effort to understand your achievements in the context of your background.... you may feel that there is other information that will help us in these efforts. If so, please include it with your application."  That's your engraved invitation to include a diversity statement.

Many schools include such statements.  They can be buried anywhere on the app or in the instructions or description of the admissions process in the catalog.  It behooves you to read these documents carefully to look for such invitations; if you miss them, it's your application that will suffer.

"I'm Not Diverse"

The last person to tell me this, a white male at the University of Chicago, told me within the next five minutes that he was on a full scholarship for financial reasons!  I repeat, even though I'm sick of hearing myself, that diversity is not race.  

If your background differs from the mainstream either at your college or at the law school to which you are applying, you may be able to discuss this in a diversity statement.  Think about the way these differences in your background have affected your life -- at school or back in the 'hood.  Some people feel that they fit in at school, but no longer feel comfortable at home. These differences merit discussion.

"What's the Difference Between a Diversity Statement and a Personal Statement?"

There is no concrete boundary between a personal statement and a diversity statement. The wording of the assigned essays and the space permitted often dictate that a paragraph or a page float from one essay to another. In general, though, a personal statement should show the law school who you are; your diversity statement shows them who your family is, and your place in the family and the culture in which you were raised.  

Often, second and third generation Americans can see the effects of their immigrant backgrounds on their lives, in terms of holiday celebrations, bilingual families and cultural awareness.  If you and your family participate in cultural events related to your ethnic background, this can be an interesting addition to your application.

Okay, okay, I surrender. Here are a few good examples. I have chosen them carefully to show DIversity but not ADversity.

Diversity Sample # 1 is an example of an upper-middle-class African American whose family still lives in the same place where they once were slaves, although they have been well-educated for four generations.

Diversity Sample # 2 is the story of a young Korean whose family moved to America to give him a better life -- and made sure he never forgot it.

Diversity Sample # 3 is the story of a young man who arrived in America as an exchange student, only to find that Huntsville Alabama was not the same as Manhattan, exactly.

Diversity Sample # 4 is the story of a young black boy and young white one, and the limits to which friendship could overcome race.

Why Include a Diversity Statement?

Why do I encourage people to include diversity statements whenever possible?  It's easy.

  • Scenario A:  you have two pages -- 750 words, give or take 50, to make someone like you.
  • Scenario B:  you have four pages-- 1500 words, give or take 100, to make someone like you.

Which should you choose?

So if you know that your background is different from that of the typical applicant, talk about it.  It can't hurt, and it may well help.


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