Should one disclose personal information in a law school application personal statement?
September 26, 2006 5:05 PM   Subscribe

For a student of mine: Is it a good idea or a bad idea, on a law school application, to disclose past drug use and rehabilitation, sexual orientation, and family issues to explain why one has a problematic academic history?

Here's the scoop about this student.

1. This student is scoring near perfectly on the LSAT.

2. She has a 4.0 GPA at a major university. BUT her first two years of the 4.0 GPA were at a community college (then she transfered), because she barely graduated high school due to preteen and teenage drug use and then rehab at age 17. She has done one full year as an English major at the university and has maintained her 4.0.

3. She is the first in her family to attend higher education. She is, to the best of her knowledge, the only one from her high school to go onto a 4-year college. She grew up in a trailer park with a pretty dysfunctional family.

4. She is a lesbian and after coming out at age 18 has had no support or contact with her parents.

5. She is fantastic, articulate, hard working and so wonderful that I want to help her as much as I can.

Now she is applying to law schools. Her GPA and LSAT are totally Top 10 material.

My question: should she or should she not tell any/all of her life story (in an articulate and thoughtful way) as her personal statement? And will those Top 10 schools look down upon her community college background and drug history? What about her sexual orientation and family issues? Or will the admissions department be as impressed by her as I am?
posted by k8t to Education (27 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I have not applied to law school, but I have applied to and been admitted to graduate programs (both MA and PhD level). I was always warned against this kind of thing. It's best to give enough explanation to provide a bit of cover for past indiscretions without giving the impression that you have a history of instability (for lack of a better word) or might possibly lapse into old habits. Her record improves with time -- admissions committees know how these things work and a sharp (but sustainted) uptick in performance can speak volumes about your motivation and intention to perform at the highest level.

In a nutshell, I was taught that the personal statement should briefly explain any bad marks but should focus mainly on the future and why you are excited about the program, what you can bring to the table if you attend said program, and what you plan to do with your degree in the future. I say you even though this is not for you simply because it is easier.
posted by trey at 5:12 PM on September 26, 2006

Best answer: No on drugs, yes on the first-in-her-family and lesbianism. Schools probably will look down on the community college grades, and English is a soft major and not uncommon among law school applicants. She needs to stress the bootstraps angle; that would explain the community college thing in a more sympathetic way than revealing past drug use. No making excuses; she should illustrate the scope of her achievement. Does she do any mentoring, GLBT activism, etc.? Law school admissions committees love that.

Does she have an LSAT score or she taking the October test?
posted by amber_dale at 5:16 PM on September 26, 2006 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: She's taking the October test in a few days, but on her last 3 practice tests, she's been close to 180.
posted by k8t at 5:20 PM on September 26, 2006

Response by poster: No mentoring, GLBT activism, or other extra-curriculars, but as you can imagine, she has to work nearly 30 hours per week to pay for school.
posted by k8t at 5:21 PM on September 26, 2006

I'm not sure she needs to get into it. There's no way that the law schools would know about her high school/drug history, and there are a million reasons she might have started out at a community college (finances, close to home, etc). Especially considering she did so well at the community college, I don't think it's the black mark you imagine it to be.

Maybe a brief explanation would be in order, but it seems inappropriate (at least to me) to share a lot of what you mention on a law school app, drug use and sexual orientation in particular (unlesss those experiences are relevent to her wanting to be a lawyer, I guess).

As a side note, being the first person in her family and only person in her class to go on to higher education is noteworthy and speaks volumes about her commitment, motivation and intelligence. It's something positive she could mention to "explain" the community college without getting into really personal territory.
posted by robinpME at 5:24 PM on September 26, 2006

It has been over 10 years since I applied to law schools, but from what I remember, most of this information would be helpful to an application. I agree with amber_dale, though; if there's an honest way to explain the community college years more generally (family issues, financial difficulties, etc.) without getting into the specifics of past drug use, that would be a preferable approach. If she gets a 170+ LSAT score, the CC years will be a little less important in any event, since the score will be viewed as separate confirming evidence of her ability.

I expect that most law schools would be very interested in a candidate with this sort of interesting and inspiring background.
posted by brain_drain at 5:28 PM on September 26, 2006

No on drugs, yes on the first-in-her-family and lesbianism. Schools probably will look down on the community college grades, and English is a soft major and not uncommon among law school applicants. She needs to stress the bootstraps angle; that would explain the community college thing in a more sympathetic way than revealing past drug use. No making excuses; she should illustrate the scope of her achievement.

Ditto on all counts. Craft the admissions essay to show how she has overcome adversity, with emphasis on the *overcoming* part. Don't mention drugs at all. Do know that she will have to disclose any arrest history and criminal record when applying to take the bar exam, and drug problems are viewed somewhat more seriously than other petty crime.

As to whether the community college history will be viewed as less-than a full degree from a 4-year school: probably. Those target schools ("top 10") have their pick of Ivy league grads, and... they gotta choose somehow. But you apply with the record you have, not the record you wish you had, so shoot the moon. Don't hesitate to apply a bit further down the scale, though.
posted by rkent at 5:32 PM on September 26, 2006

Now that I think about it, if she had any drug convictions from those years, she would have to disclose those on the application. In that case, she's probably going to want to explain her drug problem in the addendum to those questions. If it's already out there because of that, alluding to it again in the personal statement is unnecessary.

Additionally, she sounds like a possible candidate for a Point Foundation scholarship. You might mention them to her.
posted by amber_dale at 5:34 PM on September 26, 2006

I'll echo amber_dale's first sentence and add that her working to pay for her education is worth emphasizing, perhaps in depth if she has has taken on more duties or been given more responsibilities at work over time.
posted by PY at 5:35 PM on September 26, 2006

Response by poster: She didn't mention any drug convictions to me, and I think that she would have. But I'll let her know either way.

She did get kicked out of her first high school though, and she's concerned about the part of the application that says "have you ever been kicked out of school?" I told her that this only applies to undergrad to the best of my knowledge.

Thanks for all the ideas guys. Keep 'em coming!
posted by k8t at 5:36 PM on September 26, 2006

Response by poster: She's worked as a parking lot attendant through school, and (quoting from her resume), "Received award for excellent customer service and offered a promotion on multiple occasions."
posted by k8t at 5:38 PM on September 26, 2006

This isn't exactly the question you asked, but if you're wondering whether to include past convictions, bear this in mind:

When she goes to take the bar, they're going to ask about past convictions. And, the bar will have access to her law school application. (I should mention that once you're in law school, you can amend your application to include stuff like this, but if it's a whopper of an omission, the school sure won't appreciate it.)
posted by Brian James at 5:49 PM on September 26, 2006

She did get kicked out of her first high school though, and she's concerned about the part of the application that says "have you ever been kicked out of school?" I told her that this only applies to undergrad to the best of my knowledge.

She needs to not assume anything on these applications. Lying on an application is a violation of the law school's honor code and (at least at my school) is grounds for expulsion.

IMO she should absolutely include these things in her personal statement. Not only do they explain blemishes on her record, but they illustrate that she is a fascinating person who will bring a wonderful perspective that very, very, few other applicants will have. Yes, she is competing with Harvard and Yale grads, but she has life experience that most of those people cannot begin to fathom. Law schools do not want an entire class full of Stepford students - they want unique individuals that will add to class discussions and enrich everyone's experience.
posted by gatorae at 6:04 PM on September 26, 2006

Brian James and gatorae are right on. Be careful about that "ever kicked out of school" question. Have her call up admissions directly and ask about it. After graduation, she will have to be approved as "morally fit to practice law" by her bar association. Lying on the application (or even the appearance of lying) is real bad juju. It would seriously suck to go into debt to graduate law school only to be forbidden the right to be a lawyer.

As to the question you actually asked: I think everyone else is right. Tell the stuff about first going to college because that's an interesting story. Leave out the drug use because it's bad. (But, if asked about it directly on an application, answer honestly, especially if she has any convictions.)
posted by kingjoeshmoe at 6:16 PM on September 26, 2006

I agree with the general chorus of "don't get into specifics, but mention it" because yes, overcoming adversity can only help her.

With that said, it looks to me like anything on the illegal side of this happened while she was a minor. Is any of that even legally admissible for anything at all? That is...I would think that any records listing arrest, etc would be sealed.

I would also think that ones High School record will count for very little, generally...I know that it does for other graduate programs, if not law. Do law schools really look at HS?
posted by griffey at 6:21 PM on September 26, 2006

Speaking as a college professor who reads a lot of applications: leave the personal stuff out of it. Check out this very good article on "kisses of death" in college applications. (Sorry, that link will only work if you're at a school that subscribes to that journal - here's a summary though.)

I point this out because a really big kiss of death (for me, and apparently for many others) is divulging personal information, good or bad. Most academics just want someone who is going to be a rock-solid student and act professionally. The first and last rule of acting professionally is to keep your personal life to yourself. If the student in question has a fantastic record, let it speak for itself. It would probably be good for people writing reference letters to avoid references to the student's personal life aside from maybe a broad statement about how she "comes from an austere background" and "is self-made", etc.
posted by drmarcj at 6:28 PM on September 26, 2006

griffey: many applications specifically note that they want you to admit any convictions, "ever," even if sealed or vacated. Others are more lenient. Legal admissibility doesn't enter into it.

To my recollection, law schools do not go back into your high school years for anything else unless you took college classes during that time. But she should call either the specific school she's applying to, LSDAS, or both, about the kicked out question (without giving her name).

Has she been studying at in her booth in the parking lot when there's downtime? That might be a really cinematic image for her personal statement.

On preview: I disagree with drmarcj. If the student had something else to write about, like some formative experience that made her want to go into law, fine. But it sounds like she's not doing the sort of mock trial/internships at the D.A.'s office/etc. that might make good topics along that line. She studies hard in a non-law-related field, she works hard at a non-law-related job, and she has this inspirational life story. She's going to be competing against people who've started their own NGOs. This is her edge. She should use it. As gatorae noted, this is the kind of diversity that law schools want.
posted by amber_dale at 6:43 PM on September 26, 2006

Speaking as a college professor who reads a lot of applications: leave the personal stuff out of it.

No offense drmarcj, but this is why I have contempt for most of academia. It's called a PERSONAL STATEMENT, for chrissakes.
posted by gatorae at 6:50 PM on September 26, 2006

damnit, I hit post on accident. To add to my previous comment...

... If she is supposed to leave out things that are "personal", and law schools dislike the typical "Why I Want To Be A Lawyer" essays... then what exactly is a prospective student supposed to write about?
posted by gatorae at 6:58 PM on September 26, 2006

Spin the coming out in an application essay about how that allowed her to grow etc. Keep the whole drug thing private. Nothing good will come from discussing that and she doesn't need it to explain anything. Other life stresses will suffice.
posted by caddis at 7:27 PM on September 26, 2006

(It's not just academia, gatorae. You wouldn't talk about your past drug use or lousy home life in a job interview, loan application or political campaign speech either. That stuff is out of place pretty much any time you're talking to strangers — and especially if you're trying to impress them.)
posted by nebulawindphone at 7:31 PM on September 26, 2006

Regarding personal information, she needs to make sure everything personal dovetails well with the why lawschool question. Make sure it feeds directly into why she'll be an excellent candidate, committed, intellectually curious & dedicated, etc. If she can't spin every single iota of personal information so that it speaks to her being an asset to the school, she shouldn't include it.
posted by soviet sleepover at 7:38 PM on September 26, 2006

I just spent today reading through quite a few PhD applications, and several students had recommendations where their professors mentioned overcoming adversity and how much they admired it, but didn't really go into specifics of what the adversity was. So I'd agree with those who say be general about the what, but be honest about your admiration for her ability to overcome.
posted by MsMolly at 7:38 PM on September 26, 2006

Unfortunately, the cold hard truth is that GPA and LSAT are all that matters. Ask any law school admissions director. The rest is just icing on the cake. If it doesn't taste good, don't frost the cake with it.
posted by madandal at 8:02 PM on September 26, 2006 [1 favorite]

Sexual orientation and tough home life, definitely. Drug use, not unless necessary. The sexual orientation thing gives diversity points (it's not as good as being an under-represented minority, but still a plus). The tough home life adds narrative structure to her PS which is good, and also helps to explain the community college stuff (which might otherwise be a small negative).

If she has drug convictions or is asked point-blank about past drug use, she should definitely be honest. It will not be a deal-breaker, but lying about it would be.

See this discussion at a pre-law board for more info re: criminal records and law schools.
posted by ewiar at 8:34 AM on September 27, 2006

Response by poster: Thanks a ton all. I've copied/pasted and make a little sheet for her. Very helpful!
posted by k8t at 6:18 AM on September 28, 2006

Her GPA is excellent and, as you say, she's doing very well on the LSAT. Considering that she did this while working for 30 hours a week, any law school would be idiots not to take her.

She should definitely put the adversity and the work into her statement - it shows that she has worked so much harder than any of the students who didn't have to work (much harder than I had to), and that she is still an excellent student. 4.0s are nothing to scoff at - most graduate school students have something more like 3.8, even in competitive programs.

I actually did address family experience in my personal statement for graduate school - I talked about being the first person in my family to go to college. It does matter, more than other people understand. But I tried to talk about it in relation to my chosen field of study. If she can dovetail her experience into a cohesive statement about why she wants to study law, that would be ideal; it would also demonstrate her argumentative writing skills.

I'm not a professor, or a someone whose read law school applications, just a graduate student. But I'm already more impressed by your student and both her determination and her ability than I am by just about anyone I've met.

What kind of world do we live in that a student like this is worried about not getting into law school when competing against people who've had their parents pay for their educations, who had the freedom to do things that look good on their resume? How can anyone talk about even playing fields when people from rich universities (which make things easier for their students, with cushy dorms and meal plans, etc - no one goes hungry because they can't afford lunch) are preferred over people at universities with far less support? And as for dismissing her grades because they came from a community college - well, I've marked essays at a "top" university, and I would challenge anyone to say that an A there is any better than an A anywhere else. They may have cut off the bottom of the bell curve, but the top is no higher.

(Sorry, my ire at the system is rising, though I'm enough an idealist to hope that when your student starts applying, that the schools are at least intelligent enough to recognise true ability. If not, please let us know, and I'll go sign up for the revolution already.)
posted by jb at 5:19 PM on October 20, 2006

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