Minority law school applicants lean on personal statements post-Harvard decision
When Daniela Hernandez-Gil heard about the Students for Fair Admissions v. President and Fellows of Harvard College decision, she considered chucking the whole idea of law school.
The child of Colombian immigrants had planned to focus her application’s diversity statement on her brushes with the juvenile justice system that she believes were racially motivated. But since the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision, several universities have scrapped those optional essays.
“Discouraged and disenfranchised would probably be the words that encapsulated the feeling,” says Hernandez-Gil. “It did feel invalidating.”
In light of this summer’s decision, programs for aspiring law students at Dillard University and online are helping underrepresented and minority students focus on the personal statements typically required for law school admissions.
While Chief Justice John Roberts’ opinion states that nothing prohibits a student from sharing information regarding their race and does not say students cannot write a diversity statement, many students of color still worried if discussing race would hurt their chances at admission.
“Students are really nervous right now about what they can write and what they can’t,” says Laura Fonseca, the director of diversity, equity and inclusion programs and initiatives at the Law School Admission Council. “It’s important for students to know that they can own the entirety of their stories.”
For students of color who don’t have a 180 LSAT or a 4.0 grade point average, the diversity statement helped them prove their case, says Dwan Jacque-Boucree, a program assistant at Dillard. “It feels like the odds might be stacked against you as a minority,” she says. “The diversity statement was another way to say, ‘You should accept me. This is what I can bring to this community.’”
At Dillard, Jacque-Boucree runs a free, yearlong Legal Education Advancing Diversity program for 20 undergrads and alums from three New Orleans-area HBCUs, guiding them through the admissions process. As part of a bootcamp in October, one workshop focused on walking that fine line of discussing race in their personal statements.
Context matters. Some students are motivated to go to law school because of a racial injustice they experienced, and Jacque-Boucree advises those applicants to include it. “That’s a real thing that happened,” she says. “This is your why.”
It’s imperative that personal and moving stories about race and immigration experiences connect back to the desire to go into law, says Sydney Montgomery, the executive director and founder of Barrier Breakers, a program designed to help underprivileged law school applicants. Her group has served as a subcontractor for the LSAC’s online Writing for Impact pilot program, available to all types of students, for the past two years.
“You don’t want to put those stories somewhere where they’re just getting shoved in as a sidenote,” Montgomery adds.
Many students of color, like Hernandez-Gil who attended the Writing for Impact sessions, have needed extra encouragement to go forward with their applications.
“We’re having to do a lot more to convince students to shoot their shot and apply, that they’re still wanted and still valuable,” Montgomery says.
Hernandez-Gil pushed forward. With help of an adviser, she wrote a two-page personal statement that considers who she is beyond her race while acknowledging her experience’s role in her path to law school. She’s been accepted to University of Florida’s Levin College of Law and is waiting for decisions from six other schools.
“I belong in law school,” she says. “Using your personal statement is a way to encapsulate your lived experience in a way that conveys the gravity, the depth and the impact that it’s had in your life and to channel what you want your future to look like.”
Personal statement writing tips
Working on your personal statement? Directors of law school application programs offer these insights:
• Start early. Allow yourself plenty of time.
• Consider if race relates to why you want to go to law school. If it doesn’t, don’t use it. “It would come across that you’re just using your race as a stepstool,” says Dillard’s Jacque-Boucree.
• Answer the question “why law” in a series of one- or two-sentence stories. Then, choose two to four of the best anecdotes, organize them into a narrative and trim it to about 300 words.
• Write from a place of honesty and integrity.
• Don’t focus solely on your trauma. Instead, highlight how you became more resilient because of it.
• Have professors, advisers, friends and family read the statement, asking if they would understand your points without knowing you. Tell them to be honest about pointing out anything that is confusing.
• Be prepared to rewrite—and rewrite. Applicant Hernandez-Gil, for example, wrote eight drafts.
• While each school’s prompts might be different, your story doesn’t change. Merely shift it to focus on the pertinent experiences related to the prompt.
• Before hitting send on the applications, ask someone to proofread your statement—and read it yourself one more time.
• Many law schools will accept an optional diversity statement, says Barrier Breakers’ Montgomery. Contact admissions offices to see if they will take yours.