Graduate programs are always looking for students with distinct backgrounds to help diversify their classes, so being a minority, immigrant, or another underrepresented demographic could be just what you need to set yourself apart from the rest of the applicant pool. Many schools include a question on their application asking you how you will contribute to the diversity of their class (sometimes this is framed as a “diversity statement,” sometimes as a “personal history statement” or other type of essay – the key thing is, they want to know about YOU: what makes you unique, what your values are, what obstacles you may have had to overcome to get where you are today).
When you write your essay, make sure that you highlight the experiences that have shaped you and the strengths you can bring to the school due to your diverse background and lifestyle.
Some of these unique strengths or experiences may include:
One aspect of your diverse background is overcoming obstacles. Are you a member of an underrepresented group? A first generation student? Have you overcome socioeconomic (or other) barriers to education? When mentioning your diversity factor, be sure to highlight any difficulties that you went through as a result of being the odd (wo)man out. This is not an attempt to rally sympathy or plea for pity. Instead, you should illustrate the strengths and skills you have developed as a result of these struggles. Accentuate any character traits that you feel you have built through the adversity and use examples of skills that you currently possess because of these trials.
Displaying cultural breadth
Demonstrate to the admissions committee that you hold a unique set of ideas thanks to your heritage, and elaborate on how these diverse concepts and beliefs can benefit the student body by broadening perspectives and widening tolerance and scope.
Demonstrating varied skill sets
Naturally, various cultures will highlight different values. This is important to a school admissions committee because diverse values will facilitate diverse skills and strengths. Maybe your culture is very family-oriented, focusing on respect, communication, and partnership. These are all critical skills that a graduate student will need for success. Perhaps your culture emphasizes teamwork, perseverance, and mutual understanding. Once again, these are key factors for a productive career in business, education, law, medicine, and many others. Your goal should be to highlight how your unique cultural values have developed these invaluable skills within you, already preparing you to be the best student and professional possible. Maybe one aspect of your identity is bound up in the language(s) that you speak – do those same languages also give you the tools to cross cultural boundaries and work with people around the globe?
Sharing new perspectives
Even if you are a male, Caucasian, third-generation American, you can still illustrate your diversity in other areas. If you have served in the military, traveled to a remote area of the world, taken part in an outstanding event, group, or cause, or had an unusual experience of any sort, play up the distinct impressions, opinions, and perspectives that the involvement cultivated within you. Then, show the admissions committee how you can bring this fresh perspective to the campus for greater diversity in thought across the campus.
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An excerpt from Jeremy Shinewald’s book
In addition to a personal statement, most law schools invite applicants to highlight a unique aspect of their profile via an optional diversity essay. As one example, Stanford Law School includes the following instructions in its application materials:
If you would like the committee to consider how factors such as your back- ground, life and work experiences, advanced studies, extracurricular or community activities, culture, socio-economic status, sex, race, ethnicity, religion, or sexual orientation would contribute to the diversity of the en- tering class and hence to your classmates’ law school experience, you may describe these factors and their relevance in a separate diversity statement.
We believe that you should not consider this diversity essay/statement “optional” at all, however, and recommend that you plan to submit one when of- fered the opportunity. You should take advantage of this invitation to present an aspect of yourself that will set you apart from other applicants and convince the admissions committee that you would be a welcome addition to the next class. This essay is an opportunity to convey a vibrant, sincere impression of your personality to the admissions reader. Note that a diversity essay is usually shorter than a personal statement would be. We recommend limiting yourself to approximately one double-spaced page, though typically, schools do not stipulate an exact length guideline for this essay.
Many law school applicants who do not belong to a readily recognizable mi- nority group will question whether they can truly write an effective diversity statement. However, diversity in this context encompasses much more than the usual parameters of race, ethnicity, and sexual orientation. Any aspect of your character or past that could be classified as unique in some way—perhaps you spent time volunteering in the developing world, or diligently overcame an obstacle that facilitated a unique perspective, or possess a special talent that one does not encounter every day—can be compelling fodder for this kind of essay. Simply put, you do not have to write about standing out as a minority (though you can, if this applies to you), you just need to be thoughtful about your experiences and share them in a way that informs the reader that you have perspective and something special to contribute.
Showing rather than telling is of utmost importance in this essay, and is demonstrated in the following sample, in which the author writes about overcoming her struggle with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
Sample Optional Diversity Essay
“Every good boy deserves fudge” and “All cows eat grass.” They may strike you as nonsensical statements, but these mnemonic devices added much-needed sense and sensibility to my life when I was young, helping guide my unsure fingers to the proper keys on our family’s centuries-old piano. They served as beacons of focus in my quickly spinning mind, after I was diag- nosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). My mother, convinced that music would be my saving grace, would quietly watch my progress, anxiously wringing her hands.
I approached each new piece of music with an arsenal of markers and high- lighters, marking each section with a different color so I could more easily identify the important transitions and changes. Soon the pages of music would be covered in shades of pink, blue, purple, green, and yellow. Then, after I had spent many hours working on phrasing, rubato, and dynamics, my fingers would finally glide across the piano keys without interruption, as though I were performing in front of thousands of admiring fans at Carnegie Hall. In school, my peers would heckle me whenever I struggled to respond to a surprise question from the teacher—so often, my mind would wander and I would lose my place in my studies—and my self-confidence would falter, but at home, I pounded on the piano as confidently as Lang Lang strutting his stuff as “the J-Lo of the piano.” Playing allowed me to finally exhale, as the beauty and emotion of the music overtook me and I became one with the piano. Following the various colors across the pages as the sections of notes melded into one cohesive melody helped me learn to really focus and gave me invaluable practice in following things through to the end.
Jeremy Shinewald is the founder of jdMission, an admissions consulting firm that helps applicants get into law school. This article is excerpted from his book, The Complete Start-To-Finish Law School Admissions Guide.
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