Understanding and Capitalizing on the Diversity Factor in Law School Admissions: Prospective Black Law Students Must Strive to Demonstrate Diversity Well Beyond Race
By Evangeline M. Mitchell, J.D., Ed.M.*
Affirmative action in law school admissions for institutions of higher education is no longer what it once was. In the 1960s during the advent of affirmative action, when many schools were just beginning to introduce affirmative action admissions policies, the goal was to be able to bring in more African Americans for the purpose of making up for past discrimination where Blacks were excluded due to segregation and simply because of their racial status. Today, in considering affirmative action admissions policies, many schools want to “increase diversity,” and this diversity is inclusive of African Americans, but it also embraces a much broader group of people aside from African Americans specifically or exclusively. Diversity includes those who are the descendants of African people brought to and enslaved in the United States for centuries and who were discriminated against by legally sanctioned and pervasive discrimination, as well as Black people who have immigrated here from Africa, the Caribbean Islands and other countries to persons of other racial, ethnic, social minority groups, viewpoints, persuasions and perspectives.
In reading the 2003 landmark Supreme Court case of Grutter v. Bollinger, the high court views diversity as a “compelling interest” and found that race could be constitutionally used as one factor that can be considered in law school admissions. The Court supports the goal of law schools in having a “diverse” student body so that the educational experience of all students can be enhanced due to the contributions from the viewpoints and experiences of these diverse students so that students can learn from and benefit from one another. However, it is important for Black students and all minority students to understand that “diversity” is not narrowly defined as having students from different racial and ethnic backgrounds. Diversity is defined with a much broader and wider brush which not only includes race but also encompasses age, socioeconomic background, cultural difference, second or multiple language fluency, work experience, military experience, educational background, national origin, religious affiliation, sexual orientation, transgendered status, political views, geographic location, among a multitude of other factors. The victory in the Grutter decision is that race can still be legally considered as one factor among others.
Given the continuing importance of race in everyday life and the enduring impact of past discriminatory treatment in American society, by the Court’s acknowledgment as opposed to denial of the importance of race and by their not outlawing the consideration of it, this is a help especially for a group such as Blacks/African Americans in assisting in efforts to increase the numbers of members of this underrepresented group in American law schools.
Although the use of race in admissions decisions is indeed a victory, this is not something that underrepresented minorities should feel comfortable with. Because “diversity” can comprise so many different things, it is critical that all students of color, and particularly African Americans, who are generally thought of as needing and benefiting greatly from race-conscious admissions policies and who are sorely underrepresented in law schools and in the legal profession, to fully understand that being a member of a racial minority group is simply not enough. They cannot afford to think that checking off a box or typing in their racial and ethnic background will necessarily work in their favor in a hypercompetitive admissions climate.
What I am advocating is their working and even fighting in their application packages to demonstrate and explain in a very explicit, clear and convincing way that they will add to this diversity, which the Supreme Court states is an educational benefit to students in the law school learning environment. However, these students must not only demonstrate diversity through their identification with their racial or ethnic group, but also through their discussing how they have in the past and are going to contribute in the future to the diversity of the incoming class and the law student body as a whole not in one way – but in a number of ways.
African American applicants who truly want the “diversity” factor to work in their favor must present themselves as empowered, active leaders who have a worldly, multiethnic/multiracial viewpoint who will also bring a certain sophistication to the table and appreciation of the potential benefits and the unique challenges of diversity from their own personal experiences. I contend that simply checking off a box stating that they are a member of an underrepresented racial/ethnic minority group simply won’t cut it where it may have meant something to law school admissions committees in the past. Being Black and just stating how hard it was growing up in the ‘hood will not be enough for many applicants. They must show themselves to be someone who has a sensitivity and understanding based on their backgrounds and where they come from, who has a genuine willingness to share and help others learn from them based on that unique perspective, and at the same time, an eagerness to expose themselves as a people with a demonstrated desire to stretch themselves beyond their neighborhood boundaries and that which is most comfortable and familiar to them. In an increasingly diverse and complex America and global society, this is critical.
You are an asset not just because you may have overcome a great deal due to your socioeconomic and racial background but because of your ability to bring a certain perspective from your experiences that contributes to the learning of others who maybe unable to relate because that is not their experience or something they themselves have lived.
In these days where law school admissions is more competitive than ever and just about anyone, even those in the majority (White students) who some might assume would not be traditional “diversity” candidates, can potentially carefully strategize and be able to claim and build up a case for themselves that they can contribute to the broad diversity of a law school class too. Therefore, below I have set forth specific pieces of advice to help African Americans, and really any student of color, to better understand and capitalize off of the diversity factor that all law schools seek. If this advice is thought about carefully and acted upon, it will be of assistance so that the consideration of race and other elements of diversity can help work for them and get them closer to achieving their dreams of gaining law school admission.
Today, meeting the admissions qualifications coupled with membership in a racially underrepresented group is no promise for admission, and as well, good grades and test scores don’t guarantee admission into any law school for any candidate anymore. Law schools are seeking to put together a “diverse” class with a combination of intelligent, high achieving, interesting students. They want an intermix of different, even divergent, perspectives, experiences and characteristics. They want to create a “gumbo” or “garden salad” of sorts where you bring all of these different bright people together so that they can participate in exciting exchanges, challenge one another, argue, clash, disagree, share the same views but for different reasoning, share commonalities and in the end – learn something from one another. Because of our differences, many times we will come to the same conclusion to a problem for different reasons, or approach something in a drastically different way than another person. Better understanding the different ways that people see and experience the world are all a part of the educational learning process. They don’t want a bunch of clones who look alike or think alike. You must ensure that you show them that you are not only someone who will succeed academically in a rigorous, demanding and extremely competitive legal environment, but that you too will bring something compelling to the table in terms of a complexity, richness and variation in your experience and worldview.
Below are some things you must do in order to better understand and capitalize on the “diversity factor” in your law school admissions application:
- Read the Supreme Court’s Grutter v. Bollinger
This is a landmark case that affects all law school admissions candidates. This is a case that you should read a few times so that you can fully and thoroughly understand it. All law school admissions committees must follow the guidelines provided in this case and it will help you to better understand what they are allowed to consider in reviewing law school application packages and in composing a “diverse” law school class. Not only this, it is to your advantage to be as educated as possible about this decision, the discourse surrounding it and the law school admissions process generally and particularly at the schools of interest to you. Read the case in its entirety. You can access it via the Internet by simply putting in the name of the case in a popular search engine such as google or bing.
- Get involved in and take leadership in the race, culture, multicultural and diversity-related organizations.
Make sure that you list these things on your application, resume or in a supplement along with your application package. I encourage you to not only get involved in the Black Student Union or other association if you are Black. Take it further. In addition, try to take part in the Latino Students Association, African Students Association, Asian Students Association, etc. Become a peer educator involving the area of diversity and inclusion, and multiculturalism. If your school sends leaders and interested students to receive training in this area at national conferences, diversity retreats and workshops, take advantage of this and be a part in it. The point is that you not only want to show an interest and leadership in organizations that only affect your racial and/or ethnic group exclusively but your willingness to understand others in a diverse environment and society.
You also want to show a genuine interest, appreciation, concern and curiosity about other people and cultures. Your goal is to create a picture of someone culturally-aware and active in organizations affecting your group, who wants to be involved, support others who are a part of your racial/ethic group and teach and interact with others in your campus community about your racial/ethnic and cultural group. At the same time, you want to come off as a cosmopolitan and cultured individual. You want to show the law school admissions committee that your interest in people is much deeper, goes further and that you want to interact with, learn about and from and support other groups as well. You must paint a portrait of a person who can effectively collaborate and cooperatively work alongside just about anyone and your perspective and understanding goes incredibly further than just what affects the African American community, while simultaneously maintaining an intimate understanding of and sensitivity to the issues affecting your community and the challenges ahead in order to make things better for future generations.
Moreover, get involved in programs sponsored by the admissions committee to recruit more minority students on your campus and take part in discussions and strategy sessions if retention or other concerns involving minority students are a problem at your university. Get involved in creating, taking a leadership role or getting active in multicultural alliance and coalition groups and diversity councils which show that you are willing to take an active role in bringing different people together, creating and retaining further diversity, and helping students to take full advantage of the diversity that is around them – an area where many students and institutions fail or fall short. Such leadership and activism provides fertile ground to discuss challenges on your college campus and how you played a role in helping to make the idealistic, weighty goal of diversity somehow work. Trust me, many law schools could benefit from your expertise. A lot of schools get some percentage of minority students there but seem to think that students will somehow magically connect and work together without their support and encouragement.
After your dedicated work in this area as an active student participant and leader, I would even suggest getting a campus leader or administrator such as a Dean of Multicultural Affairs or the Director of your campus’ Intercultural Center to write you a supportive law school recommendation to add in your application package where they address these issues and your role and leadership on the campus to support your positive involvement in these areas. This will show how you have distinctly contributed to the important areas of mediation, community building and social development on your college campus.
- Make it a point to study abroad to broaden your world view.
From my own experiences, I learned that many of my law school counterparts had such travel and study overseas experiences prior to law school. For me, studying and living abroad, although I didn’t have the opportunity to do it until I was in law school, was completely life-changing and it made me see the world in a completely different way. Many of your majority student colleagues may be able to discuss “diversity” through discussing their eye-opening experiences abroad. Therefore, you want to also be able to draw from such experiences and discuss the interchange and how you learned from these experiences in other countries and were able to share your own realities as an American and an African American as well. Your experiences abroad will be different in some form than those of your White counterparts. Many foreigners have stereotypical images of White and Black Americans.
Again, the image you want to project is not that you are just an everyday Black person. (The reality is that your everyday Black person or everyday person of any race is not going to be able to convince a law school admissions committee to accept them in a tough admissions competition.) As significant as that is, you must show that you are also someone who is devoted to diversity, you have been willing to get involved in it, roll up your sleeves, take leadership, and that you have been willing to step out of your comfort zone and explore and seek to understand other people, ways of life, ways of seeing the world. And that all of these elements combine to allow you to bring a wealth of diverse experiences and contribute enormously to the diversity of the incoming class. You will bring all of this through the lenses of a historically and underrepresented minority whose ancestors were enslaved and overcame being designated at the lowest level of the social strata to fighting for their rights and the right to equality in the richest and most influential country in the world. Now, that’s deep.
For those who are unable to afford participating in a formal study abroad program, note that we have two foreign countries bordering the United States, Canada to our north and Mexico to the south. With some creative fundraising and saving, as well as Internet research, you can create your own “study abroad” adventures outside of more expensive programs organized through your school that may fit within your own particular budget. When I was an undergraduate I never felt that I would be able to afford it and we did not have a study abroad office or the Internet during that time. Today things are different and such opportunities are much more accessible – if you really want to take advantage of them. If I had the resources to make it happen, I would make it an absolute requirement for all college students who wanted to become truly “educated” people to study abroad to help them become more open-minded. That is how strongly I feel about the import of leaving the United States to gain a better understanding of the people and the cultures outside of our borders. Since having such experiences, I will never be the same and genuinely believe that I bring something “extra” to the table as a result of these experiences. You will find this as well.
- Study a foreign language and seek to gain proficiency and ultimately fluency.
Although a strong mastery of the English language is critical as a law student including being able to communicate effectively in writing and in speaking, these days it is a tremendous benefit to be at least conversant in another language. Although many colleges only require two to four semesters of a foreign language, for many, that is simply not enough to learn to really speak and effectively communicate orally in a language with non-English speakers. I urge you to not allow this to be an excuse for you to not gain some level of proficiency in a foreign language. You don’t have to major in another language to have this additional skill to help add to your package as an individual open to other people with an interest in the world well beyond your hood.
Although I believe any foreign language will be an asset in your repertoire of skills, I strongly suggest some knowledge of the Spanish language because of the changing demographics and the fact that Latinos make up the largest racial minority in the country. It is simply smart to have some knowledge of the language and to gain some understanding of the cultures, especially for those living on the East Coast and particularly the border states of California, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas and Florida. As someone who has been to countries where I could and could not communicate with the people in their native language, there is something quite special and organic in being able to really communicate and to understand and be understood in a language other than English – especially if English is your native and only language.
- Write a thoughtful, engaging and compelling diversity statement where you communicate exactly what diversity you bring and how you intend to play an active role as a diverse law student.
You must take the time to provide a statement in which you set forth all of the types of diversity that you will bring to the incoming class. There is no specific format that is necessary but if you want the diversity factors that you possess and will bring to the table to be seriously considered alongside everything else in your package, providing a well-written, thought-provoking diversity statement can work to your advantage. Always keep in mind that diversity is broad and your goal is to show your diversity in as many ways as possible. Put time, effort, sweat, creative energy and mental muscle into it. Make it powerful and engaging. Make it the very best written representation possible of who you are. Make it a sample, a taste of your experiences, your imagination, your complexity of thought, wit, humor, and intellect.
You want to make it memorable. Thus, don’t just give them the typical types of information that they might expect from a Black applicant. Many of these admissions personnel and professors reading files may think they pretty much have the “Black” or “African American” candidate and experience figured out. Show them that we don’t all fit into a neat little box. You want to not only share your reality, your perspectives and experiences, but you want to add a certain twist that will make thing look twice and catch them off guard. Give them something they may not expect. Make them think. Force them to put your statement down and say “Hmm. Wow, that was really interesting. I never thought of that.”
In this statement, you must make certain to explain not only that you have diverse experiences and viewpoints, but that you have contributed to diversity in and outside the classroom during your undergraduate and/or graduate educational experiences in the past (as well as in activism in the community). Demonstrate that based on your past track record, you are willing to do so in the future and particularly as a law student at the law schools you are seeking to attend. Provide concrete, real-life examples. You want the statement to draw the picture that you are not going to be the passive minority student who simply receives their legal education. You don’t want to be viewed as simply a taker who will get your law school training, get your job and lead a life that is all about you. You want to show that you will be a giver, a contributor, leader, a worker, a doer, and want to take an active role in increasing diversity in your law school. You are someone who will do what you can to take advantage of the diversity at your school and also allow other students to benefit from your presence through interchanging and sharing your viewpoints and experiences.
- You must communicate the significance of race – if it has personal meaning to you based on your life experiences.
You can’t assume that the admissions committee knows what race means to an African American. You have to try to grab within yourself a reflective mode to understand and try to articulate what being Black has meant in your life and how that translates into some tangible benefit to the law school you want to attend. Remember although there may be some alumni, societal and “image” pressure for admissions professionals to have a decent representation of “Blackness” represented in their class, they need to know what you are going to do for them. Never assume they understand. Tell your story and earn their understanding. Start out by taking the time to seriously reflect, talk out and understand that your experiences and the history of your people in this country or as an immigrant to this country is relevant, important and should be a part of the conversation and why this is the case. Therefore, it is your responsibility to undertake discussion of this as if your audience did not appreciate what race means to you and life as a member of an underrepresented minority in American society in the twenty-first century.
- Although it is important to discuss more than race, do not downplay or feel that your race and what you bring into the fold because of it is insignificant, of minimal importance or is not worthy of consideration.
Remember that although race is within itself a superficial difference, American society has historically made it a social construct which has been extraordinarily significant in the past and continues to be complex and meaningful in the present. Race is inextricably linked to culture, socioeconomics, life experiences, expectations and perceptions. Many Black people in 2018 can attest to the fact that people will make all types of negative judgments about them and their abilities based on the color of their skin without having all of the facts or knowing anything about them as individuals. We live with people in our society assuming the very worst of us with our having to constantly prove them wrong. Race had been historically attributed to past and ongoing prejudice and discrimination. It continues to be of import in American society and you well should remind the admissions committee of this. There may or may not be a person of color with personal insight regarding the on-going significance of race in American society on that admissions committee. Respect who you are and understand that you do have something important to contribute. Consider discussions during your undergraduate or graduate school years where your insight has been valuable in helping other students view things from a totally different perspective and how they would have missed certain points had your voice not been present and heard.
- If you choose to discuss your Blackness or the impact of being African American on your life experiences, you should take the time to provide concrete examples.
Explain real-life instances and episodes regarding how race has influenced how people have perceived you, your work experiences, interactions in everyday life. Talk about how it has personally affected you and how all of the social implications tied to race have either drawn you to the legal profession, or touched you in such a way that it has played a role in your perspectives and affects how you will add a perhaps different point of view or way of looking at issues based on your personal experiences “in your skin.” You must drive home the fact that there is a distinct difference between appreciating and understanding something from reading it, as opposed to the knowledge one acquires by actually living it and experiencing it for oneself. I have found persons who have an academic or book understanding of the Black experience and those people who purport to understand how “we” Black people think about things and seem to feel that they know us better than we know ourselves. When this happens, I always smile feeling a little sorry for them in some way for not recognizing the impact of personal experience. I appreciate their research and even further appreciate our divergent realities.
- Your educational experiences as a Black person add a special diverse element to the discussion.
Whenever I talk to Black people about their educational experiences, I am always fascinated. The type of educational experiences one has can have an incredible impact on a person’s perceptions of what they are able to achieve in life. There are Black people who attended private Catholic schools. There are those who attended inner-city schools plagued with ills such as under funding and a marked lack of resources. There are those who attended predominantly White schools where they were the only “color” in the classroom. There are students who were told by White and/or Black teachers that they would not amount to anything. There are students who were relegated to “special education” or lower-tracked classes dooming them to be less competitive with their other peers being groomed with a college preparatory curriculum. There are students who were taught in their schools how lucky they were to be Black people in America and that slavery was a good thing for African Americans. There were those who had teachers who went out of their way to show the entire series of Roots and who pushed their students to better understand themselves and the torch being passed to them to leave a positive legacy for those coming behind them. The different experiences are mind boggling. Even more so in institutions of higher education where students attended a mix from the local community colleges, rural and urban campuses, state flagship universities, private liberal arts institutions, those schools in the prestigious Ivy League to the small southern predominantly and historically Black colleges and universities. Different student bodies, missions, philosophies, approaches, resources. All of these types of educational experiences help to bring a unique diversity of viewpoint to the discussion and further impact how students think about education and the possibilities for their lives. Your educational experiences from primary to secondary school up to college all help to add an element of unique diversity to the in-class discussion.
- You can help uncover the truth that there is no singular Black point of view in a society that readily simplifies a diverse group.
There are diverging points of view regarding what is in Black America’s “best interest” along with the realities that we are truly “Americans” with very individual ways of experiencing and understanding our experiences and realities. These various points of view from different Black people does add value especially to those who want to simplify us and our experiences when we are part of such a diverse and incredibly complicated group of people. Even if you are a conservative Black person from a well-off background who strongly identifies with the ideology of the Republican party and feels that there are problems with today’s Black leadership and tend to not see color, your perspective is needed as well. You should make this known that we don’t all think alike and are not all from disadvantaged backgrounds. This can add to those fellow law students’ understanding who tend to oversimplify the way that African Americans think.
However, you have experiences that are important. For example, you can discuss when items come up missing and you were the only Black person present and the only person treated as a suspect – despite your Ivy League education and individual honesty.
Thus, you should discuss how your personal experiences add a dimension to discussion, relationships and understanding that truly is significant. Most especially try to mention a willingness to develop relationships with your colleagues from all backgrounds no matter how differently you may or may not think about things.
The deepest riches I have gained from my educational experiences has been the cross-racial and cultural friendships I gained. The greatest losses have been those missed opportunities to create friendships with people either because based on how I look they never gave me a chance, or based on past hurts I may have discounted some people and not given them a chance. Even those who I have lost touch with have made an enduring imprint on my life when reflecting on my law school experience.
- Your writing can show that “Black” is not simply “Black.”
Additionally, if you are a member of a specific ethnic or even regional group within the Black race and identify yourself broadly as an “African American,” this should be mentioned as adding an additional level to diversity. We share similar experiences with discrimination because of our Blackness, but also cultural and linguistic differences as well. Thus, if you are a Black immigrant from Haiti, Jamaica, Trinidad, Tobago, the Bahamas or an African or European or other country, or a Black person from the South, West, East or Midwest of the United States – we all have diverse and relevant experiences that add something significant and unique to discussion as many people are not aware of these intergroup cultural and ethnic differences. Many just see all Black people as Black and put us in one category because they have never been made aware of or have had exposure to these differences. To them, we are all Black and their limited knowledge applies to us all. Your awareness of and willingness to share your knowledge and experiences with these differences and commonalities will add an even greater dimension to the learning benefits of diversity to your classmates.
- Take the time to weave in a discussion of your multiple identities including yet beyond race which add to the diversity of the law school class.
You may be biracial, bicultural, multiracial and multicultural. You might want to discuss gender, sexual orientation, socioeconomic background, age, nontraditional status and these other areas right alongside race and culture which make you the multi-faceted, multi-layered, multi-dimensional human being that you are. If you choose, intertwine discussion of the impact of all of these areas because they all come together to make you who you are. They are quite relevant in showing that you have a complex, multiplicity of rich and relevant factors of diversity to give to your class.
Remember that with the admissions climate being so amazingly competitive and with so many students who are not necessarily members of minority groups being able to say they add something to “diversity,” you must work that much harder to demonstrate all of the myriad of ways that you offer something to diversity and will contribute to it once you are admitted to law school. In addition to working hard to make excellent grades, working extremely hard to do your very best on the Law School Admission Test (LSAT), getting involved and showing leadership in other groups and organizations of interest to you, by taking these tips to heart and doing whatever you can to act upon them, you will be one step closer to realizing your goal of gaining admission into a law school of choice. At the end of the day, in fully capitalizing off of the “diversity factor,” the law schools that you want to gain admission to need to know more than the fact that you are Black. The face of affirmative action has changed. Schools still want Black law students but they won’t give the seats away. You have to fight for your spot. You must do the work of explaining who you are and how your experiences translate into adding something concrete to their class and what you can offer and contribute to the diversity of their incoming law school class both inside and outside of law school classroom. Let them know that you will give something to the law school’s student body for its educational benefit and betterment as a whole.
Copyright © 2005-2018. Evangeline M. Mitchell. All rights reserved.