Students freak out about many things when they're applying to law school: The relative "prestige" of their undergraduate institution (and how it will be viewed during the admissions process), their choice of major, their letters of recommendation, the one B they got freshman year, the LSAT score they got when they took the test "cold" (p.s., don't do that!)...the list goes on and on. For most students, the fears are unfounded and simply a by-product of a stressful law school admissions process where you nitpick every possible thing about yourself and your file. However, for some students, there are blemishes in their record that are founded and need to be addressed and explained.
That's where addenda come in. As always, let's start with the basics.
An addendum (plural: addenda) is a document, written by the applicant, explaining a negative in their application. It is usually brief in length (no more than one page long, typically only one to two paragraphs), and is included as an attachment to the application.
Students usually write addenda to explain:
- Issues with their LSAT record (i.e., a very low LSAT score, multiple absences or cancellations, or an unusually high jump in LSAT scores from one administration to the next);
- Issues with their GPA (i.e., a very low GPA, a semester with sub-par grades in an otherwise great transcript, a rash of failed or withdrawn classes, etc).
- Issues with the "character and fitness" section of the application (interruption in a student's academic career; academic disciplinary actions; academic probations; academic expulsions; criminal issues such as felonies, misdemeanors, arrests, or convictions; dishonorable discharges from the armed forces)..
So, what should you do to make sure that your addendum is effective?
- Write it carefully. Tone and word choice are incredibly important when writing an addendum. Because addendums are essentially asking the Admissions Committee to ignore or disregard very important parts of the application, you can easily end up sounding as if you are groveling--or, worse yet, you can end up sounding whiny, arrogant, irresponsible, immature, lacking in good judgment, or lacking in self-awareness. The addendum needs to convey the information without boring or offending the admissions officer reading it, and it needs to get the point across quickly and effortlessly, while still answering any questions brought up by the fact being addressed.
- Keep it short. The longest any addendum should be is two pages, double-spaced (and that may be one page too long). There is absolutely no need to write an addendum that is longer than your personal statement. When addenda start breaking the 250-word barrier, you run the risk of both rambling and creating more problems than you are explaining.
- Don’t tell the admissions officers how to do their job. They know how to interpret LSAT scores and transcripts. If you are, for example, submitting materials explaining a particular grading curve or major at your college, make sure that the addendum simply presents the materials. The Admissions Committee will know how to interpret it and will understand it is a supplement to your file. You don't need to interpret it for them.
- Keep it drama-free. Overselling the case or overstating the flaws tends to remove any seriousness from the addendum and renders it useless for the purposes of explaining the flaw. You're not trying to tug at heartstrings or solicit pity, so veer away from dramatic language.
- Stick to the facts. Don’t provide unnecessary information. Aside from increasing the length of the document, unnecessary details can also detract from the message you are seeking to convey.
- No flights of fancy. Addenda are different from the personal statement in that there is no element of creative writing in them. This is simply an explanation and a presentation of circumstances. There is no need to refer to stomach upsets as “exploding fireworks” or a migraine headache as “skull-splitting agony.” You may think it adds flair, but all it does is add unnecessary verbiage.
- Understand this is not an excuse. What is being provided to the Committee is additional information to consider during the evaluation of an application. The facts must be presented clearly, lessons learned should be discussed, and what you've put in place to ensure the negative doesn't happen again should be explained. Excuses are just that--excuses. And they have no place in an addendum..
It is important to remember that the purpose of the addendum is to explain, but not excuse, the negative in the application. Unless the circumstances were incredibly unusual and compelling, chances are pretty good that you are at least partially to blame for whatever the negative in your application happens to be--don't try to hoodwink the AdComs. Believe me, they've seen enough of these addenda that they'll see right through you--and they won't be happy that you tried to shirk your part in the situation.
It is also important to remember that you should never go "addendum-happy." You do not need to explain why your GPA is a 3.72 instead of a 3.73, or why your LSAT score went down a single point in the second re-taking. You also do not need to address every tiny detail that you are not pleased with in your application. The glaring issues are what need to be discussed, not the minutia that are only noticeable to you. Submitting 12 different addenda can make you look slightly crazy, not thorough--and you also run the risk of exhausting and annoying whoever is reading your app, which is never something you want to do.
Perhaps the most important thing to remember about addenda is that your personal statement is not one. Use the personal statement exactly for what it’s meant for—presenting great or unusual qualities, beliefs, and experiences in an vibrant, positive light. Don't use it explain inconsistencies in your application.
Also, remember that not everyone needs to use an addendum. If you've gone over your application and there isn't anything negative to be addressed, don't feel that you need to create an issue or find something to explain--instead, consider yourself one of the lucky ones! As for those of you who do have issues to explain--keep the tips above in mind. Be judicious in your use of addenda, and you'll minimize the negatives and enhance your application.