Am I African-American Enough to Apply as a Diversity Candidate?

I was referred to a law school admissions counselor at my university yesterday. I was a little puzzled about something. My dad is half African-American, and my counselor said it was perfectly fine for me to apply as a diverse candidate because of this. Is this correct?? Is this okay?? I applied as Caucasian for my undergraduate degree....

You will have a number of opportunities to provide information about your ethnic background in your law school applications.

Law school applications will ask you to check boxes indicating your ethnicity, and some will also offer you an opportunity to write an additional essay (almost always optional) about how you would add to the diversity of the incoming class.

The boxes: If you're a quarter African-American, then it's a little bit of a stretch to check just the African-American box, and based on your previous applications, it sounds as if you don't particularly consider yourself or self-identify as African-American.

But since the schools don't give a cut-off in terms of percentages, or ask whether you "feel" African-American or not, you can just treat the question literally. Go ahead and check multiple boxes (one of which would be African-American), or check the "Other" box and then fill in 1/4 African-American and 3/4 whatever (there's usually a line where you can fill in your own answer). Then that puts the ball in the schools' court to weight that information however they want for affirmative action or diversity purposes. That's not something you have to decide for them in advance. Note that some schools' applications ask specifically about Black African (vs. African-American), in which case you may not be able to check that particular box if you are of North African (i.e. Maghreb) extraction.

The diversity essay: Even if you can't or don't check the African-American box, you will still have an opportunity at many schools to write an optional diversity essay. If you choose to write one, though, it's not enough to say (or dwell on) "I am XYZ." The more important part of the essay is to answer the implied question of "So what?" That second part is where a lot of diversity essays go astray. If you don't have something reflective and interesting to say about the "So what?" part, skip this essay. Submitting a mediocre optional essay is worse than submitting none at all.

Here's what I wrote about diversity essays in a previous posting ("Optional and Unsolicited Materials: How Much Is Too Much?"):

Submit optional essays only if the following two conditions are both met: (1) you have something interesting to say on the subject (content) and (2) you can write about it very well in one double-spaced page (execution)....

[D]on't twist yourself into a pretzel writing a phony-baloney diversity essay if you don't have something meaningful to say about yourself on that subject. You can and should think of diversity broadly. Admissions officers are trying to put together an interesting mix of incoming 1Ls, all with different life experiences and backgrounds. Of course they are interested in underrepresented ethnicities, but they are also going to take note if your background is interesting for non-ethnic reasons. Maybe you have lived and worked abroad, or are a national or world class athlete, or come from the art world. Those are all elements that would mix things up in the incoming class. But that's not *sufficient* to justify submitting an optional diversity essay. You also have to be able to say something meaningful about that particular element of your background, and how it has shaped you in a substantial way. It's not enough to identify that you have that background; you have to explain why and how it matters. This piece also needs to be personal rather than abstract. If you can't discuss that part of your background in a meaningful, personal, well-written way, showing not just the "what" but also the "so what" (why it matters to you), don't submit the essay.

Bottom line: You are much, much better off showing them one really great required essay on its own, than sending them a really great required essay along with a merely so-so non-required essay. The latter actually detracts from your application and from the impression you're making. Don't dilute the impact or the quality of your great essay with something that is less than great.

Good luck!

Former Dean of Admissions at the University of Chicago Law School and a recovering lawyer, Anna Ivey founded Ivey Consulting to help college, law school, and MBA applicants navigate the admissions process. You can read more admissions tips in The Ivey Guide to Law School Admissions, recently updated and available as an e-book, and connect with Anna on Twitter and Facebook. Have a question for us to tackle in the blog? Please email us.