How to Write a Character & Fitness Addendum

A character and fitness addendum has two parts.

1. Say what happened.

On October 13, 2007, I was issued a citation for riding my bike in the wrong direction on a one-way street. Traffic violations are a class-C misdemeanor under Illinois law. I pled guilty to the offense and paid a $200 fine.

2. Take responsibility for your actions and say what you learned.

My actions were foolish and dangerous. I have had a clean record since this citation and plan to be a careful, lawful biker from now on.

The rule of thumb is simple: don’t be evasive or shady. If your offense was more major or recent, you’ll have to write a more lengthy mea culpa.

On December 31, 2011 at 11:30 p.m. I was pulled over by a New Jersey state trooper and issued a citation for driving under the influence of alcohol, a class-B misdemeanor. I went before a judge and pled guilty, receiving a one-year probation. My license was revoked for three months, and I was sentenced to forty hours of community service.

Since New Year’s Day on 2011, I never get into a car or go to a party without thinking of my DUI. I endangered not only myself but everyone on the road. I have no excuse for my actions. This event forced me to take a hard look at myself. I decided to stop drinking completely until I could come to terms with what I’d done, and I realized I like life better sober. I’ve become the default designated driver for my group of friends: I never want any of them to be as reckless as I was.

The one good thing that came out of this incident was my community service. I worked with severely disabled adults at the Sunny Side Rehabilitation Center and found my sessions incredibly rewarding. I plan to continue volunteering with disabled adults for the foreseeable future.

A More Detailed Step-By-Step

1. Make sure you know the facts.

Academic disclosures: If you can’t remember the details of your incident—what committee you sat before or what they decided—you should ask your school’s administrators. If the administrators don’t know, you should report what you asked and what they said, then reconstruct the events to the best of your memory. Show the adcom that you’re trying.

Criminal disclosures: Gather all the information you can about your infraction: a copy of a ticket, criminal docket, or complaint. In most states, you can order your criminal record. Study the documents. Figure out what happened and what you should call this incident—a civil or criminal act, a felony or misdemeanor, a “Class A” or “Class B” or “Class C” offense, etc. Figure out whether you pled guilty, received a deferred adjudication, or paid a fine without making an admission. Not only will this information help you write your addendum, but it will probably help you when it’s time to pass the bar.

Disclosure questions may use terms whose legal definitions you don’t know. Be wary of any advice you get from, say, an uncle who practices law—but a different kind, in another state. If you’re still not sure what happened after you’ve looked at your documents, you may want to consult a criminal lawyer.

2. State the circumstances in their entirety.

Dean Rangappa explains her frustration with inadequate addenda:

What’s been bugging me lately is the very cavalier attitude some students appear to have toward their character and fitness addenda. I’m talking about stuff like (and this is an actual one), “I was arrested for possession of a controlled substance while crossing the U.S. border in 2010. I went to court and received three months’ probation.”

And that’s it.

I suppose the person writing this expects my reaction to be something like, “Oh, OK. Thanks for letting me know.” Typically, though, I stare at a statement like this and wonder if it’s worth even asking the applicant for more details or whether I should assume that someone who lacks the judgment to know that phrases like “controlled substance,” “at the border,” and “arrested” ought to be explained more fully is probably not going to make a very good lawyer.

Tell the full story of what happened. Say enough to answer your readers’ prospective questions. If your case involves drugs, you should delineate the kind and quantity of the drugs. If your case involves an academic violation, you should explain what you did in what class, and what disciplinary committee you faced. A forthcoming statement demonstrates your current good judgement, even if you’re explaining a lapse of judgment in the past. On the other hand, a vague or evasive statement makes you look sketchy, and encourages admissions officers to assume the worst.

3. State the disposition of the charge.

What happened after you were caught, charged, cited, summonsed, or arrested? Did you go before a judge? What did you plead, and what did the judge rule? Explain the journey of your case. If you went before a disciplinary committee in an academic setting, you should summarize the proceedings and the committee’s decision.

4. Own your transgression and say what you learned.

Here are some examples of bad addenda arguments:

Everyone else was doing it, but I was the only one who got caught.

The RA barged into our room without knocking, possibly violating our fourth-amendment rights.

It wasn’t mine.

The professor was out to get me from the start.

Do not shirk responsibility. Don’t claim that the proceedings were unfair. Explain what happened; don’t defend yourself. Demonstrate that you understand what you did was wrong.

Do not dwell on the unpleasant consequences you faced—the uncomfortable night you spent in jail, for example—but rather on the ways in which you have grown. Make it clear that you’ll never do it again because it was wrong, not because it didn’t feel good afterwards. It’s okay to note relevant personal circumstances, but there’s a fine line between explanation and excuse.

Length

One paragraph or two short paragraphs are enough for minor offenses like traffic violations. Major offenses should have two meaty paragraphs at the very least.

Formatting

Format your addendum the same way you format your personal statement, but the last line of your header should read “Addendum” instead of “Personal Statement.”

Tone

An addendum should be direct, succinct, efficient, and dry. Don’t flagellate yourself so hard that your statement is over the top:

My egregious, unforgivable actions

If you can find it in your heart to overlook

Nor should you engage in any true-crime storytelling:

There was a full moon, light mist. Three teenagers were about to make a mistake.

Just the facts, ma’am:

On October 12, 2001, at 11:30 p.m. I was arrested, along with two friends, for lighting fireworks on the beach in Beachaven, New Jersey.

That’s it. Go get ’em.

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