What Counts as a Valid Diversity Factor?

Every school that lets you write a diversity statement will want to hear about issues of race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, religion, sexual orientation, physical handicaps, learning disabilities, and unusual backgrounds, such as growing up in a troupe of traveling acrobats. Not all schools will want to hear about, say, your solo backpacking trip through Europe. As with your personal statement, you have to read each school’s instructions carefully.

Stanford, for example, is careful to make “diversity” a very large umbrella:

If you would like the committee to consider how factors such as your background, 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 entering class and hence to your classmates' law school experience, you may describe these factors and their relevance in a separate diversity statement.

Based on these directions, a solo backpacking trip that gives you a new perspective on life might be relevant. I’d encourage you to write that essay if you can write it well. Harvard, on the other hand, does not go out of its way to expand the definition of diversity:

If applicable, you may choose to submit an optional additional statement to elaborate on how you could contribute to the diversity of the Harvard Law School community.

In this case, I’d draw the line differently. Anything that happened to you—the circumstances of your upbringing—is fair game. Voluntary experiences—backpacking trips, study abroad, etc.—are a much harder sell.

You should also consider the school’s student body. Diversity is a relative term, at least to some extent. If you grew up on a farm, for example, you’re more likely to contribute to Harvard’s diversity than to the University of Iowa’s.

That said, many diversity factors are valid for every school.

Green Light: Write Away

  • You are a minority.
  • You grew up without a lot of money (even if you’re doing fine now).
  • You don’t have a lot of money now (even if you grew up comfortably).
  • You are LGBTQ.
  • You are a political refugee.
  • You or your parents immigrated to this country.
  • You are older than the average student (“non-traditional”).
  • You have a physical or learning disability.
  • You grew up in a foster home.
  • You are the first person in your family to go to college.
  • You are a single parent.
  • You grew up in an extremely insular community (e.g. ultra-orthodox Jewish, Amish, Wiccan, etc.).
  • You grew up in unusual circumstances (e.g., you were a traveling acrobat).
  • You were homeschooled.
  • You are a military brat and moved often as a child.
  • You were or are burdened with an unusual responsibility (e.g., you are the primary caretaker of a disabled sibling. But if you are writing to explain an aberration in your grades or a low GPA, this essay should be an addendum, not a diversity statement.).
  • You worked your way through college.
  • You grew up on a farm or ranch.
  • You grew up in an extremely small town.

Yellow Light: Proceed with Caution (Examples)

  • You backpacked through Europe.
  • You have a computer science background.
  • You had adventures in startup land.
  • You did a research fellowship abroad.
  • You majored in something other than the humanities.

Red Light: Don’t Write It (Examples)

  • You're a really good listener.
  • You spent a semester abroad.
  • Your friend is gay.
  • Your great-grandparent is a quarter Native American.
  • You worked in college…as a lifeguard or camp counselor.
  • You suffered trauma from your parents’ divorce. (This might be a good reason to write an addendum, not a diversity statement.)

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