When to Write a Non-Required Addendum

You may write an addendum to explain a drop in your grades, a leave of absence, a light course load, an aberration on your resume (working a job for only six months, for example), a lack of extracurriculars, or—rarely—a low LSAT score. In other words, you can describe extenuating circumstances.

Addenda should focus on a defined period of time, such as one or two semesters. In very rare circumstances, you may write an addendum about your entire college career.

The Two-Question Test

A lot of people believe that an extra essay might help and couldn’t hurt. An unnecessary essay, however, wastes the adcom’s time and reflects poorly on your judgment. Only submit a non-required addendum if you can answer yes to two questions:

  1. Does the essay tell the admissions committee something that they would not know otherwise?
  2. Does the essay seem more like an explanation than an excuse?

Figuring out the last question is difficult. I find it helpful to think of someone who already knows you and doesn’t like you. Now imagine that this person sits on the admissions committee. How do you think he or she would feel about your addendum?

The One-Question Test

Here’s an even simpler test: do you have a really, really good reason to write that addendum? If not, don’t.

The rest of this lesson, which covers non-required addenda by topic, draws on the Ivey Guide to Law School Admissions, by Anna Ivey.

LSAT Scores

Most explanations for low LSAT scores are not compelling. Why? Because if something compromises your ability to perform on test day—shingles, a family emergency, a test-taker with a hacking cough, Godzilla—you can cancel your score. Ninety-nine percent of the time, you should follow the Julia Child rule: no matter what happens in the kitchen, never apologize. If you don’t cancel your score, you’ll probably have to serve it with a smile.

The members of the admissions committee know that the LSAT doesn’t measure your emotional intelligence or your resilience. They know it doesn’t always correlate to your practice scores. They know it doesn’t measure what you could do in perfect circumstances, and that the circumstances of the test are rarely perfect. Unfortunately, they are interested in what the test does measure.

If you truly believe that the test doesn’t reflect your abilities, you shouldn’t make the adcom speculate about how you might have scored: you should retake the test. That may mean you have to wait until the next admissions cycle.

More Bad Reasons to Write an LSAT Addendum

1. Learning disabilities

If you have a learning disability, you should ask the LSAC for accommodations. If it doesn’t grant your request, you probably shouldn’t write an addendum to explain your low score. The LSAC is a professional organization that specializes in assessment; they are the experts, and an adcom is unlikely to trust your judgment over theirs.

2. A score difference of three or four points

The score band is usually about 2.6 points, which means that a difference of three points is not very significant, and a difference of four probably won’t impress anyone.

3. A cancelled score

There’s no need to explain your cancelled score, so don’t.

4. Ignorance or error

If something compromised your performance on test day and you didn’t know you could cancel your score—or you forgot to—you should probably hold your tongue: ignorance or forgetfulness doesn’t reflect well on you. In this case, as with every other case touched on in this section, you should retake the test.

5. A knowledge, deep down in your gut, that this score doesn’t represent the real you

Please.

Good Reasons to Write an LSAT Addendum

1. English as a second language

If English is your second language and you have trouble completing the test in time, you should write an addendum—but you should stress that your comprehension is fine when you have more time, and that you’re willing to work extra hard to overcome this disadvantage.

2. History of non-representative performance on standardized tests

If you have a history of scoring low on standardized tests but performing very well in school—for example, you scored a 14 on the ACT, but got straight As in difficult classes—you have legitimate grounds for writing an addendum.

3. A big jump in scores

Some applications require you to explain big discrepancies in LSAT scores. Michigan, for example, asks you to account for disparities of six points or more. Even if your school doesn’t require you to explain a jump in scores, you may still write an addendum.

If your score plummeted more than five points the second or third time you took the LSAT, I’d advise you to explain what happened in an addendum. If your score went up, you might want to let the numbers speak for themselves. In either case, it is permissible to cite illness, a disruptive testing environment, and all the other events I mentioned above, because the presence of a higher score will make your addendum seem more like an explanation and less like an excuse.

If a school requires you to write an explanatory essay and you don’t have a good explanation, just do your best. You’re allowed to say that you don’t know why your score changed.

Transcript Issues

The LSAT is a standardized test, and a 170 means the same thing no matter where or when you take the test. Grades, on the other hand, are not standardized, and similar GPAs from different colleges or majors can mean very different things. That’s why grades are more amenable to addenda than LSAT scores: it’s more likely that you can give the adcom new and relevant information.

Here are some reasons you might want to write an addendum.

1. Information about the grading curve

Take a look at your transcript. If your school doesn’t contextualize your grades, you may want to contextualize them yourself. For example, if you have a 3.0 GPA, you might want to write an addendum to explain that the average GPA of your school or major is a 2.3. Tell the adcom about that notoriously difficult logic class you took, or your psychology professor’s one-woman crusade against grade inflation. Admissions officers won’t know that kind of thing on their own. On the other hand, they will know that math and science classes tend to produce lower grades than humanities classes.

Try to provide hard numbers. Ask your school for more information, especially average GPAs.

2. Emotional distress and family responsibilities

Many people worry that they will sound whiny, sensational, or manipulative if they write about a misfortune. If something prevented you from reaching your full potential as a student, however, you should absolutely let the admissions committee know. It’s possible to write about something dramatic without being melodramatic. Tell your story in a straightforward, succinct way. Be as specific as you can about how and why a circumstance affected your transcript. If you had to travel for a sick family member, for example, you might mention how far and how often you traveled.

Factors that you should write about include the following:

  • Illness or death in the family.
  • Unusual family responsibility (e.g., you took care of a disabled sibling).
  • Abusive relationship.
  • Difficult transition from high school to college.
  • You were too young when you started school.

3. Health problems

Illness, physical trauma, and mental health issues all deserve addenda, even if you’re writing about an indirect consequence. For example, you could tell the admissions committee that you broke your hand freshman year and had trouble taking notes, or that you suffered whiplash in a car accident, were forced to wear a neck brace, and consequently had trouble adjusting. Explain the scope and duration of your issue—i.e., tell them how bad it was.

Be careful about bringing up a mental health issue that could recur. If you do write an addendum about your mental health, emphasize what you’ve done to deal with the issue.

4. Job and financial concessions

If you worked through college, you should give the admissions committee an idea of your responsibilities. How many hours a week did you work? Did you have to travel for your job or take work home with you? Did the job affect your grades? Did you make any other concessions to your financial situation? For example, did you overload your class schedule to graduate quickly, or underload it to make time for your work responsibilities?

5. Wrong major or school

Essays about the wrong major or school are stronger if you can cite external factors—for example, your parents pressured you to take premed classes, and your grades went up when you switched to a more suitable course of study. Don’t just say that you didn’t feel passionate about your classes: you’ll have to do many things in law school and beyond for which you’re unlikely to feel passion.

6. Substance abuse

If you had a problem with substance abuse and your grades suffered, tell your story. Admissions officers are likely to admire your candor, and they’re not allowed to penalize you: substance abuse is classified as a disability. You should, however, emphasize your recovery, and allay the adcom’s potential fears about backsliding.

7. Learning disabilities

If your college accommodated your learning disability, it’s probably a bad idea to write an addendum: an acknowledgment of your situation has already been baked into your grades. If, on the other hand, you weren’t accommodated for some or all of college—perhaps you were diagnosed with dyslexia after your freshman year—write the addendum. You should also write an addendum if, for example, your doctor didn’t figure out the proper dosage for your medicine until your sophomore year, and your grades subsequently went up.

Although admissions officers are not allowed to discriminate on the basis of disabilities, they might feel uneasy about admitting an applicant who has trouble, say, reading quickly. You’ll have to read an enormous amount of information almost every day in law school. Preempt their concerns by emphasizing what you’ve done to overcome your disability.

8. English as a second language

Be careful about casting doubt on your English skills: you will have to read cases and write papers in English, after all, and the work will probably be more intense than what you did in college. If you write an addendum about English as a second language, it’s best if (1) you can say that your language skills improved throughout college, and (2) if your grades back you up.

9. Your parents’ divorce

The more you can correlate your parents’ divorce with a specific change in your transcript, the more justified your addendum. Do not, for example, tell the adcom that your parents got divorced when you were a child, and that the trauma prevented you from reaching your full potential in college. Do tell the adcom that your parents got divorced in the fall of your sophomore year and your emotional distress accounts for the dip in your GPA.

10. Other issues

Perhaps you started a business in college and your grades plunged for a semester or two. Perhaps you were unprepared academically when you started school. There are many reasons why you might want to write an addendum. As always, you want to make sure that your explanation passes the BS test and that it addresses a specific period of time.

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