Daniel: Having broken my suspect, I felt the sense of accomplishment. Ray was a drug dealer and my job was to get his supply. Confession in hand, I asked Ray to become a police informant in exchange for leniency. Most people in Ray's situation either jumped at the chance to save themselves or took offense at the idea of turning on their friends.
But Ray had different priorities: "I just want to get out of jail in time to see my son graduate high school."
J.Y.: Hello, and welcome to the 7Sage podcast. I'm J.Y. Ping. A few months ago, we interviewed 7Sager Daniel about going from a 157 to a 172 on the LSAT. But that wasn't the only challenge he overcame in the application process.
Daniel had a complicated educational trajectory, a low GPA, and some major character and fitness hurdles. In today's episode, 7Sage consultants David and Nora talk to Daniel about his admissions journey.
David: Daniel, Nora, thank you so much for joining us. Daniel, I wanted to talk to you about your admissions process, and you worked with Nora from 7Sage, who's here as well. So maybe you can both just introduce yourselves.
Nora: Hi, I'm Nora and I'm a consultant with 7Sage, and I'm excited to be here.
Daniel: I am Daniel. I was a client of Nora's, incoming law student at Cornell Law School.
Nora: That's so exciting.
David: That's right. Now you just get to take it easy. Do podcasts all day until school starts.
Nora: I was going to say it until September.
Daniel: I'm trying my best to relax in the, probably, the last downtime I'll have for awhile.
David: That's right. So Daniel, you are what they call a nontraditional student. And if you've never heard that term before, it's kind of a bogus word. It really refers to anybody who is not coming, you know, straight out of college, or maybe out of college and then after a couple years in the workforce.
But Daniel, you had a career. Actually, you had more than one career, and I'm wondering if you can just give us sort of a capsule of your background before we start.
Daniel: Yeah, sure. So I guess you could say I'm nontraditional in a few different respects. So, like you said, I had a career prior to applying to law school. I was a police officer for just under 10 years, and prior to that, I was in the military for a few years.
In addition to these previous careers, I'm a bit older than your, I guess, typical law school applicant. I'm 41, if I remember it correctly, 41. And my undergraduate education was also not very typical, kind of pieced together over the years, close to two decades, spanning some community college classes, some online courses, and eventually finishing up my undergrad degree here at the University of Hawaii.
David: Daniel, why did you decide to work with an admissions consultant?
Daniel: So this was my second admissions cycle. I initially applied to law schools in 2019. I wasn't very informed about the process, you know, what goes into a good application. I didn't really know what to expect, given my nontraditional background, and then just kind of applied very, very broadly.
It must've been 40+ schools. Wasn't sure what I was doing, really, what was going on, what kind of outcomes I could expect. Towards the end of that cycle, as I became more informed, I kind of realized that I didn't really know what I was doing, and I could probably expect a lot better outcomes if I enlisted the help of someone that did, I guess, which is why I contacted you, David. I think that was around May of last year.
David: I think we spoke a couple of times. Your application had a couple of special challenges. So, one thing we've already touched on, you are a nontraditional student, which is not necessarily a detriment in its own right. But your education history is complicated. On top of that, you had multiple LSAT takes, about as multiple as you can get, and then you had some character and fitness issues.
And so I want to talk about how you addressed each of those in your application, maybe starting with the PS. And I'm going to ask Nora the first question. So, Nora, when you started working with Daniel on the personal statement, what was your approach? How did you even begin to look for a topic?
Nora: So when I first started working with Daniel, the first thing I did was I looked at what he sent in last year. Thought about that as sort of a jumping-off point. And I asked Daniel, you know, to talk to me about his thoughts about that application, and also to send me his notes for this next one to sort of see where he was coming in from.
And he sent me a 13-page document that was sort of a brainstorm, but I think it was a 22-year-long story that this document spanned. And so the first question was figuring out, well, which part of this story do we want to tell?
Something that I see a lot from applicants is, you know, when you think, well, why do I want to go to law school, it doesn't start a year before you apply. It often starts a really long time before you apply. And as you tell the story, you have to look to your history to say, well, this happened, and this changed my next decision, which, you know, helped me make my next decision, and on and on.
And the challenge for a lot of folks is to figure out, well, which part of this is relevant for the personal statement and which part of this is too much context? Where's the frame? And we toyed with a few different ideas. We thought, I remember, Daniel, your first personal statement was about your time in the military, right?
Daniel: Yes. Yes.
Nora: And that was the one from the 2019 cycle. But when I asked you, "Why do you want to go to law school? Why do you want to be a lawyer?" what you told me had a lot more to do with your job as a police officer and how your sort of growing disillusionment caused you to start to think about a different way that you could intervene in people's lives to help them.
And so when I thought about that purpose, then the question became like, how do you work backwards to figure out, you know, where did that feeling start, and how do we, how do we tell the story of that? And we ended up focusing in on the last few years that you were a police officer.
David: Yeah, Daniel, did you know going in that you wanted to write about something else, or did you feel like there are too many possibilities and I really have no idea?
Daniel: Yeah, more the latter. You know, that direction that Nora provided was, like, so important. I couldn't have done it without her. So essential. Even my initial personal statement from the previous cycle, I really didn't have any clue how to write a good personal statement, what kind of things I should be talking about, even what an application reader would be looking for in terms of a good applicant, like what they would admit to their school.
And that document that I sent Nora was just me kind of putting in, like, anything that I could think of that, you know, like, hey, maybe this would be good, maybe this idea. These are some things that I wrote about last year, which I was horrified to read again. I can't believe I submitted this thing.
And Nora told me, I think she was just kind of, I think she was just being nice to me when she's like, "That always happens when you read your stuff again." I think it was horrifying. But she was able to just give me that direction that I needed. Like, what are you trying to accomplish here? What are you trying to do with this personal statement?
I mean, you're telling a story, but what's the goal, right? Like if you're trying to show admissions that you would be a good law student, that you have the potential to succeed. I guess, why do you want to be a lawyer? Why do you want to be an attorney? What drives you to study law?
And I kind of, I don't know if I left it out initially in my first attempt to get into law school, but I hadn't addressed it, I think, directly enough. That's something that I definitely needed.
David: Daniel, would you feel comfortable reading it out loud? Not the whole thing, but maybe just the first paragraph and one more sentence?
Daniel: Yeah, sure.
Ray's posture slumped as if his admission of guilt had left him somehow deflated. My police training allowed me to recognize his emotional cues in the interrogation: defiance, defensiveness, deception, fear, and now resignation.
Having broken my suspect, I felt this sense of accomplishment. Ray was a drug dealer, and my job was to get his supplier. Confession in hand, I asked Ray to become a police informant in exchange for leniency. If he provided me information on his supplier and fellow drug dealers, he could face lesser penalties.
Most people in Ray's situation either jumped at the chance to save themselves or took offense at the idea of turning on their friends. But Ray had different priorities: "I just want to get out of jail in time to see my son graduate high school."
I was trained never to connect emotionally with suspects and to instead project empathy tactically, like a baton or an armlock, as a tool to gain compliance. But Ray's answer resonated with me in a way I did not expect.
David: How did you get to the idea of writing about Ray in particular?
Daniel: I think I had brainstormed a couple ideas, maybe two or three of them, if I remember correctly. And we had explored them, just kind of getting a rough idea of what it would look like, how much development, how much additional work it would take to kind of take each individual idea and make it into a viable topic for the essay.
And I think that story that we settled on was just the one that was the most applicable, I guess, to my situation, and the evolution of my, you know, thought processes and my time in the police force, maybe like the most representative story of what actually led me to leave law enforcement to go into law studies.
David: Nora, did this story come out of the brainstorm?
Nora: Yeah, so what was interesting was brainstorming with Daniel, Daniel, you're a really good writer and you're really good at picking moments, especially, that moved you in some way, that made you think. And I think the first thing that came out of the brainstorm was the series of different moments, the series of different sort of microstories.
And every time we talked, the story of Ray came up, and it started to feel like it held a lot of weight, specifically when we were talking about your decision to pursue law, and reading it, it makes sense. This is a moment where you're working with someone who your training allowed you to recognize these different emotional cues and to feel like you had sort of broken your suspect, which was supposed to be success.
But you felt conflicted, because though you'd gotten the confession, it didn't feel right to you. And I think you were surprised by your own reaction to that interrogation, felt like this really interesting turning point in the story, this moment where you realized that your priorities were different, perhaps, than the priorities of your department.
David: What I admire about this essay is that it's working both as a story that stands up on its own, and as a document that helps us make sense of your entire application. It anticipates some of the questions that admissions officers might have about why you ended up getting your undergraduate degree so late.
It anticipates some of the questions they may have about why you left the police force, and it provides a really compelling counternarrative to something that they might just conclude if they were only reading your character and fitness addendum.
So it does all of that, but it never feels abstract, right? You began with that paragraph that really paints a portrait of somebody, and it always feels very lively and specific. Did you know you were doing all this or were you just trying to follow the trail?
Daniel: I think I have Nora to thank for most of that. I think it's ended up being, like, just beautifully engineered, all those different aspects. And I think I was a beneficiary of her experience, you know, that definitely was essential, if not the primary factor that led to, like you said, how it just kind of performs all of those different functions, all in one essay.
I guess I couldn't say that I was even aware that we were doing all of that at the time, until we got towards the end, where everything started to kind of get solidified, the content and the sequence of everything, and when we start to kind of fine-tune the content.
And then Nora would explain to me, you know, like, this language works better, this language better conveys this idea. Just kind of helping me put words to my thoughts, I guess, because I tend to be all over the place when it comes to that.
David: Nora, I guess I'll ask you the same question. Did you know that you were doing all of these things or were you just trying to tell the story?
Nora: So I saw this common thread, Daniel, throughout your documents that, you know, starting back in what you wrote about your time in the military, where you started to think, "I want to be working to help people. I want to be working to change people's circumstances for the better, and I feel like what I'm being told to do doesn't tally with that. And I feel frustrated because, you know, I'm following these instructions and the outcomes I'm seeing aren't the outcomes that I'd expect to see."
And I saw that in your writing about your time in the military and in your writing about your time as a police officer. And in some ways, I think, you know, so we get to this problem, right? Like you're in these careers where your goal is to help people. It's not working. What do you do?
And I think a really important part of any personal statement is to look to the future, not to just say, "I identified a problem and I'm frustrated, but I want to do things differently." And so when you look back to the things that you tried to do as a police officer first, you know, you try to apply this new knowledge that you gained studying psychology to your work in narcotics, right?
You start sending people to rehab instead of arresting them. You start counseling people to interact with suspects in kinder ways. You implemented a Narcan program, and that was, I think, the first of its kind in the way of law enforcement?
Daniel: That's right.
Nora: So you started to work to make these changes, and you realized those changes, they're not doing what you want them to do. You're still working, you feel, in the wrong context. And so then enter law school, right? Enter the sort of future part of the statement where we say, well, why are you telling us all this? What's the point?
And the point is the future. And the point is what you want to do now, now that you have had this experience, that you tried in these ways. And it leads you really nicely into this sort of ending that's not just, you know, here's why I left law enforcement, but is really, here's how I'm going to take what I've learned and use it to enact real change.
David: Let's turn now to the diversity statement, which is really successful, I think, for a lot of the same reasons, but it's interesting because it's not what I would think of as a traditional diversity statement.
Before we actually discuss it, Daniel, I'm going to put you on the spot again. Again, you don't have to say yes, but I think you are a good reader, and I'm wondering if you would just read us the first paragraph.
Daniel: Yeah. Yeah, sure.
Daniel: First paragraph. I joined the army when I was 17. I asked the recruiter for something dangerous and ended up a paratrooper in the 82nd Airborne Division. I expected a challenge that would help me find direction and purpose. But while training for war fighting taught me about leadership and gave me confidence in my ability to overcome adversity, it did not prepare me for the realities of a combat deployment, something that would transform my views on poverty, equity, and the effects of US military interventions.
David: Thanks. One thing that I'll point out right away is that the style is really different. You began your personal statement with an anecdote. I sometimes call it a cold open because we're in a scene and we don't know exactly what's going on. We figure it out as we go along.
And this one is sort of the opposite. This one is almost like an abstract of the essay you're about to give us. It tells us what the essay is about, and it sort of leads with the conclusion, and then we're going to loop back and get to this conclusion. We're going to learn how it transformed your views on poverty, equity, and the effects of US military interventions.
But my first question is, why did you choose to write a diversity statement about your experience in the military?
Daniel: We went back and forth on this, I think, for a while, you know, whether I should even write a diversity statement and whether this would be a viable topic for one. I think we just ended up deciding that if it's just a matter of writing about, hey, I was in the military, you know, maybe that might not have been as useful a diversity statement.
Just talking about things that maybe an admissions officer would just kind of assume if you saw someone had military experience, like, okay, this person is, maybe has some leadership experience, has some experience working in difficult environments, critical-thinking skills, that kind of stuff.
But as we explored the topic more, I think it became apparent that there were different things that I could talk about, specifically with this deployment to Afghanistan that we addressed. It helped me learn something, I guess, just about the way that the world worked, you know, external to my reality to that point.
David: Yeah. I actually think that it complements your personal statement beautifully, and it really reinforces, for lack of a better word, your brand. You have a brand as someone who risked himself personally, first in the military, then in the police force, to fight bad guys, only to realize that, in your own words, it's not that simple.
That's what your DS is about. That's also what your PS is about. And so we see the common theme: you're fighting bad guys, and then you realize, wait a second, this binary of bad guys versus good guys is a little too tidy. It is no longer a satisfactory model of the world.
And you set out to learn more, first by going back to college, and now you're going to law school. So I think it's doing a lot of work for you. Those two essays are reinforcing each other. Nora, how did you go about helping Daniel figure out what might be a good topic for the DS?
Nora: Yeah, so like Daniel said, it was really hard. We went back and forth a lot about whether he should do a DS because in some ways we were operating on a less-is-more principle, right? You only want to submit writing that serves your application positively, right? Like don't make people read more pages unless there's something that you can tell them about yourself that you feel will really fit and serve your narrative.
And the more I heard Daniel talk about being in the military, the more I thought this really, yeah, like what you said, David, this fits into this overall way that your life has gone, Daniel, where you end up in these situations where you're supposed to be, you know, fighting the bad guys and you realize, this is way more complicated than I thought it would be.
And really, I think what we worked to highlight in the diversity statement was the sense that Daniel's a really good critical thinker. And I think the question was like, how do we sort of use this story to show that, to show the way that you had this experience and it helped you rethink where and how you trust authority, where and how you trust institutions?
And then you say this in your essay, it's a view that's guided you through your career in law enforcement and afterwards, right? That you, that you're interested in asking the difficult questions and not accepting the status quo, and then challenging things that you feel are wrong wherever those things happen to come up.
David: Daniel, do you like writing?
Daniel: Not particularly. I guess the best way to put it is I don't mind it. It's never been something that I thought I was particularly good at.
David: Do you know about how many drafts you did for each of these essays?
Daniel: I believe it was 13 or 14 drafts for the personal statement and maybe a little less for the diversity statement, maybe 10.
David: Wow. That's a lot. Were you making substantive edits the whole time or were you sort of getting the basic shape of it, and then refining it?
Daniel: More the latter, if I remember correctly. We started off with a lot more content and then just kind of refining it, getting rid of anything that wasn't really useful.
David: Nora, can you talk to me a little bit about that process?
Nora: Yeah. So, at the beginning, I think for most of your essays, Daniel, we would usually do a big overhaul. I always feel bad at that step because I have to send you an email saying, "Okay, this is a great essay, but you have to change the entire order, add three paragraphs."
But after the first few rounds of overhaul, when the essay really finds its form, then it becomes about tweaking the language, about adding details, about thinking about, you know, what details are actually serving the story and what details are there because you grew attached to them in the writing.
And that's one of the hardest parts, is figuring out, like, what sentences do you need to chop? Because especially when we're talking about diversity statements, you know, you want this to be a page or less, double-spaced. That's not a lot of room. And that was something that I was very strict about. It was like, we cannot go over a page.
You know, we often ended up cutting sentences in half, you know, really whittling things down. But the idea is, you know, how can you as quickly as possible say what you came there to say? And how do we add the sort of flourishes, the details, the stuff that's going to make it compelling to read without making it feel redundant or lengthy?
Daniel: Yeah, I distinctly remember we were talking about maybe ideas or even wording that I would get just kind of attached to throughout the creation of the essay. And when it became apparent that it didn't work, thankfully, I had you to kind of just insist on, you know what? I get that you like this, but it may not work. It may not suit our purposes, or that there may be a better way to do this.
I may or may not have attempted to sneak some of those back by you again. But you were very vigilant, thankfully.
Nora: Something we say a lot in writing is, "Kill your darlings." You know, the things you got the most attached to are sometimes the things that need to go, or the things that need to find new homes. And there were moments where you'd say something really well, and I feel like we should keep that somewhere, somehow.
And then it might, you know, there were a few times where language would reappear in like a supplemental essay for a school or, you know, half of your personal statement used to be about your time in the military, and we were able to sort of rescue some of that language and bring it into the diversity statement. So, kill your darlings, but revive them too.
David: Yeah. I don't think anything is ever wasted when you cut it. It comes back in some form. But now I'm getting karmic.
Daniel, can we talk about your character and fitness issues? To the extent that you feel comfortable, can you just give us an overview of what kind of issues you were writing about?
Daniel: Yeah, so I had a lot, actually. Quite a lot. That is part of the reason why, in my first cycle, like I said earlier, I didn't really know what to expect, what kind of results I could expect, or even if I would be able to get into any law school at all, let alone one that aligned with my career goals.
So I had some juvenile arrests. I had quite a few traffic citations over the years. My exit from the military was not the ideal discharge. It was an other-than-honorable discharge, which is something you don't quite hear about as often, I believe. It's not a dishonorable discharge, but it's also not an honorable discharge.
So something kind of went wrong along the way, basically, which is not the ideal thing to have on your record. And then my exit from the police department from law enforcement also coincided with an arrest. I was arrested on some erroneous charges that were actually never charged, but, you know, nevertheless, I did have an arrest, a recent arrest, which was in June of 2019, on my record.
David: And you wrote to me that your other consultant, Scott, who couldn't join us today, helped you figure out how to frame these issues. Could you just tell me a little bit more about that? What was the general approach?
Daniel: So my initial approach, the approach I took in the previous cycle, was to, and I think my character and fitness then, it must've been at least two pages long, but just kind of go into as much detail as possible, kind of like explaining, you know, why these things happened, you know, what my perspective was in these incidents, what I learned about them, trying to show like, hey, you know what, but I've grown as a result of this.
Not that any of it was disingenuous, but Scott kind of took a look at everything and he just let me know like, hey, you know what? One, this is too much; two, you want to be candid. You want to be succinct, you know, just, the purpose of this is to disclose what happened, to be up-front and honest. This is what has happened to me, and to just go from there. Convey all the relevant information, and at the same time, give yourself the best shot of a positive outcome.
David: Was it ever hard to find the line between saying too little and saying too much?
Daniel: It was for me, which is why I am extremely grateful for both Scott and Nora's guidance through all this. It was for me because I think there was an element just throughout my application materials, there was like an element of maybe searching for vindication or, you know, being able to kind of prove myself.
You know, justifying the actions that I had taken, my reasons for doing things. And I think even in one of our conversations, you also told me the same kind of thing, or it's like, you're not trying to take a stance or pick a hill to die on here. You know, you want to just convey that you are a good applicant, you'd make a great law student, you know, kind of just use that as your entryway into law school, to do the things, to accomplish the things that you want to do.
David: When I read your character and fitness addendum, what struck me was, one, the extreme succinctness, but two, they felt almost naked. And the reason I think that they felt naked to me is that there was this complete absence of defensiveness, which I think ended up working really well for you. It did not sound like you were protesting too much and it ended up conveying the sense that you didn't have anything to hide.
Daniel: Yeah, and I think that was one of the focuses in just kind of refining this content, is to just make it as up-front and honest as possible.
David: Daniel, who did you ask for letters of recommendation from, and did any of these considerations, you know, your character and fitness addenda or your unconventional path to law school, play a part in your thinking?
Daniel: As far as my recommender selections?
Daniel: Yes. So one of my recommenders was a previous supervisor in the police department, is a detective in the division that I worked for. So, given that that was my most relevant recent professional experience, I guess it would already stand to reason that I would get a recommendation from someone there.
But at the same time, speaking with Scott, you know, we decided that it would also be useful to just kind of not counter the character and fitness issues, but to just add more context to the work that I had done as a police officer. And then my other two recommenders, I think I ended up using three letters of recommendation, were from professors in my psychology program.
David: Yeah, that's good. Everyone's different, but in general, academic recommendations count for the most. And your academic work was relatively recent, so I would think that that would help assuage some possible concerns about your academic history, the fact that, like you said, that your undergraduate career spanned about 20 years.
Daniel: Yeah, I remember when we started putting applications together and I saw how the end form that it generates, where you get that PDF that your completed application spits out, and I could see the education section. It must've been like two pages long. That's kind of concerning, like, is this going to be a problem? But it worked out, worked out okay.
David: The last thing I want to ask you about is just how you chose what schools to apply to, and then how you ended up choosing Cornell.
Daniel: Yeah, so I wanted as much portability, I guess, as possible, and I wanted to go to a school that would give me options as far as what kind of law I practiced, what kind of job I eventually got. You know, I have an idea of what I want to do, you know, which, that's the whole direction of my application. I'm interested in public interests, policing reform, those kinds of things.
But at the same time, you know, I think I can just assume that, I'm not even in school yet, right? So, as I'm going through law school, it would be very likely that, you know, my career goals would evolve as I learn more. So, with that in mind, I decided to apply to just the top 14 schools. The cycle previous, I had gotten on some waitlists for schools in that range. Based on that, and my current career goals, and the numbers, the test scores that I ultimately got, that settled on the top 14 schools.
David: This has been really informative. I wonder if we can leave this conversation with a piece of advice from each of you, maybe specifically geared towards nontraditional applicants.
Daniel: I guess I would say something like your past difficulties don't define you and they're going to limit what you can do only if you allow them to.
David: What about you, Nora?
Nora: It's a good question. I think figuring out what it is that you want your story to do, where your story ends, and then where the future is too. I think a lot of nontraditional applicants struggle to figure out how do I summarize my schooling, my career, and my life in a couple short pages in the succinct way that must be a lot easier for someone in their early twenties, just out of college, you know, hasn't done a whole lot yet.
And I think really figuring out, like, how do I focus on the past enough to give a context for who I am, but also remember to focus on the future, focus on where you want to go and how those experiences will inform that work, I think that's really important.
David: That's great advice. Well, thank you both for joining me, and Daniel, I really hope that you enjoy your last summer of freedom for awhile.
Daniel: Thank you. I'm trying my best.
J.Y.: Hi, it's J.Y. again. Thank you for listening. And as always, if you're studying for the LSAT, applying to law school, studying for your law school exams, or studying for the bar, come visit us at 7Sage.com. We can help.
That's it for this episode. Take care of yourself and see you next time.