Transcript

My environment did affect me greatly at the time at a young age, and I realize that now, by owning it, it shows maturity. It shows that I have moved on from this and I'm willing to own it. And it's become part of my career trajectory. I want to help people in low-income communities and families and youth to have opportunities so this doesn't have to happen to other people.

Hello, and welcome to the 7Sage podcast. I'm J.Y. Ping, and on today's episode, David interviews a student named Christian who had to change his approach to get into law school. Although Christian had high numbers, he was waitlisted or rejected from every school he applied to, two cycles in a row.

But after he got out in front of his character and fitness issues, he was admitted to Northwestern with a full ride. Okay. Here's the interview.

Christian, thanks for joining me today.

It's a pleasure. Thanks for having me.

Yeah, so I know that this was not your first cycle, and I'm wondering if you can start by telling us about what happened before you applied this cycle and came to 7Sage.

Sure. Like you said, this is my third cycle, so I began applying to law schools during my senior year of undergrad. I was convinced that I was going to start right away because I had such a high GPA and I had a decent LSAT score. I was a little too overconfident, actually, thinking that that alone would get me in, and I thought I had a cool story.

But I ended up getting waitlisted at every school I applied to, which were most of the tier 14, during my first cycle. So that was a wake-up call for me that I needed to improve my application. I had a 168 LSAT and a 3.9 plus when I first applied.

And do you have a sense of what went wrong in the first two cycles?

I know now it was a combination of two things. One, I did apply kind of late, I didn't actually turn in all my applications until the beginning of January. That was mainly because I was waiting on letters of recommendation, which I didn't plan ahead for. But the second, probably more important part is I just was not communicating my story well. I didn't really know how to write a good personal statement or diversity statement.

I kind of, reading back at it now, it's kind of cringe-worthy because it was clear that I just did not know what the law schools really wanted to know about me or hear about me or how to present myself as an attractive candidate. I was saying good things about myself, but I just wasn't really expressing myself as one cohesive applicant. I was kind of all over the place, and I really think that was the main issue.

And what made you decide to work with a consultant? Did you realize this on your own?

Well, after my second cycle applying and still getting similar results, even though I tried redoing my essays on my own and there was an improvement, but it still wasn't good. I knew that my score was good, my LSAT scores. I knew my grades were great, and I felt that I had very good experience on my resume.

So I think that the issue had to be that I just wasn't presenting myself correctly and I wasn't going about the applications and the communication with the schools the right way, and it was clear that I just didn't know how to do it myself. And I didn't have many people that were going through law school that could give me pointers.

And it just seemed like if I really wanted to do this, I didn't want to quit. I wanted to get into one of these schools. And I knew I would have to work with a consultant that knew what they were doing.

So let's talk about how you ended up framing your story. Your personal statement was the centerpiece, as it usually is, and it is a version of a life story essay. I was wondering if you'd be willing to read us the first paragraph.

Sure. I'll just go right into it.

If my high school friends could meet me now, they would not recognize the man I have become. The most impressive things they had taught me to do by age 15 were riding a skateboard and weighing out drugs. Those friends were part of a string of bad influences I was exposed to growing up in a low-income neighborhood in Kissimmee, Florida.

Although my parents put a roof over my head, they taught me nothing about life and they did not surround me with people who did. They divorced when I was nine, and my dad's idea of father-son bonding at 14 was to take me to Vegas to watch him gamble at the poker tables. That's the first paragraph.

And then, Christian, would you mind summarizing the rest of the story?

Sure, so basically I feel I had a rough upbringing. I was going down a terrible path with drugs and the juvenile record and not doing very good in school, even though I feel I had potential. And the main point is I definitely came out of that. You know, I changed my life around at a young age. I went to a new school that would give me more opportunities and I really applied myself to graduate early and to become, in the community, something better.

I didn't want to be around negative influences. I became very involved in church and a youth ministry, and I did a lot of volunteer work just because it just was very fulfilling for me at the time. And I knew it was giving me a good purpose and was helping me to become a better person and to come out of the path that I was going on beforehand.

So that culminated in me excelling in school and doing my associate's degree at a somewhat of a community college in Orlando. And I eventually transferred to Harvard extension school with a scholarship. So that's not much of a summary, but I ended up becoming a congressional intern at 16. I ended up graduating high school and my associate's degree pretty early.

I had very great grades, and I chose to study government economics and ended up working in affordable housing research and development as a way to give back to low-income communities. And this was influenced from my upbringing and a low-income community and the issues that I faced, and I wanted to apply my education in a way that would help other youth and people in low-income communities.

So that's the gist of my personal statement, and it led to me in my current work now in affordable housing, but also in what I want to do as a lawyer and what I've stated I want to do as a lawyer, working in community development.

It's a great story. It's an inspiring story. Is this what you wrote about in your original personal statements?

It's been a while since I looked at it. I think I did. This was the gist of it. I just wasn't able to communicate it as well as I was able to in this essay. I was less direct on how my upbringing really was. I tried to kind of avoid the rough parts and focus more on the good, if that makes sense.

Yeah, that makes sense.

I did speak about wanting to help low-income communities with my education and in law, but I wasn't as specific as I was in my latest version.

Right. If you show us that you grew up in a low-income community, and if you show us how it affected you, it's so much more compelling when you tell us that you want to help other people in low-income communities.

Right. And I understood that only when I worked with consultants at 7Sage, and they helped me to realize all of that and to communicate it. Even though I had the story, my life didn't change during my cycles of applying. I gained some more experience with work, but my story remained the same. It's just now I was able to communicate it correctly and effectively.

Let's go to the turning point in your essay. That's paragraph three. Would you mind reading that as well?

Sure. Everything changed when I was 15. Kicked out of high school because of a drug charge, I'd spent the night in a juvenile detention center. As I lay on that cot contemplating life, I knew deep inside I could be so much more than what society and my environment were trying to make of me. After I was released, I knew I had to take some drastic measures.

With nobody guiding me, I found my way to a public charter school, out of necessity, and church, out of a spiritual responsibility, where I found positive role models who changed my entire outlook on life and my future.

This essay is really successful because there's such a clean before and after. And I don't know if every essay has to follow this model, but you do make it really easy to understand your story and to summarize it, which in turn makes it more memorable by giving us this joint. Here's where everything changed. Tell me how you arrived at this structure.

Well, in my life there was a period where it was kind of a clean break from the past. It did happen quickly.

Did you know that this would be the turning point of the essay when you started writing it?

No, no. I mean, it was all developing. I mean, I guess I'd kind of had to pick a spot that would help to communicate exactly the before and after. There were several points I could have used to do that. I just felt this one was able to communicate the before and after the most clearly, while remaining true to my actual story.

Yeah.

You know, and the consultants that helped me to pull that together, but I just thought this was an actual turning point for me. And this was a moment within a period that, as a whole, was a turning point for me.

Do you remember how many drafts you did on this one?

Oh my goodness. Dozens.

Oh my God. Dozens?

In fact, we started two or three drafts and then completely scrapped the whole thing and started all over.

Holy cow.

With the consultants, and Sarah and Selene were totally there for me in making this. They did not hesitate to just start all over if we needed to. And that's exactly what we did. And we really did go through dozens, I can show you the emails. There's a lot of back and forth.

And even when I thought it was done and it couldn't get any better, we still had dozens of drafts left to go after that. And I really thought we were done so many times, and we really weren't. No, it got better every time.

Wow. Yeah, that's the thing about writing. You can always make it a little bit better. So you wrote this personal statement and you, finally, dozens of drafts later, came to the end. How did you approach the diversity statement?

I had already written diversity statements in the past that tried to capture the essence of what the new one arrived at. I wanted to communicate more about my background and it really was just building off of the personal statement. I almost put things in my diversity statement that I just couldn't fit in my personal statement.

And it was meant to complement the personal statement and not be a whole separate thing entirely, if that makes sense. It was just adding more context to the parts of my background that spoke about coming from a low-income community and family and being a first-generation student without much guidance.

And I spoke about that in my personal statement, I just was able to elaborate more on it in my diversity statement, so it complemented the personal statement.

Would you mind reading the first paragraph of the diversity statement?

Sure. Two weeks before graduating from college, I bought my first car. This was almost as symbolic of progress in my life as the degree. In south Orlando, cars are a necessity. Neighborhoods are sprawling and the heat is brutal. For years, I had only the scarce public bus to rely on. I would ride it to my charter high school, then to the community college where I was dual enrolled, then to church, and finally back home at 10 p.m. I often fell asleep against the bus window with a book open on my lap while trying to keep up with my class readings.

It's a great first sentence. It's simple, and it's not immediately evident why we should care that you bought your first car, except that you're putting it in that place of importance. Talk to me about the beginning. How did you choose to start here?

Because to me, not having had a car, living in south Atlanta, everybody has a car. Everyone has a car or their parents buy them a car. Or a teenager, they buy one immediately. It was just, to me, was such a big deal for me. It made everything so much tougher for me just getting around.

And it was clear to me every day, hey, I am not coming from a wealthy background. It was clear to me every day I took that bus where it was less normal to take the bus here than somewhere else. That being low-income was a big part of my upbringing. And again, it was just an example that highlighted, hey, I'm coming from a low-income first-generation background.

And this seems like a simple way to communicate that, and a clear and honest way to communicate that without being too, I guess, dramatic or gimmicky.

Yeah, it's not gimmicky at all. I'm going to have you read the second paragraph too because you do something that I think works so well and is so smart, and I think that other people would really benefit from just listening to you do it. So go ahead and read that second paragraph, if you don't mind.

Okay. When I transferred to Harvard, I often felt like an imposter because I was a first-generation student from a lower-income background. The community felt worlds away from my hometown, yet because of the extra difficulties I faced while working my way up, I had a unique perspective that my classmates found valuable. I often informed our discourse on poverty, class, and opportunity from the viewpoint of a first-generation student looking through a window on a public bus.

In my urban policy class, I could speak firsthand to the importance of affordable housing located along transit routes and the opportunities that afforded me. I told them about how I was able to get ahead by attending a public charter school instead of my overcrowded, underfunded regional high school. My anecdotes supported and complemented the data and research we were discussing in class.

In another course that focused on peer-to-peer discussions on social issues and class relations in the United States, I was always prepared with personal anecdotes that helped to shed light on issues of economic mobility for low-income Americans.

What I love about this is that you give examples of how you contributed to the discussion in class. I feel like so many students say, or at least imply, that they're going to add a new perspective to class discussions given their diversity, but you actually show us how you've done that. And that's why it works so well in my opinion.

Yeah, and I've got to say, I mean, again, my story never changed. All this information was always there. It existed as part of my life, but I just wasn't able to piece it together. I mean, I've got to say Sarah and the consultants really helped me to find these anecdotes and to know to include these anecdotes, that they would help my argument that I'm trying to present in my diversity statement.

And I didn't think to include all of these in my last two cycles. It was only in this recent cycle that I was able to realize this with the help of the consultants.

So let's back up. When you started working with the consultants, probably before you drafted any of these new essays, you must've been wondering whether you were reaching too high, whether you should apply to the same schools, whether you should totally change your approach.

And I was hoping you could just make us privy to some of those discussions, if you can remember them. What was the conversation like at the beginning, and how did you decide to reapply to these schools that had rejected or waitlisted you before?

Yeah, so it's funny. My first meeting with Selene and Sarah, I was convinced I only want to go to Harvard and Columbia, and Selene was like, okay, well, just in case, what other schools do you want to go to?

I mean, which was realistic because, you know, I didn't make it into those schools, and previous cycles only was waitlisted. But I did open up my mind more about which schools and what my goals really were, and which schools could help me to accomplish that. And, you know, there's not just one school. There are multiple schools that could have helped me to achieve my goals.

So, definitely advice from Selene and Sarah, where their advice was pivotal to me expanding my horizons and applying to more schools, even to think about schools that weren't even on my radar beforehand. Like, I had never applied to Northwestern. I had never thought about Northwestern as a school.

You know, Chicago was just, seemed distant to me. I had no ties to Chicago. But I started to think about it with Selene's advice, and I realized, you know, that actually, Northwestern's an amazing school. I could apply there, and it could be one of the schools I applied to, and I could probably achieve my goals there just as much as I could at some of these other schools I was applying to.

And it wasn't just Northwestern. It was other schools I applied to as well, like Georgetown, which I had not applied to in previous cycles. But yeah, Sarah and Selene helped me to broaden my horizon of target schools.

Zoom out one more time. Can you talk about how your different essays fit together?

The diversity statement was very much an extension of my personal statement and speaking more about my low-income, first-generation background that I couldn't really go into detail on in the personal statement because of space requirements, you know, length requirements of the personal.

But the personal statement was supposed to tell the full, my background growing up, the pivot point, my academic interests, and how I came to want to go to law school and how what I want to do with my law degree fits in with my life story and makes it all one cohesive story. And I accomplish all that in the personal statement, whereas the diversity statement emphasizes more parts of my background of low-income and first-generation that really does fit the criteria of diversity and bringing diverse perspectives to the law school community.

My character and fitness statement, out of necessity, I needed too, because of my juvenile background, my juvenile record. I had to disclose some information about charges, but what I never thought to do before, which I thought was brilliant, that Sarah and Selene helped me to do, was to turn that into an essay.

Before, I had it as just a list of things that had happened and that I did as a teenager, but they helped me turn it into an essay that shed further light on my environment growing up, and you know, why did this happen? And to own what happened and to not shy away from it while making clear, obviously, this is part of my past, not my present or my future, but to make it almost part of my personal diversity statement.

Let's turn to that. You don't have to answer this question if you don't want to, but in vague terms, what kind of character and fitness issues did you have to disclose?

I mean, I had two domestic battery charges from when I was 13 and 14 years old and also had a possession of cannabis and possession of drug paraphernalia. So those are four charges that I had as a juvenile. And I was 13, 14, 15 years old when these happened, you know, I had to do a teen court program, I was on probation for a period of time at a young age. So those were the issues I had to disclose.

And tell me more about what you mean when you say you worked them into an essay.

Well, I didn't just give a list in this most recent version of my applications that I had help formulating from 7Sage. It wasn't just a list of what happened and dates and times. I mean, it was that, and I was very blunt with what happened, but also I gave more context on what happened. Like, hey, this is my family environment, here's what was happening with my family and me at the time.

And it's by no means an excuse for my behavior. And at no point did I make this an excuse, but I did want to give context of my upbringing and how, of course, I apologize and I've moved on from this, but this is part of my upbringing. My environment did affect me greatly at the time at a young age.

And I realize that now, by owning it, it shows maturity. It shows that I have moved on from this and I'm willing to own it. And it's become part of my career trajectory. I want to help people in low-income communities and families and youth to have opportunities so this doesn't have to happen to other people. So I kind of worked it into my career trajectory.

Let's talk about your timeline. When did you manage to get all these applications in?

I believe I had them all submitted around November, for the most part. Maybe one stayed until December, it wasn't until December that I submitted. But I had most of it completed, most of the essays completed earlier on when the applications opened up, but we were taking our time to go through draft after draft and make sure each application was perfect before actually submitting it.

And how long did you have to wait to get some good news?

Oh, I didn't receive my first decisions until February, I believe. Late February. That was early February that I got the decision from Northwestern, which was the first decision I received. And then, I believe, at the end of February, I received a notification that I got the full tuition scholarship. So yeah, till February.

Tell me about that period of waiting.

Oh my goodness. Well, I was trying to remain active. I did have some resume updates at the time, so I did send an updated resume, I believe, in January to all the schools, but besides that, it was just a whole lot of waiting and stressing and hoping for the best. You know, it was my third cycle applying.

I had gone through an LSAT retake. I'd gone through the help of consultants and I was just really hoping that this was all worth it. So it was very stressful, but it ended up surpassing my expectations.

What did you do when you got the good news from Northwestern first, that they accepted you?

When they first accepted me, I was very, very happy. That was actually my first acceptance at a tier 14 in my three years of applying. So I thought that was amazing news. Because I got one acceptance, it just made me excited that I would get more acceptances and perhaps scholarships at other schools. I wasn't rolling over in joy just yet.

I wanted to wait until the other schools got back to me. It wasn't until I received news of the full tuition scholarship at Northwestern that I just broke down crying. You know, it really validated my years of work and all that time and effort and money spent, trying to create perfect applications.

That is fantastic. So have you moved yet?

No, no. I have a few weeks left before I move to Chicago. I have my lease signed and I'm so excited to start at Northwestern.

Ah, so exciting, Christian. What are you going to do with yourself for the rest of the summer?

Well, there's a lot of logistics with the move, but I'm still working on affordable housing development and I'm just trying to relax and gear myself up mentally to go into law school with the right mindset and do a bit of focus, you know, saying goodbye to friends and family, and working some, but enjoying myself in the meantime. I know it's going to be a very busy time during 1L.

I want to end with some advice for other people. Can you take a moment to think about the difference between your first two applications and then your third batch of successful applications, and try to extract something that might be useful for other people who may be feeling discouraged or just anxious?

I would say really think deeply on who you are as a person, what your story really is, and what really drives you. Don't come up with something that you think the admissions committees want to hear, you know, but think of what is actually genuine to you and what's special to you. It doesn't have to be a crazy out-of-the-world story, but be as genuine and deep as possible.

And I think once you figure that out, it should flow much more naturally, you know, the examples and the story you're going to put together of yourself. It's going to be much more impactful and genuine and believable and relatable to an admissions committee. I think they have a more open mind than we might think.

Thanks for your great advice, Christian, and thanks for talking to us.

It was my pleasure. Thanks for having me.

Hi everyone. It's J.Y. again. Thanks for listening. If you're prepping 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.

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