The Diversity Statement, and its close cousins the Personal History and Personal Contributions essays, might be the hardest part of graduate applications. The prompts are so vague and open-ended. They often make applicants shudder.
What am I supposed to write about?
What if I’m not a minority?
Is it okay if I write about my illness and how this lowered my GPA?
For many students who belong to underrepresented populations, these essays often seem patronizing. “How dare you use my identity to pad your demographic stats,” they think. And they’re not entirely wrong. There is a degree of stat-padding involved, though the intentions are noble.
For other students, those who have dealt with physical illness or personal tragedies during their undergrad careers, these essays are an opportunity to show what they’re truly capable of. “I am not defined by my tragedies,” they say, “but how I overcame them.”
For other students, those who sailed through their youth without calamity, these essays can be daunting. They read that word “diversity” and think it doesn’t apply to them. They focus on the apparent socio-political narrative, without recognizing how they’ve positively contributed to communities in which they belong.
For all of these students, the Diversity Statement can be a tricky monster.
Luckily, the Diversity Statement is still an act of storytelling. And as the timeless lessons of narrative structure teach us, all monsters can be conquered by a champion.
This is the key to your Diversity Statement and other personal essays: you must become a champion.
It’s not the story of how difficult or disadvantaged your life has been. It’s not a pity party or an excuse for your (perceived) failures. It’s the story of how you took the resources you’ve been given, and became a champion who makes the world (and university campuses) a better place to live.
Let’s find the champion in you, friend.
What Does “Diversity” Mean?
If you want to succeed with your grad applications, your diversity statement will have little to do with race, gender, religion, or sexuality labels. Instead, it will have everything to do with the ways you’ve chosen, as an individual, to make the world better.
This is why these essays are sometimes called “Personal Contribution” statements. They’re about how you grew and changed and succeeded and made your community different.
Think that simply being a Buddhist orphan will help you get into grad school? Wrong. (Though it might help you get into a monastery.)
But what if you’re a Buddhist orphan who’s taught meditation on campus for three years, who sweeps the steps of Los Angeles’s Hsi Lai Temple every summer, and who mentors other orphans in the Big Brothers Big Sisters program, all while earning a 3.7 GPA in Neuroscience and working two years in a lab researching the effects of mindfulness on depression?
One of these is different from the other.
One says, “This is who I am.”
The other says, “This is what I do.”
The funny thing is, the impact of this story has little to do with our fictional student’s demographic label. Instead, it has everything to do with what she’s accomplished. As a thought exercise, imagine that instead of a Buddhist orphan from Los Angeles, she’s a white, heterosexual son of Baptist doctors from Austin, Texas.
This doctors’ son surely has a story. Perhaps it was an impactful teacher. Perhaps his parents resented him for it. But either way, this young man became a certified meditation teacher, worked in his community for years, mentored disadvantaged children, and studied hard while conducting meaningful research.
As long as the stories are heartfelt and real (and not the gimmick of a child of privilege seeking an advantage), the admissions committee will recognize it. They’ll know one thing for certain about either student: they’ll make a beautifully positive impact on a new graduate campus.
Just remember this:
If you want to write about identity labels in your Diversity Statement, it’s not about whether you are diverse. It’s about whether you’ve contributed to a more diverse world.
The Adversity Elephant in the Room
Students with “adversity stories” often get ridiculously good admissions results…but only if they’ve truly excelled in school. Why?
Consider two NYU classmates. Both have 3.8 GPAs and equal GRE scores. Both have published Political Science papers and submit excellent LORs. Both have years of volunteer work in public advocacy. Both apply to the same grad schools.
One, however, comes from an upper class NYC family. She went to a ritzy private high school. Her father is a Columbia professor and her mother an investment banker. The other student was a political asylee from Egypt. As a child, she saw family members murdered at gunpoint. She fled to America with her siblings, never saw her father again, lived in poverty, and learned English in public school.
Yet, both students achieved the same results. Different inputs, exact same output. Both are magnificent scholars. Both will get into grad school and succeed. One, however, had to work a lot harder to get those results, and for this, she will be rewarded.
When we talk about diversity, it’s not our applicant’s label as an immigrant first-generation college student that makes her special. It’s that she succeeded when all the odds were against her. We know that both of these students will succeed. But one of them, we know, is absolutely invincible.
Now, if our political asylee friend had a 3.4 GPA and no publications, would she get the same admissions results? Almost certainly not. She’ll still get admitted, but not at the most rigorous and competitive programs, or at least not all of them. In this case, the inputs are different, but so are the outputs. The NYC girl starts to look more capable of succeeding in intense graduate-level work.
It’s a complex issue with lots of nuance, and admissions committees take great pains to consider the true potential of every applicant. For this, we should be thankful for the opportunity to tell our story in a Diversity Statement or Personal History. But in the end, it’s a matter of how our “story” compares to the stories of others with similar academic success.
The “Upward Trending GPA” Trap
Many applicants use the Diversity Statement or Personal History to explain obstacles in their pasts that led to less-than-perfect academic performance. Perhaps they dealt with mental illness for one bleak semester. Perhaps they’re a member of the LGBT in an antagonistic religious community. Perhaps they grew up with abusive parents or a misogynist lab colleague made their life a living hell.
Often, when these applicants seek help online, they receive heartwarming advice:
Own your story. It’s who you are and doesn’t reflect your future. But be sure to show the upward trend in your GPA over time. This shows you have overcome those obstacles.
While this advice is correct, many students focus on the first part and make mistakes with the second.
For applicants who maybe have a modest 3.2 GPA, it’s tempting to blame adversity for our lack of success. “This doesn’t reflect my true potential,” they imply. “If I wasn’t a victim, I’d have achieved so much more.” Then they promise that they’ll do better if admitted to the utopia of graduate school.
Yet, this is only a promise. It provides no proof that the future will be different. While admissions committees will certainly sympathize with these candidates, we can’t ignore reality: grad schools aren’t charity organizations. This is still a student with a lower GPA who hasn’t yet proven that he can succeed in the greater challenges of grad school. After all, the GPA is the only verifiable info in the essay.
By using your adversity to justify a lower GPA, you force the reader to focus on the GPA as the final result. You make them double-check your transcripts to see how bad it really is.
Instead of showing yourself to be a champion, you’ve shown yourself to be someone who needs to be saved. In this case, the grad school is the hero, and you’re begging them to save your life.
It’s not a good look.
Thus, the key to being a champion is to never focus on the bad stuff at all. Seriously. Never describe it in any detail. Never paint yourself as a victim. Instead, tell the story of how adversity transformed you into someone who’s made a real and verifiable contribution to the world.
Compare the following two students:
“During sophomore year, I chose to abandon my orthodox Muslim upbringing. The struggle was unbearable, I separated from my family, and depression caused me to earn a 2.4 GPA for two semesters. However, I am proud to have made this decision. Now, I am confident that my GPA does not define who I am, and I feel ready and eager to achieve my full potential.”
“As someone who faced the trauma of severing ties with a deeply orthodox family, I am proud to have spent so many weekends volunteering with Recovering from Religion. In the last three years, I have spent countless hours with young women like me. We have shed tears together. We have provided counseling, academic tutoring, and job placement services. Today, as I graduate on the Dean’s List, I do so alongside an army of strong women who have taken back their lives and found faith in one another.”
One of these students is a champion. The other seems like she might be a tad overconfident.
As one dear friend of mine put it on Reddit, people love Batman for his crime-fighting skills, not because of how much it sucks to be an orphan.
Pro Tip: Leave the GPA stuff in your SOP. But even there, only mention your much higher major GPA or the GPA from your final, better semesters. As professional salespeople teach us: “Never give them a reason to say ‘no.’”
But isn’t this just an essay about volunteer work?
No. Not always.
For students who’ve gone through difficult episodes that lowered their academic performance, they don’t need years of volunteer work to prove themselves a champion. Instead, they need to focus on the results of their transformation, and how it’s made them a better scholar.
(You know all heroes must go through a transformation, right?)
Once, I worked with an uber-successful Engineering applicant. He was admitted to multiple top master’s programs despite a period during undergrad when he was hospitalized due to serious mental illness and saw a massive drop in his GPA.
We know that mental illness is a “Kiss of Death” in grad applications, right? We also know that cataclysmic grades are usually the ultimate kiss of death. So, how did this student succeed?
In his Personal History, the student was very careful in describing his issue. It wasn’t a “mental illness,” but a “personal health challenge.” When he mentioned this, he didn’t give it more than a few words. He didn’t want the committee focusing on his problem, nor on the two bad semesters it caused. Instead, he wanted them focusing on what came after.
He said this temporary setback allowed him to concentrate on what he could control…his academic career. He described the rigorous time-management methods he learned. He described the egregious amount of time he spent in his professors’ office hours. He explained how he developed the habit of referencing course materials against other textbooks, often unassigned, and how this led him to the curious discovery of his thesis topic. Most importantly, he pointed out how these skills made him a Dean’s List student for his final four semesters, with a perfect 4.0 in Engineering courses.
In the end, he wasn’t a student recovering from a traumatic episode. He’d already recovered. Now, he was a 4.0 engineer who was obviously ready to succeed even further. His traumatic episode didn’t make him a victim. It was an early chapter in the story of how he transformed into a champion.
The 3 Sections of a Champion Diversity Statement
- Inciting Event or Status Quo (1 paragraph)
- Gradual Journey Forward and Transformation (2-4 paragraphs)
- Living as a Champion Today (1 paragraph)
The key to becoming a champion is to show your transformation occurring gradually over time. This never happens immediately. There is never one fierce decision to change.
If a student says, “the day my father died was the day I decided to become a cancer researcher,” then we don’t believe them. It’s childish. No one can just decide to become a cancer researcher. That takes a thousand small self-discoveries and decisions over years. First they must decide to study medicine. Then they take a cancer-focused class with an inspiring teacher. Then they discover a talent for biostatistics. Then they join a lab where they begin to realize they can truly be a professional researcher.
This slow, gradual transformation is the real story of your essay. By encapsulating this journey in a frame narrative, one that provides a theme for the story and ends by emphasizing your successes and preparedness for the future, you craft an essay that will resonate deeply in the minds of the admissions reader.
1. Inciting Event or Status Quo (1 paragraph)
In this brief, one-paragraph section, you establish the world in which you’ve transformed (and perhaps helped others transform as well). You might describe a tragedy in your life. You might describe the difficulties of growing up in an immigrant family, with parents who never went to college. You might not have experienced major difficulties yourself, but perhaps you’ve witnessed the difficulties others faced, and did what you could to make things better. In a professional, straightforward, mature, unemotional, and completely non-melodramatic tone, you describe that world here.
Appalachia is a beautiful place, though not everyone agrees. This is something I often discussed with my father, a coal miner in Eastern Kentucky, after my mother died. Where we maintain a quiet pride in our landscape and culture, the world outside often paints a different picture. They point to the opioid epidemic. They call our people hostile and uneducated. And in some ways, they are correct. Like many locales throughout the nation, the twenty-five million inhabitants of Appalachia have their own problems. Yet, these problems do not reflect the world in which I was raised.
2. Gradual Journey Forward and Transformation (2-4 paragraphs)
This section will make up the bulk of your essay. Even though I hate “autobiography” SOPs, this longer section of your Diversity Statement will show a chronological journey through time. For most students, this is easy. You don’t need to worry about fancy structures or writing techniques. You just tell your story, all the while remembering the overarching theme. In the example above, we know that the author is going to tell us a story about growing up in rural Kentucky, and how the difficulties gave him strengths that make him a scholar with incredible potential today.
When I left home to attend Georgetown University, I often felt dismayed by how freely my educated classmates mimicked my accent, mouthed a banjo melody, or asked if I grew up in a trailer. (I did.) Occasionally, a classmate with a proclivity for hiking would speak beautifully of the Appalachian Trail, a sentiment I share, though the AT lies three hours away in Virginia. No one ever mentioned the way hundreds of people will stand for hours at the church steps on a hot Saturday, waiting to pay respects to the wife of a fellow miner who has died. No one knew that in my high school, African-American, Latino, Indian, Filipino, Native American, and Korean students roam the halls (as well as one Californian who was the true fish out of water). Few knew that the banjo evolved from the stringed West African akonting.
In many ways, these misunderstandings inspired me to work even harder these past three years, though hard work has never been a problem for me. After spending two summers toiling full-time in the same coal mine as my father, Biostatistics final exams, lab work, and waiting tables on weekends are a pleasure. In fact, it sometimes makes me feel guilty. While I collect tips or compare effects of FLASH radiation therapy, I know my father is ignoring his bad back and arthritic knees, on the night shift, but will still rise to attend church in the morning. What have I done compared to this?
3. Living as a Champion Today (1 paragraph)
In this final section, we arrive at “the point” of your Diversity Statement: that everything you’ve done in life, all you’ve been through, has made you a better candidate for graduate school. You aren’t lamenting the difficulties of your life. You aren’t simply labelling yourself as a member of a disadvantaged community. You’re proving that all this has made you better. Here, you might describe community service and how you’ve given back to the world. But, most importantly, you’ll state why these efforts will help you succeed in your master’s or PhD.
Yet as difficult as these realities can be, I know that they will only make me a better student and lab partner at Harvard. I have been fortunate to work as a community ambassador for cancer awareness in both Eastern Kentucky and Northern Virginia. The people with whom I work come from a range of backgrounds, but all share the same struggle, the same one that killed my own mother eight years ago. None of them ever care about my accent. They only appreciate that I am there to serve, just as I will in the classrooms and laboratories at Harvard. Today, I am certain of my readiness to stand alongside researchers of any culture or social class, in pursuit of the scientific goals that most benefit the community around us. In doing this, I will honor my mother, my father, my university, and the land in which I was raised.
A Note on Tone
As I said earlier, you will write in a professional, straightforward, mature, unemotional, and completely non-melodramatic tone. This isn’t a creative writing exercise. It’s not a screenplay. It’s an exercise in clarity and honesty. Don’t paint pictures of the difficult scenes in your life. By telling the story straight, you’ll sound more confident – more like a graduate scholar.
A Note on Time
If the Statement of Purpose is about the future, the Diversity Statement is about the past.
Most universities only want to know what you’ll accomplish in the future. They only ask for an SOP, which is 100% academic, a logical argument for why you’ll make a great chemist, data scientist, or financial engineer.
But those universities who ask for a Diversity Statement or Personal History…they do want to know about your past. This helps them contextualize your future. By seeing how well you understand yourself, they can better determine how valuable you’ll be as a member of their community.
When considering how these two essays work together, think of them like this:
Conclusion on the Diversity Statement
Whatever we call them – Diversity Statements or Personal Contributions – these essays are tricky for everyone. As you begin writing yours, please don’t think you need to fit into some kind of precut mold. Don’t think that grad schools only seek students who fill a demographic quota. Instead, see this as an opportunity to let your individuality and contributions shine. You aren’t beholden to identity labels or the community in which you grew up. You aren’t a failure because of a few dark days, nor are you less attractive as a scholar because your life has been comparatively smooth.
We all have issues to work out. We all have an identity formed in the crucible of our unique experiences. What matters is only that you changed, grew, evolved, transformed, and have now become someone who’s capable of making a wonderful impact on the world. Someone who’s willing to be a champion. Even if your efforts are quiet, even if the best you can do is remain open-hearted and respectful to everyone you encounter in the classroom or lab, you can be on the side of the champions, and there will be a spot in grad school for you.