Bad Idea Jeans: C&F Drive-Bys
I find it astonishing that I have to address Character & Fitness issues every year, but despite having written here and here about being completely candid in your application, every year I come across applications that provoke me to shut the door of the admissions office and have a private Donkey Kong moment with my staff (they don't judge).
What's been bugging me lately is the very cavalier attitude some students appear to have toward their character and fitness addenda. I'm talking about stuff like (and this is an actual one), "I was arrested for possession of a controlled substance while crossing the U.S. border in 2010. I went to court and received three months' probation."
And that's it.
I suppose the person writing this expects my reaction to be something like, "Oh, OK. Thanks for letting me know." Typically, though, I stare at a statement like this and wonder if it's worth even asking the applicant for more details or whether I should assume that someone who lacks the judgment to know that phrases like "controlled substance," "at the border," and "arrested" ought to be explained more fully is probably not going to make a very good lawyer.
To give you guys the benefit of the doubt, though, I'll offer up some basic guildelines on how to write a C&F addendum. A C&F Bootcamp, if you will. Here we go:
1. State All the Relevant Facts. Here's a little tip about law school. On your first day, you or one of your classmates will be cold-called by a professor. The first words that are almost guaranteed to come out of his/her mouth are, "Please state the facts of this case." You are then expected to provide a narrative that explains what facts and circumstances gave rise to the particular issue the court happens to be considering in that case. So, if you answer "Yes" to either of our C&F questions, here's a chance for you to practice doing this. Think of it as a story. Who, What, Where, When, How (we'll get to the Why in a second). A few pointers:
*If you were arrested and charged with a crime, you should state specifically what you were charged with. It's helpful if you can indicate whether it was a misdemeanor or a felony.
*Depending on the particular issue in question, you'll need to mention certain details. For example, if you are discussing a drug violation, it's important to note 1) the type of drug involved and 2) the quantity. (I'm a former federal agent. I'm familiar with the amounts that would make it unlikely that you planned to use it all for your personal consumption.) Similarly, depending on the kind of issue you are dealing with, YOU should make a judgment about what facts an admissions committee might consider relevant to your candidacy, even if those facts don't put you in the most awesome light possible. This is about candor, not about making yourself look good. In fact, an honest, forthcoming statement of what happened reflects much more favorably upon you than vaguely-worded statements that just make you look hinky. (And in general, if you don't fill in the blanks, I will, and I will assume the worst scenario possible.)
*Dates are important. Proximity in time is a big factor in evaluating your C&F issue. I.e., doing something really, really dumb ten years ago is usually more exusable than doing something just sorta dumb ten months or ten weeks before you applied to law school. For this reason, please indicate the month, day, and year when your incident took place, rather than saying "when I was in college" or "a long time ago." If the incident occurred soooo long ago that you don't remember the actual date and have no record of it, you may use the legalese, "on or about [estimate month/year]...." (and then note that you have no record or recollection of the precise date so you don't look like a tool).
2. Describe the Disposition of the Charge. Again, this is like practicing for law school, where you'll have to know the procedural posture of a case. That means you have to be able to describe the journey the case took and where it ended up. If you have a criminal infraction, you'll need to indicate whether you went before a judge and how your charge was ultimately adjudicated. This includes if you pleaded no contest or if whatever sentence you received has since been expunged: both of these scenarios would still fall under the purview of our question. If it's an academic violation, you must describe any disciplinary proceedings of which you were a part even if you were not ultimately sanctioned. To emphasize that last part, even if your college tells you that there will be "no record" of the disciplinary proceedings/actions against you in your student file after you graduate, our question asks whether you have ever been the subject of disciplinary proceedings. Therefore, unless you can reverse history by flying backwards around the earth really fast, you MUST answer "Yes" to our question. (Yes, I am looking at you, Yale College. Sorry.)
3. Take Responsibility for Your Actions. Here's where we get to the "Why" of your C&F addendum. What you need to do here is reflect on what happened and demonstrate an understanding of why what you did was wrong. Again, you'll need to use your judgment in terms of how much to say. Accepting responsibility for something like a DUI or plagiarism is probably going to require a longer mea culpa than something like being arrested for public urination (really, what more is there to say on that than it was gross and inappropriate)? A few notes on responsibility:
*You may have had personal circumstances that you feel were relevant to the incident. If so, you can include these so that the admissions committee can consider the "totality of the circumstances" surrounding your C&F issue. You should be careful, though, to make clear that you are offering up this personal context as an explanation, not as an excuse.
*You should explain how you have learned from the incident so that the admissions committee can be confident that you are not going to repeat the behavior again. "Learning from the incident" does not mean writing about how scary jail is, or how terrible you felt telling your parents, or how worried you were about whether you would get into law school. (Focusing on how bad it was for YOU makes you look narcissistic and like you don't really get it.) Rather, it means showing an objective and critical self-awareness of your own behavior, why you made the choices you did, and how you have changed and matured in such a way that, given the same or similar situation in the future, you would not make the same (poor) choices again.
I hope that this guide helps you to write a complete C&F addendum. If you're worried that your addendum will be too long, don't be. I love popcorn. I'm happy to pop a bag and curl up on the couch with my cat to read everything you need to say. And despite my former profession (or perhaps because of it), I'm actually inclined to be quite forgiving...as long as you tell it to me straight.