Actually, No, I Didn't Play That Card
I write often about my own path to academia and how it's different than most law profs out there--the daughter of Vietnam War refugees; a first generation born to parents stuck somewhere in Vietnam in the 1950s; one who rembers well enough what it was like to grow up poor and fit eight people in a two bedroom apartment; a dilettante who became that way because her family worked the night shift stuffing inserts and sections for the LA Times all throughout her childhood (you start reading the paper and wake up with newsprinted skin).
But oddly, I've never mentioned any of this in any of my personal statements when I applied to college, law school, law school two.
My friend the Organizational Engineer asked me about this, as she's currently applying to Business Ph.D programs. She, like me, had a childhood marked by struggle--but the teenage years were okay. Same with me. We lived eight to an apartment, with my two sisters in one bedroom, my three brothers in another, and my parents and I in a kitchen--up till the age of eight for me. And then we moved into a four bedroom house--which was still a tight fit, but I didn't have to sleep in the kitchen and I started eating brand named snack foods not just on special occasions (ahhh, Twinkies--how you disgust me now, where once I loved you). Once I turned 15, my family stopped working for the LA Times at night. By then, two of my brothers were engineerS, my sister was a dentist, and they all contributed to the household fund. They still do. I plan to once I get a salary, in addition to helping put two nephews through college. This is how we hardworking immigrants achieve the American dream. Ironically, it's also through a lot of Federal and State financial aid that is then forgotten once my siblings reach the higher tax brackets.
So my friend is being advised by her friends to write about her struggle--but it was so long ago. Should she? She doesn'st feel fully comfortable about it. That's how I feel. I remember what it was like to be poor--distantly. By the time I was actually applying to colleges, the struggle was no longer there, and it was no longer as difficult. True, there are certain things that remained true until I was 18 years old--I did most of my learning at the library because I couldn't afford to buy books, and I often skipped lunch to funnel the money to buying books and CDs (this is why my vast amount of cultural capitaland esoterica is hard won but cheaply bought in used bookstores, library sales, and cheap "greatest hits" recordings from Target and Naxos). But really, did this have much bearing on my college application? For some reason, I didn't think so then, and I don't think so now. Even if ten years ago, when I applied to college, the experiences were more proximate and potentially more directly related.
I remember well what I wrote then: I wrote about my thirst for knowledge (and I suppose the working within the confines of poverty would have been relevant, except by then I didn't think I was that poor anymore). I wrote about why I wanted to major in English literature and political science. I wrote about my belief in a well-rounded, holistic, classic liberal arts education, which is why I wanted to study two different disciplines. I wrote some very purple prose phrases, like how I wanted to burn the candle at both ends without myself being consumed, or my belief that studying in two discplines would, instead of pulling me apart, give me two signposts for directing my intellectual development. (Ugh). College personal statements are probably the most general types, and for the UC system, it's just one application that you send to the Regents along with multiple checks and checked boxes for the campuses you want to apply to. You can, at this stage, still be figuring things out for yourself, but it helps to show more direction than most lost 18 year olds.
And then when I applied to law school, I wrote about my belief in social justice, my feminist activism, and why I wanted to study the law in particular as opposed to continuing on with English literature or political science. I wrote how I wanted to study a subject that would not only add to my own store of knowledge, but something where there was more at stake than my own insight. I wasn't content to surround myself with only books and think that this was my universe and way of understanding the human condition. I wanted to study a subject that could make a difference, at the end of the day, to human lives and real government. Yet I didn't want to do this at too far a remove of macro political theory (which is what I would have done in poli sci grad school). And I was pretty specific about why I was applying to each law school in particular, and the subjects I wanted to take and the professors I wanted to learn from. You should, at this stage, know why you want to go to this type of school and embark upon this career path.
And then when I applied to law school again, it was even less personal. I wrote about my intellectual path through law school and again the commitment to anti-discrimination law, but I basically just wrote a research proposal and really identified the faculty I wanted to work with in particular. The higher up you go, especially if you're applying to doctoral programs, the more specific you should be about why you want to do this (it is a huge commitment of time and resources; don't go to grad school/law school just to "figure out" what you want to do with your life) and who you want to work with. Ph.D, LL.M and S.J.D. programs are there to help you become an academic--particularly by matching you up with a faculty advisor. If there's no one on staff who can/wants to work with you on your project for the years it will take to finish, you'll probably be rejected no matter how strong a candidate you are. You should know, by this stage, what you want to do, why you want to do it, and who you want to work with.
So no, I didn't play the poverty/struggle/race card at any stage of application, but that doesn't mean that it's wrong to do so. But it wasn't for me, and I didn't do it. If it's particularly proximate in time and cause for you, perhaps you should mention it, especially if it impacted your studies or characterized your most recent experience (for example, I imagine surviving cancer during college and graduating cum laude is pretty commendable). But otherwise, old cards and tricks should best be left in that old hat.