This is a particularly tricky question for applicants — and one where we often see that instincts tend to be a good bit off. So let’s break that down and, ideally, give you a road map for what to do.
In law school admissions, there is a tendency among applicants to think that “more is better,” and it makes sense that many would think this. Schools do want to know about you, of course. They have to make gate-keeping decisions about the legal community. Additionally, most people applying to law school are go-getters. So there is an innate compulsion toward proactivity.
Herein rests the problem for many, though, especially with addenda. While the above makes sense, it’s also almost impossible to put yourself into an admissions officer's shoes. You’ve never done it. We have, so let me share what they are seeing, namely long, often boring applications replete with overly explanatory and lengthy addenda. Which, to say it as bluntly as I can, makes your nights and weekends much longer and more agitating when you are an admissions officer. The whole point in the admissions process is to elevate your application. You can do that if you speak the language of an adcom. But you can also regress your application if you put an admissions officer through unnecessary work. Let’s sort through the conundrum, then, of when you should and when you shouldn’t submit a GPA addendum.
When should you not submit?
This one is pretty easy, to me, because at least 50% of applicants who submit a GPA addendum should not. Here’s why. First, you are calling attention to a known fact that isn’t helping you, and often making it even less helpful. A classic example is along the lines of, “I have a 3.1 overall LSAC GPA, but my grades went up every year. If not for my freshman and sophomore year my recalculated GPA (incidentally you are the one doing the recalculating here and no one is paying attention to it) would be a 3.7.”
That is a disastrous GPA addendum, and one that we have seen far too often. There’s even a worse one though. “You should know that I go to a school with minimal grade inflation and demanding professors. If I had been at almost all other schools my GPA would be much higher. Please take this into consideration.” Congratulations, if you were a low admit you just went to a high wait list by telling the adcom what they should think! Never tell and admissions officer what they should take into consideration. It's just read the wrong way.
So more broadly, anything without extenuating and real factors are annoyances and extra work for adcoms. Don’t blame your major, a professor, or your school. And there is no need to call attention to an upward GPA trend. In fact, most people go up. With about a week of admissions experience you see this in transcripts in a nano-second. They get it. And get far too many unnecessary GPA addenda. When in doubt, just leave it out.
When should you submit?
This requires some candid introspection. Did something(s) extenuating (not, for example, more challenging coursework which you elected to take) happen to you that, if it had not, your GPA honestly would have not dropped? Most anything health related, even the flu, falls into this category. Significant health issues of your family or extremely close friends too. One word of caution — I loved my dog who recently passed away with all my heart — but please don’t say “a family member passed away” if it was a pet. There isn’t really an upside to the admissions officer figuring this out, and I have seen that scenario go way south. There are lots of fine lines here. Sadly you read about abusive relationships too often in admissions. That would qualify for sure. But the ending of a relationship naturally. Likely not. I can’t go over every scenario, I would just say that, again, try to put yourself not in your own shoes but in those of the person reading your file. Will they see the hardship as something where, if they were faced with the same challenge, they also would have not been able to focus academically? More importantly, did the challenge thrust into your life cause you to grow over time? I actually just talked about this in a podcast on overcoming adversity (here). What do I like to see in applications more than anything? GROWTH. What am I? A former admissions officer. A GPA addendum can sincerely elevate your file if you take a challenge that was thrust upon you and grow from it. Just don’t go overboard and run up a mountain and record a podcast. Usually it should be no more than a page.
Summing it all up
Hopefully you now feel equipped to make the right decision to add a GPA addendum or not — is a busy file-reader who sees scores of these a day going to pay special attention to your GPA addendum? Very likely yes if there were real reasons for a GPA decline, or struggle, during a portion of your college tenure. Very likely no, if you simply have a low GPA that got higher over time.