A Brief on the Law School Application Essay

Most law school admissions committees present a poker-faced description of what they are looking for–send us a two (or in some cases four or more) page description of aspects of yourself/your experience/your subjective qualities which are not readily apparent in your application. This is your chance to introduce yourself as a person/ show us other qualities of yourself that make you a good candidate for law school. That’s often about as specific as it gets.

Berkeley’s Boalt Hall is one of the exceptions, so it is worth paying attention to them. Here are some choice quotes from the Boalt site, posted for the 2011 application by, it seems, a particularly forthright (and irritated) professor:

The statement should avoid simply summarizing what is in the resume. It should avoid simply asserting how able, accomplished, and well suited for law school the applicant is. It should avoid uninformed attempts to ingratiate oneself through exaggerated claims of one’s interest in Boalt…For instance, more than a few applicants stressed how much they want to work with named individuals who are at best passingly related to a Center or the like and aren’t even members of the faculty; these claims make one doubt the applicant’s due diligence…

No sycophants, no phonies, no dilettantes, who could argue with that? The Boalt prof continues by admonishing against melodrama and self-absorbed autobiography, wonderfully describing a certain kind of awful essay which has been reproducing like bacteria in a manure pile in recent years:

Starting the essay with a dramatic, unexplained sentence designed to grab the startled reader’s attention. (In fact, what it does to the reader is produce a dismayed feeling of, “Oh no, not another one of these.”). Continuing this dramatic episode for a short paragraph without tipping off its relevance to the application. Beginning the next paragraph by switching to expository style and informing us of what you were doing in this dire situation and how it was part of the background that makes you a special applicant to law school. Developing why you are so special in the rest of the statement. Then concluding with a touching statement returning to the opening gambit, about how now, after law school, you can really help that little girl in rags. It is very clear that many applicants have been coached by someone that this is how to write a compelling personal statement…This format is transparently manipulative, formulaic, and coached. Except for the occasional novelist we admit, none of our students or graduates is going to write in this style again; none, thank goodness, is going to begin a brief with, “He stood frozen in fear as the gunman appeared out of the darkness.” So, this artifice is irrelevant to law and counter-productive: Once it ceases to surprise – and it did so more than 10 years ago – it just becomes a cliché which really ought to be held against the writer. Not only using clichés, but also having been coached ought to, in an ideal world, discount an application.

Yikes! Thankfully, our cranky prof (with whom I  sympathize) goes on to say that he won’t automatically toss your (irritating) essay and your application; he knows that we do not live “in an ideal world” and he does understand that your interest in law doesn’t necessarily mean that you are a student of letters (as in literature, not the alphabet). He makes clear that the more he senses you have been “coached,” the more dimly he will view your essay, but his idea of coaching  suggests that what  really irritates him is the kind of formatted, paint-by-numbers essays he sees too often.  The more formulaic your essay is, the more severely he will judge it.

Those of you coming to law from other fields may be forgiven for viewing writing only as  a means to an end,  a task to be completed for a grade. You probably have three  or four forms that come to mind immediately when someone asks for an essay because you have probably been taught  only a few distinct forms, the first being the awful, five-paragraph format used in most high schools, followed by the process or cause and effect essay, then the classification or comparison essay and finally . . . the kind of formulaic autobiographical essay which so provokes our Boalt prof.

Let’s look at why you might write an essay like this. I hate to beat up on teachers, but the way writing is taught today is partly to blame, starting  with the high school teacher who either couldn’t think of a way to teach writing beyond the formulas he was given or who wanted to be the next Tom Wolfe or Hunter S. Thompson.  In the 1980’s, a first-person journalistic style became popular in classrooms, and this has shaped the writing of autobiographical essays in recent decades.   In fact, it’s been like a virus, or a viral meme, and so has become the cliche excoriated above.

The tripartite structure described by our Boalt Prof is the tipoff.  The essay starts with an intensely in-the-moment description, a description which often tries to hype something which is not that dramatic or which is even (gasp)  fictionalized, followed by the How I Got There section which leads to the What I Learned conclusion paragraph. It is especially tempting to write this kind of essay for a school like Stanford, which wants you to describe (in two pages) aspects of yourself not shown in the rest of the application.  There are many ways to show hidden aspects of yourself, but you should start by throwing out the melodramatic first person format described above.

A simple way to avoid writing a potentially irritating autobiographical essay is to create an essay which is in essence a richly illustrated but selective Curriculum Vitae. A law school like Boalt provides ample opportunity for this, with their four-page length suggestion,  but the advantage in this kind of essay goes to the applicant with the more long and winding road from their Bachelor’s Degree to Law School, particularly when that road includes some work experience and suggests an aptitude and enthusiasm for law. If you’ve got some serious work history, particularly if you’ve been working for two or more years after completing an undergrad degree, and even more so if you’ve had some experience which relates to the kind of law you want to study, or if you’ve been able to mix your education with practical experience, then a straightforward accounting of relevant aspects of your work and life experiences is a good approach.  You will particularly want to illustrate both why you are a suitable candidate for law school and why you want to study law.   Knowing about aspects of the law school’s programs and professors can be helpful, but be sure to do your research before writing about who you’d like to study under and what aspects of the program you are best suited for.

On the other hand, if you are moving directly from academics to law school without much of a backstory, you might not have a lot to offer in a curriculum vitae.  Simply describing classwork and side jobs isn’t going to cut it.    Instead, you need to find a way to show your passion and commitment to an area which relates to law or which shows your desire to work toward some sort of greater good through law.  If you’ve been active in a cause or even if you’ve only been paying close attention to some area of conflict or important problem, reading and thinking about it, then you could write about that (while avoiding overblown drama).  And you would do well to spend some time studying good essays–essays not written for a classroom– for ideas about structure and point of view, which is what my next post will address.

If you do have a fund of experiences that will work well in a C.V. style essay, go with that.  Just be sure that you move beyond simply elaborating what is in the application–note that this was also a peeve for our Boalt prof.  Have a good introduction which gets the reader into your essay–which interests the reader in your life–and craft a conclusion that shows why it matters for a law school application.  Your CV essay can provide a story which fleshes out the skeleton you constructed when you listed  places, classes, grades and activities on your application, but it should go beyond what is in the app.  Choose details of your history to focus on.  Explain any oddities, clear up any mysteries and try to authentically show who you are and what motivates you.  Help the reader reconstruct you as a person, for that is what they are doing–assembling the information in your application into a kind of holographic image of you and evaluating how well suited you are for law and for their program.

In my next post, I will discuss writing the law school app essay further and offer some examples.

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