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.

The Stanford Supplement Essays For 2011-2012

Stanford uses both the Common Application essays and what it calls The Stanford Supplement. If you are reading this, you probably already knew that. Bear with me while I establish the basic rules of the Stanford game for this year.  I will then expand  by analyzing the specifics of the prompts. When you have one or more drafts ready for feedback, you can send them to me at wordguild@gmail.com for a sample edit; this is risk-free for you; in return I ask for only serious inquiries, please. Your work and information remain confidential.

Update as of July 8th, 2015–Stanford has been using the same three short answer prompts since 2011, but this is no absolute guarantee that they will not change one or more of them this year.  Feel free to read my posts on Stanford, but remember that until they go live officially ca. August 1st, with the opening of the Common App website for 2015-2016.   Until then, or until I can confirm and post this year’s prompts separately, you should tread carefully.  The Common App and other current prompts offer enough to do without risking wasted time in the event that, say, the Cardinal drops its letter to a roomate prompt.  Okay, you have been warned–read on and click away to your heart’s content.

Here are the prompts that Stanford adds to the Common App:

The Stanford Supplement Short Essays

Candidates respond to all three essay topics using at least 250 words, but not exceeding the space provided.

  1. Stanford students possess intellectual vitality. Reflect on an idea or experience that has been important to your intellectual development.
  2. Virtually all of Stanford’s undergraduates live on campus. Write a note to your future roommate that reveals something about you or that will help your roommate—and us—know you better.
  3. What matters to you, and why?

Let’s compare these to the Common App prompts Notethese are no longer the Common App prompts, but what I wrote about these and the Stanford prompts will still apply for the 2013-2014 app season; you will find, however, a some anachronisms along with my nuggets of wisdom.  Read carefully, Thx.)

1. Evaluate a significant experience, achievement, risk you have taken, or ethical dilemma you have faced and its impact on you.
2. Discuss some issue of personal, local, national, or international concern and its importance to you.
3. Indicate a person who has had a significant influence on you, and describe that influence.
4.Describe a character in fiction, a historical figure or a creative work (as in art, music, science, etc.) that has had an influence on you and describe that influence.
5. A range of academic interests, personal perspectives, and life experiences adds much to the educational mix. Given your personal background, describe an experience that illustrates what you would bring to the diversity in a college community or an encounter that demonstrated the importance of diversity to you.
6. Topic of your choice.

If you are thinking that there is a considerable overlap between Stanford’s prompts and the (old) Common App prompts, I agree.  This is amplified by the fact that such a large percentage of young people share both the archetypal experiences of high school and a certain homogeneity that comes from growing up in suburbs and bedroom communities.  This may not apply to you, but the majority of my clients are technically or effectively suburbanites.

The prompts themselves further heighten the chances that students will write  similar essays. Take a look at prompt 1 of the Common App–Reflect on an idea or experience that has been important to your intellectual development. Given that so much of a young person’s intellectual development takes place at a school or in a relationship with a teacher figure outside of school, certain essay topics, such as how Coach Smith changed my life, or how my piano teacher inspired me, appear again and again.

What to do.  One approach is not to worry about it.  If you care about your topic, it will show in your essay, so write about what you are passionate about, then polish, polish, polish.

If your passions are very focused–on a particular intellectual pursuit, or on a sport, for example–consider how to write some related essays but have them touch edges, so to speak, rather than overlap.  You could, for example, write about an English teacher who inspired you as you address either Common App prompt 3 or Stanford App prompt 1–the teacher would be the person who influenced you for the Common App, while in the Stanford prompt, the class is the intellectual experience.  You could then, in a second essay, write about a character in a novel–say Tom Joad or Scout Finch–and turn the focus to a specific novel and individual in that novel, without mentioning the teacher.  Or a novel  could have inspired you to care about social issues (Stanford Prompt 3) and of course Common App Prompt 4 asks directly that you write about a fictional character or work of art (Keep in mind that a novel is a work of art).

There are other ways the topics suggested by the different application prompts can overlap–in telling your roommate about yourself, for example, you might be discussing issues of local, national or international significance which you are passionate about.  Most engaged and curious applicants to a place like Stanford are interested in politics and world events.

So my most important advice to you is this:  write what you know and care about.  Try to write multiple essays for some of the prompts.  Then choose the best from these; if they overlap, work on revising them to separate them as much as possible.  If you are going to Stanford and you want to major in science,  and you write one essay about scientific thinking as the thing that matters to you and you write a second essay  on a specific science project as a significant experience . . . and its impact on you, the similarities of the essays may help you more than hinder you.

How much you care and how hard you work at the essays will be more important than their similarities.

I will be writing again to address issues raised by the Stanford App this year, but will end this post now by pointing out a specific problem with Stanford Supplemental Prompt 2:  you are writing a note, not an e-mail or a tweet.  The fact that this old-fashioned mode of communication–WTH?  Paper?– is your model should caution you to avoid too many colloquialisms and–OMG!–watch the use of abbreviations and acronyms.  You might work some in for humor, but use caution and consider your audience.  We old geezers may not get it.

Remember:  always consider your audience and purpose.  Your roommate is not the real audience for this essay/letter.  An admissions officer is.  See my Welcome to the Jungle post for links to general posts on addressing audience.

Writing An Essay About An Important Influence

Many applications ask for an essay on a person who influenced you or on an important experience.  There are wrinkles to this kind of question–in some cases, the “person” can be a fictional character and the influence can be a work of art, as in one of the prompts from the Common Application in recent years.  (Note–this is possible as an approach for prompts like the “person of influence” that begins tthe 2017-2018 Princeton application essays, but this is a reach; they really want insight into your personal experience, your world view and experiences, and living through a fictional character is a stretch–though I have had clients pull it off.  The key is to choose good books that have occupied a large place in your life and influenced your perspective, curiosity and interests.  On the other hand, if you are really into a specific character, why not just turn to an author who has influenced you–that might work.   Of course the same topic focus could work for a  different prompt, in this year’s Princeton essays, that could be anything from culture to the quote-from-a-book prompt.) 

This post will discuss this kind of prompt by specifically addressing prompts three and four of the Common Application for 2011-2012, but the discussion in general is useful for any essay about a personal influence, including those that will have that topic in 2017-2018.

Let’s start by looking at the old Common App prompts three and prompt four together, as they in some ways overlap, and they are similar to Princeton’s personal influence prompt for this year:

3. Indicate a person who has had a significant influence on you and describe that influence.

4. Describe a character in fiction, a historical figure or a creative work (as in art, music, science, etc.) that has had an influence on you and describe that influence

Like Prompt Four, Prompt Three is based on personal experience, but the intent of the prompters is that the essay on Prompt Three be about a person with whom you have direct, personal experience. This is the kind of autobiographical essay commonly taught in high school, and I see many of these essays written about coaches, teachers and other mentor figures. Your college admissions officers also see many essays like this. Keep that in mind. You might want to visit my earlier posts about audience and the rhetorical situation, beginning here.

Less commonly, I have seen essays on Prompt Three about the influence of, say, a younger sibling or of a person the writer has met only once but who made a profound impact on the writer. While most who address this prompt write about a positive experience or influence, some writers examine more ambiguous or even malevolent figures in their lives.

This post continues analyzing this essay prompt in detail and concludes with exercises to help you write a vivid and appealing essay.

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