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 Significant Experience Essay: More Ideas

In my last post, I discussed what is know as The Significant Experience Essay, which appeared, among other places, in Prompt 1 of the Common Application Personal Statement for 2011-2012. Possibly you’ve done the prewriting exercise I recommended in the last post, and you may even now have an essay in hand and are looking for further assistance. I do provide proofreading and editing services through Mr. B’s Flying Essay Service (rush jobs) and Wordguild Writing Services, both remotely (via e-mail) and in person within a limited geographical area. See the About section of this blog site for more information on those services.  In this post I will discuss how to continue developing ideas for this Significant Experience Essay and will suggest a couple of places to look for examples of Significant Experience essays or descriptions.

In this post, I will offer some suggestions for those who may want to write about a significant personal experience  but have trouble coming up with much when asked to list their achievements, risks or ethical dilemmas. Refer to the last post for the details of this exercise.

I will restate the prompt and then examine each area it defines:

Evaluate a significant experience, achievement, risk you have taken, or ethical dilemma you have faced and its impact on you.

These three areas could, of course, be discussed in a single essay. Perhaps you did face an ethical dilemma, took a risk to deal with it and achieved something worthy as a result. This would be a nice trifecta.

On the other hand, you might have struggled to get more than a few things listed in the prewriting exercise (e.g, made soccer team, learned to swim butterfly, reached level 10 of Kill Corps, read the Grapes of Wrath despite myself). Perhaps feel like you’ve never experienced something like a real ethical dilemma. If so, this post is for you.

You may feel that your experiences are pretty limited, but by the age of four or five, have something to say about each of the topic areas raised by this prompt. By the time you’ve even reached kindergarten, you’ve already had the important human experiences: you’ve had to decide whether to tell a lie or not (ethics), conquered many challenges (Learning how to tie your shoes and to float in a pool are both pretty big achievements) and taken many risks.

So start by considering yourself: what things in your life make up your strongest memories. What matters to you is what matters here.

For you, reading the novel Grapes of Wrath when your Junior English teacher inflicted it on you might be a great accomplishment. But surely, you say, this is not worthy of an essay.

Why not? Other writers have, in recent years, produced books about reading the French author Marcel Proust and the the Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy. You don’t even have to have read Proust or Tolstoy to enjoy these books (Find How Proust Can Change Your Life, by Alain de Botton, and Tolstoy and the Purple Chair: My Year of Magical Reading, by Nina Sankovitch, for examples of books about reading specific books).

But is this not an essay about books, then, you ask?  Of course it is, which makes it also suitable for something like the Harvard Supplemental Essay for 2011-2012, which asked for an essay about books, as did the Stanford 2011-2012 application.   Look for a post soon which examines how many different prompts overlap or can be addressed by the same essay–this is something you should note if you are applying to more than a few colleges.  One essay may be used to address several different prompts for different college applications, with little or no tinkering.  Of course, you will probably need several very different essays to start with–you should never turn in two essays on the same trip or the same readings, for example.

To continue with the Significant Experience essay prompt, risk topic:  perhaps you feel that you haven’t taken any real risks. The issue in this topic is defining what a risk is. Most people immediately think of physical risk, but psychological risks are everywhere, as you know if you’ve been turned down when you asked someone to a dance or you flubbed a line of a play in front of an audience. And any physically risky activity carries with it a psychological risk as well as the obvious chance of physical injury. Have you ever dropped an easy pass that would have won the game for your team and then had to deal with the disappointment–or anger–of teammates or coaches? Talk about a risk to your ego. In fact, your response to a defeat or an error you made when you took a risk is a good area for you to explore. Triumph is great, but tumbling into the pit of failure and climbing out again can be even more interesting and revealing in a college application essay.  Risk is everywhere.  Use it.

Another topic area is the ethical dilemma.  It should be relatively easy to come up with an experience for this one–ethical dilemmas present themselves every day. Ethics is a field of philosophy, but it is also a practical activity engaged in by every human living in a community. When have you had to decide between something you were taught–or felt instinctively–to be right or wrong? Small children know about this and make these decisions every time they are asked who made the mess or who broke the glass or who took the cookie. Not to mention the decisions students make about whether to study hard or to cheat on a test or assignment.

The trick in an essay on ethics is to discuss the matter with a sense of perspective and, hopefully, even humor. You may have chosen to do something unethical and then had to rectify it, which adds an element of drama to your narrative but which also adds an element of risk. You want to show, ultimately, that you are ethical. You also want to avoid appearing too uptight or self-righteous. Keep that in mind if you decide to write to this topic. A serious ethical breach may not be a wise topic here, unless you can show how you’ve changed.

Take some time to doodle on a piece of paper now if you were unable to work with the three column exercise in the last blog post and see what comes to mind when you explore your memories of risks, achievements and ethical dilemmas.