Above the Law

Picking up where I left off (Big Rule #1 for writing your law school essays), and continuing with the larger theme of learning how to decode your application instructions:

Big Rule # 2: Identify the Right Essay Type and Stay True to It.

The second most important thing you need to know when approaching your required law school application essays is that you need to pay attention to the essay question and make sure you are answering that question—not that other school’s question, and not the question you wish were being asked. (Interesting exception: This year, Georgetown is inviting you in an optional essay to “tell us the question a selective law school should ask you and then answer it.”)

Most required law school essay questions fall into one of two categories, and I’m giving these categories totally artificial labels. You won’t see applications refer to them this way. Applications just refer to these as “essays” or “personal statements,” but for the purposes of guiding you, I want to break the application essay down into these two broad categories. So don’t get confused if these labels don’t show up in the applications themselves. It’s more important to focus on the essay question itself than on the label a school is giving it.

The first kind of essay is what I’m calling the “personal” essay. Those essay questions tend to be very open-ended, asking you to write about anything that might help the admissions committee get to know you better, and they are typically asking you to write something of a personal nature rather than something about your professional ambitions.

That’s an important distinction from the second kind of essay, which I am labeling the “professional” essay. The “professional” essay questions tend to ask you expressly to discuss your motivations for seeking a law degree and want you to talk about your professional goals. In that case, it would be a mistake to send them a personal essay.

For 99% of applicants, those categories should be kept totally separate, even though 99% of applicants like to mush them together. You’ll experience the following temptation: you’ll write something moving and personal and revealing about yourself, and then your mom/neighbor/roommate/dentist/fairy godmother will read it and say: “But don’t you have to tell Harvard Law School why you want to go to Harvard Law School?” And so you take your completely wonderful personal story and slap on an artificial paragraph about why you desperately have to go to Harvard (or wherever), even though that paragraph has nothing whatsoever to do with the essay you just wrote, and the new concluding paragraph sits there in all its clunky, inorganic hideousness, and—congratulations— you’ve just ruined a perfectly nice personal essay. So the answer is: No, you don’t have to use your essay to explain why you want to go to law school, unless the essay prompt expressly tells you to.

Many law school applications don’t ask expressly for a professional essay. I know that is very counterintuitive to most applicants, but your essay will benefit if you resist that temptation to morph a nice personal essay into a professional one just to make your mom/neighbor/etc. happy. Blending the two kinds of essays almost always subtracts from them both, and you end up with this monster hybrid that’s less effective than if you had just stuck to one or the other.

How do you determine if a school is asking for a personal essay or a professional essay? Here’s how I do this analysis (with real examples):

1. Does the essay question ask you mainly about why you’re applying to law school or about your professional ambitions? If so, submit a professional essay.

Examples:

• We are interested particularly in learning about your motivation and preparation for the study of law as well as any circumstances that you believe are relevant to the evaluation of your credentials.

• Compose a statement indicating the reasons you want to undertake the study of law at X University as well as your special interests, life experiences, accomplishments, goals, and any other information that might be helpful to the Admissions Committee.

2. Is the essay question a really broad one that doesn’t ask expressly about why you’re applying to law school or about your professional goals? That points in favor of a personal essay. My advice is to submit a professional essay only if you have something really interesting or compelling to say on that question. (Most applicants don’t.) If the essay question emphasizes the word “personal,” that’s also a tip-off that they are not looking for a professional essay. Top-10 law schools typically fall into this category or the next (#3).

Example:

• The personal statement is an important part of every application and your opportunity to demonstrate what you will contribute to our community. In general, a personal statement with a narrow focus on a personal attribute or experience is far more helpful to the Committee than either a broad statement about the law or a restatement of your resume.

3. Does the essay question suggest mostly personal topics with only a small piece that touches on your reasons for applying or your professional goals? This is the most typical kind of essay question for law schools in general, including many top-10 schools. Here, too, I would recommend submitting a professional essay only if it’s very strong; otherwise, submit a personal essay.

Examples:

• Essay submissions are an extremely helpful tool for evaluating your potential contributions to our community. As you prepare to write your personal statement and any optional essays, please keep the following in mind. First, we do not have a fixed checklist of particular attributes we seek in our students, and you will have the best insights into what is most important for us to know about you. Second, there is no set convention for communicating the information you choose to share. A successful essay might involve writing directly about expansive themes such as your goals or philosophy or background or identity, or very differently, might be a vignette that reveals something significant about you. In other words, think broadly about what you might wish to convey and how you might best convey it. There is no formula for a successful personal statement, and different individuals will find different topics to be well-suited to them. Applicants have, for example, elaborated on their significant life experiences; meaningful intellectual interests and extracurricular activities; factors inspiring them to obtain a legal education or to pursue particular career goals; significant obstacles met and overcome; special talents or skills; issues of sexual identity; particular political, philosophical, or religious beliefs; socioeconomic challenges; atypical backgrounds, educational paths, employment histories, or prior careers; or experiences and perspectives relating to disadvantage, disability, or discrimination. Any of these subjects, and many more, could be an appropriate basis for communicating important information about yourself that will aid us in reaching a thoughtful decision.

• Enclose a statement of about two pages describing important or unusual aspects of yourself not otherwise apparent in your application. While admission to X Law School is based primarily upon superior academic achievement and potential to contribute to the legal profession, the Admissions Committee also regards the diversity of an entering class as important to the school’s educational mission. If you would like the committee to consider how factors such as your background, life and work experiences, advanced studies, extracurricular or community activities, culture, socio-economic status, sex, race, ethnicity, religion, or sexual orientation would contribute to the diversity of the entering class and hence to your classmates’ law school experience, please describe these factors and their relevance.

• The personal statement should demonstrate your ability to communicate effectively and concisely. While you have the widest possible latitude in choosing the substance of your personal statements, experience shows that the most successful personal statements are those which develop a sense of the person, his or her values, aspirations, and concerns. A discussion of the unique contributions you would likely make to the student body, the legal profession, and ultimately the larger society, would also be well received.

• All applicants must submit a personal statement with the application form. This is your opportunity to present yourself, your background, your experiences, and your ideas to the Admissions Committee. You may want to write about your intellectual interests, your career goals, your achievements, your family background, or your involvement in your community. It is up to you to decide what you want to write about and how you want to express your thoughts. Keep in mind that the readers of your personal statement will be trying to get a sense of you as a person and as a prospective X Law School student. We encourage you to be as candid and thoughtful as possible.

4. Does the essay prompt seem to give you no guidance whatsoever? Then you also have the freedom to choose which essay you want to submit, and you should submit your stronger one.

Example:

• The statement should inform the Admissions Committee of any factors the applicant deems relevant to the admissions decision.

Are all these essay questions starting to make your eyes glaze over? Mine too! You’ll have to get in the habit of reading them closely, though.

If I seem biased against the professional essay, it’s only because that kind of essay is usually the weaker of the two for most applicants. It would be great if law schools all required one (maybe there would be fewer miserable lawyers if law schools did a better job weeding out professionally lost and confused applicants), but many schools don’t put a lot of weight on how seriously you’ve thought through your professional goals or how law school fits into those goals. In a perfect world, law school applicants would all have great reasons for seeking a law degree, but in my experience, most applicants don’t have even merely good reasons. (That’s a great opportunity for you to stand out as an applicant if you do have good reasons for going to law school.)

If you want to see examples of good and even great professional essays, ones that connect the dots from “here’s what I’ve done” to “here’s what I hope to do” and “here’s how a law degree fits into that trajectory,” I include some in my e-book in Chapter 8 on professional essays. I discuss personal essays in greater detail in Chapter 7.

Finally, I can’t stress strongly enough that a great application essay has your voice, is based on your experiences, and tells us something important about who you are. Those things are all going to be different for different applicants. There’s no essay out there that is perfect or to be taken as some kind of template, and you could nitpick anything for the rest of time (and miss all your deadlines). Don’t try to be someone else in your essay, know when to stop, and don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. (Thank you, Voltaire.)

This post is excerpted and adapted from Chapter 6 of The Ivey Guide to Law School Admissions (2010 e-book version).