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Submitting Your Law School Essays

published September 21, 2013

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You should always submit an essay or "personal statement" with your application, even if the law school says it is optional.

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In many respects, applying to law school is like putting; together a court case-say, a criminal defense. The completed application form resembles a lawyer's brief or petition, studded with carefully arranged facts. The LSDAS report is the deposition of an expert witness who has reviewed your documents and specimens. Letters of recommendation are the statements of character witnesses. In this view, the essay resembles the moment when the defendant takes the witness stand, faces the jury, and tells his or her own story in his or her own words. The testimony doesn't just state facts. It also reveals character and personality; it discloses the presence or absence of traits like sensitivity and maturity. The jurors see the defendant as a person, not as a summary of other people's impressions.

As you know, defendants have a constitutional right to remain silent. Some do not testify. But whenever this happens, there's a perceptible sense of disappointment in the courtroom. Jurors look forward to the moment of revelation; when it doesn't come, some of them feel cheated. They think that the defendant doesn't consider them important enough to talk to, and they conclude that the defendant isn't taking the process seriously.

At all costs, you want to avoid giving the law school the impression that you are a frivolous and casual applicant. You demonstrate your seriousness by submitting a careful essay. Law professors know that good essays are difficult and time-consuming to write.

If your numbers place you on the borderline between acceptance and rejection at a school that makes a point of considering subjective factors in its admission decisions, then your essay will be scrutinized with care for evidence that you can do law school work. It may be studied by several admissions officials and discussed in conference. It could make the difference between acceptance and rejection.

Your essay will also be of vital importance if you are applying to a Group I or Group II law school. Since all their serious candidates have superb numbers, these law schools have to rely on other criteria. The essay can reveal character more clearly than any other part of the application process. It can provide evidence that you bring something unique to legal study: unusual abilities, or background traits, or experience, or just a distinctive way of looking at the world. You won't be admitted to a top law school unless you can distinguish yourself in this way.

But even at an insurance school, where your essay won't be read closely and can't help you, a bad essay can hurt. If it's unclear or filled with rhetorical errors, the law school may conclude that you lack the necessary communications skills. A glaring barbarism may catch even a skimmer's eye. If your essay reveals you as an offensive or insincere person, the skimmer may flag your file, and you may then be subjected to a more detailed evaluation instead of being automatically admitted under the rolling admissions program. You need to take care with your essay even when you're applying to a school that should be safe.

Length

Most law schools specify only a vague length limit, typically "one or two typed pages." A single sheet of double-spaced typescript will hold about 250 words; two single-spaced sheets contain about 1,000.1 suggest that you aim for an essay between 500 and 1,000 words. Shorter essays are too sketchy to disclose a clearly developed and unique personal voice; longer ones may make the readers impatient. You needn't worry about running a few sentences over the length limit. As one law school official told me, "If a guy is telling a good story, I'm not going to stop reading it because I get to the end of the page."

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Topics

Some years ago, one applicant told me that he was asked to "describe an embarrassing mistake and explain what you learned from it." But this was an unusual exception. Very few law schools follow the tradition of creative writing and MBA programs, which require applicants to write about very specific topics. Most law schools pro-vide only the sketchiest of directions for their personal statements. These are among the more specific instructions:

. . . The School of Law seeks to enroll a diverse student body to enhance its educational environment. If you believe that you could contribute to the School of Law's student diversity please briefly indicate your reasons. Personal characteristics that may be considered for diversity include age, geographic background, race, ethnicity, special educational experience, physical handicap, economic disadvantage, work experience, career goals, extracurricular achievements and community service. [Santa Clara]

Please attach [an essay] describing an event or achievement that has been of personal significance to you. [Valparaiso]

These are vaguer and more typical instructions:

. . . write a brief statement describing yourself and your qualifications. You may wish to explain or emphasize a particular part of your transcript or application. [Chicago-Kent] On a separate sheet of paper, explain why you are interested in pursuing the study of law and provide any information that you believe the Admissions Committee should consider in evaluating your application. [Nebraska]

On a separate sheet state why you wish to pursue the study of law and any factors concerning yourself that you think the admission committee should consider. [Northern Illinois]

. . . you may supplement your application with any additional information that you think might help us to better understand you and your values, ideas, goals, and attitudes. [District of Columbia]

On a sheet of 8V2" x 11" paper, please describe . . . any unique personal qualities, talents, and/or any activities in which you have been engaged which indicate significant achievement and state how these qualities relate to your aptitude for the study or practice of law. [Stetson]

Some schools provide no direction at all:

All applicants are encouraged to submit detailed personal statements. [Temple]

Personal statements are required and should be approximately 1-2 pages in length.

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From the viewpoint of an applicant, there are both advantages and disadvantages in this vagueness. Because no specific topics are required, you can write about whatever will do you the most good or help you to present yourself in the most attractive way possible. Instead of having to write a separate essay tailored to the specific requirements of each of the schools you are applying to, you will probably be able to make do with just a few essays, even if you apply to fifteen law schools. If you face some detailed and specific requirement, like that of Santa Clara, you'll have to write an essay for that school alone. If you want to talk about a specific school in your essay-if, for example, you want to describe an incident that made you want to attend Hypothetical Law School-then you won't be able to use that essay at any other law school on your application list. If you were raised in, say, Wyoming, you can emphasize your geographical uniqueness as a way of making yourself attractive to Eastern law schools, although such an essay wouldn't help your application to your home state university. With these exceptions, however, you're best advised to draft and polish one essay carefully, and to use essentially the same creation for all your schools.

The drawback of not having a precise topic is that you'll have to choose your own topic. Because you have your whole life to choose from, you'll probably find it hard to make a choice.

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