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AN INTERVIEW with an ADMISSIONS OFFICER
Although different schools attach different levels of importance to the application essays, and although each school may be looking for a slightly different type of student, admissions officers have surprisingly similar desires. They want brevity. They want sincerity. They want mature enthusiasm. And a little humor—when it’s truly humorous—doesn’t hurt.
But as we pondered the application question and tried to compose our own “personal statement,” we found ourselves asking a number of questions. How “lawyer-like” should we be? How much can we joke around? Can we relax and be the readers’ chum, or should we treat them as clients? Should we tell them what we think they want to hear, or should we be totally honest, even at the risk of being dull?
We asked these and other questions to dozens of admissions officers at almost every major law school in the country. The following is a condensed version of those interviews, along with relevant comments from admissions people whom we interviewed earlier at business schools and colleges:
What’s the difference between application essays for law school and the essays we wrote to get into college?
The main difference is the way the author presents himself. What we ask of a college graduate is much more difficult than what colleges ask of a high school senior. And it should be. We don’t want applicants to simply give a self-absorbed description of themselves, as they did for their college application. Rather, we want them to describe the world they see around them and their place in it. An analogy we like to use around here is that with the essay, a student fashions a lens for us to view the world. From looking at the quality of that lens, we hope to judge the quality of its maker.
We also expect more maturity for law school. That’s partly a function of age but it’s also an issue of direction. Undergraduates are coming to school to explore. It’s hard to justify giving one of a few spots to someone who is not pretty committed to a law career.
I used your undergraduate book for a talk I gave on the application essay, but I had to warn everyone that this is not high school any more. Some of the essays in your first book would have been fine, but others are way too cutesy for us. Essays about socks and pets and Oreos [Essays That Worked for College Applications] would be a real detriment to a law school application.
Do you want a description of a person or just a prose listing of accomplishments?
We want an essay that brings the whole set of numbers into a coherent form. We want inconsistencies explained, and we want to see diverse activities as different facets of a single personality. We’d like to be able to say, “Oh, he did that, yeah, that makes sense. That fits with what we have.” Both the performer and his track record should be discussed, so that we can know the person underneath all the accomplishments, and also how those activities affected that person.
Nine times out of ten, people who write a really good personal statement don’t have the supporting facts to back it up. A student will say he wants to be a lawyer to stop racial injustice, but then he’ll write an essay about “learning to scuba dive helped me overcome my fear of water” or something. Tell me about your legal aid work, or your work in the Big Brother program, or something like that. Inconsistency knocks an applicant down quite a few pegs in my judgment.
Are there any hackneyed topics that applicants should avoid?
“Why I want to be a public defender . . .” or “I have always wanted to be a lawyer since I was ten. My daddy was a lawyer and he took me to court and I enjoyed it . . .” I mean, who cares? Do they really expect us to think some kind of immaculate revelation hit them at age ten? It makes me wonder if they have thought carefully about the decision they are making.
It may sound insensitive, but a common essay that almost never works is about “my mother’s death” or “my medical history.” They’re almost always manipulative, and they rarely come to important conclusions. If such an incident truly reveals your character, fine, but we’re looking for much more than just another hard-luck story.
“What I think about justice” is also far too common. Since we are a law school, I suppose it’s to be expected, but so many people do it that you have to write a very good essay to stand out. Also, since we know the law and the students have not yet studied it, essays on the law risk sounding naive and ill-informed. I’m not saying an applicant should avoid this topic; just don’t jump straight to it.
Of course, then someone starts up, “Since I was ten . . .” and bursts into something truly wonderful. Really, the similarity in topics is not what makes essays dull—and most of them certainly are. It’s the monotonous style. Applicants tend to use too many big words and amorphous adjectives and not enough colorful details and observations.
The first 50 essays that come in are okay, but by 3,575 we start to look at them very quickly—and they’d better have something interesting to say.
If reading essays is so boring, would you prefer that applicants try to entertain you?
It’s not their job to do that, and the applicants who are accepted tend not to have massive entertainment value. We also read no more than 20 essays at a sitting, so that shock value doesn’t take on overriding importance. Still, I do confess to some weakness for catchy or clever turns.
Nothing is worse than something that seems unnatural, though—and gimmicks do not work. One year we got an essay written in crayon on construction paper. It really hurt the applicant because it made us question his maturity and competence. That kind of joking might work occasionally for a college application, but we are dealing with much more sophisticated people at this level. Jokers are admitted only if their credentials are so good that we just can’t refuse them.
You do have to captivate the reader somewhat, but many people hurt themselves by going too far. One applicant wrote an eight-page essay when we asked for one page. She was entertaining, but she didn’t arrive at any point. And she didn’t get very far in the admissions process, either.
Being offbeat just to get attention won’t work. The uniqueness has to mesh with the rest of the application. We do want to see different facets of an applicant’s personality. We do want people to show us how they differ from the other 7,000 applicants. But different doesn’t mean outrageous. It can mean a paralegal who takes ghetto kids camping on weekends, or a math major with a passion for billiards. It does not mean some goofball just trying to impress us with a bunch of one-liners.
Some applicants have sent videotapes and put ads in the newspaper here. Unless it shows some relevant skill in a very meaningful way, a display like that is a waste of time.
I suppose my best advice is to write a mature essay—nothing too formal, though—and to integrate your personality into it as best you can. Don’t be afraid to say what you feel. Remember that serious is not synonymous with humorless. We love wit, but it also has to be backed up with meaningful points.
Is motivation important? Do you want to see what an applicant plans to do with the degree?
Motivation can be important, but it must be explained and supported. Everyone talks about wanting to help people. Why? What motivates you, specifically?
From what I read, you would think everyone is going into pro bono work as soon as they graduate. Of course, we know that won’t happen. We are sensitive to the fact that many essays may be contrived to what the applicant thinks are the committee’s priorities. Since an undergraduate has no real notion of all the options available in the legal profession, an essay about “here’s the kind of law I plan to be practicing in 20 years” is really not very valuable.
Do you want a good writer or a good person?
Both, of course. A vote on that might divide our committee 3-3, but I think writing quality may edge out the limited insight we can glean from a 300-word essay. Expressing yourself is a key part of the profession, after all. You may never have to argue a case in court, but you’ll always have to write. We want to know about you, but behind that is whether you can deal with the language and communicate.
Good writers are convincing and engaging. They know how to intrigue an audience, and they back up their points with specific, relevant details. Their ideas flow smoothly, and they make the reader’s job a lot easier. And if they are intelligent and witty, the essay is hard to forget.
One applicant wrote an essay wondering why people on death row always ask for a cigarette instead of writing down something about their lives or even making a last statement. Well, it is incredibly hard to express yourself, and we know that, so don’t let your anxiety about style interfere with your need to write a meaningful essay.
There’d better be no typos, though—it’s amazing how many we get. We are always getting letters two weeks after receiving an essay apologizing for mistakes. Lots of times they enclose a “revised copy.” Well, if they care so much about getting into our law school, why didn’t they read over the essay before they sent it? I don’t want to be distracted by grammar mistakes and organizational problems. There is no excuse for not having your essay reviewed by friends or a teacher. It should be polished.
The essay isn’t the only view we get of your articulation skills. We get writing on your LSAT writing sample, too. The essay shows us what an applicant can do in a longer period of time, of course, but sometimes we wonder if the essay and the writing sample could possibly have been written by the same person.
So what are you looking for?
Truthfully, we don’t have a set agenda. We don’t know what we’re looking for until we read it.
I want to know who the applicant is and why she wants to go to law school. How she thinks. Or what she cares about. Sometimes I’ve been in tears by the end of an essay. Occasionally one will make me laugh for the rest of the day. But most successful essays need not be dramatic. We want people to be vibrant, but we don’t want gimmicks. We want a mature approach, but we don’t want to be fed dull, pompous lines.
I want an honest, thoughtful essay. I know that sounds a little trite, but it’s something we rarely see. Not only is that the best essay to read, but it should be the easiest to write. Concocting ridiculous anecdotes, attention-getting schemes, or a fictitious portrait is really a big waste of time and energy.
Everyone wants us to give a recipe and a road map to the admissions process, but what we want is someone who can navigate his own course. Within guidelines, of course.