“That’s not fair.” Even as the smallest of children, I remember making such a proclamation: in kindergarten it was “not fair” when I had to share my birthday with another little girl and didn’t get to sit on the “birthday chair.” When General Mills changed my favorite childhood breakfast cereal, “Kix,” I, of course, thought this was “not fair.” Unlike many kids (like my brother) who would probably have shut up and enjoyed the “great new taste” or switched to Cheerios, this kid sat her bottom down in a chair (boosted by the phone book) and typed a letter to the company expressing her preference for the “classic” Kix over the “great new taste” Kix.
In telling the story, this writer demonstrates that the roots of her political activism run deep without having to ever say it. She doesn’t just tell us and expect us to take her word for it-she shows us.
Another approach that is overdone is the “my dad is a lawyer” approach. Some admissions officers said that when the only reason an applicant gives for wanting to be a lawyer is that it is a family legacy, it makes them question not only the motivation but the maturity of the applicant. While this doesn’t mean you need to hide the fact that your parent is a lawyer, it does mean that you should avoid depending on that as your sole reason for wanting to go to law school. If a parent truly was your inspiration, then describe exactly why you were inspired by them, and what you have done to test your motivation in the real world.
Theme 2: Why I Am Qualified
Writing about your experiences in the law field supports both the Why I Want to Be a Lawyer theme and the Why I Am Qualified theme, so it is always a good idea to spend time on the experiences that qualify you as a potential law student.
Direct work experience is always the best, of course, for a number of reasons. For one, it proves your motivation to the committee. For another, it shows that you have the potential for being successful in the field. Perhaps most importantly, it shows the committee that you understand the profession and know what you will be getting into upon graduating. One type of applicant that the committee keeps a wary eye out for is the kind who wants to go to law school but doesn’t have any realistic idea of what lawyers do beyond the glamorized images seen in television and movies.
But you do not need to have had an internship at a law firm to show that you are qualified. Your experience might be political, such as the convention you volunteered to help organize or the campaign you helped raise funds for. Or it can be academic or issues-based, such as the thesis you wrote on law and the Internet. The rule here is, if you have it, use it.
If you have a lot of experience, the bulk of your essay may be spent on this theme rather than on the Why I Want to Go to Law School theme. You should try to relate your qualifications back to your motivation at some point, though, even if it is only a reference. Often, people will do this in a single, concluding sentence. This can be a powerful approach as long as your passion is clearly demonstrated through your description of your experiences. Look at the essay below for an example of this. The writer spends all but the last paragraph of his essay describing his dedication to activism, first by lobbying to have the Confederate flag removed from the Boy Scouts, and later by actions taken as student body president. He doesn’t make a verbal tie-in to his motivation until the last few sentences of his essay:
I sought practical improvements through independent thinking, perseverance, and tenacity in the face of fierce criticism. A legal education would give me tools to better use these abilities. I am not headed to law school on a mission, but I see law as an opportunity to contribute as we build our future.
Admissions Officers’ Pet Peeve: Making Lists
For some candidates the problem will not be that they don’t have enough direct experience to write about; they have too much. The danger inherent in wanting to include all your experience is that space is limited and you can either end up with an essay that is too long, or one that consists of little more than a listing of your activities and accomplishments. Says one officer:
“The essay should never be merely a prose form of a C.V. That’s dry to read, and again, doesn’t offer any additional information about the candidate.”
It is all right to include all the experience you have had somewhere in your essay but keep it short and do it in the context of a story or a personal account using colorful details. After all, you can attach a resume that will list all your jobs and promotions. The essay has the much more important job of bringing these experiences to life.
Also, resist the hard-sell approach. The admissions officers at top schools read so many essays written by extremely qualified applicants that writing a self-serving “I did this, I did that” essay isn’t going to wow them; it will simply make them yawn. You are much better off with a humble attitude. Let your experiences speak for themselves and focus on making your essay personal and interesting instead. Having someone objective read your essay before you send it in will help you discern the kind of impression you are making.
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Theme 3: Why I Am Exceptional
If you are different in any sense of the word-if you are an older applicant, a member of a minority, a foreign applicant, an athlete or musician, disabled, or have an unusual academic or career background, use this angle to your advantage by showing what your unique background will bring to the school and to the practice of law. One interesting topic for foreign students, for example, might be to talk about how the education system differs in this country and why they are choosing it over a course of study in their own country and/or language.
Beware, however, that there are instances where playing the diversity card will backfire:
If you are a “student of diversity” then of course, use it. But don’t harp on it for its own sake or think that being different by itself is enough to get you in-that will only make us feel manipulated and it can show that you didn’t know how to take advantage of a good opportunity.
Only people with significant and documentable disabilities should bring them up in the essay. By that I mean not the current popular overdiagnosed disability du jour, which in my day was ADD.
The secret is to tie in your diversity strongly with your motivations or qualifications, or with what you can bring to the class. If you can’t make a strong tie-in, then you might simply make a brief mention of your exceptional trait, background, or talent instead of making it the focus. This can be a very effective approach because it shows that you have enough confidence in your qualifications and abilities to let them stand on their own. It is as though you are simply mentioning the fact that you are blind or a refugee from a war-torn land or a violin virtuoso to add shading to your already strong, colorful portrait.
Some applicants, however, will have the opposite problem and will feel uncomfortable stressing their differences. Career switchers or older applicants, for example, sometimes feel insecure about incorporating their experience into the essay, thinking that they will only draw attention to the fact that the bulk of their experience is in another field. If this sounds like you, remember that your past experience gives you a unique perspective and you can use your essay to turn this into an advantage instead of a liability. Or, alternately, you could stress the similarities instead of the differences and make your diverse job experiences relevant by drawing comparisons between the skills required in your current field and the ones that will be needed in law school.
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Theme 4: Issues-Based Essays
Issues-based essays come in many different forms. The best kind of issues-based essays are written by applicants who have a strong passion for a specific cause and can show why the cause is important to them and what actions they have taken to further it. If there is an issue that dominates your thoughts, studies, or activities, it is natural that this issue will also dominate your essay.
Often times issues-based essays focus more on analyzing all sides of the issue rather than taking a stand from one viewpoint. If you do this type of essay well, it will show the committee that you are a person of reason and logic who can make mature, educated decisions based on a thorough analysis of issues. It is not even necessary that you come to any final conclusions-just showing that you can see and analyze all sides of an argument has validity.
The pitfall inherent in any of the above issues-based approaches is that applicants who write about their commitment to a social justice issue without backing it up with real evidence or experience risk appearing insincere. One admissions officer had this comment:
Year after year hundreds of applicants swear by their altruistic motives, yet only 2% of all lawyers graduating in 1991 took jobs in the public sector, protecting the environment, fighting racial inequality, and crusading for rights for the homeless. The majority (over 60%) took jobs in private firms. After a time, you become skeptical.
If your beliefs are genuine, you will be able to support them with clear evidence of your involvement in activities that demonstrate your commitment.