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Essays and Addenda

There are four opportunities in your file for you to take control of your own destiny:

  • recommendations
  • resumes
  • personal statements
  • supplemental essays

Yet admissions officers tell me that most students waste these opportunities. They send superficial, undistinguishing information, with little personal character. They are afraid to take risks, for fear of alienating someone. This shows their misunderstanding of the admissions process.

When I first began interviewing law school admissions officers I was told, "People are afraid to give me a reason to say 'no' to them. They forget that I already have a reason to say 'no' to every applicant. That reason is that I have 3500 applicants and 200 seats. The applicant's job is to give me a reason to say 'yes.' If the personal statement doesn't take a risk, it's wasted paper."

Sometimes a single essay cannot explain everything an admissions officer needs to know about you.

  • Most schools offer you the opportunity to discuss your background either as part of the diversity you will bring to the law school or as evidence of the obstacles you have overcome in order to succeed as much as you have thus far.
  • Responses to questions about arrests, academic probation, and leaves of absence often require an extensive answer.
  • In other cases, the law school specifically asks other questions:
    • why do you want to be a lawyer,
    • what is your proudest personal achievement,
    • why do you want to attend our law school?

In those cases, supplemental essays must be written to give the admissions officer the information they request.  Each of these essays is another occasion for you to present the picture of yourself that you want the admissions committee to see. It's your best chance to give them a reason to say "yes" to your application; don't waste it.

What Goes Where?

Frequently, people send me an essay that they call a personal statement, and tell me they don't know what to say about their diversity, or their grades. I look at what they've written and tell them, "You've got it backwards; this IS your diversity statement. What you don't have is a personal statement."

When I work with clients, I get them to write me their whole life story. Then I pull out what is needed to answer application questions:

  • Have you ever been arrested?
  • What happened to your grades?
  • What's your family's diversity?
  • Why do you want to be a lawyer?

What's left is your personal statement. It comes last, not first.

Accordingly, I've arranged this section the way I read a client's file. I start in the lower left with explanations of problems, move on to adversity and diversity statements, and finish with personal statements. Read around from the bottom left for maximum coherence.

From Your Hand to the Admissions Officer's Eye

In 2012 I had a client applying to a school that was a serious longshot, and there was no reason to submit an app unless the essays were superlative. We wrote, edited, discussed and dissected until May 5th. Then I picked up the phone and let the school know we were ready and asked for permission to send, three months after deadline. We got the approval, hit the button, and before I woke up on the west coast, the east coast was celebrating. When I called to say thank you, the admissions officer said, "Those essays were so good I read them from beginning to end; that's the only time all year that I've done that."

And that, folks, is the moral of the story. No one has to read your essays. This isn't a history exam, or the poem you wrote your mother for Mother's Day. If you're boring, repetitive, a poor writer, evasive, off topic, sarcastic or facetious, your file can end up on the reject stack after three lines.

Bad Advice

Several students have mentioned hiring one of our competitors for essay advice.  They were told to write an expanded resume.  I  said it was bad advice, and made a different recommendation.  

So what's an applicant to do? One of them went with us to a Law Forum; we imposed on two different admissions officers to look over her essay.  They both agreed with me — bad.  So I don't care what you-know-who at you-know-where says.  An expanded resume is not a personal statement.  

2015 Addition

I'm constantly asked "what should I write about?" and my answer is always "I haven't the faintest; I don't know you." So how do I advise my clients on what to write about? By reading their answers to a bunch of questions and comparing them to what I know are the student's top-choice schools.

I have never before published this list, but since I started writing on Quora, so many undergrads have asked me that i decided to do them the kindness of posting my "Tell Me About Yourself" laundry list. [That should open as a Word doc.]

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