Here's a question I hear all the time: "Should I write about [topic X] in my law school application essay?"
That's the wrong question to be asking, but I completely understand why people ask it: essay prompts in the applications can be bewildering.
Here's a real example of what a non-bewildering essay prompt looks like:
If you haven't thought about your motivation or preparation for the study of law, then answering that question won't be easy, but at least you know what you're supposed to be writing about.
Many other schools, though, give you essay prompts that are either so vague or so broad as to give you no guidance at all. (In Constitutional Law, which many of you will study one day, we would strike down those essay prompts as "void for vagueness.")
Here are some real examples:
The statement should inform the Admissions Committee of any factors the applicant deems relevant to the admissions decision. (vague)
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. (broad)
The vague prompt basically tells YOU to figure out what THEY might consider important in their admissions decision. Odd, I know.
The broad prompt throws in everything but the kitchen sink, and then expects you to ask and answer your own question. It's the practical equivalent of the vague essay prompt, because it basically says: here is a range of 600 things you can write about that span your entire life; you go figure it out. Same end result: confusion.
So how DO you figure it out? Both kinds of prompts (vague and broad) give you a lot of freedom, and your frustration probably stems from the fact that it's too much freedom. Having to answer a specific question starts sounding really nice.
The fact that so many schools give you such vague or broad instructions for the essay actually signals one very important rule that you need to know about, and that most schools don't tell you expressly:
What does that mean? I can break that rule down into four components. If you picture a Venn Diagram, your essay has to sit in the middle of all four bubbles:
1. You have to write about something meaningful to you.
2. You have to have something interesting to say about that meaningful thing (the "so what?" test).
3. You have to be able to do your story justice in 2-3 pages.
4. You have to demonstrate good writing skills.
Poor law school application essays violate at least one of those four rules. The stand-out essays succeed at all four. (Most flunk the good-writing criterion alone.)
So when people ask me whether they should be writing about this or that extracurricular activity they participated in, or their religion that means so much to them, or their immigration experience that has shaped who they are, they are actually asking the wrong question. They are asking, "Should I write about topic X," but any one of those topics could succeed or fail depending on whether they meet all the rules. Here are some examples:
- If you're writing about your success in the math olympiad but it's wasn't that meaningful to you, and you're writing about it only because your mother really wants you to and thinks admissions officers will like it, then it's the wrong topic... for you. Go find a topic you actually care about, because your lack of caring will be immediately obvious to an admissions officer, and your essay will result in a gigantic yawn.
- If your Judaism is really meaningful to you, but you don't have something interesting to say about it that can carry a story for two whole pages, it's the wrong topic... for you. Go back and think about WHY it's important to you, and why that side of you is an important one to understand if someone is trying to get who you are.
- If you hope to tackle your immigration experience AND how that affected you socially AND how that caused a rift and reconciliation with your parents AND how that awakened your political passions, and you try to squeeze all that into two pages, you won't do any part of your story justice. Go back and narrow your topic down.
If you have an interesting story to tell, and you know why it's meaningful to you, and it has a narrative arc that lends itself to two pages without watering down key parts of the story, none of that will matter if you can't write well. You're applying to graduate school, and you'll be expected to know how to write like an educated person. Plus, most lawyers live and die by the written word. Think admissions officers are tough to persuade? Try persuading a judge, or even a law firm partner. If you can't communicate your ideas well in writing, you will not succeed as a lawyer. Period.
That means having a precise vocabulary, understanding verb tenses and parts of speech, knowing how to build sentences and transitions between paragraphs, and building a structure for a two-page essay. It means knowing how to write clearly, how to advocate for a concept or an idea, and how to tell a story (that's what lawyers do, too; they craft narratives). If you can't do that, go back and get help for your writing skills. You don't have to be a dazzling writer, but you do have to be a competent one if you want to succeed in your applications, in law school, and in your legal career.
Unless a school gives you a specific question to answer (in which case, answer the question instead of picking your own topic), there are truly very few topics that are off the table if they meet those four requirements. The beauty of the law school application process is that law school admissions officers are not allergic to personality. They aren't looking for cookie-cutter people, and they don't like cookie-cutter essays. Your job in this open-ended kind of essay is to show an important part of who you are and signal why that matters (to you, to them, to the story). Back into the topic that way, rather than starting with "Should I write about X?"
And that leads me to a bonus point: Your essay should have a voice. Your essay should "sound" like you, because if it sounds like you, it shouldn't sound like hundreds of other people. Your voice will not only make your essay more interesting for the admissions officer to read, but will also help distinguish your essay even if you're writing about a topic that lots of other people will be writing about, too. That's one reason why you should always read your drafts out loud. Does it sound like you? Would your friends recognize the voice of the essay as yours? If not, keep working at it.
Are you struggling with your own essay brainstorming? We are here to help. Contact us for honest, authoritative feedback.
Former Dean of Admissions at the University of Chicago Law School and and a former lawyer, Anna Ivey founded Ivey Consulting to help college, law school, and MBA applicants navigate the admissions process. You can read more admissions tips in The Ivey Guide to Law School Admissions, and join the conversation on Twitter and Facebook.