Writing Your Law School Application Essays: Big Rule #1

Have you already sat down to start tackling your law school applications essays? Good! Now's the time.

You may notice that the essay questions tend to be very broad. There's a reason law schools give you so much latitude to pick your own topic. Your choice of topic says a lot about you, and so it has great signaling value. More fundamentally, though, schools also give you that latitude because their first order of business in evaluating your essay is to determine whether you are a good writer. Good writing is one of the most important skills for success in the legal profession, and so admissions officers have to sort for it. For that reason, I make the following rule my Big Rule #1, because it stands above all others:

Big Rule #1: Writing Well Matters More Than Picking the Perfect Topic

The most important thing you need to know about law school essays is this: they have to be well written. That’s the highest priority. Admissions officers are looking to your essays to see that you can formulate and articulate a thought in a coherent way, that you have a good vocabulary and grasp of grammar, that you understand how a 2-3 page essay needs to fit together, and that you can transition from one thought to the next in a logical way. Demonstrating those skills matters more than picking the "perfect" or "right” topic. (More on the fallacy of the "right" topic here.)

These kinds of skills are very hard to learn in a short amount of time, so if you have not been taught how to write well, working on your writing needs to be your number one priority as you develop your essays. You might need to seek help from a professor, a writing center, a tutor, or friends who are willing to coach you as you learn how to use correct verb tenses, apply proper punctuation and precise vocabulary, craft solid sentences and transitions, and articulate and develop your ideas effectively. (Good admissions coaches can also help; they take seriously their goal of making sure your writing skills improve over the course of working together.)

Many colleges do not demand mastery of those basic writing skills, and newer writing conventions (tweeting, texting) force you to toss grammar and punctuation out the window. That’s fine for those contexts, but always remind yourself as you work on your essays that your essays are a different writing context, so you need to follow different rules and hold yourself to a different standard. (Even blogging is a different context from writing an essay, as I remind myself everytime I draft a post; blogging benefits from really short paragraphs, for example, so I break them up more here than I would in an essay or a book chapter.)

Why does writing correctly and authoritatively matter so much? Admissions officers are looking for reasons to eliminate applications from the running, and if you write “affect” instead of “effect” or demonstrate an ignorance of verb tenses or fail to string your paragraphs together in a coherent way, you look like a sloppy writer, and that goes into the minus column rather than the plus column. (Not that admissions officers all have great mastery of grammar, but it’s safer to assume they do when you’re writing your essay.) You're supposed to be showing them your writing at its best. And you're expected to labor over it a great deal, which is not the case when you toss out a blog post or a status update.

Through your writing, your whole ability to think critically is on display. In “Politics and the English Language” — which anyone who wants to write anything of consequence should read before graduating from college — Orwell reminds us that sloppy thoughts lead to sloppy writing, and that sloppy writing leads to sloppy thoughts. Bad writing makes us look stupid, even when we aren’t.

So before you start writing, think about what it is you want to communicate — not just with this word or that sentence, but also in this paragraph, and the next one, and in the essay as a whole. You’ll have to turn off the texting and IMing part of your brain and ask yourself how every single word, sentence, and paragraph ties together, because admissions officers, BigLaw partners, managing directors, judges, and all sorts of people who hold your fate in their hands will be absolutely merciless about your writing.

Check out Grammar Girl for very basic grammar questions, and the Chicago Manual of Style for deeper cuts. Good writing requires more than good grammar, though, and making your writing affirmatively good takes years if not a lifetime of practice. Here are two books that are great introductions to good writing: Sin and Syntax by Constance Hale and On Writing Well by William Zinsser. They can help you develop a good "ear" as you work on your writing.

Writing well also requires you to read a lot of great writing. To take a tour, try The Best American Essays 2007 edited by David Foster Wallace, or the great essays that appear every month in The New Yorker. These are cost-effective and accessible ways to immerse yourself regularly in good essay writing. Lifelong readers have a huge advantage over more casual readers when it comes time to write essays, so immersion is key. We can't all write like Adam Gopnik, but if you need to catch up with your exposure to good writing, start by reading the best that's out there, even if that caliber of writing will remain aspirational for almost everybody.

Big Rule #2 is coming up next week, so stay tuned!

Excerpted and adapted from Chapter 6 of The Ivey Guide to Law School Admissions (2010 e-book version).

Former Dean of Admissions at the University of Chicago Law School and a recovering lawyer, Anna Ivey founded Ivey Consulting to help college, law school, and MBA applicants navigate the admissions process. You can find more admissions tips in The Ivey Guide to Law School Admissions, downloadable as an e-book. Join the conversation here in the blog comments and on Twitter and Facebook, or email us a new question for the blog. Always happy to hear from you.