Law School Application Optional Essays

LSAT Blog Law School Application Optional Essays
The below excerpt on optional law school application essays, as well as other required addenda, is from A Guide to Optional Essays and Addenda.

Which Statements are Optional, and Why?

First, though, let’s delve into the gray area of those “should I or shouldn’t I?” statements. They come in two general variations: those that are of general application and those that may or may not apply to you. Interestingly, applicants often err in the wrong direction with regard to both types of statement. For example, if the school provides an optional statement on the subject of why you want to attend that particular law school, you should probably write that essay. By “probably”, I mean “if you’re interested in attending that law school and your numbers aren’t comfortably above the school’s medians”. Often, however, applicants disregard this type of question.

Paradoxically, questions like “describe any socio-economic disadvantages you’ve overcome that may be relevant to your future in the legal profession” send many applicants scurrying to conjure up a response, even though the question might have absolutely no application to the applicant’s background or present situation. While this second statement type is also loosely referred to as an optional or supplemental statement, it is more conditional in nature: it has an implied “if this applies to your circumstances!” attached to it that many applicants overlook.

So, while the general application questions like “why do you want to attend this particular law school” are often ignored, those geared toward students with a particular type of experience are often included when they shouldn’t be, resulting in statements that are forced, not directly on point and either unhelpful or actually harmful.

Why is It So Important to Answer the General Application Questions?

First, let me throw out some numbers: For the 2009 academic year, Harvard Law School rejected more than 5,700 applicants—about 87% of the applicant pool. The far less competitive Northern Illinois University only rejected 888; since that school received far fewer applications, the rejected applicants made up only about 70% of the total applicant pool. In other words, at every level the vast majority of applicants to a particular school are rejected.

Of course, some of those applicants are rejected for specific reasons, early in the weed-out process. Some will be eliminated based purely on the numbers, without more than a cursory review (or none at all) of the soft factors. Some will have dealbreakers of one kind or another in their backgrounds. Some will cut their own throats by submitting applications riddled with typos and omissions or by getting caught in the act of some unscrupulous application practice. But when all of those applicants have been removed from the pool, many qualified applicants will remain. More than the school has space to admit for the coming academic year. And at that point, the admissions process becomes a game of comparisons. Large numbers of applicants will cluster around particular numerical combinations and reviewers will be looking for the factors that set one prospective student apart from others. Your personal statement, as you undoubtedly know, is the generally the most significant of these factors. Letters of recommendation, properly managed, can come in at a strong second. But those aren’t the only factors.

Optional essays set you apart.

Note that I did not say, “Optional essays can set you apart.” With regard to general application optional essays, they set you apart whether you write them or not. The applicant who writes a pertinent, well-conceived essay in response to a general application question sets himself apart with the insights he provides and the quality of his writing. The applicant who chooses not to submit a response to a question clearly relevant to him sets himself apart by pointing out to the committee that he’s not willing to go the extra mile, that he’s either too lazy or too cocky to do everything he possibly can to enhance his application package.

Or, the omission may send a specific message. For example, with regard to the earlier mentioned question regarding the prospective students reasons for wishing to attend that particular school, failure to respond could easily be interpreted as “no special reason” or “I don’t really know.” Law schools, particularly top level schools, receive a large number of applications from prospective students who chose them because they’d heard of them or because they want to apply to as many schools as possible or because the school has a high ranking and generally good reputation.

There’s nothing terribly wrong with any of that, but there’s nothing terribly right about it, either. It’s certainly not compelling to an admissions officer.

That’s not to say that failing to answer that question will lead any particular reader to any particular conclusion. There are myriad possible explanations: laziness, overconfidence, running out of time, no articulable reasons for wanting to attend that particular school, not having done your homework on the school before selecting it and maybe more. Notice the trend, though? None of the possible explanations that spring to mind are going to build the admissions committee’s perception of the applicant who doesn’t submit that essay.

Of course, many general application questions have less baggage than this one. If, for example, you opt not to answer a question about a significant challenge you faced and how you overcame it, that won’t raise questions about whether you’ve adequately researched schools and chosen wisely where to apply. However, at the end of the first phase of weeding you’ll still find yourself in competition with a lot of people whose numbers are close to yours and whose extracurriculars are relatively similar to yours and who have gone to the trouble of answering the optional essays. It’s a separator before the content of those essays is even considered. Then, you can make your essay a separator at the next level, too, by making the most of the opportunity to tell the admissions committee still more about yourself, your interest in the school or whatever other relevant information that prompt invites.

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  1. Trust me, good writing, great writing, can distinguish you in life and in law school. Your skill with words can set your application apart from all the rest in the admissions office pile. Even with discipline and drill, raw IQ may place a ceiling on your LSAT score. The same holds true for your GPA. But a well-written essay, one that showcases your interest in the school of your choice, is an application element limited only by your commitment to creative thought, then polished by painstaking practice. Learn the art of making words work for you; then demonstrate it at every opportunity.

  2. Nice post, Steve! Thanks for the insight.

  3. Steve,
    I made a very good score on the December LSAT, and I have you to thank. Your study plans/courses/free tutorials were absolutely invaluable. *internet hug*