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by Anna Ivey | March 10, 2009

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Anna Ivey is a private admissions counselor who works with people applying to the top business schools and law schools. If you have a question for Anna Ivey, send her an e-mail.

Question: I want to start working on my law school essays so that I'm ready to submit my applications in the fall, but I'm stumped. What do admissions officers want me to write about?

Anna's Answer: Early summer is a good time to start thinking about how you want to present yourself in your applications generally, and what to write about in your essays in particular. Applications for a given admissions season don't usually become available to applicants until the late summer or early fall, but you'll find that there are two types of essays that you'll be able to use for most of the schools you'll end up applying to, so it's certainly not too early to start the brainstorming or even the drafting process.

Law school applications offer almost no guidance when it comes to essays, so you're not alone in wondering what the heck admissions officers are looking for. Law school essays generally fall into two broad categories: the personal statement ("Tell us something about yourself in two pages or less") and the statement of purpose ("Why are you pursuing a law degree, and why are you interested in Jay Dee Law School?"). In this column, I'll discuss the personal statement, and I'll cover the statement of purpose in my next column.

I call this the personal statement for a reason: the essay should be truly personal, a glimpse into your personality, your life, your background. Unless a school specifically asks you to write about your career ambitions and your interest in the law (i.e. they ask you to write what I'm calling a statement of purpose), don't. Think of the personal essay as serving a very particular purpose: admissions officers would love to have the resources to get to know every applicant personally, but they don't have that luxury, so your essay has to serve as a substitute. A good personal essay lets admissions officers walk in your shoes for a few minutes (and I say "minutes" because that's as much time as they'll devote to your essay). You could write about a difficult decision you've made, or an important experience that made an impact on you, or anything you're passionate about (within limits, of course. Don't write about how much you love to light small fires). Also, don't assume that the reader knows anything about what it's like to be you or to come from your background -- where you're from often makes good material for a poignant, revealing essay.

More importantly, what shouldn't you write about? Here are the most common personal statement topics that make admissions officers' eyes glaze over:

  • Your commitment to the public interest and social justice: A considerable majority of applicants write about how dedicated they are to a particular cause, whether it's endangered cranes or third-world debt relief or free speech in China. If you've distinguished yourself by participating in a particular public interest activity, show off that commitment in your risumi, not your essay. (Note that some schools require an additional essay specifically about your public interest achievements and goals, for example if you're applying for public interest scholarships like NYU's Root-Tilden and Sinsheimer programs. For those essays, you can and should knock yourself out writing about third-world debt relief or whatever cause it is that gets you out of bed in the morning.)
  • A list of your achievements: Again, show these off in your risumi. Each piece of the application is prime real estate, and you don't want to use up space with information you provide elsewhere. Also, there's nothing more boring than reading what is essentially a two-page recitation of "I did this and then I did that," and you don't want to bore admissions officers.
  • Your travels: This is a close second to the public interest topic in terms of popularity, and you'll face a huge challenge trying to make your essay stand out. Unless you've grown up abroad or have spent a significant amount of time in an exotic place and become integrated into that community (on a Mormon mission, for example), pick another topic.
  • Your braininess: Let your transcripts and recommendations demonstrate how cerebral you are. Scholarly essays are too difficult for time-strapped and sleep-deprived admissions officers to digest, let alone enjoy. Remember that they have to wade through thousands of these, and they won't have the patience or the time to parse through your nuanced argument on the false heuristics of the Cartesian mind-body connection. Pick a "think-piece" topic only if a school specifically asks you to (like Yale).
Finally, make sure your essay starts with an interesting sentence, because the reader's interest is yours to lose in the first paragraph. And proofread carefully; lawyers make their living paying attention to details, and you'll be expected to demonstrate that aptitude in your application.

If you have your own question for Anna Ivey, send her an e-mail.

Anna Ivey is a private admissions counselor who works with people applying to the top business schools and law schools, as well as the author of The Ivey Guide to Law School Admissions: Straight Advice on Essays, Resumes, Interviews and More. Formerly the Dean of Admissions at the University of Chicago Law School, she has also practiced corporate and entertainment law in Los Angeles. She received her B.A. from Columbia and her J.D. from the University of Chicago Law School, where she served as an editor of The University of Chicago Law Review. To learn more about her admissions counseling, visit annaivey.com.

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