Writing a Law School Essay
By the time you open the application website to apply to law school, you have already done 90% of the work. You have finished at least three years of undergraduate school, if not already graduated; you have put in hours preparing for the LSAT or taken it already; and you have already built relationships with professors and professionals who can write you glowing letters of recommendation. For better or worse, there’s not much more you can do, except for one crucial part: the essays. Let’s get started in providing top tips to writing your law school essay.
In a typical law school application, you will be asked to write three essays: a Personal Statement, a Diversity Statement, and an Addendum/additional Information. Some schools vary, but each essay is usually a building block to the larger structure that is your application. In this section we will examine how to maximize your last chance to make a strong impression. Let’s start by examining just who, exactly, you are writing your essays for.
Unlike a college application essay or an essay for some MFA programs, a law school essay is not written for the candidate. You are writing the essay for a very specific audience, and you need to tailor it accordingly. So, who are you writing for? It does depend, but not by much. Generally, you will be writing for administrative staff (including admissions officers) and faculty. You are writing, in short, for a law school committee.
Because you are not writing as a lawyer would, you should not write as a lawyer does, meaning, a parsed and specific style in dry language no one would use in any other setting. Rather, you want the dean or faculty member to understand you, your motivations, and your perspective. They seek authenticity, so you should explore what guides you, what your story is. Make it compelling. Make it gripping. Make it worth reading, not just analyzing.
Your Essay Content
The first task of your essay is that it should answer the specific prompt of the instructions. At the extreme, you would sabotage your application if you included the name of a different school in your essay. But even if you avoid that pitfall, you should absolutely tailor each draft of an essay to each school’s particular instructions. Guided by this basic principle, your next task is to tell your story, market yourself, and showcase your writing. In storytelling, you would call this the theme. In marketing, you would call this your USP: unique selling proposition. How do you truly stand out? Ask yourself:
- What would be one word that defines your journey to this point so far?
- What do you value most about yourself?
- When people talk about you, what do they most often praise you for?
Next, having decided your message, you move on to working on your essays. But should you outline first or write starting from a whim of an idea and just keep chugging like a train? Our advice is to spend twenty to thirty minutes just jotting down ideas, even if you are feeling inspired. If you just react to the prompt, you might produce something good, but you may also have lost the chance to brainstorm something great. Don’t worry about your first draft, just produce content. Then, with later edits, you can become a critic and pick apart word choice, the story, and the flow. In short, “love your first draft, hate your other drafts.”
General Essay Advice
As a prospective lawyer, you presumably already know how to write well. But there are still common mistakes we see in essays.
- Avoid passive voice. While not every use of “is” is weak, you want to minimize it.
- Avoid clichés. “I gave it my all,” “the time of my life,” and so on tell and don’t show.
- Avoid generalized language. Instead, provide winning and evocative details.
- Do write a compelling story. Stories engage and grab a reader’s attention.
- Do show and don’t tell. This advice should be stamped on your computer!
- Do use dialogue. To tell us about a relatable person, show us the scene and dialogue.
- Start with a “cinematic opening.” Also known as the “Inciting Incident.”
- Build toward the climax. Slowly raise the tension and get to this moment.
- Return full-circle to the beginning. Like the Hero’s Quest, you return to the beginning.
The Personal Statement
Your GPA shows what you have done in your undergraduate years. Your LSAT score suggests what you might do at law school. Your resume shows what you have done outside the classroom. Now, the most important essay, the personal statement, will show why you have done these things. How should you begin? Ask the right questions.
- When did you want to become a lawyer?
- Why do you want to become a lawyer?
- What change in the world do you want to bring about?
Don’t write what you think the law school wants to hear or write your resume in paragraph form. Rather, jot down 10 topics you could write about. Don’t be afraid to be vulnerable. Understand how all this connects to law school and your career goals.
The Diversity Essay
When you write about diversity in your application, “it’s not that you are diverse, it’s how diversity has impacted you.”
- How have you been affected for being diverse?
- How has diversity affected how you view the world?
- How have you changed as a result of going through this environment?
Diversity is not limited to skin color, sexual orientation, or ethnicity. Consider, for example:
- Joining the military.
- Being from a public high school.
- Living on a farm before moving to a city for college.
- Being raised by a single parent.
- Working multiple jobs in your teenage years.
Consider the five experiences about you that make you unique or a minority. Of the five, which one has most shaped how you view the world? What is an experience that shows the impact it has had on you? Look beyond the obvious answer, look beyond facts and to your feelings and experiences, be personal and look ahead. Don’t turn your focus outside yourself, don’t write what you think the admissions committee wants, and don’t write this essay just for the sake of writing it.
The Addendum and Character/Fitness Questions
The third essay you may write is the “Additional Information” or the “Addendum” essay. This is an opportunity to confront a significantly low GPA, a low LSAT score, or academic misconduct/criminal charges. The key issue is, are you really admitting a weakness where one doesn’t exist? One bad grade doesn't need to be explained away, nor does one time you’ve been fired or let go from a job. A positive tone beats a negative one when the weakness isn’t that bad. However, if you are truly in the situation of having to explain a significant weakness, you can still do your best. Be honest, take ownership of why it happened, and discuss how you have grown.
Separately, some schools will ask you about academic shortcomings, gaps in employment, or other deficiencies as a mandatory (non-optional) short answer question. These range from behavioral misconduct, academic misconduct, professional disciplinary sanctions, a felony or misdemeanor, previous law school experience. Read the prompt carefully, be honest, and don’t worry too much, the act of answering is usually more important than the answer itself. Once again, be honest, take ownership, and show growth.
Why Program Essays/Other Brief Essays
Most schools limit themselves to one personal statement, one diversity statement, and one addendum. However, occasionally a school will want to know why you consider it a good fit for you. As a quick rule of thumb, if you can simply find out the information from a quick Google search, it will not be specific enough. Instead, specifically relate how you are a good fit. For example, a professor who focuses on a specific industry that you wish to enter, a pipeline whether formal or informal to a legal firm or corporation you wish to work for, or a research center that aligns with your interests. Avoid simplistic compliments (e.g., “world-class faculty”) in favor of how a specific center or professor is part of your journey.
Some schools will also ask for a number of short essays. Generally, similar advice applies here as it does to your long statements. Make sure you read the prompt and answer it relevantly. Answer sincerely rather than what you think the committee wants to hear. Remember it’s not what your answer is so much as why it is the way it is. Provide insight into what you value and how you think, and make sure the answers are “on brand” with the rest of your essays. Be specific and show your integrity, work ethic, and communication skills rather than merely proclaiming it.
Congratulations! You’ve completed your personal statement and other essays and are ready to submit. But, before you do so, let’s do one last checklist. First, make sure your grammar and punctuation are correct, that you don’t make common errors such as “their/there/they’re,” and “your/you’re.” Ask yourself:
- Am I conveying my message well enough?
- Have I told the story I need to convey this message?
- Have I been as specific as I can be to make this story as strong as possible?
Try changing your font size to one bigger than you use now. Blow it up to size 16 and read. You will be surprised at what you catch. Consider printing out your essay and editing with a pen or pencil. It will change your view of the essays. Submit your essay to sites such as Grammarly. Look for errors such as repetitive language, lack of transitions, conditional phrasing, and capitalization errors.