Law School Application Optional Essays
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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To Write or Not Write Optional Law School Essays?
To write or not write the optional law school essay?…
That, apparently, is the question.
There comes a time in every law school applicants life where he asks himself, “Do I really need to write the optional law school essays? And are they really optional?”
With all of the mandatory work needed to apply to law school, the prospect of cutting corners is enticing to say the least.
You’ll want to skip the optional essays.
But then, unsurprisingly, the responsible you will ask the next logical question…“Will skipping the optional essay negatively impact my application?”
The short answer to these questions, unfortunately, is identical to many others when it comes to the law – a resounding, “It depends on the situation.”
Optional law school essays vary greatly. Some have required lengths while others are open-ended. Topics range enormously from school to school, each requesting different background anecdotes and information, all presented in a slightly different manner.
Typical Optional Essays Include:
– The Standard: Why Law School X?
– Diversity Essay: How can your background and experiences add to the diversity of our class?
– Are there any particular programs that especially interest you?
While there’s no one-size-fits-all optional essay, there are definitely situations in which writing the paper, or deciding to forego the opportunity, can measurably help your application.
The Benefits of The Optional Essays
Although many complain that applying to law school is a numbers game where LSAT and GPA reign supreme, law schools provide students the chance to round out their application via optional essays. While it’s not happenchance that better scores will grant you access to better schools, it’s a serious oversimplification of the admissions process to assume that the LSAT and GPA are the only pieces to the puzzle. Law schools absolutely care about creating a diverse, well-rounded student body, melding unique perspectives, backgrounds, motivations, and aspirations.
Optional essays give you, the applicant, yet another chance to show admissions who you are and what you’re made of beyond the numbers. It’s simply another opportunity to show off your strengths and convince law schools that you deserve a seat in the upcoming class. And applicants would be remiss to ignore the opportunity.
Are The Essays Really Optional? Will Skipping Them Hurt My Application?
Simply put, the optional essays are truly optional, and law schools have repeated over and over again that not answering them won’t negatively impact your application. Your application will merely be judged and valued by the remaining portions of your law school portfolio.
That being said, it’s widely regarded that well written, interesting, and engaging optional essays will absolutely help your chances of admission. Therefore it follows logically that if you are able to write a well written, interesting, and engaging optional essay that is on topic, you should definitely write it, because if you don’t, you’re essentially hurting your application through the opportunity cost of that extra bump.
Interestingly enough, however, there are times when actually writing the optional essay can hurt your chances of admission…
When is it (Usually) Beneficial to SKIP the Law School Optional Essays?
You don’t have a good topic to write about
If you have to force an optional essay, it may be a good idea to skip it.
This comes up quite often with diversity essays. Obviously, not every law school candidate comes from a diverse background. Although many can say they’ve lived a life that falls somewhere outside the confines of what is considered “normal,” even more are just ordinary, every day people, who have lived ordinary, every day lives.
Simply put, if you feel like you have a weak topic, the readers will probably feel the same way.
Spend some quality time brainstorming an excellent and appropriate topic. If you can’t come up with something, or it seems like a bit of stretch, you may be better off not writing that particular optional essay.
You don’t have the time to make your paper perfect
The worst thing you can do is to write a subpar optional essay. Admissions officers constantly point out that while a student’s Personal Statement is outstanding, their optional essay is lacking, unpolished, or just not written with as much care and excellence.
Everything you submit during the application process should be your absolute best work. If you don’t have the time to create a masterpiece, an essay you’re truly proud of, then you should consider skipping it, lest you drag the rest of your application down with it.
You’re not an especially skilled writer
The purpose of the optional essay is to showcase your skills. So if writing isn’t one of them, it could be beneficial to shy away from the assignment. If you’re a good test taker, and have the scores to prove it, then it may be in your best interest to let your numbers speak for themselves.
You feel like your optional essay will be the weakest part of your application
If, for some reason, you feel that the optional essay will be the weakest part of your application, then you definitely should consider omitting the assignment. Admissions committees will judge your application as a sum of various parts, including your LSAT, GPA, Letters of Recommendation, Personal Statement, etc. If your optional essay is the least strong piece of the puzzle, you should let the other parts of your application stand alone. Why submit something that doesn’t accurately reflect how awesome you are if you don’t have to?
You have nothing new to add
If you wrote about your diverse background in your Personal Statement, don’t write about the same thing in your Diversity Essay. Same goes with a Why Law School X statement. Use the optional essays to ADD to your application, not to repeat and re-use information just for the sake of submitting it. Redundancy will only retract from the other portions of your application.
You’re applying to a major safety school
If your LSAT/GPA numbers far outshine a school’s medians, there’s really no need to spend the time on the optional essays. Major safety schools would be glad to have you based on your scores alone, so spend the extra time polishing applications for your reach schools, where the optional essays actually matter.