Critique My Law School Application Essay

So, I’m applying to law school for the fall. I’m fairly confident of getting in- my LSAT scores are pretty good, and it’s a low-tier school. Still, I’d rather have a good essay than a bad one, so I submit it to you, Dopers, for your solemn judgment. Also, nit-picking.

My fiancee read it and says I write like a British person, which is apparently a problem. However, my high school and college instructors never seemed to mind my writing style, so I’m a bit confused. Anyway, here’s the topic:

And here’s my essay (it runs to exactly two pages in 12-point font, which is the upper limit):

  • High school did not prepare me well for college. In some part, that was due simply to circumstance; I spent the majority of my scholastic career attending top private schools in the UK, where “slacking” was simply not an option. With instructors and tutors always watching over one’s shoulder, no assignment was ever failed because the work was not done. A grade depended on the student’s ability to apprehend and apply the material, rather than on time management skills. In that system, I became what was known as a “high flyer”- a student cemented into the upper academic streams, and being prepared for Oxford or Cambridge.

    I emigrated to the US with my family in 1996, shortly before my 14th birthday. Here, I found a rude awakening. In public schools, with nobody looking over my shoulder, I was suddenly free to ignore my homework if I wished, and mostly I so wished. My academic achievement was replaced by social achievement; tired of being “the smart kid”, I instead took pains to become “the popular kid”. Instead of applying my time to earn high grades, I used it to make new friends. I volunteered as a tutor after school hours just to meet new people. I did just enough in class to stay in school, and graduated with a 3.0 grade point average based mostly on test scores. Worst of all, I hadn’t found anything that seemed like a career path. Instead of selecting a university based on the programs it offered, I selected the one “everyone else” was going to – *** – and hoped I could choose a major once I got there.

    By the time I entered college, I had forgotten how to study. Perhaps more importantly, I had forgotten why I needed to. In college, I did exactly what I’d done in high school- just enough. It didn’t help that I had nothing to work towards, with no career path in mind and no major either. I enrolled in the College of Arts and Sciences, in the hope that I could pursue a degree related to medicine if nothing better presented itself. In my own words, I figured that if “I [couldn’t] be happy, I [would] make my parents happy.” My grades reflected my lack of drive and direction, and I barely avoided academic probation.

    On the other hand, I was more productive overall during college than during high school. I joined a fraternity, and realized that in many such organizations perhaps five per cent do fifty per cent of the work. Having found a challenge at last, I threw myself into it, holding as many as five positions within the fraternity simultaneously and fourteen overall between my initiation and graduation. I did everything possible to be among the five per cent. I took the lead role in organizing our own events, philanthropic works, and community service projects, and made sure that our contributions to events organized by the Greek community and the college as a whole were equal or superior to those of much larger groups.

    It was not until my junior year that I had the first hint of a possible future. A class I took simply to fill a hole in my schedule – Philosophy of Law – introduced me to questions I found fascinating. Although I was a good student of mathematics and the hard sciences when younger, they never held much interest. Questions with only one answer seemed too limiting. In the law, however, questions could be answered in a dozen ways, and the process of reaching an answer was often more important than the answer reached.

    I began signing up for more classes related to the law. I had a inkling that International Law might be my calling. The answers to the questions it posed were even more varied than the ones available in more traditional specializations, and of course were not always- or even normally- adjudicated within the court system.

    Interested at last, I began paying a little more attention to my work. My grades began to climb, although not to the extent I hoped; I had to learn how to be a student all over again, after more than seven years of just “cruising”, and this learning process was not complete when I graduated.

    I planned to enter law school directly out of college, but for a few reasons that did not happen. A reversal of the family fortunes meant I would have to work my way through school, and suddenly I was looking at taking on significant debt to go back to school. There was also a very real possibility that I might have to support my mother if her financial problems intensified. Knowing that I would have to pay for school myself, I wondered what would happen if I finished law school and decided that the law wasn’t the career for me. To be trapped in a career seemed to me a worse fate than having no career at all.

    In the end, paralyzed by my own indecision, I would up working in retail and wondering what to do next. Fate solved the problem for me. A close friend decided to move to Washington, D.C., and asked if I wanted to take over her job at a law firm. Retail management, I already knew, was not where I wanted to be, and I took a significant pay cut to become a legal assistant at the newly formed law firm of ****, in the workers’ compensation department. At time of writing, I will have been in that position for over two years, although the firm now calls me a paralegal and all along my duties have been more in that vein. I have been able to watch and experience the practice of workers’ compensation law, and general liability. I have also been able to involve myself somewhat in criminal defense practice, through a former associate of the firm who left to set up her own practice.

    The last two years have been more useful than my last eight years of school. These years have given me something I could not find on my own- a career path. They have given me the knowledge that the law suits both my interest and my abilities. Although I feel a special affinity for workers’ compensation law, melding as it does my old interest in medicine and my new passion for law, I am open to the possibility of practicing in a wide range of fields. I have taken great pride in learning as much as possible, both via personal study and the help of others. The attorneys with whom I work on a daily basis know of my ambition and support it, and take it upon themselves to help me learn.

    My hope is that the above narrative will explain why I will enrich the **** College of Law. Having taken so long to reach a decision regarding my future, I can be certain I have made the correct one. After over two years of learning “on the job”, I believe I can learn in the classroom again. I have always known I am capable of high academic achievement when my mind is fully applied. **** University College of Law will give me a reason to do so, and I would very much appreciate that opportunity if granted.*

On the one hand, I quite like it. On the other, I’m not quite sure how it ended up as a narrative and I’m afraid it’s totally inappropriate. So… help? In case anyone is wondering, it’s nearly all true.

A few thoughts: First, “nearly all true” isn’t really good enough. If a falsehood in your application materials comes to light while you’re in law school, most schools will at least consider expelling you. You’ll certainly be reported to the bar. Don’t fudge the facts, even if you’re certain there’s no way your school could find out. It isn’t worth the headache.

Second - others may disagree, but I think you may want to spend more time talking about your work as a paralegal, and maybe other volunteer or college activities, rather than spending the bulk of your paper relating your history of slackerdom. I understand that you want to explain your bad grades - but your essay left me really, really skeptical that you’d finally pick up classroom study skills in law school. It seemed to boil down to, “Well, I slacked and slacked and slacked in school - then I went out into the real world, and did okay. Now I’d like to come back to school - I won’t slack this time, promise!”

There’s a better way to do this. You can mention briefly that you didn’t perform at your full potential in college, but then go on to talk about the interesting work you’ve done, and how it’s forced you to grow, learn new skills, etc. Spend most of your essay talking about the cool things you’ve done outside of school, and what you’ve learned from them - not your history of slacking.

ETA: Third year law student checking in.

I’ve never been in a position to have to evaluate lawschool applications, so I have no experience with the things, so take anything I say with a grain of salt.

I would take out “To be trapped in a career seemed to me a worse fate than having no career at all.” That doesn’t leave me with a positive impression of you and your commitment to law.

Also, I would concentrate less on explaining your shortcomings - everyone has a hard luck story and I can only imagine how painful it would be to have to read all of them. Instead I would concentrate on explaining what your focus is, and what is the driving force behind you. What are you hungry for? How do you plan to get it all? Why do you need them to help you get where you need to be?

Good luck!

IANAL, take this with a grain of salt, advice worth as much as you paid, yadda yadda.

I really won’t start out talking about your high school years. An exception could be made if you had some unique high school experience (ie you attended a new charter school) and you can tie this in to some idea or accomplishment that is a significant part of your application. In your case neither really apply. Let me say that the first time i wrote a grad school essay I did the same thing – I started talking about some classes I did in high school, and the best and most honest advice I got was “Why are you talking about high school for your grad school application?”

I would talk more about your job, what your firm does, why that inspires you to go to law school, etc.

What exactly did you do and learn? Why is this important? What unique experience will you bring to their first year class? What will you do when you graduate, and why will your past experiences help you reach this goal? etc.


The first part kind of makes you sound like a tool- “I’m really a top student but your country’s education system forced me to be a slacker” isn’t a good way to start.

In fact, the whole thing is full of excuses, and doesn’t give the reader a clue about who you are. You even throw in a sick mother! It’s also very passive. You are always a victim of circumstances outside of your control. Even the good things you’ve done are things you just kind of fell into. You act as if you are not a full actor in your life story.

The point of an application essay is to give the reader some clue as to who you are as a person. This essay makes me think you are full of excuses and have very little direction in your life. The other purpose of an essay is to show how you will contribute to the intellectual vibrancy of their school. And this essay doesn’t give me a clue about that, either.

Write it again. When you write about yourself, don’t think about what they want to hear. Write from the heart. And make this a story about yourself, not about the circumstances around you.

Well, shit. I was hoping for something more like “rewrite this part” than “rewrite all of it” :wink:

Happens to the best of us. :slight_smile: I rewrote my law school application essay several times.

In one sentence, explain what you hope your essay will convey. Make sure that sentence appears in your essay, preferably pretty early on.

One thing that struck me in reading your statement was that I was never sure what the point of all this information was. You have a fine intellect but have trouble applying it? You like to take leadership positions in organizations you belong to? You have valuable work experience which can enrich your own law school education and that of your classmates? You are intimately acquainted with the legal profession and you believe you have the skills and the temperament to thrive as an attorney? Some combination of these?

Better to treat this as a first draft. You have a lot of good information and you can weave this into a story. But! You want this story to drive at a point. Consider this your first occasion for advocacy. You want the material to be compelling, and to do that, you need to observe some formal conventions: a thesis paragraph, signposting, transitions, and conclusions. Unless you have had some truly spectacular life experiences (SPOILER ALERT: No. I didn’t either though, and I can’t think of many of my classmates who had), you’re really being evaluated for you ability to craft a cogent written argument – the lawyer’s stock in trade.

One point I would leave in, when you re-write it, is that philospohy of law was your first exposure to the discipline of law, and that’s what sparked your interest in it. It was the same way for me to, and so that part resonated with me, and I’m sure it will with at least some of the faculty who will be reading your essay.

Another vote for total rewrite. Most of your essay is just saying you’re smart enough to do well when you’re interested. As a bona fide Lazy-American myself, I can tell you that the “I didn’t work hard enough” excuse is the second least compelling possible excuse for low grades. In fact, I’m not even sure it’s worse than, “I wasn’t smart enough to do better.” Lazy (or directionless, or disinterested, or whatever) probably loses to dumb is most of life’s endeavors, and no career will be perpetually interesting. It is better to simply try to indirectly convince the reader that you’ve matured by your discussion of your post-college work.

Focus on your paralegal work. That sets you apart a bit from the majority of applicants coming straight through college and it demonstrates that you’re serious about law school (you’re not just ending up there like so many people). You can use that for your vehicle to explain that you excel when you’re interested in the work, if you must. Though I advise you to drop that theme altogether. And try to tell them something interesting about you–it will help them remember you and will also convince them to read the whole thing. They have to go through a damn lot of these things.

Maybe you have a good story from work that sums up something about yourself? A good story from your paralegal background with a theme that can be tied back to your history/character would be a nice structure.

I’m in the middle of writing my own personal statement for grad (not law) school. Recently I came upon this site where people post their essays for critique. I found it helpful to get the ball rolling. A lot of the ones posted there are narrative in style.

Ha ha. I remember those days. If there’s anything I’d have done differently (OK, there’s a lot I’d have done differently), it’s:
[li]Apply as early as you can[/li][li]Don’t sweat the essay all that much (see the above bullet)[/li][li]Don’t think you can construct complex models or other oracles regarding your admission on the basis of what you read at[/li][li]Remember, financial aid is always negotiable[/li][/ul]

Right on.
I have to admit I didn’t read your essay, but rather skimmed it (which I think the admissions people probably will do too to be honest - they don’t have time to read them all closely). The parts that really caught my eye on the skim-through were the parts about being unprepared, lazy, and indecisive. It gives a bad first impression.
The important thing to convey is what you have to offer and why you feel law school is a good fit for you.
Finally, though I imagine that you are aware of it, I feel obligated to point out that I’ve heard of lawyers from lower tier schools having to settle for working as paralegals due to the tight job market these days, so be sure that you really do want this and have a plan for how to get your desired job afterwards before you commit yourself to this long path!

Another vote for “rewrite.” There is far too much time taken on slacking your way through high school and college; and this is not the sort of thing you want to convey. Law schools are full of students who didn’t slack their way through those years–or who didn’t claim to, anyway. This should tell you something: law schools don’t admit slackers, even those who no longer do it.

One other thing you may want to be aware of–my impression of the first part of your essay was that the UK educational system is superior and the US one isn’t very good. I cannot comment on how true this is, but if you do continue with the UK/US comparison, you may want to “soften” it a bit–remember, the admissions officers at the schools you are applying to are not only products of the US educational system, but they are also a part of it. Don’t prejudice your chances by possibly offending them.

I’d suggest cherry-picking a few high school and college experiences that led you to want to study law, and writing about those. Keep them positive and make them original if possible (I used lyrics from a John Lennon song in my law school admissions essay); and you should be fine. Good luck!

Who gives a crap about you being a slacker? That’s not the sort of thing that enriches a law school.

Toss out your draft, and start again, only this time answer the question succinctly.

Other posters have commented on the “slacker” emphasis - I agree that this will not case you in a great light. I think a rewrite is in order.

Actually, I’d rewrite completely from scratch if I were you. Maybe I’m just paranoid, but now the original “slacker” draft is up here for all the world to see (I think these threads are now indexed by Google). I don’t know if they’d scour the web for your essay (I always thought colleges had tools to do this for exam essays to prevent plagiarism, but am not sure about application essays such as this), but it seems possible that if your final draft contained the same sentences as this draft they could find this original pretty easily.

Don’t go to a low-ranked law school.

Do a rewrite. Your essay currently tells me that you are a slacker who will study only if he is interested in the material. Not all law classes are interesting and frankly, som are boring, but they teach material that is important to know. Civil Procedure would be a great example of this. Anyone that can get through Pennoyer v. Neff and find it interesting is a better person than I. Talk more about the work that you have done as a paralegal and coursework that is relevant.

Another point that has been raised is the value of going to a lower tier school. How many schools have you applied to? You want to go to the best one that you get into. The value of a name school is that it opens doors and gets you interviews. You don’t want to go to a school that is so lowly ranked that you can’t get a job.

I’d cut the first part about moving here/slacker motif/your family’s financial issues.

Then I’d re-write backwards-focus and expand on your work experience, esp. the law stuff and interlace it with your academic interests. Show how they inter-connect and how they would make you a good candidate for law school.

Acknowledge if some of your grades may not be the best (I did so in my own essay and I got into almost all the schools I applied to and they were all Tier 1) but focus on what you’ve learned and how you’ve changed. Don’t belabour the point-maybe interlace with the retail experience here. The question in their minds should not be “if I admit him will he pull the same crap here?”

I find it’s best to give essays a theme but I’m sort of a freak and wrote very playful essays for both college and law school. My undergrad one was about how I sneeze (it’s a freaky sneeze) and my law school one was about risk-taking. OTOH, they both touched on the major points I wanted to convey-academic successes, my strengths, acknowledging weaknesses but showing how they could work with the school/program specifically AND that I’ve changed, and for law school, work experience.

Alert: the next part is going to be very Macchiavellian but I’m just putting it out there because every canny Ivy Leaguer more or less plays this game.

You’re ethnic, right? Hence all that wahwahwah “foreign culture now I’m a slacka” beginning? If you’re going to pull that “Other Country” stuff you reference at the beginning, you have to go whole hogger with it as a theme, dude. I mean, no prancing around “I moved here from another country” non-specific coyness. The rule of ethnic/class exploitation for academic gain is either Go Whole Hogger or Go Home yaknowwhatImean? Ferinstance, I had the great pleasure of reading my ex’s VP’s (i-banking) essays for b-school (Shmarvard and Shmanford) because he was writing him a recommendation and basically delegated that task to me. This kid threw that whole “I’m the kid of a crackwhore” (he is, literally) in there every chance he could. I mean, I counted 50 crackwhore refs over 7 essays, you know? He was very good at laying down the branding. My sister got into Northwestern Med with that following-my-dharma crap and my ex won a Marshall scholarship with his indian-themed “I used to be a cultist” essay and I assure you Son of Crackwhore will be matriculating at either Shmarvard or Shmanford within a year or two (unless the market improves in which case he will sleaze straight over to hedge funds). If you’re going to play that game it has to be your theme. Myself, I go for different themes but I don’t begrudge anyone their strengths.

Remember that many colleges have software which helps mete out plagiarized material. Just typing a few strings of text from your essay might point them to this site where you’re asking for help on your essay. That’s not good. But, worse, they can then search your UserName to find out all sorts of things about you.

Call me paranoid, but I wouldn’t enter the entire text of my essay on a public forum.