Although the personal statement is the most substantial and generally most important of the admissions essays, optional essays, supplemental statements and addenda may also play a critical role in tipping the scales—and that tipping can occur in either direction. For each of these items, the first question is whether or not you should include that particular essay, statement, addenda, etc. in your application package.
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.
When Is It Helpful to Answer Targeted Questions?
Many schools offer a prompt or opportunity to talk about something specific like the “socio-economic challenges” prompt mentioned above. The most common of these prompts is generally known as the “diversity statement” and invites information about how you might differ from the typical incoming law student and add something unique to the class.
The simple answer to “should I or shouldn’t I?” with regard to these statements is, “Yes, if you have something to say.” That doesn’t mean you have to fit into the narrow box that might spring to mind when you read the question: if the question were just about race or country of origin or being thirty years older than the average entering law student or some other statistical trait, it would hardly be necessary to ask it. And, of course, most of the “diversity” statements would be very similar and wouldn’t really do a whole lot to help the admissions committee round out a class. We’ll talk later in this book about what schools are looking for with diversity and other common targeted statements and how to determine whether you have something valuable to say in those essays, but the basic question to ask of yourself is this: Do I have something useful to say that I honestly believe addresses this question?
If the answer is “yes”, use that opportunity. If it’s “no”, don’t. It’s not quite so important to write these statements as it is the general application questions because the fact that you’ve skipped over it could simply mean that it didn’t apply to you. If you didn’t face socio-economic challenges you just didn’t, and it’s counterproductive to try to twist something from your past into a response to that question. So, admissions officers are far less likely to interpret the fact that you skipped over one of these essays to mean that you just couldn’t be bothered to do more than what was absolutely required of you.
Give it some thought, though. Don’t just glance at a prompt, decide it doesn’t apply to you and move on. Just like your personal statement, optional essays require some thought, some brainstorming, some internal excavation to make sure you know what’s most relevant and compelling about you and how those characteristics run as a common thread through your life. Invest the effort, whether that effort leads to an optional essay or to a well-considered decision to skip a particular prompt.
When Should I Include an “Explanation” Statement?
Some “explanation” statements are required, while others will fall under the general “if there’s anything more you’d like to tell us” invitation that most schools offer.
When an Explanation is Required
Under certain circumstances, most law schools will require that you provide additional information. Some common events that might trigger a required explanation include academic probation, college disciplinary action and criminal prosecution.
If you’re required to provide an explanation, do so. That much should be obvious. However, it’s not always quite as clear as it sounds. For example, a school may ask a question about arrest, or about any legal consequences, or may limit the language in the question to criminal convictions. So, it may be unclear whether a particular incident falls within the language a particular school uses, and it may appear (accurately or inaccurately) that some schools require disclosure and explanation of issues that other schools do not.
One of the most common questions I hear as an admissions consultant is some variation on “does a citation for underage drinking count as a criminal conviction?” or “I had this misdemeanor marijuana possession conviction, but I went through a program and it was expunged—do I still have to report it?” The answer to that question may vary depending on state law, on the resolution of the matter, on the language of the question on the law school application and other factors. We can find the answer in the documents surrounding the citation, the state or local laws applied, the language of the question on the application and/or by asking someone in the admissions office at the school in question whether or not it “counts”. But my first-line advice is usually to simply follow a mantra that will become very familiar to the applicant during law school and legal practice: disclose, disclose, disclose.
This advice often meets with some resistance, and understandably so. An applicant has a limited amount of time and space in which to sell himself to a school; no one wants to use that time and space discussing negatives—particularly ones he’s not sure he’s required to mention at all. Ultimately, an applicant has to make his own decisions when the lines aren’t crystal clear, so I’ll explain why I nearly always advise clients to disclose, and then I’ll tell you what to do to protect yourself as fully as possible if you are reluctant to follow that advice.
If you’re questioning whether or not you’re required to disclose something under the language of the question, chances are that question is open to interpretation. What if you get it wrong? Or, more to the point, what if your interpretation doesn’t match the interpretation of the people who are assessing your application?
Often, applicants at this point ask a question like “Yeah, but what are the chances that they’re going to find out?” It’s a fair question. In fact, the chances that the law school admissions folks will find out that you left a legal incident out of your application are probably pretty low. Of course, if they do find out the consequences could be pretty serious: you’ve affirmed that all of the information in your application is accurate to the best of your knowledge, and your admission to the school is conditioned upon you keeping up your end of the bargain. It’s a big chance to take in terms of potential fallout, but not such a big one in terms of likelihood of discovery.
For law students, though, the risk analysis doesn’t end there. Unlike many students, law students can’t simply graduate and go to work in their chosen profession; there’s another hurdle on the horizon. No, I’m not talking about the bar exam, but the licensing process more generally. In particular, the part of that process known as the character and fitness investigation.
The exact process varies from state to state and the rigorousness of the character and fitness interview even varies depending on the interviewer to whom you are assigned. However, the process begins with some type of background check that exceeds what most law schools will engage in. For example, when I applied to the bar I had to go to the state police in my home state and pay $10 for a certified copy of my thankfully non-existent criminal history to submit with my bar application. In addition, many (if not all) states also ask you to explain in detail any arrests, citations, convictions, etc.; some go so far as to ask about traffic tickets. When that information arrives in the hands of the bar examiners, it had better match the claims you made on your law school applications.
How likely is it that you’d be denied admission to the bar because you left an arrest or a citation or some similar item off of your law school application? It depends: it depends not only on the nature of the crime or infraction, but also on the specific requirements for licensing in your state, the bar examiners involved in the process, whether or not those bar examiners believe that you have justification or made a good faith mistake in leaving off that information, and whether there are other discrepancies or concerns regarding your fitness to practice law.
Even if that analysis came down in your favor, no one wants to begin her legal career by having to justify herself to her future colleagues in the legal profession, or to be remembered by those attorneys as that lawyer with the disclosure mess about the teenage marijuana possession thing. Ultimately, all will be revealed. Drop the other shoe now, deal with it and move on.
Despite all that, some applicants remain reluctant to disclose or are dealing with past events they feel will be seriously detrimental to their applications and might not fall into the categories a school requires to be disclosed. My advice remains, “If there is any doubt at all, disclose.” However, if you’re considering not disclosing something, make a very careful analysis that should include:
Very carefully reviewing the language of the relevant question(s) on each law school application—the precise language will vary and so
may mean that one school clearly requires disclosure of something that isn’t included on another school’s list.
Carefully review all paperwork associated with the incident and any public or school records relating to the incident.
Determine the exact legal term used in conjunction with the incident, find out exactly what it means, and then do the same for each of the terms included in the question to be very sure whether or not one of those terms is synonymous with or encompasses your situation.
Get help answering this question if necessary: an attorney in the state and county where the incident occurred and was cited or prosecuted would be the best source of information about how that offense and adjudication is properly classified.
Ask the school; if you’re not comfortable discussing the situation openly with someone in the admissions office, simply make a call as a prospective student who hasn’t yet applied and don’t share your name. Explain your situation and find out whether or not the school would consider this item to be covered by its application question.
As always, err on the side of disclosure. If this analysis yields any uncertainty or apparent gray area, default to the original advice: disclose, disclose, disclose...
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