Application Advice Thoughts on Personal Statements, Optional Essays, and Letter(s) of Recommendation from the Admissions office

Personal Statement

Should you take the advice of your-pre-law advisor / mom / roommate / old flame who's in law school / uncle who thought about a law career-and write about: the deplorable state of the justice system / your infatuation with all things W&L / the non-profit organization you started when you were eight / your mock trial triumph? 

At W&L Law, our mission is to craft as lively a classroom conversation as we possibly can. With approximately 120 seats per year, this can be quite a challenge. The personal statement is an opportunity for you to give us a sense of who you are beyond what we can glean from the rest of your materials. 

So tell us something about yourself that we won't discover otherwise.  

We recommend that you imagine the admissions committee considering two files with the same numerical qualifications-which one gets the last available spot? Your personal statement will be read aloud. What do you want us to know about you before we make a choice? What makes you who you are? 

Here are a few concrete guidelines:

  • We read thousands of files, so you should strive for your personal statement to be memorable... within limits. Accordingly, if you summarize your resume, you've wasted the opportunity.  On the other hand, iambic pentameter, baked goods, photo albums or the necessity of a decoder ring are not the sorts of "memorable" we're after.
  • While the topic of your statement should actually be personal, it should stop short of triggering a "TMI" response. For most, this will rule out your assessment of the state of any particular aspect of the law, on one hand, and anything overly intimate on the other. In the world of personal statements, unique is good-unless it's very, very bad. If you'd feel queasy asking an acquaintance or potential employer to review your statement, we suggest you redraft.
  • Every year we receive numerous well-written personal statements that highlight the aspects of W&L Law the writer finds attractive. This sort of statement almost never hurts an applicant, but hardly ever helps as much as a personal statement can. Your discussion of an aspect of the educational experience available here-no matter how eloquent-is not likely to stick with us very long. We know about us; tell us about you.
  • Don't discuss your LSAT / GRE score or your grades in your personal statement. We accept any number of explanatory attachments to your application, and recommend you deal with these issues in a separate submission. There's more to you than your numbers, after all!
  • Write it yourself. We know there are writing services and even fill-in-the-blank forms-every year applicants taking advantage of these tools find themselves defending allegations of misconduct before the LSAC. We can assure you: it's not worth it. We also know there are plenty of people whose thoughts you value, and we're occasionally treated to the details of an applicant's editing process in a "show changes" version of their personal statement.
  • By all means, consult with people you think are knowledgeable, consider their comments as you draft and redraft. But before you submit your essay, pause for a day or two. Read it again. If it isn't your voice you hear when you read it, start over. You're embarking on a career where your ability to write persuasively will be your stock in trade. Consider this your first assignment.
  • Proofread. You'll have read this thing innumerable times, so get someone you trust to read it too-preferably someone who knows the difference between its and it's, and other common errors that spellcheck won't cure. We're lawyers, and we can spot typos in our sleep - we just can't help it!
  • Follow the rules. We provide guidelines on length and font size on our application. Ignore them and you run the risk of offending tired eyes, and worse, setting the bar for your statement higher than you would like.
  • We're willing to take your application as sufficient evidence of your interest in studying law, so you needn't try to convince us of the sincerity of your ambition. Remember, we're trying to get an idea of the voice you might bring to campus.
  • While you'll do a lot of talking about law here, of course, we're after a sense of what might inform your contribution to the conversation. So tell us about your losing season, your musical aspirations, that pivotal vacation experience, the single most important piece of advice you've ever received, your troubled (or wonderful) relationship with your sibling, why you volunteered-you get the idea. Those are the things that bring your application to life.

Optional Ethical Dilemma Essay 

The most common question we receive about our optional ethical dilemma essay is whether or not it is truly optional. Sure, you don't have to submit it, but it looks bad if you don't, right? Actually, we're perfectly happy to review your application without the optional essay, and there's no penalty attached to not providing one. We have received many successful applications to W&L Law that do not contain an ethical dilemma essay. 

So why write 500 more words? Put succinctly, it's another opportunity to stand out from the crowd. 

Often, some of the most memorable submissions are responses to this optional essay. Part of the reason is the nature of the prompt: writing about an ethical dilemma forces the applicant to tell a story, and the story centers on compelling set of facts. The topic also challenges the writer to describe a personal response to a difficult situation, so it is nearly impossible to write without conveying a sense of who you are. If your personal statement didn't wow us, your optional essay can save the day. 

In addition, the essay raises issues that are central to a legal education and the practice of law, so when you write about them, you will showcase the sensibility you'll bring to your studies. What's the worst case scenario? What's the right result? Who should have the power to decide? How do you manage the individuals or institutions involved? Which consequences are fair and which aren't? How do you redress unfairness?  

Applicants who take the opportunity to submit the optional essay put their reasoning skills on display, and it's almost always to their benefit to have done so.

Letter(s) of Recommendation

For law school applicants, gathering recommendation letters can be daunting. 

Before we move on to the "who" part of the letter of recommendation process, let's begin with the "how many." Specifically, how many letters of recommendation should you submit? This is a fairly common question, and each year we see applications with six or seven (or more) letters of recommendation. This is way too many.  

We require one letter of recommendation, but we will accept up to four letters in your file.  

As a cautionary note, though, we encourage all applicants to identify only recommenders who really know them well. Some students feel they HAVE to submit four letters, because that is the maximum, where in reality they have two or three people who can really speak to their skills and abilities, and other voices are superfluous.

While we appreciate the multiple perspectives additional letters often provide, we only have a limited time to spend with each file, and too many letters can do your application a disservice.  

Lawyers are decision-makers, and during the application process you may have to make some tough decisions.  

For example, rather than having six people write recommendations on your behalf, pick the two or three recommenders among this number who can provide the best and most complete picture of you as an applicant and a future law student. One or two good letters will say far more than seven average ones, and making this choice will save you from frustrating and offending your file's reviewer. 

Now that we've discussed how many, let's talk about the "who": Who should write your letters of recommendation? Here are a few tips:

  • We recommend that at least one of your letters be from a professor or someone who knows your academic abilities well. When you're thinking about which instructors to ask, don't just consider the classes in which you made an A. Think about that seminar you took last year that was really challenging or that upper-level elective that was so hard you had to go to office hours every week. Law school isn't going to be easy, and we're always interested in hearing about how you responded to a challenge. 
  • If you've been out of school for a while, you may feel that certain professors can't speak to who you are at this particular moment in your life. If this is the case, don't worry. At the end of the day, it's more important that your writers know you well than that they know you from the classroom.
  • We want as broad and complete a feel for you as a person as possible, so hearing from two recommenders who know you from the same context is usually not as helpful or informative as the perspectives of two people with whom you've interacted in disparate settings.

Give your recommenders plenty of time to write your recommendation-for instance do not contact them two weeks before the application deadline. And when you ask a recommender to write your recommendation, provide her with a copy of your resume. These "little" details can often make a tremendous difference as you put together your application and will ultimately make for a much more compelling file.

At W&L Law, we are looking for people who will be a good "fit" at our school, and this is an assessment that encompasses both the numerical and personal aspects of your application.  

We want students who will be able to manage the intellectual challenge of attending one of the nation's great law schools, but we're also looking for people who will come to campus, get involved, and be good citizens. In light of this calculus, every aspect of your application matters, and we will read everything you submit. What do you want your application to say about you? What do you want us to know about you? This is your chance to answer these questions.