Many law schools include their own optional essays. For example, the University of Pennsylvania Law School provides the following optional essays prompts:
• Describe how your background or experiences will enhance the diversity of the Penn Law community (e.g., based on your culture, race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity, ideology, age, socioeconomic status, academic background, employment, or personal experience). These are the core strengths that make Penn Law the best place to receive a rigorous and engaging legal education: genuine integration with associated disciplines; transformative, forward-looking faculty scholarship; highly-regarded experiential learning through urban clinics and our pro bono pledge; innovative, hands-on global engagement; and a manifest commitment to professional development and collegiality. These qualities define Penn Law. What defines you? How do your goals and values match Penn Law’s core strengths?
• Describe a time when, as a member of a team, you particularly excelled or were especially frustrated. What was your role within that team? What was the outcome?
Are these essays optional? Applicants often run out of steam (or ideas) and skip the essays hoping that the word “optional” means “opt out.” It doesn’t. If you want to get into a school, you should take every opportunity to tell the admissions committee something about yourself. After all, failure to respond to the essays sounds like you are saying that you have nothing interesting to tell them.
Below are a few tips for making optional essays less painful:
1. Most optional essays are short, about 1 page double-spaced. Don’t exceed the limit.
2. Show, Don’t Tell. The biggest mistake applicants make is responding to these questions without illustrating what they mean. In other words, give the reader some detail about what happened so that he or she can picture it.
3. Don’t Repeat. Don’t write about the same things you did for the personal essay or diversity statement. Examples can be from your own personal or professional experience.
A good way to approach optional essays like these is to brainstorm all possible ideas and situations – think about your college career, volunteer work, employment, family and personal life. Which events, experiences, and achievements would you like the school to know about you that aren’t discussed in another essay and that will address the question? Then, decide what makes the most sense for each essay.
Jessica Pishko graduated with a J.D. from Harvard Law School and received an M.F.A. from Columbia University. She spent two years guiding students through the medical school application process at Columbia’s PostBac Program and teaches writing at all levels.