The Application Essay

Excerpt The following is an excerpt from the book The Ivey Guide to Law School Admissions by Anna Ivey Published by Harcourt; April 2005;$14.00US; 0-15-602979-0 Copyright © 2006 Anna Ivey

Whether you’re submitting a personal statement, a statement of purpose, or a diversity essay, make sure to follow these rules:

Rule #1: Edit and Proofread, Then Proofread Again Your grammar, spelling, and punctuation must be flawless. When in doubt, pullout those old standbys The Chicago Manual of Style and Strunk & White. If grammar, spelling, and punctuation aren’t your strong points, enlist a friend to help (and give you a tutorial, while you’re at it). There’s no excuse for a college graduate to mess this up. And beware the spell-check trap — it won’t catch “right” when you should have written “write,” and it won’t catch your “commitment to pubic service.” (You laugh, but I saw that typo as a law review editor.) Always have a second pair of eyes proofread your essays before you send them off.

Rule #2: Nothing Cutesy Anything cutesy or gimmicky will make admissions officers groan. Stay away from the following:

Essays in the form of poetry Essays in the form of a legal brief (“For all the reasons cited above, the admissions committee should admit Petitioner to Slamdunk Law School.”) Essays in the form of an obituary (“Tracy Johnson died the most respected jurist of her time.”) Essays in the form of an interview Crayons, construction paper, perfume, or illustrated essays, no matter how sophisticated Rule #3: No Legalisms You’re not a lawyer yet, so your use of legal concepts or terminology will most likely demonstrate that you have no idea what you’re talking about, not to mention the fact that legal writing is considered god-awful by the rest of the world, including admissions officers. Many applican ts, for example, refer to a company or a person violating someone’s right to free speech, when, in fact, the First Amendment applies only to government restrictions on speech. And by all means, steer clear of anything in Latin.

Rule #4: Show, Don’t Tell Back up any general statements with examples and anecdotes. If you write, “The student presidency taught me that leadership means more than delegating,” tell us how you learned that lesson. What were the conflicts and problems you faced? If you write, “I have excellent time-management skills,” back up that statement by pointing out that you graduated in the top 10 percent of an engineering program that 40 percent of engineering freshmen drop.

Rule #5: Respect Page Limits and Other Minutiae If a school gives you a page or word limit, abide by it. And follow the spirit of the rule as well as the letter — don’t get too sneaky with fonts, margins, and line spacing. Admissions officers won’t cut you any slack if your essay comes in under the page limit but makes them go cross-eyed because the font or line spacing is so small. If a school doesn’t specify a length, a good rule of thumb is two to three pages, double-spaced, in eleven-point Times New Roman, with one-inch margins all around. When in doubt, shorter is better than longer. As an admissions officer buddy of mine likes to say: “The vast, vast, vast majority of just-out-of-college applicants (almost all applicants, really) are not interesting enough to fill six pages. Show me that you understand my time is valuable, and show me that you understand how to pick out what’s really important.”

Make sure to put your name and Social Security number in a header and page numbers in a footer, just in case your file goes splat and has to be reassembled. Also, identify in the header what essay question you’re answering, if you’re given more than one option or are submitting more than one essay (“Personal Statement,” “Optional Essay #3,” etc.). By the way, you don’t need to give your essay a title like “Morris 405” or “Jorge.” I added those titles in the appendix essays so that I could refer to them easily in this chapter.

Don’t submit pages that are crumpled, stained, or smell like pot smoke — most admissions officers really aren’t looking for that contact high. Really, your essay shouldn’t smell like any kind of smoke.

And finally, if you’re getting too close to your material and think you’re losing perspective, turn to the sample essays in the appendix to keep your big-picture objective in mind. Can you see how much more engaging and revealing the good ones are?

Copyright © 2006 Anna Ivey

About the author:

Author: Anna Ivey
Anna Ivey, JD, served as dean of admissions at the University of Chicago Law School. She now runs Anna Ivey Admissions Counseling, a counseling firm for college, business school, and law school applicants. She divides her time between Boston and Orlando. Please visit her website at