4 Things I Learned Reading My Law School Admission Essay

Before I graduated law school, I asked the admissions coordinator for a copy of my law school admission essay. My request came as a surprise.

“Not many people ask to see those,” she said. “Are you okay?”

I told her not to worry. I was just wondering why I originally applied to law school. The thought came to me after reading an article that compared University of Toronto law school admission essays to what those eventual lawyers really did. The article contrasts high ideals with “the reality” in large corporate law firms.

“Did my motivations change?” I wondered.

When I looked through the cloud for my old application essay, I couldn’t find it. Somewhere in the five years, two laptops, and multiple cloud services I used since applying it had gotten lost. Our administrator was kind enough to give me a copy. Reading my law school application essay was one of the most important things I did before graduating.

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For anyone unfamiliar with law school, the admissions essay or “personal statement” is every applicant’s one chance to tell their story. It’s completely unstructured, often with no page limits or guidelines. The blank page stares back and says, “Tell me about yourself. Why do you want to go to law school?”

After half a decade, I didn’t expect my application essay to still ring true. A lot happened in the five years since I had applied. Wikileaks was just unfolding. Snowden. The Boston bombings. China also surpassed Japan as the world’s second-largest economy. It’s hard to say how much those events influenced me. In that time I had also completed two graduate-level degrees, made mistakes, and learned a lot about myself.

When I read my law school application essay I learned four things:

  1. Passion is about action. When I wrote that original essay, there were a lot of things I could have talked about. I could have talked about big issues, world events, or the importance of a legal education. My passion really shone through when I talked about action. What I did spoke far louder than anything I could have said. Taking on early roles as a community leader, mediator, researcher, and writer showed I already had a passion for doing what lawyers do–even if I didn’t really know what it was like to be a lawyer.
  2. Vulnerability is as important as strength. Law school admission essays can be awful to read. It can be very difficult to read someone else promote themselves. When all that’s presented is strength, we want to turn away because it’s not real.  After reading my essay, I thought the best part was my struggle (and eventual failure) to learn Japanese. Addressing failure helps us stay human. It helps us show our resiliency. And it makes us trustworthy. Nobody is perfect, and I’m glad I didn’t try to be.
  3. The only way to know “what you want to do next” is past experience. Ever heard someone complain that they’re not sure what they want to do for an education, a career, or a next move? That was me before I came to law school. I wasn’t sure if law was really for me, and my uncertainty comes through in my writing. The only information I was proceeding on was from past experiences. Not everyone has known what they want to do since they were born. I certainly didn’t. For most of us, “what to do next” comes from past experience. We need to constantly try new things to learn about ourselves to calibrate our compass for the way forward.
  4. Our most difficult moments define us and refine us. Strangely enough, I was encouraged to become a lawyer by my first tough experience in university. I had to find an apartment off-campus when all my friends were moving into residence; I had forgotten to hand in my housing forms on time. Two things happened after I moved into an apartment off-campus: (a) I became much more social and outgoing on campus. (b) I found out how to break my lease legally by researching the Residential Tenancies Act. That early experience could have made me give up. I could have stayed isolated off campus and stayed put. Instead, the experience forced me to grow.

After reading the essay, I was relieved to learn my motivations for going to law school hadn’t changed. I still want to use law to be a leader in my community.

If you’re in law school, I highly recommend you read your admission essay before you leave. It never hurts to re-calibrate your reasons for pursuing a long-term commitment. If you’re not in law school, but you’re thinking about committing to something or someone or somewhere for years, you should try writing a personal statement.

Leave a comment if you do read your admission essay. What does it say?

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