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Home > Law > Free Essay Tips and Advice > Topic Selection

Getting Started
Assessing Yourself
Choosing Your Topic
Topics to Avoid
Advice for Special Cases
Reading Through Models

Getting Started

To get the most benefit out of this section, put your anxieties aside. Don’t think about what the admissions committee wants, don’t worry about grammar or style, and especially don’t worry about what anyone would think. Worries like these hamper spontaneity and creativity. Focus instead on writing quickly and recording every thought you have the instant you have it. You will know that you are performing these exercises correctly if you are relaxing and having fun.

Stream of Consciousness

Take 20 minutes to answer each of the questions: Who are you? and What do you want? Start with whatever comes to mind first, and write without pausing for the entire time. Don't limit yourself to any one area of your life such as your career. Just let yourself go, be honest, and have fun. You might be surprised by what kind of results can come from this type of free association.

Morning Pages

If you have the discipline to practice this technique for a week, you may end up doing it for the rest of your life. Keep paper and a pen at your bedside. Set your alarm clock twenty minutes early, and when you are still in bed and groggy with sleep, start writing. Write about anything that comes to mind, as fast as you can, and do not stop until you have filled a page or two.

Journal Writing

Keep a journal for a few weeks, especially if you are stuck and your brainstorming seems to be going nowhere. Record not what you do each day but your responses and thoughts about each day’s experiences.

Top Tens

Write down your top ten favorites in the following areas: movies, books, songs, musicians, sports, paintings, historical eras, and famous people. Step back and look at the lists objectively. What do they say about you? Which favorites are you most passionate about? How have these favorites affected your outlook, opinions, or direction?

Free-Flow Writing

Choose a word from your questions such as "influence," "strengths," "career," "diversity," or "goals" and brainstorm around it. Set a timer for 10 minutes and write without stopping. Write down everything you can think of that relates to the topic, including any single words that come to mind.
Assessing Yourself

Hopefully the exercises in the last section successfully stirred your thoughts and animated your pen. If so, then it is time to impose more focus on your brainstorming. These next exercises help you do just that. They concentrate on finding the specific points and details that can be used to answer each of your questions. But as you work on them be sure to retain the open mind and creative attitude with which you approached the last exercises.

First, make a list of all the questions you have to answer for each school, leaving plenty of space next to each. Work on the following exercises proactively, keeping these questions in mind as you write. When you have uncovered a point or example that could potentially be used in response to one of them, make a note of it next to the question and then go right back to the brainstorming. If you can apply one situation or experience to multiple questions, do so. Don’t censor yourself. At this stage of the writing process , more is better – you can worry about honing and culling later. The objective now is to accumulate multiple items for each question.

The Chronological Method

Start from childhood and record any and all special or pivotal experiences that you remember. Go from grade to grade, and job to job, noting any significant lessons learned, achievements reached, painful moments endured, or obstacles overcome. Also, include your feelings about those occurrences as you remember them. If you are a visual person, it might help to draw a timeline. Do not leave out any significant event.

Because so many questions ask about your past, this exercise can help you uncover material that will likely be used in several places. A few schools will ask you directly about your childhood and have you highlight a memory from your youth. Don’t automatically discount memories that you think will seem trite or silly. A childhood memory can be used, for example, to demonstrate a long standing passion or to emphasize how an aspect of your character is so ingrained that it has been with you since youth.

Assess Your Accomplishments

Write down anything you are proud of doing, no matter how small or insignificant it might seem. Do not limit your achievements to your career. If you have overcome a difficult personal obstacle, be sure to list this too. If something is important to you, it speaks volumes about who you are and what makes you tick. Some accomplishments will be obvious, such as any achievement that received public acknowledgment. Others are less so, and many times the most defining moments of our lives are those we are inclined to dismiss.

List Your Skills

Do a similar assessment of your skills that you did for your accomplishments. Begin by looking at the accomplishments you listed for the last exercise and listing the skills that these accomplishments demonstrate. When you have a list of words start brainstorming on specific scenarios that demonstrate these skills. Pretend that you are defending these skills in front of a panel of judges. Stop only when you have proven each point to the best of your ability. Some of your skills will be obvious, such as artistic, musical, or athletic abilities. Others will be more subtle (but just as important!).

Analyze Personality Traits

Take advantage of the often fuzzy distinction between skills and personality traits, and if you are having trouble listing and defending your skills, shift the focus to your qualities and characteristics instead. Make a few columns on a sheet of paper. In the first one, list some adjectives you would use to describe yourself. In the next one, list the words your best friend would use. Use the other columns for other types of people – perhaps one for your favorite teacher and another for family members or classmates.

When you are done, see which words come up the most often. Then group them together and list the different situations in which you have exhibited these characteristics. How effectively can you illustrate or prove that you possess these qualities? Proving your points is important. The writer of Essay 15, for example, wrote about his two defining characteristics: pragmatacism and idealism. He chose good qualities, but his essay would have benefited had he provided better examples of how he has actively demonstrated them.

Note Major Influences

You can refer back to your "Top Ten" lists for help getting started with this exercise. Did a particular book or quote make you rethink your life? Was there a particular person who shaped your values and views? Relationships can be good material for an essay, particularly one that challenged you to look at people in a different way. Perhaps you had a wise and generous mentor from whom you learned a great deal. Have you had an experience that changed how you see the world, or defines who you are? What details of your life, special achievements and pivotal events have helped shape you and influence your goals?

Identify Your Goals

The first step of this exercise is to let loose and write down anything that comes to mind in response to the following questions: What are your wildest dreams? What did you want to be when you were a kid? If you could do or be anything right now, regardless of skill, money, or other restrictions, what would it be? Think as broadly as you wish, and do not limit yourself to career goals. Will you have kids? What kind of house will you live in and what kinds of friends will you have? What would you do if you were so rich that you didn’t have to work?
Choosing Your Topic

Part of what makes the Personal Statement so difficult is that you need to do so much in one essay. Unlike the college application essay, where your motivation is unquestioned and your goals can remain undefined, and unlike other graduate programs where you are expected to write multiple essays in response to specific questions, writing a Personal Statement requires that you incorporate multiple themes in one composition. Needless to say, this can be tricky.

There are three basic themes for you to consider. The first addresses the question "Why do you want to be a lawyer/attend this law school?" The second addresses "What makes you unique, different, or exceptional?" and the third "Why are you qualified?" You might focus on one theme only or try to incorporate all three.

There are several different ways to approach each one of these themes. The more common of these approaches are outlined below with tips and advice for how to best handle each approach.

#1 Express your motivation

We covered this in chapter 1 but it bears repeating. No matter how well written or how personal your essay is, if it doesn’t ultimately express your motivation for attending law school and pose an argument for why you should be accepted than you’ve missed the mark.

#2 Keep the school in mind

Most students write generic personal statements that are then sent to every school. That’s fine, and to a degree it is expected. But, then again…

It always impresses when an applicant has done their research and taken the time to demonstrate why they are a good fit for this particular school.

Don’t be lazy about this! You can, at the very least, find out about the school’s general reputation by scanning the guidebook and catalog. Better, though, is to research the faculty and familiarize yourself with a school’s specific strengths. All of this becomes fodder for the statement and will be crucial later when you are invited to interview.

# 3 Keep the rest of your application in mind

This can mean a couple of different things. One is that you should not be redundant. Don’t use the essay to recapitulate that which can be found elsewhere in the application. Don’t repeat your GPA or your LSAT score, no matter how impressive. And don’t provide a prose listing of your activities and accomplishments -- not only is it dull, but it shows that you don’t know how to take advantage of a good opportunity to showcase your soft skills.

A second interpretation is that the essay can explain any kind of obvious questions that will arise after reading the rest of your application.

If there is a hole or gap that appears in another part of the application, we will look to the statement to provide an explanation. If one is not provided, we start guessing. Anything the candidate provides is bound to be better than what we hypothesize in its absence.
Topics to Avoid

Most of the topics in this section are here because they are overused. As was discussed in the first chapter, admissions officers can read up to 40 or 50 essays a day, so monotony quickly becomes their #1 pet-peeve. But it should be noted that it is the quality of the essay, and not the topic, that determines the success or failure of a personal statement. For every category mentioned below there are dozens of examples of people who did them well.

"My favorite essays are invariably the ones that demonstrate, with passion, why the candidate wants to be a lawyer. My least favorite essays are invariably the ones that demonstrate, with passion, why the candidate wants to be a lawyer."

Topic Pet-Peeve #1: "Why I Want To Be a Lawyer"

The problem with this topic isn’t actually with the topic itself, but rather with the way in which is was handled. The secret to doing this topic well is to show why you want to be a lawyer. Don’t just say it and expect it to stand on it’s own – they want believable details from your life that demonstrate this desire and make it real to them.

"It’s nearly impossible (and ill-advised!) for an applicant to avoid communicating at some point in the essay: ‘I want to be a lawyer.’ It’s the one’s who say only that that rankle. The ones that support the statement with interesting and believable evidence are the ones who do it best."

One secret to avoiding the "here we go again" reaction is to keep an eye on your first line. Starting with "I’ve wanted to be a lawyer since…" makes them cringe. Yes, we know it’s an easy line to fall back on, but these poor people have read this sentence more times than they can count, and it gets old fast. Another way in which this topic is handled poorly is when the reason for wanting to be a lawyer involves family lineage.

"It’s a prejudice of mine, but the legacy essay, the one that reads ‘my Dad and my grandpa and my great-grandpa were all lawyers so I should be too’ makes me suspect immaturity. I envision a young person who can’t think for themselves or make up their own minds."

Topic Pet-Peeve #2: Excuses, Excuses

Because GPAs and LSATs are so important to the application process, applicants who have fallen short in either area are often tempted to use the essay to provide excuses for their poor performances. This is not always ill-advised. If there is a true anomaly in your record, the committee will look to your essay for an explanation.

"Explaining a bad grade or a even a bad semester can be done with finesse. I would never give staying away from that as blanket advice. But, please, just don’t whine while you’re doing it."

Applicants who do this topic well provide a brief and mature explanation of the lapse, then they spend the rest of the essay focusing on their strengths in other areas. The problems come when you try to excuse a problem instead of explain it. Some applicants, for example, try to excuse low LSATs by claiming that they are not good test takers. Well, we hate to break it to them, but law school is about taking tests. They are a large part of the curriculum and are proven predictors of academic success. So why would admitting flat-out to being a bad tester ever be a good thing?

Topic Pet-Peeves #3: The Hard-Luck Tale

Some truly outstanding essays are about strong emotional experiences such as a childhood struggle with poverty and destitution or the death of a loved one. Some of these are done so effectively that they are held up as role models for all essays. And while it’s true that these hard-luck tales can provide very strong evidence of motivation for law school, they are difficult to do well and need to be handled with extreme care and sensitivity. And don’t ever rely on the tale itself to carry you through – you always need to tie the tale into your motivation. If you don’t, the reader will be left wondering, ‘you told me this why?…’

"This is going to sound harsh, but I don’t like the tales of woe. Like the ones that begin with the mother’s death from cancer. Frankly, I feel manipulated and I don’t think that the personal statement is the proper mode of expression for that kind of emotion."

Other pet-peeves that were mentioned include applicants who attempt a hard-sell approach, using the essay as little more than a brag-sheet, and applicants who write about wanting to fight injustice but come across as insincere. One admissions officer had this statistic:

"Year after year hundreds of applicants swear by their altruistic motives. Yet only 2% of all lawyers graduating in 1991 took jobs in the public sector, protecting the environment, fighting racial inequality and crusading for rights for the homeless. The majority (over 60%) took jobs in private hospitals. After a point you become skeptical."

If your altruistic motives are genuine, support them with clear evidence of your involvement in activities that demonstrate this commitment.
Advice for Special Cases

If you are diverse in any sense of the word: if you are an older applicant, a career-changer, a minority, a foreign applicant, or disabled, use this angle to your advantage by showing what your unique background will bring to the school and to the practice of law. As long as you tie it in with your motivation, you will be standing on safe ground. One interesting topic for foreign students, for example, might be to talk about how the education system differs in their country and why they would like to consider a course of study in another country and/or language.

However, like any topic, this approach is not foolproof. There are a couple of instances where playing the diversity card will backfire:

If you are a ‘student of diversity’ then of course, use it. But don’t harp on it for it’s own sake or think that being diverse by itself is enough to get you in – that will only make us feel manipulated and it will show that you didn’t know how to take advantage of a good opportunity.

“Only people with significant and documentable disabilities should bring them up in the essay. By that I mean not the current popular over-diagnosed disability du jour, which in my day was ADD."
Reading Through Models

At this stage in the process, whether you know what you want to write about or not, scanning other successful essays will reassure and inspire you. It is always a wise idea to spend some time reading good writing before attempting to write it. Reading models not only gives you some ideas about what has worked before, but it also helps to get those creative juices flowing in your own mind. You can browse through packages of essays that were accepted into top schools on our buy essays page.
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