Appendix B: 'Why Our School?' Essay
Published November 2009
Some law schools, such as the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Michigan, ask you to write a short statement (in addition to a personal statement) detailing why you wish to attend their school. You should consider this a question you need to answer in all of your applications. It is harder than ever to be accepted to law school, and tailoring each application has become the practice of the most serious candidates. Tailoring your statement helps you connect with the people reading your application. It demonstrates that you want to be part of their program specifically. If you send the same statement to eight schools, you are sending the message that they have to want you and be willing to fight for you. The committee will be more willing to risk accepting you if they think you really want them and that you will be truly thrilled to go there. The committee wants you to give them specific reasons for why you two are a good match. You must use your rhetorical skills to convince them they want and need you in their program. Don’t make them do the work of analyzing why you two would be a good fit. Grab this opportunity for yourself; otherwise, the committee might not expend the mental effort needed to match you to their program. Former dean Robert Berring of UC Berkeley Boalt Hall offers the same advice:
Research the law schools you are considering. If there is one law school that you care about, research that school and write a personal statement tailored to that school. Go to their website, ideally visit the law school, and then you can truly discuss why you want to attend that school, be part of a particular program, or study with a certain professor. While this requires extra work, it is worth it if you really want to get into a particular law school…it makes a difference when I can tell an applicant really wants to attend Boalt.
You are essentially marketing yourself to each law school, whether you choose to put a kinder spin on that or not. Business school applicants know they’re marketing themselves; marketing is an important part of their world. Lawyers often call marketing “rhetorical skills,” but they are essentially the same concept: to convince someone else to think what you want them to think, by using gentle psychological manipulation, appeals to certain values, and clear logic.
The more you can find out about each individual program, the better off you’ll be to explain “Why Our School.” There are many ways to find out about a program, and to find a place in that program for yourself. For example, you could read or skim a book that genuinely interests you by one of the law school professors and make a case for why he or she is the one you want to teach you about X. You might email this professor to thank them for their book and perhaps ask them a question about their methodology: “I just finished your book, X, and I wanted to write to let you know that I thoroughly enjoyed it. It made me change the way I think about X. I’ve been thinking about the related problem of Y, and I’m wondering if you might be able to recommend an article or book on this topic.” Do not say to Professor So-and-so you’re applying to law school; keep the focus on him and his work. You could then write in your application that you were so inspired by Professor So-and-so’s book, X, that you struck up an email correspondence, in which you discovered you were both interested in Y, and it would be an honor to have a chance to get to work with this law professor whom you admire. In the course of all this, you probably will get inspired and probably will genuinely be interested in this topic. This is one example of how you might create a valid reason for the admissions committee to accept you. Someone on the committee might even chat with Professor So-and-so, who might encourage the committee member to admit you. You can also discover specific reasons for wanting to attend a particular institution by contacting alumni from that law school (martindale.com is a good internet source for finding attorneys and where they attended law school). Asking an alum for a short informational interview can yield helpful specifics about your preferred school.
Note that even schools without a “Why Our School?” essay will read this type of essay as an addendum. Dean Jason Trujillo of the University of Virginia School of Law confirms this: “Applicants can and do submit ‘Why UVA’ essays all the time. We just do not specifically ask for them.” Dean Trujillo also confides, “I also get a number of “Why X Law School” essays all the time, where X is (accidentally) not Virginia Law. That is a sure way to get yourself wait-listed or rejected.”
An ideal “Why” essay will show that your knowledge and interest of the school goes far beyond the surface. The following “Why Penn” essay was written by a candidate who was accepted to Penn with just a 3.3 GPA (but a 177 LSAT score). This sample “Why Penn” essay details the applicant’s visit to Penn. It provides strong reasons why Penn is the ideal law school for this candidate, and it assures the Penn admissions committee that this student would attend if admitted (which he did). A well-written “Why Penn” essay can definitely make a difference for borderline applicants. Here is an example of a strong “Why Penn” essay:
“What if those prospectives, up there, fell through the floor? Would Penn have a duty to them that would be different from Penn’s duty to you? They haven’t paid tuition–I bet they haven’t even paid their application fees yet!” That hypothetical, posed by Professor Eric Feldman during a Torts class, drew laughter from the students and eight visitors (including myself) who were present. After the chuckling died down, three students responded to the question seriously (unfortunately, no one seemed to think Penn would have much of a duty to us poor, injured prospectives), and Professor Feldman went on from there to another hypothetical. Throughout class, students were well prepared, and they actively and intelligently participated in the discussion. Both students and professor showed evidence of what I am most looking for in my law school experience: a rigorous, intellectual inquiry into the law that takes place in a collegial, and relatively relaxed, atmosphere. Other students I spoke to and observed that day solidified my impression. So did the conversations I had with my friend, Priya, Penn Law '08. She spoke glowingly about the academic and theoretical foundation she received at Penn and the advantages it gave her during clerkship, in corporate law, and now, in the Philadelphia D.A.’s office. Priya also gave rave reviews to Penn’s professors (Geoffrey Hazard, in particular) and the atmosphere of the school. I have visited schools where students were relaxed and happy, and I have spoken to students at others where the academics were intense and rigorous. Penn Law is the only place I have personally encountered that has all those characteristics simultaneously, and, largely because of that, Penn is my first choice for law school.
Among the many other attractive aspects of Penn is that it demonstrably considers public service as something more than an afterthought. I have heard nothing but positive reviews of the public service requirement, and I am also interested in completing for-credit public service, through an offering such as the Interdisciplinary Child Advocacy Clinic. Penn’s overtly interdisciplinary approach to law is also appealing, since I have practical goals involving cross-disciplinary work. My wife is an Ob/Gyn here in Delaware, which has a developing medical malpractice insurance crisis, and I am interested in supplementing my legal education with courses like “Economics of Health Care and Policy” at Wharton in hopes of one day contributing to a solution.
My wife, and my family in general, represent another major reason why Penn Law would be the ideal place for me to pursue my legal education. We have lived in Boston, New York City, and the Bay Area of California, but Dover, Delaware is where we have made our home. We are deeply involved in the community and have established strong friendships here. My wife has recently become a partner in her medical practice, and would prefer not to start her career over somewhere new. If nothing else, there is one very practical consideration tying us to the area: if my wife were to leave the state, she would be charged a malpractice insurance premium to cover hypothetical lawsuits that could be brought against her regarding any of the deliveries and other surgeries that she has performed here over the past three years. That premium would cost us, personally, over $75,000.
I realize that, if admitted, I would need to find an apartment closer to the school than our home is. But the University of Pennsylvania Law School is the only institution where I can get a top-quality legal education without tearing up the roots we have worked hard to put down during our years in Dover and also avoid putting the family in debt far beyond just the cost of law school. I am truly lucky, therefore, that Penn Law is also the school I am most excited about attending. In fact, if admitted, I wouldn’t even sue if I were to somehow fall through the floor of a lecture hall during one of Professor Feldman’s Torts classes.
1. Law in the Casbah
I am applying to the University of Michigan Law School for both academic and personal reasons. First, Michigan offers academic programs that few other law schools have. I plan to pursue a JD/MA with Middle Eastern and North African Studies. Michigan’s program in this field is simply unparalleled. In addition, due to my work with my non-profit organization as well as my own personal experiences, I am interested in studying sexual harassment law in an international setting. There are few legal scholars with an expertise on the rights of sexual assault or harassment victims in a global setting, and fewer still with the knowledge of Catherine MacKinnon. I believe the ability to study with Professor MacKinnon would be an exceptional opportunity to further both my academic and career goals.
I also have personal reasons for my application to the University of Michigan. I am originally from the Midwest, and I would prefer to stay in the region for law school. Moreover, I took the opportunity to visit the law school’s campus and I was thoroughly impressed not only by the quality of students I encountered, but also by the collegiality I saw in the student body. I found the University of Michigan to be a place where brilliant, motivated students pushed themselves to succeed and wanted to see their classmates thrive as well. This is the type of law school environment I hope to experience.
Beyond the opportunities the University of Michigan offers to me, I believe I would add a unique and welcome voice to the school. I had the opportunity to live, work, and study in multiple countries, including Morocco, Jordan, Tanzania, and Korea. Few people take or have such opportunities, and seldom do such people come from rural Iowa. I believe my unique experiences and background would greatly contribute to the diversity of the law school.
Having spent the majority of my life in New York City, I am the shameful owner of a state identification card that states in bold capital print: non-driver. As such, accessibility and public transportation are important factors for me in deciding where to attend law school. After speaking with several alumni and a current sociology professor at the University of Michigan, I feel that Ann Arbor is a happy median between being stranded on campus and the bustle of an overcrowded city. Location is only one of several reasons why the University of Michigan Law School is my top choice.
In regards to academics, the Child Advocacy Law Clinic and the Children's Rights Appellate Practice course are of particular interest. The clinic and appellate practice course offer amazing opportunities to gain experience in litigation and even more so the chance to impact a child's life. My interest in child advocacy was piqued during a Child and Family Studies course called Violence in the Family at Stony Brook University; it was taught by a former child advocate. My own history with a less than ideal upbringing also lends to my attraction to the clinic. I believe that my experiences allow me to sympathize and relate with a diverse population, qualities that make me a suitable candidate for the clinic.
There of course the usual reasons why I would like to attend the University of Michigan Law School, such as the impressive history, architectural beauty, and collegial environment. However, it was the summer start program and dual degree option in social work that proved to be the tipping point in my decision to apply as an early decision applicant. The summer start program allows flexible first year class scheduling, the opportunity to take several electives, and time to settle into Ann Arbor. As for the dual degree option in social work, it was refreshing to find that simultaneous acceptance to the master's program in social work and law school is not necessary.
» Continue to Appendix C: Yale 250s
« Back to Appendix A: Reach School Risk-Taking
Writing an Effective “Why X” Addendum
Published June 2010
There are "necessary" parts of the law school application that are obviously the most important. The actual application form, the personal statement, and any required addendums should always take first priority as they need to be polished and flawless. However, sometimes people have put in the work, prepared their applications, and are looking for any other way they can possibly get a little more edge on the competition. This is especially important for "reach" schools where you'll need all the help you can get in order to get admitted. Written effectively, a solid “Why X” addendum can potentially set you apart and help you get into the schools you're most interested in.
When to Write a “Why X” Addendum
For some schools, the answer to this is simple. Penn actually asks you to write at least one addendum to demonstrate writing and persuasive abilities, and offers a "Why Penn" option as one of the available choices. Cornell asks on their app why you want to attend their school in particular. While I haven't read through the applications of all 200 law schools nationwide, I wouldn't be surprised if there are several others that also bluntly ask you why you want to go there in particular.
Even if schools don't ask, that doesn't mean they don't accept them. Dean Trujillo of UVA Law had the following to say about such addendums in his TLS interview:
“We do have many applicants who draft very generic personal statements, and that can be fine. But we do have people stating they want to be at Virginia Law for a particular reason, and that can be persuasive. It need not be in the personal statement though, and can instead be part of an addendum…Applicants can and do submit “why UVA” essays all the time. We just do not specifically ask for them. I also get a number of “why X Law School” essays all the time, where X is (accidentally) not Virginia Law. That is a sure way to get yourself wait-listed or rejected.”
Besides making the obvious point that you shouldn't submit a "Why Michigan" essay to UVA Law, what this makes clear is that schools accept--and consider--such addendums even if they don't ask for them. It also raises an additional point, which is that many applicants want or are encouraged to mention their desire to go to a particular law school in their PS. If they do this, though, it takes away from the limited amount of space they have to talk about themselves. Moving these arguments to an addendum gives an applicant the full length of their PS to what is most important, showing their uniqueness and strengths.
The national norm seems to be that you are free to submit an addendum with your application for any matter you consider important or that you feel needs explained, and a Why X addendum qualifies. Unless the school specifically tells you otherwise--and so far I have never personally seen this--you can write an addendum explaining why you want to attend their particular law school if you desire to do so.
Why to Write a “Why X” Addendum
There is no guarantee that an addendum will get read even if you take the time write it. The admissions committee may not get past your PS, or they may not even get past your GPA/LSAT score, before deciding to place your application in the reject pile. Such is life, and life is sad sometimes, but there's nothing you can do to change that outcome. You could have the greatest reason for attending X Law School in the world, and your addendum may never get read.
However, most people applying for a particular school are doing so because they have at least some chance of being admitted there. If you have numbers even within a certain range of what it takes to enroll at X Law, they will start digging deeper into your application and trying to get a greater picture of how to weigh it as a whole. Every positive aspect gives you more help in eventually getting in, and every negative aspect holds you back a little more; obviously you want to have as many positives as possible.
If you plan on submitting your application to X Law, and you believe (or at least hope) that they will get all the way to the end, wouldn't you want to have something that could give you even a little extra help once they get that far? Of course you would. If your application is good enough to be admitted once they're done reading it, but they have a lot of other good applicants similar to you, then you want whatever tiebreaker they use to go in your favor. That tiebreaker could be your Why X addendum because it could show that unlike those other guys and gals, you really do want to go to their particular school.
This is true for more than just people whose numbers are low or just at the median and are looking for an edge to claw their way in. It also applies to people with really absurdly high numbers too, because of what's called yield protection. YP is a system where schools reject applicants because their application is so good that the applicant can obviously go to a better school. Why should X Law waste an acceptance on this person when they are obviously going to get into Harvard and go there?
(This also is done because it affects USNWR rankings. Schools want a high number of applicants and a low number of acceptances, because a low acceptance ratio makes them look good. This and the policy reasons behind it are beyond why I'm writing today, so I'm not going to go any further on it, I'm just making you aware that it exists.)
A Why X addendum can help here too. If someone can articulate specific reasons why they want to go to X Law instead of Harvard, X Law then has reason to believe they'll actually attend, and more incentive to admit them instead of yieldprotecting them to protect their admissions numbers. Thus if your numbers are really high for a school, it may make sense to let them know why you want to go there to reduce your odds of becoming a victim of the larger admissions numbers game.
Why Not to Write a “Why X” Addeundum
There are valid arguments for why you shouldn't write a Why X addendum for a school. First of all, if you're just applying to a school because it's a safety or you got a fee waiver, and you cannot bring yourself to research specific things to write about in a Why X addendum, do not write one. A bad essay is going to be worse than no essay, because it will probably make clear how much you don't care whether or not you get accepted there. You are better off not saying anything in that case.
Second, if you're applying Early Decision, a Why X addendum is redundant. Applying ED tells them you are certain to go there if accepted, and with that already true, they probably do not care about your reason. In a sense, applying ED is the ultimate Why X essay, with an action that says more than a 500 word addendum ever could. If it's early enough, you're sure it's the school of your dreams, and your numbers aren't good enough to get scholarship money (early decision applicants rarely receive scholarships on admittance because they are bound to that specific school and don’t need extra incentives), you're better off applying ED than trying to write a Why X addendum.
Lastly, there are a few schools that are so prestigious that they already know why you want to attend. Harvard Law is not a good place to send an addendum like this. Everyone and their dog wants to go to HLS; it doesn't need explanation. The reasons for wanting to go are so obvious to everyone, there is no point in writing an addendum about it. Practically everyone who applies would actually go there if accepted, so there's no advantage to spending an extra sheet of paper trying to tell them you would too. The "Top 6" schools are so prestigious they are in a class by themselves, and they know it.
Really, the Why X addendum is mainly worth it when you want to avoid YP or for schools you consider "reach" schools that you do have a chance to get into but need what help you can get. Every applicant should have at least a couple realistic "reach" schools, the ones they are most hoping and praying to get into, and the ones they are likely to feel the most eager to attend. That feeling is what you want to convey in your Why X addendum. If they like your numbers enough to read that far, you want them to see your enthusiasm in the hopes it will make them like you that much more.
The more they like you, the more likely they are to accept you. But what can you say to make them like you more as an applicant?
What to Say in a “Why X” Addendum
The first thing you need to do is show them that you have a specific interest in their law school. There is one really strong way to do this, and that is to actually visit X Law, do a self-guided tour (or a guided one if the school offers them), and meet and talk with students or professors (if allowed). You will then have some pretty clear things you can write about, and saying something positive about the school, while including something that shows you took time to give them a real look, tells them your interest is probably genuine.
I visited the X Law campus on October 13, 2009, and was impressed by what I saw. Having an interest in public interest law, I stopped in the Hoover Public Interest Center to ask a couple questions, and ended up having a 20-minute conversation with Director Skinner. He was very helpful and encouraging, and we spoke in particular about volunteer opportunities with local organizations such as the X Domestic Violence Project. I am excited about the opportunities the Hoover Center will offer me as a student.
Obviously, the more you get out of your visit, the more you can write about, but if you had a good experience visiting, it only takes a few short lines to show just how much you really want to go there. Naming specific people you spoke with and things you learned helps cement in the minds of the admissions committee that you took time out of your own life to learn something about the school.
But what if you cannot visit? X Law may be across the country, and if you're a poor loan-burdened undergrad you might not be able to afford that trip. That's where the power of the internet comes in. While you don't want to write something cheap and ripped off their website's welcome page, hopefully you have done some research into the school before applying and you have some idea what kind of strengths it has. You can go dig more into those strengths and then write about them.
I am especially eager to attend X Law because of its accomplishment in placing graduates in federal clerkships. I see that X Law placed 18% of its graduates last year into clerkships, far higher than numbers at peer schools, and that they recently appointed a separate Clerkships Director to assist students who want a clerking experience when they graduate. I know a few lawyers and they have all strongly recommended I seek a clerkship when I graduate for the experience it will bring me and its value on my resume. I would love attending X Law not only for the great education it will provide, but for the special assistance it will be able to provide in finding a clerkship when I graduate.
This is very specific and talks about why the school fits the student's specific goal, and all it took to write was some research. Specifically, the writer would have to know 1) that they are interested in a specific thing like clerkships, 2) X Law's clerkship placement numbers, 3) clerkship placement numbers at peer schools, and 4) that X Law recently created a Clerkships Director position. Number 1 comes from the writer's own interest, 2 and 3 come from readily available online statistics, and number 4 is the kind of news or fact that would be advertised on the law school's own website.
All it takes is some interest in a specific area of law and a little time to dig into what that school offers. This doesn't even have to be about post-graduation numbers; most people who go to law school end up going in wanting to do one thing and graduate with a job doing something else entirely. However, people still have interests going in that they'll want to explore, and ways the law school offers to explore it are good things to show interest in.
If you find yourself interested in criminal law, you can talk about how you want to try out the school's Prosecution Clinic or Indigent Defense Clinic. If you might have interest in business law, you can talk about how you hope to take a class with the esteemed business law expert Professor Y who happens to teach at X Law. If this school is a reach school for you, and you are really eager to go there, hopefully there are some reasons you want to go there so badly. Dig into it, get more details on the stuff you're interested in, and write about that.
Put as much as you have to say (in a single page) about the things in the school that interest you, and about how eager you are to go there. Be careful, though, not to say something as strong as "I will attend if accepted" if you're not sure you mean it. Eagerness is one thing, but making a commitment on paper could bite you. If you make a commitment to a school and then withdraw after they offer you a seat, that represents a bad ethical choice and something that could look very bad to another school or the bar if they found out. Besides, if you are that committed to attending, apply ED instead. Otherwise, you want to convey your eagerness as much as possible without making promises you are not sure you can keep.
Putting it all Together: A Sample “Why X” Addendum
The ideal addendum should spend up to a full page connecting your own interests with specific programs or opportunities available at the school you're attending. While it should not be copied or relied on too strongly, the following is an example of what a full-length Why X addendum may look like:
Addendum: Why I Want To Attend X School of Law
Since my childhood in an impoverished neighborhood and witnessing the struggles of families that can't afford legal representation, it has long been my desire to become a Public Interest lawyer so I can have the opportunity to bring legal aid to those who need it most and afford it least. It is this strong desire that makes me want to attend X School of Law.
I am impressed by the strength of the clinics that X Law offers and the way those clinics allow students to help the community even before graduating. I am particularly interested in the school's Juvenile Justice and Outreach Clinic, which provides legal education to area high school students and pro bono legal services to arrested juveniles. Having personally witnessed friends caught up in the criminal justice system with no one to show them a way out, I am eager to participate in this clinic and try to make a positive difference in helping troubled teens become productive and law-abiding adults.
I am also impressed by the strength of X Law's student organizations. The presence of organizations such as Law Students for Racial Equality convinces me that I will be surrounded by peers sharing my commitment to improving society through the law. I am especially impressed by the range of guest speakers such as Governor Marla Singer and US Supreme Court Justice Tyler Durden that LSRE has brought to the X Law campus in recent years.
Lastly, I am impressed by X Law's commitment to helping students find Public Interest careers when they graduate. With 38% of X Law graduates going into PI work and a dedicated Public Interest Career Center available to students, it is clear that X Law has a commitment to helping students like me find rewarding public interest work upon graduation.
In closing, I believe that not only is X Law a good fit for me, but that I am also a good fit for X School of Law. If accepted, I would be eager to join the ranks of X Law students and graduates who have given back to the surrounding community through pro bono and public interest work.
There are times you shouldn't worry about a Why X addendum. If the school is "just a safety" to you, if you're sure you'll get in with your numbers anyway, do not waste your time writing a Why X addendum.
The Why X addendum is a way to set yourself apart at schools you are really eager to attend. It could be the tiebreaker between you and someone who did not say anything about why they want to attend the school. Showing that you have taken an actual interest in the school and what it offers could help you win an admissions committee over which is important in a world where 6,000 applicants may be competing for 300 seats at your dream school, and you may need every advantage you can get.
There are many steps the admissions committee will take before getting to your Why X addendum. Your grades, LSAT score, and PS are all going to be looked at first, and if they are not solid, it won't matter what an addendum says. However, if those are solid, a really well-written and enthusiastic Why X addendum might just be the thing that makes you stand out when they make the final cut between you or some other applicant.