I recently got an email from a student. This student was applying to law school, and wanted to know if writing the optional essay listed on the application was necessary, and if leaving it out would be detrimental. This isn’t the first time I’ve gotten this question, so I want to share my thoughts on it.
Is writing the optional essay on your law school application something you must do?The question is one that I know students lose plenty of sleep over. I can hear the doubts tumbling over and over in their head:If I don’t write it, will it count against me? If I write it, will they think it’s too much? What if I don’t have anything to say? How much should I write, if I do write it? Do they even want to hear what I have to say? What should I write about?
Let’s start with a definition: Optional essays are essays that the school lists in the application in addition to the personal statement. They can come in many shapes and sizes:
- “Describe how you will add to the diversity of the student body at XYZ Law School.”
- “Why do you want to attend XYZ Law School?”
- “Describe an achievement or event of which you are particularly proud.”
- “Discuss an ethical dilemma you have faced and how you dealt with it.”
- “Is there anything else you would like to tell the admissions committee?”
Often, students feel that if a school lists optional essays, that they’re not really optional at all. They feel that they should come up with something–anything–to submit for those questions. Here’s the deal:
Do they even want to hear what you have to say?
The answer here is a qualified yes. My basic assumption is this: If a school actually gives you an optional essay topic in their application, the chances are pretty good they want to hear what you have to say–if you have anything substantial to say (and that’s a bigif). I’ll talk about that more below.
Should you write the optional essay?
The answer here is again a qualified yes (and for much the same reason as the qualified yes above). You should write the optional essay if you actually have something substantial to say about it. If you’re just doing it because “you think you should,” “everyone else is doing it,” “they say it’s optional, but I think it’s mandatory,” or “I’m sure I can come up with something to say,” then don’t write it. Remember, the admissions committees who will be reading your essays read thousands of them every year. They can smell a weak, insincere, or forced essay from a mile away. Submitting an essay that’s not “real” will hurt you more than simply forgoing the essay at all.
If you don’t write it, will it count against you?
I say no. The name says it all: It’s optional. They don’t expect everyone to include it. If you include, though, it will be read and taken at face value, and that’s where the advice above comes into play.
If you write it, will they think it’s too much?
If you’ve decided you actually have something substantial to say about the question, then the worry becomes one about TMI–Too Much Information. Here’s my standard advice: After you’ve written the essay, give it to someone who knows you, but doesn’t know you well. If either (or both) of the following things happen, then you’ve shared too much: (1) You feel uncomfortable about having the other person read it, or (2) The other person looks/acts/feels uncomfortable as they are reading it. Another way of checking if you’ve shared too much is what I call the “Mom/Grandma Method”: Would you feel okay if your mother read the essay? How about your grandmother? If your answer is a “no,” then why would you ever want a complete stranger in an admissions office reading it?
What if you don’t have anything to say?
If you can’t figure out how you and your story fit into the topic of the essay, or if you have to struggle to find an “angle” through which you can make the optional essay topic work, chances are you’re forcing it. If you’re forcing it, you shouldn’t write it. If you do write it, it will sound less than sincere, and that is more harmful than helpful.
How much should you write, if you do write it?
Many schools will give you word or page limits for optional essays. If they do, stick to the limit. I understand that you may feel the story you are telling needs or merits more words, but rules, no matter what old adages say, are not meant to be broken (at least, not in this case). Respect the school’s wishes. If they don’t give you a limit, my general advice is this: Have a one page max (maybe 1.5, if the story is really compelling). And definitely don’t make it longer than your personal statement.
What should you write about?
That, unfortunately, is something only you can decide. However, I’ll reiterate what I’ve already said before: If it feels like you’re really having to force yourself into the mold of the question, then your choice of topic is probably not good. If you can’t find anything that you feel comfortable writing about that pertains to the topic, then you probably should leave well enough alone. And definitely–definitely–don’t write about something completely unrelated and hope you’ll be forgiven for it. Imagine, for a moment, that you signed up for a lecture on the Revolutionary War and then got to the lecture and had to sit through three hours of advanced calculus instead. Would you be annoyed and upset? You bet you would. Don’t make law schools sit through three hours of calculus.
And, most important of all, remember this: Every single part of your application should add something new. If all you’re doing is regurgitating something that has already been said or shown elsewhere in your application, perhaps you should forgo writing the optional essay. An admissions committee member’s time is valuable (and scarce). Respect it, and don’t waste it with needless repetition.