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.