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 yield protecting 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.

For example:

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.

For example:

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.

In Closing

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.