What exactly is an “optional” essay and is it really optional? Separate and apart from the personal statement, many law schools offer applicants the opportunity to submit “optional essays,” on a range of topics and to explain certain aspects of their application through an addendum. When should you write these essays and what should you say? We asked deans of admission, an admissions consultant and a prelaw advisor when an applicant should choose to answer these supplementary questions, how these essays are used by schools to evalute your application, how to choose among topics, and how optional essays and addenda can be used to round out your application.
More Information on this Topic from our Sponsor
jdMission is a professional law school admissions consulting firm. We specialize in helping applicants identify and showcase the strongest aspects of their candidacy. Our dedicated consultants—who are law school graduates themselves as well as published authors—are committed to helping you create an application that will dazzle the admissions committee at your dream law school. Whether you are a JD candidate or an LLM candidate, a first-time applicant or a transfer student, we will not stop until you are completely satisfied with your application. Your legal career begins with jdMission. We will give you the competitive edge you need to secure a place at the law school of your choice. For more information and to sign up for a free 30-minute consultation, visit www.jdMission.com.
- Faye Shealy, Associate Dean for Admissions, William & Mary Law School
- Bill Hoye, Associate Dean, Admissions & Student Affairs, Duke University School of Law
- Jamie Thomas-Ward, Director of Pre-Law Advising Services, University of Illinois
- Paul Bodine, Admissions Consultant, www.paulsbodine.com
Welcome to Law School Podcaster, your source for inside information and advice on the law school application process. I’m Althea Legaspi. Just how optional are optional essays and addenda? It’s a question on many law school applicants’ minds. Along with your personal statement, law schools often invite applicants to write optional essays and addenda. And the essay topics can vary widely. So, when should you opt to write these essays and addenda? And what should you say? We speak to top admissions teams, a prelaw advisor, and a leading author and admissions consultant, for this segment. Bill Hoye is the Associate Dean of Admissions and Student Affairs for Duke University Law School. Faye Shealy is the Associate Dean of Admissions for William & Mary Law School. Jamie Thomas-Ward is the Director of Pre-Law Advising Services at the University of Illinois. And Paul Bodine is an author and Admissions Consultant working with applicants applying to top-tier law schools. Together, they impart their advice and insight into approaching optional essays and addenda.
So, what exactly are optional essays and addenda? Admissions Consultant Paul Bodine explains. “Optional essays, on the highest level, are opportunities for the applicant to tell the school more about themselves than they can’t fit into the main personal statement. And so in that sense they are opportunities to round out your application, as opposed to explain negatives in your application. So, optional essays are not the place for exculpatory, explanatory, defensive or negative material. That’s what the addenda are for. So, the optional essays should be positive, provide positive insights in a complementary way to the personal statement. That’s on the highest level. Sometimes they are required. Sometimes they are truly optional. And sometimes they are optional but the school provides a range of topics for the applicant to choose from. So, there’re sort of different types of optional essays.”
The topics can range from school to school. But University of Illinois Director of Pre-Law Advising Services, Jamie Thomas-Ward, says, there are some common topics. “The most common ones that I see are the, ‘why this school?’ essay, and the, ‘what do you bring to the class, diversity-wise?’ essay. I’ve also seen essays that are more direct. Maybe it’s something about, ‘are there any particular programs of our school that interest you?’ So, I’ve seen some that are that, and then I’ve seen a few that are more about, ‘what are your career goals?’ kind of question.”
While some schools may change their optional essay topics from year to year, some schools do not. Duke University Law School’s Associate Dean of Admissions and Student Affairs, Bill Hoye, says they maintained consistency. “Specifically for Duke, our essay topics have remained fairly consistent over the last several years. We suggested applicants may choose to submit one or two optional essays. One would be in which the applicant writes about his or her interest in attending Duke Law School, and why she or he might be a good fit for the school. And the second topic is in which the applicant is invited to discuss how his or her own background and experiences may contribute to the diversity of the law school and enhance the educational environment for others. But we don’t require… we also suggest that applicants may cover some of this material in their personal statement. So, if they do that, then certainly it’s not required to do an additional optional essay on top of that.”
William & Mary Law School’s Associate Dean of Admissions, Faye Shealy, says most universities keep constant. But there may be changes in 2012 with FlexApps, which require schools to make screen reader-adaptable applications. “We at William & Mary Law School review our application questions each year, and may make changes. There are no requirements with optional essays. My observation is that many schools have remained fairly constant in both application questions and requirements in recent years. The Law School Admission Council FlexApp, implemented for 2012 applicants, has been a unique opportunity to review and revise requirements, and the method of information collection. The new FlexApps are only becoming available in September of 2011. I have submitted for William & Mary, but have not yet had the opportunity to review 2012 applications for other schools.”
There is a clear purpose for allowing optional essays, as Hoye explains. “Well, the purpose is to gather more information about the candidate. And we’re interested both in the substantive information that the candidate would provide in the essay, but we’re also interested in whether the applicant is able to compile information, and present it in a clear, convincing, compelling way. Because the application process is actually an advocacy challenge on the part of the candidate and being able to make a case effectively is a skill that’s useful in law school, and probably in legal practice, as well. So, there are really two reasons: One, can you put the information together? And second, does the information that you provide for us help us understand why you would be an excellent student at the law school, and contribute in very significant ways.”
Bodine adds that it’s to the benefit of the applicant. “I think that the primary purpose is it’s really, as I think the Yale admissions director used the term, ‘a gimme’, a few years ago. And that is that they are actually offered solely for the benefit of the applicant as sort of a safety valve, if you will, another opportunity. They are sort of addressing the sense of, ‘How can I possibly say everything I have to say about myself in a single personal statement?’ That’s sort of at the highest broadest level what their purpose is. On a more focused level of where schools are actually suggesting topics – in other words, they will give you the option of the optional essay, but then they will suggest what you write about – and on that more specific level, they are looking for things, I would say, primarily like diversity topics: ‘What do you bring to the class?’ and you know. And more specifically, if you’ve faced certain obstacles, socioeconomic or any number of possible obstacles in your life, you know, ‘Tell us about those obstacles in this essay.’ Many schools will even call the optional essay a ‘diversity essay’, and will ask for those types of questions. And so, it can kind of vary within that range.”
Should applicants opt to or not opt to write optional essays? Thomas-Ward advises it’s an opportunity applicants should not pass up, though there are caveats. “My general advice is that every opportunity you have to share more information with the admissions committee is a good thing, because that’s another opportunity for you to demonstrate your strength to them, and to really persuade them about why you are a great candidate. Overall, my opinion is that you should take every opportunity to give them additional information, and therefore, it’s a good idea to opt to answer these essays. However, there are a couple of caveats. When you answer the optional essays, I hear a lot from deans of admission that they feel the optional essays are sloppy, or are sort of they seem like they don’t have a clear point, or they’re not well written. And then that makes the dean question the quality of your writing. In other words, they’re saying that those optional essays aren’t as polished and clear as the personal statement. So, I think if you’re going to opt to answer the essay, you also have to commit to spending the time and effort to make the essays really shine, and to make them clear, concise, well written, and well polished. So that kind of answers part two: when I think you should not opt to answer the essay is if you don’t have the time or the interest to commit to making these essays really polished, and really making them shine, then I think you’re probably better off not answering the essays. And another situation where I think you might not want to answer the essay is if you really truly feel that you have nothing to say about the question. I think the diversity question is really hard for students to answer. And I think sometimes students kind of end up with an essay that doesn’t have anything to say, really, about it. And if that’s your situation, if you feel like, ‘I really have nothing new to add; I have no new information that I can add here,’ then it’s probably not a good idea to attempt to answer that essay. It’s probably not going to help your candidacy.”
Hoye adds to keep in mind what schools are doing when they’re reviewing applicants. “Well, we also invite candidates to provide additional information if there’s anything they think that is relevant that should be presented, something that may not have been covered in our questions that we ask, or in other areas of the application. So, and those come up sometime in an addendum that a candidate might submit in addition to their personal statement, and perhaps optional essays. I think one thing to remember is that part of what we value – and that we actually evaluate for – is capacity for good judgment. And one way to display good judgment is in the decision that one makes in what essays to submit, whether you do optional essays, whether you submit addenda, and whether those optional essays and addenda are actually useful to us. So I think that’s really the important thing to remember, is that often these are invitations to submit information if you have something important to say. And really, it’s not at all expected, and it actually could be harmful to actually submit several addenda that speak to different issues, that really don’t provide much helpful information other than what’s there already. And so I think one should be doing what your listeners are doing right now, is listening, and evaluating, and learning more about the process, and then making good decisions on what kind of information is useful to present, and how to present it.”
Optional essay topics not only vary from school to school, but sometimes applicants are offered several choices to select from. What to do then? Well, Bodine says it really depends on what will help you put your strongest foot forward. Just like with your personal statement, the content should be engaging. He elaborates, “Well, the cop-out answer is that it depends a lot on the applicant, because the key thing is that the optional essay and the personal statement must complement each other. So my advice is always that the personal statement, as the first statement essay they read, should be your strongest material, whatever that story may be. And that story may be a socioeconomic adversity. It may be some leadership experience. It may be some international experience. It could be a number of stories combined together. So that will determine… what you write about in the personal statement will determine what the optional essay is about, if you’re given an open-topic optional essay. So, in other words, if you’ve written about leadership in the personal statement, you might want to lead with something else, maybe creativity or an international experience or sort of a diversity topic in the optional essay. They should complement each other. So, if a personal statement is professional in focus, then maybe the optional essay should be extracurricular in focus. So that’s the approach I would use. Now, for example, Michigan is going to give you a range of topics, including post-law school career. You can write about failure setbacks. You can write about your interest in Michigan. So, you know, which of those do you write about? Again, the personal statement will help you answer that question. If you didn’t address ‘why Michigan?’ in your personal statement, then the optional essay is a place to do it. So it’s going to come down to each applicant weighing what their strongest stories are. And they can do that with someone’s help, just saying, ‘Okay, what are my… what do I absolutely need the law school to know about?’ And sort of rank your material in that order. And then, look for opportunities across the personal statement and the optional essay to use that material. And so if you’re given a totally open-ended optional essay, then that helps you. Then it’s up to you to decide what material to use. If you’re given sort of guidance, like Michigan gives guidance, specific topics, then try to fit the strong stories you have to the essay topics that the school gives you.”
One common optional essay question is: “Is there anything else you want the admissions committee to know, not included elsewhere?” Shealy addresses why it’s an important topic. “The question ‘is there anything else that you want the admissions committee to know, not included elsewhere?’ is an example of a truly optional opportunity. This allows applicants the opportunity to go beyond the application questions and identify important experiences or issues or information to be considered by the reader. Applicants should not be left at the end of the process thinking, ‘I would have been admitted if they had known x, y, or z about me.’ Likewise, admission decision makers do not want to proceed without knowing that x, y, or z that could have made the difference. Readers, evaluators, decision makers want to have the relevant information. There is a chance that the extra that’s added does not fit neatly into other parts of the application, and here is an opportunity for the applicant to present the information. Don’t miss the opportunity.”
Shealy also offers tips on writing an optional essay. “Tips for optional essay: Number one, think before you write. Write well. Write to clearly communicate thoughts and the information you intend to share. Do not write to convince the reader to change their decision process. Write to give the reader reasons to select you for admission.”
What about the length? How long should an optional essay be? Well, if the school states specifics about length, with either a word or a page count, you should follow their directions. But some schools leave that open. Hoye details how to approach this. Think substance and content over pages. “Well, yeah, we purposefully do not put any limits around the length of a personal statement or optional essays, in part because we’d like to see if one exercises good judgment about how to present information. And we give points for being clear and concise. You know, brevity is a virtue in many things, including applying to law school. Now that does not mean that if you have something very important to say, and you can say it in an engaging way, that you have to keep things to just one page, or two pages. We’re going to read what you present to us. But what you want to avoid is going on at length, when you could have been more effective in saying what you needed to say in just one or two pages.”
And how detailed should an applicant get in an optional essay? Bodine says it’s designed to be specific. “Being detailed is something that every essay you write should do. So the personal statement, of course, needs to be a very detailed, concrete, highly specific document. And the optional essay should be, too. So, if you mean sort of, ‘How many stories should you attempt to tackle?’ I do think that the optional essay should, if possible, focus on a single topic. And for example, a failure or a setback, that means a single event, you know. So typically, if you’re focusing your optional essay on experiences or on events, it should be one event. It shouldn’t be an autobiography. But again, within the context of… let’s say you use the optional essay to say why you want to go to Virginia Law School. Within that topic could be a range of specific topics. And always be detailed. Always be specific. Don’t be general. So that’s just a rule of thumb for both personal statements and optional essays.”
One way addenda differ from optional essays is that some addenda are optional, and some are required. Thomas-Ward explains. “There are really two different kinds, generally, of addenda. One is a group of addenda that are required. And typically, that revolves around the questions that the law school’s going to ask you related to character and fitness. They’re going to ask if you have any citations, if you have a criminal history. Sometimes they’ll ask you about any academic misconduct, or whether you have any academic irregularities, such as maybe you’ve been on academic probation. And those questions you are required to answer. So those are required addenda. There’s another group of addenda that are really optional addenda, and that tends to be something that you want to explain that doesn’t really fit in anywhere else. So maybe that’s you would like to explain your multiple LSAT scores. Or maybe it’s that you had one semester that was really bad, for some reason, and you just want to explain what happened there. So, those are kind of optional addenda. And I think the approach for them really should be different, whether it is based on something you must disclose, or whether it’s something that’s optional to disclose.”
Thomas-Ward also advises that if you’re not sure if an addendum is optional or not, it’s best to disclose. “For the addenda that are related to character and fitness, when should you provide an addendum related to the character and fitness question? You really have to use your judgment and carefully think about it, because you’re required to disclose anything that they consider relevant. Some of the questions are very carefully drafted, and are very clear about what they want. And some of the questions are a little bit less clear about what kinds of behavior you must disclose. So, we have a few overall tips that we give to students, and one of them is, ‘If you’re ever in doubt, you should disclose’. If you’re on the fence about it, or you’re not sure, number one, you should call the school to make sure you understand what they’re asking. If you don’t understand what the question is asking, then you’re not going to know whether you must disclose your situation. So first, after you do that, then you should consider, ‘is this… you know, if this is something that I must disclose, how should I go about disclosing it?’ And it really becomes more about how you can share your perspective. But on the other side, the ‘when should you answer this question?’ if it’s an optional addendum, then I think you really have to answer your own question of, ‘is this going to advance my candidacy? Is this going to help my application?’ Is your explanation really providing clarity to the admissions professionals? Or, do you feel like it’s something that really doesn’t help to explain the situation? And in that case, you know, you really have to think carefully about your goal of adding new information that’s going to help the staff understand you and your perspective.”
While it may be uncomfortable to disclose required addenda for, say, character or fitness, Thomas-Ward says it needs to be addressed, and it’s smart to know about a violation you disclose before writing about it. “The most common addenda problems that I see with students are related to the character and fitness questions. So, we talk a lot about that in the workshops that we do about how to go about that addendum. And it’s hard. I think it’s uncomfortable for many students, because it’s obviously something that you’d rather not talk about, generally – a violation of the law, or an academic dishonesty, or something like that. So, we have a few suggestions that we usually share with students: First, you know, you definitely want to keep it simple and direct, and be honest and straightforward. This is not a time to sound defensive about what happened, or to blame everyone else. Sometimes we’ll see things where students will say, ‘Well, I wasn’t the only one drinking. Everyone else was drinking too.’ Or, ‘I don’t know why the cop picked me out, when everyone else was doing the same thing.’ Or, you know, ‘I didn’t realize that I couldn’t be doing this there. I didn’t realize that that was a violation of the law.’ And I think you really want to keep a tone that shows that you’re taking responsibility. Another thing that we see a lot is that students don’t fully understand what the case was, or what the outcome of their case was. And we definitely recommend that students do a little bit of research. You know, you can either go online, or you can call the circuit clerk of the county that you received a ticket in, and your record is actually a public record. So you can find out what you were charged with. You can find out the correct disposition of your case. It really sounds negative when someone doesn’t understand what they were charged with, or doesn’t understand the outcome of their case. For instance, you know, sometimes students will say, ‘Well, I didn’t plead guilty; I just paid a fine.’ Well, ideally you would understand that paying the fine means that you pled guilty, and that there is a guilty plea on file for you. So, things like that, about being clear about what happened, and taking responsibility for your actions, is really the approach that you want to take. And there we always encourage people, ‘If you’re in doubt about character and fitness, definitely disclose.’ It’s very important, and you’re going to need to disclose all this detail again when you apply to sit for the bar, which, as we like to say, ‘is a privilege, not a right’. So, you want to make sure that you are being upfront and honest, because all of this is going to come back again when you go to apply for the bar examination.”
How you approach required addenda is paramount, as well. Bodine explains. “There is a tone element here, and it’s actually quite important. So, I mean obviously the worst thing you can do is to whine, or to seem like you’re trying to pass the buck on to someone else, or sounding immature, or going into great detail about the negatives, you know. I mean, the proper tone is sort of maturity; it’s sort of brevity, very factual, you know. And actually, state the negatives as quickly as you can, and move on to the mitigating stuff, to the context that maybe shows that the negative event is not as bad as they might think it is, or what you’ve done since then to compensate. So for example, if you’re writing about a GPA, there are going to be certain kinds of explanations that you definitely want to be telling them, because they’re going to help you, like family illness, or you know, you’re a Division One athlete, or a health issue, or you have to work fulltime to get through school. I mean, those are things you really need to be telling them, because they will listen to those, and they will definitely mitigate GPA, up to a point. Again, there are sort of iffy things that are not going to help you that much, and if your explanations come down to sort of iffy stuff, or you sound sort of like you’re a little bit kind of whiny or mealy-mouthed, then maybe you may just want to drop an addendum altogether, and just not even try it.”
As for optional addenda, like optional essays, there’s an opportunity for applicants, if you use them to your advantage. Write them if they will enhance your application. But skip them if you have nothing to say. Shealy explains. “They are part of the whole file review. It’s the content and value added, the opportunity to fill in any bits or pieces of the application that may leave the reader questioning. For example, if there’s a gap in terms of your employment history, or the time since graduating from your undergraduate program, or if you took a leave of absence, this is an opportunity to answer that question for the reader evaluator.”
Keeping in mind that optional essays and addenda should be written just as carefully as one’s personal statement, applicants who are pressed for time may feel overwhelmed about writing a bevy of optional essays. Thomas-Ward has a suggestion, if this is the case. “You know, sometimes students will choose maybe their top five schools, and write the optional essays for those schools, but maybe not write all the optional essays for the other schools to which they apply. And that’s a way that you can commit to spending the time that you need, and yet, you know, you’re not spending so much time that it delays getting out your applications overall. Many students wait until after the October LSAT score comes out to begin the process of writing. And then they realize that it takes a lot longer than they thought, to write the essays, not only the optional essays, but, you know, the personal statement, and fill out all the applications and get their letters together. And so then it becomes a matter of, ‘Boy, we’re getting down to the wire, in terms of wanting to get my application in early, so this is something that I can clearly skip.’ But I think that sends a really direct message to your top-choice schools. If you are saying in your personal statement, you know, ‘Hello, Stanford, you’re my top-choice school, and let me tell you why,’ but then you choose not to answer the optional essays, I think that kind of undermines what you said in the rest of your application. If you cared enough for it to be your top-choice school, then why didn’t you take the time to write the optional essays?”
Finally, the questions asked in optional essays and addenda give schools insight on an applicant. But it also gives applicants insight into the school to which they apply. So, you may want to heed Hoye’s advice. “I think what’s really important is to pay attention to the props that law schools will provide you in the application process, or the clues that they will provide in terms of what’s important to that institution. What does that institution value in its students? And you will see those clues come out in what’s being asked of you in the application process. So if a school indicates that they would welcome an essay that allows you to provide information about why you think that school, maybe Duke Law School, might be a good match for you, if you’re seriously interested in that school I think it’s a good idea to address that question. And what you know from the fact that the school’s asking that is that the school really values students who are there for a purpose, and understand what the school is and why it will be a good fit for them. Because the school likely then feels that those kinds of students who actually enroll are going to be highly successful, very much engaged in their education, and will really add value to the experience for everyone. It’s really easy, now, because most applicants will be applying to law school using an electronic application process through the Law School Admission Council. It’s so tempting, particularly when you’re busy, to just draw up a whole list of schools, check it off, go through those questions, and really not pay attention to the instructions that each individual law school will provide, and the invitations for information that they will provide to you. But missing that piece of this process can be a mistake, because you might miss the opportunity to really advocate effectively on your behalf, by addressing particular questions that the school presents to you.”
While the word ‘optional’ precedes ‘optional essays and addenda’, they do provide a unique opportunity for applicants to further shine. It’s best to opt in if you have something to say that will enhance your application. Make sure to disclose when required, and be forthright and to the point. Take these tests as seriously as you take your personal statement, and the rest of your application. By following our guests’ advice, you can help strengthen your application by carefully choosing when and how to approach optional essays and addenda. For more information, a transcript of the show, or to register to receive more law school podcasts, visit www.lawschoolpodcaster.com. Look for us on Facebook and Twitter to get the latest news and insight into the world of law school. This is Law School Podcaster; I’m Althea Legaspi. Thanks for listening. And stay tuned next time, when we explore another topic of interest to help you succeed in the law school application process, and beyond.