What Worked for them can Help You Get into the Law School of Your Choice
Dusk had begun to edge its way across the parking lot, and up to our dented minivan. I leaned against the door until the side of my face pressed against the window, hoping to maximize the remaining light. Squinting, I lifted my notepad only inches from my face, careful to balance the calculator on one knee. The cars and trucks that earlier filled the truck stop were dwindling. For a moment, I lost track of what I was doing and gazed at the families scurrying to the restrooms and back. For just another moment, I wondered what sort of homes they would return to, what they looked and sounded like. Flickering streetlamps quickly brought back my focus, however, and I anxiously tried to speed up my calculations. It was late. The sun was setting.
Without the daylight I would never furnish my homework.
I heard my mom in the front seat mention something, but I was too caught up in the problems to comprehend much else. Only one page to go and I was confident that, like many nights before, I would finish just in time. She repeated, “Are you hungry?” She spoke without look up. She rarely did when she asked that question.
“No thanks, I’m fine,” I assured her, though the pangs in my stomach were becoming more pronounced. “I’m still good from the school lunch. You have enough to grab something for yourself?”
My mom quickly mumbled, “I’m okay, too. I had something at work.” I ignored her equally false assurance; my thoughts were completely on my homework. The sun was about to dip under the horizon and I had to finish….
For as long as I’ve been pursuing an education, I’ve found ways to succeed under tumultuous, often inadequate, living conditions. My elementary school years were spent zigzagging from school district to school throughout California’s Bay area and Central Valley, in my family’s search for work and shelter. I completed middle school and my freshman year of high school in an independent study program with six teachers for several hundred students. By tenth grade, I had already spent more than a decade surviving in motels, cars, spare rooms, and a Salvation Army shelter.
Yet, neither my parents nor I allowed our struggle with homelessness to excuse mediocrity. Not that I sought an excuse. No matter what situation I was in, I pursued my education relentlessly. My studies sheltered my developing mind and nurtured my insatiable curiosity. They provided an outlet for the competitiveness, creativity, and energy that my family’s hardships suppressed. I initially saw education as a respite from the everyday stresses of poverty. But, as I matured, I’ve come to realize that education was, undoubtedly, the best, if not the only way to truly and permanently change my station in life. My passion for education helped me win a scholarship that enabled me to be the first member of my extended family to attend college.
I recognize that I am an exception, however, and that far too many students are denied the opportunities that I had, opportunities that are critical to economic and social stability. In college, I lobbied my state’s legislators to invest in outreach programs for underrepresented students, tutored hundreds of remedial students and English learners, and served as mock trial coach for incoming Equal Opportunity Program freshmen. While I benefitted from working directly with disadvantaged students, I sought a deeper and broader understanding of some of the gravest educational challenges facing so many of America’s youth. This goal eventually led me to Washington, D.C., where I interned for the U.S. Senate HELP Committee, in the late Edward M. Kennedy’s education policy, but, just as importantly, witnessed the dynamics surrounding its formation.
Last summer, my pursuit of education led me to the TRIALS program at Harvard Law School where I enjoyed an experience usually available only to HLS students, studying law with Harvard professors. During a mock class, Professor Ronald Sullivan Jr. played devil’s advocate as I tried to enunciate the challenges in interpreting the ruling in Terry v. Ohio. In improvising an indignant, uncooperative delinquent while I acted as her patient, yet, persistent counsel, Professor Gloria Tan demonstrated the daily challenges public defenders face. The weeks I spent learning among students and faculty reaffirmed and deepened my desire to pursue a legal education. My goal of using the law as a tool to enact social change has never seemed more attainable.
From my seat in a chilly van at an isolated truck stop, I once thought I lacked the light needed to finish my work. I now know differently. Education has always been my light, though my work remains unfinished. A Harvard legal education will enable me to partake in a public service career, through which I can shape policy and help caste education’s light over any child who seeks it.
Admissions officers are looking for students who are not only talented, but who also understand and articulate why exactly they want to attend the school. Extreme or abject life circumstances are neither necessary nor sufficient to secure admission, but James Baker Jr.’s essay shines because it carefully connects his difficult upbringing and his hope to enact social change in the realm of education with his desire to spend three years at Harvard Law School.
The statement is strong from the beginning. In the opening paragraphs, Baker uses an anecdote to establish for the admissions committee that although his childhood was chaotic and replete with hardship, “neither my parents nor I allowed our struggle with homelessness to excuse mediocrity.” Baker’s perseverance—he explains how he earned a scholarship to college and became the first in his family to attend—is indeed impressive all on its own. Perhaps more compelling, though, is that Baker speaks of committing himself to changing the equation and increasing access and opportunity for those who grow up under difficult circumstances. In a move that makes his outlook all the more impressive, he portrays himself— the child who grew up in homeless poverty—as the lucky one. “[F]ar too many students are denied the opportunities that I had,” he says,, and goes on to carry that sentiment forward to his work for equal opportunity. Baker demonstrates how a personal statement’s tone and attitude can say as much as its more concrete information and details.
Moreover, his stated desire to help others is bolstered by relevant experience in the field, including work on Capitol Hill and at a summer program at HLS. And while impressive experiences in a chosen field of study or interest are not prerequisites for admission to a school like Harvard Law, they can be helpful if articulated and incorporated well into a larger argument, as Baker does here.
The essay ends with a strong conclusion, which brings the reader back to the opening imagery of Baker’s difficult upbringing, and restates his commitment to working for those who are underprivileged in access and opportunity. His final sentence is a summation of his entire argument, representing a compelling case for admission.