Harvard Law School

Application Essays – JOEL KNOPF

What Worked for them can Help You Get into the Law School of Your Choice

Last November, I taught my friend Madeleine how to tone. We entered the cavernous stone interior of Dwight Chapel. No choir stood poised to sing its first note; no audience murmured in the wooden pews. There was only the echo of footsteps as Madeleine and I passed between tall granite pillars to the far end of the hall. We were standing a pace from each other by the altar when I began to sing. My improvised jig reverberated through the space. Catching Madeleine’s eye, I invited her to make up a melody to match mine. We were trying to create a coherent harmony from two independently improvised lines, but our harmonies sounded jangly and disconnected. We were not toning; we were just two people singing to ourselves.

We began again by soaking in the silence. Very quietly, we practiced singing the same pitch until the chapel replied with one voice. We tuned two pitches until their overtones rang from wall to wall. Madeleine’s eye and inclined my head. She moved her note down a step, gingerly resolving the fourth to a sweet major third. It was our first harmony.

Improvising extended harmonies was harder because we didn’t know which notes the other person would sing next. Madeleine looked to me when she was lost. My furrowed brow signaled an upcoming dissonance; a titled chin said to change notes now.

Gradually, we learned to fashion our lines into a conversation: I held a note, and she filled in my line with ornamentation; Madeleine’s scurrying eighth notes called forth a quick burst of melody from me. On our best days, harmonies flowed from one to the next as if we were reading from a score. Eyes twinkling, Madeleine and I would smile even when our voices clashed, because we knew we could resolve our dissonances together.

We became musical mind and readers. The intentions and desires of another person can seem as opaque as a musical score is to a novice musician. Yet Madeleine and I had a richer experience because we strove to understand each other’s intentions and harmonize with them.

As a student of cognitive science, I know that music is not the only means for minds to meet. I can bridge minds with my stories, and reduce cognitive dissonance with my words. Nor are singers the only ones who resolve clashes by listening to others’ perspectives, responding to their interests, and adapting when expectations are upended.

Madeleine once surprised me by singing some of the lush French harmonies she had been exploring on her harp. She watched for my signal to end the sudden dissonance, but I stood still. Our notes kept clashing. Finally, when she understood that I was waiting for her to lead, she relaxed, and gave a confident nod. Our lines unrolled into a cadence. The chapel kept ringing even after our voices had fallen silent.

In this essay the candidate explores the ways in which two individuals can negotiate and reconcile their differences through music. The extended metaphor used in this essay works well; the candidate successfully relates his enthusiasm for music, cognitive science, and writing to a common desire to bridge dissimilarities and overcome conflict.

Joel Knopf opens the essay with a detailed description of the chapel and the singing instruction he gives Madeleine. Through this anecdote we learn that Knopf is a skilled singer, an enthusiastic teacher, a patient friend, and a reflective writer. He conveys both his interests and his personality, painting a picture of himself in a moment in time.

Though Knopf’s flowery literary style is impressive, it distracts a bit from the central message of the essay, which is not revealed until the very end. The essay may have been stronger with a more thorough exploration of the relationship between cognitive science, music and words—the moment when Knopf gestures at the similarities between singing in a chapel and practicing law. Though Knopf plays on the parallelisms of cognitive and musical dissonance, the subject could be discussed in more depth. By tightening the lengthy descriptions of improvisational harmonizing, Knopf may have been able to better connect the dots between his musical passion and his desire to communicate across difference and empower others to lead.

The moment Knopf describes is perhaps not one of his biggest achievements, yet he examines the deeper meaning in the activities of his daily life, giving the reader the sense that he is thoughtful and purposeful in all that he does. The essay’s case could be more explicit, but its point carries through: Knopf’s ability to respond quickly to changing circumstances and his eagerness to make room for diverse perspectives are as relevant to legal work as they are to musical improvisation.

–Zoe A. Y. Weinberg

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