Harvard Law School

Application Essays – JOHN WHEELER

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

It’s 6:53 on a Monday evening. My three-hour shift at Vanderbilt’s Writing Studio starts in seven minutes. As I set my backpack down at my favorite table, I hope for a few minutes to sit, to check my e-mail, to relax. No luck. The client walks through the door right after me: a short, dark-haired girl, impossibly cheerful considering it’s getting close to finals week. I smile, introduce myself, and ask her about her paper. She tells me the basics: when it’s due, how long it is, how long it’s supposed to be, what she wants to work on. Flow, she says, which is a shorter word for everything.

The paper, I quickly realize, is good. Too good, it seems at first. How am I supposed to know what deracination means this late in the evening? The real problem isn’t the vocabulary, though; it’s the complexity. She’s got enough insightful ideas in her intro to fuel ten thesis statements. Naturally, she’s interested in all of them. For the next fifty minutes, it’s my job to help her pare them down to what’s both necessary and sufficient for this paper. In other words, I need to help her make the paper flow.

I start off as I often do, with a Moment of Panic. It consists of the standard question —- how am I going to do this?!— plus a couple of existential quandaries (Why am I here? Who in their right mind thought I belonged here?). Fortunately, the moment never lasts long, and it takes place in the back of my mind, leaving me free to keep the session going. The answer to the standard question is the same every time: Break it down. Break down the ideas, break down the sentences, break down the arguments into basic logical progressions. Whenever something seems problematic or confusing, break it down.

We fuse her ideas into what she considers the core of her argument — a working thesis, I like to call it. She writes it down: a single sentence, long but clear. She’ll probably change it as we get through more of the paper, but for now, we have a direction. We move to the body paragraphs and evaluate the strength of the topic sentences, analyze the relationship of evidence to analysis, follow the reasoning from one sentence to the next. At some point, I become absorbed . Eventually, my brain snaps me out of it enough for me to glance at the clock. “We’re almost out of time.” I say it out loud, except for the crap part, and inwardly I cringe: We’ve covered exactly half of her six-page paper. That’s all.

She doesn’t mind. She thanks me and says it’s been helpful. I smile. We go over the biggest takeaways: Make sure those topic sentences really encompass the argument. Break down those logical chains as much as you need to. Bullet points, even. Just make sure you’re not skipping steps.

And I’m happy. We didn’t talk about the whole paper, but she’s left with something new, a handful of idea on how to make the paper into what she wants it to be. And that’s enough. That’s what I’m here for. Now I remember, as I do at the end of almost every session, why I love this job. At the Writing Studio, I can help people, truly and immediately. I can spend fifty minutes with them, and even if we don’t get through the whole paper, even if we don’t work through everything they’re concerned about, I know that they leave happier than they came in.

This is what appeals to me about law school: the idea of using what I know, what I’m good at, to help people. Writing. Argumentation. Logic. Analysis. My grade school and college careers have taught me these skills, and I want to make sure that I put them to the best use possible. I’m not sure yet what type of law I want to practice, or what legal area interests me the most, but I’m confident that all of them will offer me the opportunity to build on my skills and to use them for the good of other people. And that, I believe, is what I’m here for.

Notice how far along John Wheeler gets in this essay before even mentioning the words “law school.” Admissions officers know why you are writing, so don’t worry about your framing your essay at the beginning —- jump right into your story.

And when you tell whichever story you choose, tell it, as Wheeler does. His essay evokes confidence because he clearly is not worried about spending every word promoting himself. He sets a scene, and in fact ends up talking almost as much about somebody else as he does himself. That’s fine. There are several other places to list your accomplishments and abilities; you don’t need to do it again in the essay. Instead, use the essay to build an implicit argument that amplifies your list of accomplishments. Certainly, Wheeler has plenty of extracurricular activities that display his proclivity for helping others, but this essay will make those stand out when the admissions officer goes back over Wheeler ‘s resume. It also shows that he truly enjoys helping others rather than just doing those things to pad his resume or make an extra dollar.

Wheeler displays his confidence again in the final paragraph, admitting that he isn’t sure what type of law he wants to practice. He is willing to show his true self and does not attempt to hide uncertainty and doubt. Yet, he shows no doubt about his desire to practice law or his motivations for that desire. He is also very clear and up-front in the final paragraph. While much of the rest of the essay is focused on details, he closes with broad strokes wouldn’t be effective if they were deployed throughout an essay, but they work quite well as an explanation of the story Wheeler opened with.

It can be difficult to portray confidence without coming off as fake but it’s a place worth pursuing. Wheeler finds that spot by using a story to make an impact argument before digressing into a broader discussion of his past, all the while not getting caught up in his accomplishments or hiding instances of uncertainty.

Jacob Feldman

Leave a Comment