Harvard Law School

Application Essays – WILLIAM BARLOW II


An old, dough-faced woman with white-blond hair and soft, sagging limbs spots us from a distance and darts inside her home. Behind the window she waits. Her wrinkled, veiny hands crack an opening in the blinds as she peers down at us. Two strange young men in suits and white shirts knock on her neighbor’s door. I have seen what she has done, but pretend not to notice. Usually, it will make it less awkward.

Still, everyone deserves a chance, and I have been wrong more than once in my suspicions that someone is deliberately avoiding us. No one answers at the present door, so we walk over to hers. It is a light-yellow home with a cheery, red birdhouse and a mat with the word VALKOMMEN! Imprinted in curly, black letters. I knock on the door. The woman re-appears, and before I have a chance to say a word she lets loose a torrent of Swedish.

“Hello. I know why you’re here, and I’m not interested,” she proclaims with her face turned away, her hand clinging firmly to the doorknob. I amiably say that we understand, and the two of us turn to leave. As we walk to the next house I gently wave to her as she once again peers through the pane. She probably does not know who we are. People mostly guess that we are the Jehovah’s Witnesses, who canvass the town regularly. Mormon missionaries have not been to this area in well over five years.

It is a rare treat to spend an afternoon meandering through neighborhoods of detached houses. Most days find us marching through large apartment complexes. The encounters there tend to be less uniform and prosaic than their counterparts in the suburbs. The first door may produce a veiled woman from Somalia, the second a mild-mannered Chinese student, the third a pink and somewhat drunken Croatian man with a good deal to say on the subject of religion, which he feels the need to repeat several times to drive his point home. There is something, altogether refreshing about meeting such a broad spectrum of people, serving them, and taking with us some small part of their ethnic and religious viewpoints.

These and other missionary experiences have been invaluable to my personal development. Foremost, I have a greater appreciation for people whose perspectives are different from my own. I learned the importance of relentless, dedicated hard work – waking up daily at 6:30 A.M. to study and learn Swedish and pursue other vital studies. The many hours spent each day knocking on doors and talking to people on the street taught me perseverance and an understanding of how to deal with those who may be unfriendly or even combative. Being required to work in tandem with a missionary companion
24/7, I learned tolerance and the value of teamwork. As a district leader, I was given responsibility over a group of missionaries spread out over three cities and 150 miles apart, with the charge to lead, encourage, and advise them, enhancing my administrative, motivational, counseling, and inter-personal skills.

Upon returning to Duke, I was better prepared to take advantage of the opportunities available to me there. Wanting to utilize my language skills, I enrolled in a semester abroad to conduct extensive research for my senior honors thesis, accessing primary sources only available in Swedish. Delving into arguments between Social Democratic leaders, I began tracking the party’s early ideological shifts and relating them to its later success. I became more engaged with groups on campus as well, becoming first a voracious writer for the Duke College Republicans and eventually the director of its blog. I also re-awakened my passion for creative writing and began submitting stories to online journals.

My life experiences have helped me develop the attributes of an industrious work ethic, a determination to make a difference, and a commitment to help others. From speaking with lawyers and law students, watching appellate court arguments, and reading full court opinions, I find the law fascinating. I very much look forward to dedicating my full efforts to law school.


This essay makes fantastic use of a personal narrative about one specific experience. The first part of William Barlow’s essay is completely dedicated to   re-telling a story about his mission trip in Sweden. It is not immediately clear where the story takes place, or what Barlow is doing, but the gradual revealing of information is engaging enough to make the reader question why this is relevant to Barlow’s story. The reader can get a sense of Barlow’s personality through stories about his tenacity while on his mission, his writing style, and the activities he busied himself with upon his return.

Barlow also does a good job with tying his personal experiences together with his coursework. He says that his experiences abroad dealing with difficult people on his mission trip and researching Swedish politics encouraged him to write both creatively and non-creatively for several on-campus political groups. The emphasis in this essay isn’t necessarily coursework-related. It is centered on Barlow’s work ethic, which he thinks makes him an ideal candidate for law school. He uses specific experiences and encounters to reveal that work ethic, as well as his openness of thought and appreciation of diversity.

Barlow does leave a gap in omitting his religion, opting only for the indirect reference to himself as a Mormon missionary. But the fact that he chose to discuss his experience as a missionary suggests that his religion – the driving purpose behind that experience – must play an equally important role in explaining who he is. A personal statement certainly doesn’t need to touch on religion. Yet Barlow’s statement refuses the briefest discussion even as it invites it.

Even so, Barlow does use a rare, rich set of experiences to illustrate his qualifications and his potential. The reader might finish the essay wanting to know more about Barlow, but the most important points – who he is, who he can become – are clear and convincing.

Charlotte Smith

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