Harvard Law School

Application Essays – Telling a Story John

It had never occurred to me to learn to box, let alone in Cairo. But the Russian Cultural Centre, a converted villa with a small boxing gym, had always been an intriguing sight on my way to Arabic class. One weeknight in winter 2009, without completely knowing where my feet were taking me, I stepped into the humid, windowless main room of the gym in search of a challenge. My eyes darted between cracked punching pads duct-taped to the walls and a gnarled pull-up bar bolted high above the hard brown floor. My heart started pumping faster than it normally did, even in the crowded streets of Cairo.

I extended a clammy hand to the gym’s head coach, Sadeer, a svelte tajik who spoke no English and little Arabic and who seemed to have a murky past. As he bounced between me and the primarily Egyptian gym clientele, jerking bodies around to correct stances while bellowing broken words of encouragement, I began to feel invigorated. Sadeer was hard to connect with, but his style also left no room for inhibition. Many of the gym’s members dwarfed my 5’10”, 155-pound frame, but as I pushed through that first workout I began to feel my head clearing and my endorphins flowing.

As I continued coming to the gym, I felt a momentum building. Sadeer’s fitness routine emphasized what is gospel for good boxer: a strong core, quick reflexes, and endurance. Running had been my only exercise ever since high school, so a lot of this was unfamiliar and painful territory. But I found myself embracing the pain, even inviting more of it, in a way that the promise of a good mile time had never inspired me to do. As I got in better shape and learned the basic boxing moves, I started itching to spar inside the ring for the first time.

After a few weeks, Sadeer finally let me. It did not go well. Learning the basics had been hard enough, but suddenly someone else was in my face, having followed the same routine and learned the same moves as I had! Suddenly I had to think about much more than my own ability to throw punches. As we danced around each other, arms extending and retracting, feet shuffling, and bodies dripping with sweat, the confusion of it all got the better of me. I got hit.

I started feeling. The shock was more disorienting than anything, but the punch had also knocked my jaw slightly out of place. Sadeer came over to me, and with a towel wrapped around his hand, reached inside my mouth, grabbed me by the jaw, pulled, and popped it back into place. As he saw the disappointment and frustration in my eyes, he put his thumb and four fingers together in the classic Egyptian gesture that means, “slow down.” “Sabrak,” he said in Arabic. Be patient.

I went home that day feeling defeated. But I saw the truth in Sadeer’s words as the weeks went along. Jumping into the ring, I realized, was not nearly as important as taking time to build the skills I needed once inside it. As much of a rush as it was to strap on gloves and trade punches with someone else, I did my most important learning at less than half that speed, bare-handed, honing my form and footwork over and over again in front of a mirror or face-to-face with Sadeer.

Boxing in Cairo taught me a lot about the confidence, patience, and perseverance that I need in order to have the middle east related career I have long desired. But it has also helped me think about why I want that career to be in the law, and to start at Harvard. I think our country’s engagements with the Middle East are too much about trading punched in the ring, and not enough about refining our strategies before we cross over the ropes in the first place. The law offers the richest and most nuanced set of tools for engaging the region according to our interests, but often we are too concerned with scoring political points or maintaining vague principles to focus on making those tools most helpful.

I want to help change this reality by exploring creative new legal approaches to terrorism, national security, and economic relationships amid a changing Middle East. To do so, I must take a step outside the “ring” that I now occupy and take time to build my knowledge of and skills in the law. I know that spending that time at Harvard will enable me to contribute much more to the fight than just punches the next time I strap on a pair of gloves.

John’s essay highlights the author’s unique approach to legal practice and long-term ambitions for a presumptive law degree, using careful attention to detail and an elongated anecdote about boxing to highlight his pursuit for justice.

The author begins in first-person narrative, chronicling his passage in downtown Cairo to a small boxing gym that had caught his eye as he headed to his Arabic class. A lifelong runner, john keys in on the adversarial nature of boxing immediately and the aggressive loneliness of the ring. He embraces the pain and adversity and for the first time is introduced to his combative nature, a subtle undertone in the boxing anecdote that rears its head later when discussing his legal goals.

John’s experience in the ring is brief; fighting for the first time, his inexperience and nervousness overwhelm his instincts and a quick punch from his opponent dislocates his jaw. The painful experience focuses the essay and brings the reader to the story’s theme: The reward was in the training, not the fight.

John uses this to effectively move to discuss his future. He emphasizes how boxing taught him the need for confidence, patience, and perseverance— qualities that led him to pursue Harvard Law School. Rarely do essays draw morals as effectively from their stories and john is able to quickly turn this anecdote into a referendum on U.S. policy in the Middle East.

The pivot in the penultimate paragraph allows john to lay out a comprehensive and original plan for combating terrorism. Extending his metaphor to trading “punches” with terrorists is a tad overdone. After such a strong buildup, these section enables him to make the rare move from anecdote to global policy proposal.

In short essyas, it is rare for a writer to so quickly extrapolate and effectively lessons from his past. John chooses a unique experience— the combative solitude of a boxer— to epitomize the qualities he has adopted as he heads to law school. He does this with a story that is neither trite or cliché; his unique perspective and focused conclusion clearly conveys his motivation for getting into Harvard Law. The original tack he takes, culminated with a focused, unique legal mission, differentiates this essay from others of its ilk.

David Freed

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