Harvard Law School

Application Essays – Thinking Critically Peyton Miller

At lunch one day in high school, I was telling a few friends about my summer harvesting tomatoes on a farm. When I began explaining how the vegetables I picked were sold at a nearby gas station, one of my friends corrected me, pointing out that a tomato is a fruit. “Right”. I responded, “but it’s taxed as a vegetable.”

This obscure fact is one among many I absorbed during my boyhood as I listened to my father and grandfather, one a real estate lawyer and the other an entrepreneur, discuss taxation and its impact on business. Thanks to the two of them, and my study of American political history, I have been fascinated by tax policy from an early age. Since high school I have paid close attention to media coverage of tax law, particularly the Bush tax cuts and the perpetual debate over a proposed income tax in my native Tennessee.

When I signed up for a course on American economic policy last spring, I thought I already had a pretty solid understanding of last subject matter, especially when it came to taxation. I could not have been more wrong. What I learned in that class, which is one of the best I have taken in college, was largely theoretical information that required a background in economics. But the biggest surprise to me was the prevalence of federal tax expenditures, exemptions in the tax code that subsidize private sector activities from charitable giving to the production of alternative forms of energy. Taken together, the professor explained, tax expenditures constitute over $ trillion in foregone revenue each year, requiring much higher overall tax rates. While they can be useful in certain circumstances, tax expenditures often introuduce perverse incentives. Many economists are concerned, for example, that the tax exemption for employer-provided medical insurance may contribute to the skyrocketing cost of health care.

I had understood that the tax code included some special preferences, but I had no idea they existed on such an enormous scale. My surprise came partly from the fact that the tax expenditure concept is easy for someone with even a passing knowledge of economics to understand. How could a person like me, who had followed national tax debates for years, have missed such a fundamental aspect of tax policy?

The answer, I think, lies in the fact that the press tends to focus on personalities and moral values, and often provides only rudimentary analysis of policy. In the recent debate over the federal budget deficit, for example, politicians have generally advocated either higher tax rates or cuts in conventional spending, and the media for the most part has acted as if these were the only two alternatives. Few outside academia have raised the possibility of rolling back tax expenditures, which could reduce the deficit without a tax rate increase.

Whether or not this is the best solution, the public should understand that it is an option. As an undergraduate writer and editor, I have tried to educate myself about the nuts and bolts of government to inform Harvard students and the broader public about issues like tax expenditures that often escape media attention. In the summer of 2010, I led a team of writers in developing the Annual Report of the United States, a comprehensive explanation of how federal tax dollars are spent. My own writing in publication like The Harvard Crimson has explored topics that impact people’s day-to-day lives, like the use of variable tolls by municipal governments to mitigate traffic congestion, and ways of reforming organ donation to reduce health=care costs and relieve suffering.

In my professional career, I hope to help improve American government primarily by influencing the policymaking process directly, for which a technical understanding of the law will be crucial. But I also intend to continue what I have started In college; explaining to a broad audience how state action affects citizens. After spending the next several years studying the law and becoming a more effective communicator, I expect to leave law school better able to help others make informed political decisions.

The most successful feature of this essay is its clear progression. This is achieved by maintaining a common theme throughout, and not a common one at that; the American tax code. Transitioning from high school memories to college studies to extracurricular involvement and finally, to career prospects, Peyton Miller imbues his essay with a very logical order. Not only does this guide the reader through the piece, but it also makes Miller’s professed passion for the tax code much more believable. It is easy to see how high school experiences with entrepreneurship developed into an interest for economics, for example, or how a concern with the media’s portrayal of taxation led to an interest in student journalism.

While Miller does not fully delve into an academic discussion of the tax code, he conveys his knowledge of the subject matter very effectively given the space constraints. He does this by weaving in discussion of the different aspects of the tax code with different elements of his life. For example, he uses his experiences growing up in Tennessee to discuss taxes on a local level, then uses his academic studies to approach the subject from an economics perspective, and finally uses his extracurricular involvements to explain the tax code form the perspective of journalism. This allows Miller showcases his knowledge of the American tax code.

One point where the essay could improve is in explaining how law school is related to Miller’s interest. Only in the last paragraph is this question addressed: Miller explains “a technical understanding of the law will be crucial” to his career path, and that he hopes to become “a more effective communicator” while in law school. In contrast to the rest of the essay, which is very focused, these two points sound like generalities. In other words, Miller demonstrates he is an interesting individual, but not why he is an interesting individual for law school admissions officers. It might have been more effective to weave law school into this essay earlier on, rather than as a final side note.

On the whole, however, this a solid essay that future applicants can learn a lot from. The use of a chronological structures combined with an unusual theme is an effective strategy, which lets an applicant’s voice shine through. The essay achieves just the right balance between academic discourse and personal recollections.

–Sarah Fellay

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