Harvard Law School

Application Essays – When the Going Gets Tough

The pilot in me theorizes that ideally, my journey to the law would have occurred in a straight line at high velocity. But the aspiring lawyer in me comprehends the indispensability of the indirect path I’ve traveled. Upon graduation from high school amid the industrial decline of central Ohio in a family with no previous college graduates, higher education seemed out of reach, so I instead chose to enlist in the military. It was a fateful decision. The Air Force pushed me into direct engagement with a global and grand purpose, and taught me that continuous training of the mind was the key to success. This unleashed within me latent stores of ambition and intellectual curiosity, and I soon took on a sizable course load by night while working twelve-hour days, driven by the goal of becoming a pilot. Eleven years after taking the oath of enlistment, I flew one of the first aircraft to enter the airspace over Afghanistan in the wake of 9/11, delivering 34,000 humanitarian rations to Afghans displaced by the outbreak of conflict. Being presented with the Distinguished Flying Cross as a result of this mission was a profound experience that jarred me to inventory the larger purpose of my life and career. I developed a hunger to design and orchestrate operations rather than simply participating in them.

Over the next decade, I came to see wartime military services as the ultimate leadership university, a domain of constant learning and testing flush with the opportunity for growth. I’ve felt the weight of leading a fifty-one-aircraft formation executing the most complex airlift exercise since Vietnam. I’ve prepared the most senior officer in the U.S. military for his testimony to the 9/11 Commission, researching and investigating complex security issues and distilling them into messages for a global audience. I’ve had many such opportunities, but two novel experiences were particularly valuable in cognitively preparing to lead a large organization. In 2008 my graduate cohort visited Monte Cassion, a monastery in central Italy repeatedly ravaged by war throughout its 1,400-year existences. In a debate meant to explore morality in warfare, I was assigned to argue in favor of the abbey’s WWII bombing. The following year, I published a thesis arguing that our coalition was taking an excessively physical approach to a social phenomenon in Afghanistan. These intellectual exercises involved the development of arguments using theory, logic, and evidence. Together, they provided a 360-degree perspective concerning a complicated issue of central public relevance. I found these experiences incredibly stimulating, and later, useful.

In 2010, I took command of an Air force flying squadron, accepting total responsibility for 155 men and women operating aircraft valued at $2.4 billion. Attuned to the difficulty of service during protracted war, I focused not on marginal gains in operational outcomes, but on taking care of people. Through previous experiences, I’d become enlightened to the fact that if I fought for my people, they would fight for each other and our mission. They proved me right by surpassing every operational expectation and piling up countless accolades. While they did their jobs. I worked hard to safeguard their interests so they could stay focused and motivated. In one example, a subordinate was held liable for night vision goggles stolen from his car. The amount of liability was equivalent to several months pay. Convinced the exorbitant fine was more concerned with deterring carelessness in others than creating fair accountability, I argued successfully that theft—not negligence—had been the proximate cause of the lost equipment, and his liability was sharply reduced. In another instance, an officer had her security clearance suspended when it was determined she’d sought counseling for alcohol abuse. Clearance adjudicators couldn’t know that she’d developed a drinking problem while coping with an unresolved sexual assault, but had since recovered. I viewed the suspension as an unwitting re-victimization, and worked the system to restore her career. The job of commanding a squadron was rich with these opportunities, each masquerading as a nuisance in a profession with a laser-like focus on operational metrics. Each has reinforced within me the dawning realization that making a difference in the lives of individuals, immersed in the texture and nonlinearity attendant to dealing with people rather than machines, is how I’m meant to spend my energies. I’m drawn to the law because it celebrates difference making, rewards the pursuit of rightness, and requires activities I find most stimulating—research, argument, and intellectual combat for a purpose beyond the self. But those aren’t the only reasons. I believe continued predominance of the rule of law depends upon leaders willing to dedicate themselves to its keeping, an activity to which I enthusiastically aspire. I’m hopeful my track record demonstrates my clear intent to bring dedication and diligence to the pursuit of public service, advocacy for those in need, and influence over how and under what conditions our Nation commits itself to war. I further hope you’ll afford me the opportunity to begin navigating my text adventure at Harvard Law.

Tony Carr skillfully weave a unique and personal account of his indirect path toward law school in this successful application statement. Breaking free from the traditional constraints of the “I want to go to law school because…” essay, Carr effectively units the pilot and the aspiring lawyer within him in a rich narrative, rife with colorful anecdotes.
Carr structures his essay as a journey that leads the reader though his decision to enlist in the Air Force, his development and leadership in the military, and the discovery of his passion for legal issues. From the start, Carr conveys a strong work ethic and effective management capacity without simply presenting a laundry list of accolades. From his experiences with debate and argument, admissions officers can get a clear sense of his intellectual curiosity and legitimate interest in advocacy.

The great strength of the essay may lie in the well-chosen and authentic examples of Carr’s efforts to safeguard the interests of his squadron. He states his driving conviction that fighting for his people would allow them to “fight for each other and our mission.” Without losing focus, he demonstrates how he effectively put to use an ability to skillfully interpret governing codes and a desire to champion fairness in the specific cases involving the theft of the night vision goggles and security clearance suspension. The gripping stories adeptly reinforce his own realization that he was meant to dedicate himself to “making a difference in the lives of individuals” through law.

The essay does possess a few long-winded phrases that could have been more effectively worded. Moreover, it draws upon come vague and nebulous concepts such as “difference making” that could have been more clearly expounded. But overall, this statement is a very effective personal reflection with a confident tone and a writing style filled with color and life. It offers a clear sense of Carr’s passion for legal issues, the richness of his previous experience, and ultimately his reasons for applying to law school.

Akua Abu

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