Harvard Law School

Application Essays- STEPHEN IYA


As a child I would often stand in the corridor staring at an old portrait of my mother. I was perplexed not by her youth, but by her stern demeanor and strange attire. In the picture, she wore a black gown and a white collaret connected to two linen bands. What puzzled me the most, however, was the ridiculous wig she wore. Curly, white, and garish, the wig stole the limelight of the picture and in my mind, this is what a lawyer looked like – pompous, intimidating, and ostentatious. Oddly, I found this portrait to be both alienating and alluring. Though it depicted a representation of my mother I was not familiar with, it somehow drew me in. I knew that before immigrating to the United States, my mother had served as a lawyer in the Nigerian Government. She had since explained to me that as a barrister and solicitor of the Supreme Court of Nigeria she was required to wear the ornate attire I had seen in the picture. And although I knew her to be humble, personable, and quite effervescent, I associated her days as an attorney with the picture on the wall and was strangely drawn to the confidence and power it represented.

Growing up, I assumed the woman in the portrait represented my mother’s past life, one she had left behind after coming to America. As a young mother and an immigrant to America, it had been difficult for her to find the time or money to pursue a legal career in the United States. Instead, she decided to become a licensed practical nurse. Though I constantly caught her flipping through books on U.S. law and engaging in intense conversations with other attorneys in her free time, she divided most of her time between raising children and tending to parental home patients. From her I discovered I, too, gained a sense of fulfillment from investing time and effort into people and I decided the most effective way to continue to do so was to join the medical profession.

As I progressed through my undergraduate years, I soon realized that medicine was not my passion. Uncertain about what I wanted to do with my life, I threw myself into a myriad of campus activities. I helped teach English to Latino immigrants, served as a resident adviser in my dorm, and coached students on how to best represent themselves to prospective employers. What I learned from my activities was that I wasn’t satisfied with just helping people; I gained my energy by working with people and assisting them in realizing their potential and overcoming their issues. I decided to study public policy because I was perturbed by the disconnect between one’s legal rights and his or her actual capabilities. I sought to understand how laws and policies could be better translated into real, tangible change. As a public policy major, I learned that I was intrigued about the legal system and how it protects human rights and provides for social justice.

Although I knew I was interested in the legal system, I finally realized that a legal education would enable me to live out my passions while I was at home overhearing a conversation my mother was having with a Caribbean immigrant who had just lost her baby. As my mother listened to the woman’s story, she began to discern that this was most likely a case of malpractice. Though the woman was completely ignorant of both medical standards and her legal rights, she was able to pursue justice because my mother had been trained in this arena and was willing to help. Without my mother’s help, the woman would have lacked the knowledge and resources to translate her legally defined rights into actual capabilities. As I began to recall the countless times my mother had drawn upon her legal background, I began to comprehend that she was constantly drawing upon her legal education to provide practical assistance to others in need. I now understand that though my mother has since “taken off the wig” she continues to be a woman of power, confidence, and influence as she sacrifices her time off the job to assist people in better realizing their rights.

Though I once associated the legal profession with ostentation, stringency, and dominance, I have come to associate it with the humility, compassion, and sacrifice I watched my mother exhibit. While I am still drawn to the influence and the agency of the legal profession, I have come to the realization that there is power in selflessness and that these qualities can be used to empower others.

I have since realized that the life of a lawyer, and of a law school student, is by no means easy and that in order to endure the long hours and sleepless nights, there must be some motivating factor. Not only have I discovered that the subject of law intrigues me, but I have also experienced how rewarding it is to help people realize their dreams – whether they be to speak English, to land a job, or to find justice. I am confident that I will succeed in law school because I know the legal profession will help me realize my own passion, and in my experiences, it had been difficult to fail where fulfillment is found.


The essay’s opening is an invitation. Stephen Iya shares his conception of his mother with the reader, helping us to see the image he once saw and, by extension, to understand the broader points he goes on to make. From this point forward, he effectively uses this initial anecdote as a lens through which he explains his path toward discovering that the legal field was the right area for him.

Iya’s essay follows his own coming-of-age and realization that the legal world was the one he belonged to. While he follows the initial anecdote in a chronological order, the quantity of life phases that he describes limits each portion’s quality. It is important to keep in mind that as you devote many portions of your personal statement to many different events or anecdotes, that you will be limiting the detail you can include for each part. In Iya’s essay, this limited detail for some portions of his essay leads to a read that at times seems as if he is simply telling his readers different things, instead of demonstrating how he came to such realizations with greater detail.

Although Iya’s mother played a major role in his understanding of the legal system and its ability to let him live out his passions, at times the essay seems to be dominated by facts about his mother, and less about himself. These essays are an opportunity to convey as much about you as possible to the readers, so although describing relationships and interactions with others can be an effective means to convey a point, the primary focus should clearly be the product of the relationships.

When investing a great portion of the essay to a single anecdote, as Iya does with the first paragraph in his essay, it’s important to tie the other portions of the essay to the same anecdote, allowing the story to become whole. Iya demonstrates this well as his story comes full circle in his last few paragraphs; drawing in elements from the portrait of his mother he began with to tie off a successful essay.

Zohra Yaqhubi


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