Law school applications: “Optional” Essays and Addenda
Many law schools offer students the opportunity to write so-called “optional” essays. Most often, the prompts ask why you’re applying to that particular law school, or how you might want to take advantage of some specific program at their school (e.g., Northeastern’s co-op program). Some are more creative and varied, like Georgetown’s “top ten list” or Michigan’s menu of nine (at last count!) possible essays. In Fall 2023, in response to the Supreme Court’s affirmative action decision, there are a range of new and/or revised optional essay prompts that invite candidates to share how their background and experiences have shaped the perspectives and insights they’ll bring into the law school community.
There are also a handful of questions on every law school application that require elaboration in an attached statement, or addendum, if the applicant answers the question in the affirmative. The two most common addendum questions involve academic challenges and college conduct or criminal records (also known as Character and Fitness questions). As with the “optional” essays and the resume, these statements should be crafted in such a way as to supplement the remainder of the application, not duplicate it. (Addendum literally means “something added on.” The singular is addendum, the plural is addenda. Lawyers love Latin.)
It should be clear that the essays labeled “optional” are not entirely optional — if you don’t take advantage of one or more of the additional prompts, you may leave the committee members wondering why you declined to provide more information about yourself. That said, if you really don’t have anything to add in response to any of the prompts — especially the academic, character & fitness, and background questions — don’t try to shoehorn something only marginally relevant into the essay.
But let’s take each type of additional prompt separately:
First, the character and fitness questions. We have so much to say on these, that we have several additional pages of information and advice here.
This question usually goes something like, “If there’s anything in your educational background that requires additional explanation, please do so here.” The addendum prompt may be even more open-ended—for example: “If there is anything about your application that you would like to address, you may submit an addendum.” Sometimes the question is clearly mandatory, for example, when you’ve answered yes to any questions about academic discipline. Regardless, this is where you can give the admissions committees additional context to help them understand your poor performance during a particular semester, your less-than-direct path to your undergraduate degree (for example, multiple transfers or significant gaps), or your history of standardized tests not predicting your academic performance. It is not the place to explain away a single bad grade—one failed class will not doom your law school admissions (most law school admissions committee members will understand that Organic Chem is not for everyone).
In drafting an academic addendum, you’ll want to avoid sounding defensive or making excuses. The question in the reader’s mind is not a judgmental, “How could you let this happen??” but rather, “Help me understand what happened during that time.” If a family or personal crisis was going on, don’t hesitate to simply state as much and describe how it affected your ability to get your school work done. You do NOT have to go into great detail about the nature of the crisis if you do not feel comfortable doing so. If the bad semester happened during your first year of college, and had something to do with your adjustment period, know that you’re not alone. A significant number of students stumble their first year (and an even greater percentage of transfer students do so—this is often why students transfer). State the facts simply, and don’t feel that you have to have learned some grand lesson from the process. It’s enough to learn that college is harder than you expected and required more focus, or that a mistaken choice of college can be fixed by transferring, or that it’s hard to balance a demanding family life with college. If your poor academic performance is related to anything that might also raise concerns among some admissions officials about your ability to succeed in law school (drug or alcohol abuse, serious mental health issues, diagnosis with a learning disability, etc.), you should speak with the pre-law advisor about your situation and how you might address those concerns.
If you are writing an essay to support your claim that your LSAT does not represent your potential to succeed in law school, you will need to present convincing evidence in the form of a history of mismatched standardized test scores and academic performance. In other words, you will need to show that your college GPA far exceeded what your SAT/ACT would have predicted. Remember in drafting this essay that law students are most often graded, especially during the first year, based on a single timed test at the end of the semester (albeit an essay exam, not a standardized test), and that to become a lawyer, you will need to take a two- to three-day standardized test known as the bar exam. Admission committee members will want to understand how you hope to overcome these prior challenges in law school, on the bar exam, and beyond. An LSAT-related addendum is really only appropriate (and convincing) in extraordinary circumstances. If you are thinking about an addendum to explain a single bad test-taking experience, the reader will want to know why you didn’t simply retake the test.
Optional essays about background, perspectives, commitment to diversity, etc.
The Supreme Court’s June 2023 decision ended the use of race as a standalone factor in admissions decisions. But the Court made clear that “nothing in this opinion should be construed as prohibiting universities from considering an applicant’s discussion of how race affected his or her life, be it through discrimination, inspiration, or otherwise.” Students for Fair Admissions, Inc. v. President and Fellows of Harvard College, 600 U.S. ___ (2023). Accordingly, you should feel free to write about how your life experiences — race-related and not — have impacted your perspectives and your decision to become an attorney. The prompts inviting you to do so may take different forms than they have in the past, though, and you’ll want to pay careful attention to the wording of those questions to ensure that your answer is responsive.
If you believe that your background in any respect has given you a unique perspective, you should absolutely use this kind of prompt to describe it. You’ll want to demonstrate to the admissions committee how that aspect of your life has contributed to how you view the world. You should not however feel that you need to link your background to your future career. In other words, just because you’re a member of an oppressed minority, don’t feel you have to want to be a lawyer on behalf of that oppressed minority. You don’t even need to make the case that your background will shape how you perform as, for example a Black corporate lawyer or a queer criminal defense attorney. The law schools are most interested in knowing how your background will shape your contribution to the law school community — the insights and perspectives you’ll bring — not that there is some connection between your background and the legal career you aspire to.
You may find that there is some overlap between elements of your personal statement and this type of essay. Some overlap is fine. The key is to ensure that you’re using the additional space wisely, for example, to amplify a point you may have made in passing in your personal statement, and not to duplicate much or all of the statement.
Why our law school? Why this program?
For the most common prompt — some version of “Why our law school?” — do your research and identify specific features of the school that will further your educational goals and career aspirations. Are there specific faculty you want to work with, clinical experiences you want to take advantage of, programs you want to be a part of? General flattery of the school (e.g., “the best clinical programs in the country”) is not persuasive. Rather, you want to connect the dots between your biography and aspirations with the school’s offerings. Show why you’d be excited to attend not just any law school, but this particular one.
Similarly, if a school asks how you’ll take advantage of a particular program they offer, make sure there’s a coherent link between what you present here and what you’ve said elsewhere about your interests and aspirations. If you have no interest in public service, for example, don’t pretend otherwise based on the erroneous belief that it will make you look better. It will probably ring false, and that will not help your application.
Some schools offer optional prompts that don’t look like any of the above, and are instead inviting you to share some more of your personality. Georgetown’s “Top Ten List” and Michigan’s “If you could have dinner with any prominent person…” are great examples. These are generally opportunities to provide the committees with a little more insight into who you are, and what kind of community member you’ll be at their law school. Often they’re a little less formal, but be cautious about how casual and/or humorous you pitch these — remember that tone doesn’t always carry over well in writing. Always make sure you have someone who doesn’t know you review essays of this nature to ensure you’ve hit the right notes.
In sum, think of optional essay(s) and addenda as additional opportunities to market yourself to the admissions committees. Choose prompts and topics that will allow you to expand about parts of you that would not otherwise be evident to the readers. Make sure they complement rather than duplicate your personal statement, resume, and other submissions. And then pay attention to any additional requirements or suggestions the school offers—page lengths, for example, or additional clarifications of what they’re looking for. If you have any questions whatsoever about the nature of the question and whether your topic “fits,” don’t hesitate to contact the admissions staff. They sincerely want to evaluate you based your best work, not the result of a misunderstanding.
And, of course, always feel free to run a draft by the pre-law advisor.