(Photo Source: Martin Pulaski)
Article by Todd Tolin, Seton Hall University School of Law
You’ve spent ages studying, you’ve been in the exam for hours, and finally you’ve reached the very last section before you can escape to freedom. So why not just blow off the essay section entirely? It’s not tabulated into the score, so it doesn’t really matter if you do a great job, right?
Wrong! As a student representative who has read countless files for my law school’s admissions committee over the past two years, let me assure you that this essay can and does matter. Perhaps there are some law schools that don’t weigh the essay much, or may not even read it, but do you want to take that chance? Further, the LSAT essay is always a part of your admissions file.
When the LSDAS forwards your file to your selected law schools, the first thing that’s seen is the College GPA and LSAT score summary page, the very next page is your most recent LSAT essay. If you’ve taken more than one LSAT, then those essays will immediately follow. The admissions committee will make its decisions on many variables, but the quality of the LSAT essay can be an important part of your consideration.
Why is the LSAT essay so important? What about my personal statement? The personal statement is a nice way for an admissions committee to “get to know you,” but it really doesn’t always demonstrate your inherent writing skills. Your personal statement should, after all, be perfection. Remember, you’ve had quite some time to prepare and draft it, consult with friends, family, even bosses, and then correct and rewrite it until it can be improved no more! The LSAT essay, on the other hand, reveals how well you think under pressure and time-restrictions. It is your first, and extremely low-calorie taste of what a law school final will be like. A great essay demonstrates that you have the potential to succeed in law school, while a bad essay can only raise concerns to those evaluating your application.
So what does it take to make a great LSAT essay? That’s a tricky question since everyone has their own opinion of what constitutes “good writing”. To start, however, consider these five “DON’Ts” for the LSAT essay portion:
- DON’T re-write the fact pattern/prompt. This is the most important thing to remember. The background has already been laid out on the top of the page, so avoid the “Once upon a time, little Ana wanted to go to nursery school, and her parents had to pick the best one” lead in. I have read LSAT essays where test-takers spend a third to a full page rewriting the prompt in a story-telling fashion. This is a waste of time for the writer as well as the evaluator. If the evaluator hasn’t seen anything but the prompt after half a page, they may not continue reading to find where the argument begins. (Little Ana and her nursery school choice was, in fact, a prompt a few exams ago, so I’ll stick with this example for the rest of this article.)
- DON’T make the exam a personal statement. Don’t use the fact pattern to opine about how you “admire pre-school teachers’ work ethic,” or how you know that “one day Ana will be spending her hard-earned money to take the LSAT, praying she’ll get into a good school, just like you are doing right now.” That might elicit a chuckle from the evaluators… as the essay slides into the rejection pile.
- DON’T write illegibly. Yes, time is short, and yes, it is much easier to use cursive to get more on the paper in the limited time. However no evaluator will try to decipher chicken-scratch when they have hundreds of files to read. If you cannot write legibly when using cursive, print!
- DON’T cover the essay with scribbles and cross-outs. If you need to cross out, a thick, single line will do. The messier a page looks, the more it indicates that you didn’t take much time to think the argument through before beginning to write.
- DON’T overdo. Don’t try to make the essay the next Gettysburg address. Your writing should be clear, persuasive, and logical. Too many times, people try to use vocabulary to make their essay sound more stereotypically “legal.” Often, this turns out to be a bad gamble when the word isn’t used correctly.
Now that we have the don’ts out of the way, let’s look at five main “DOs”:
- DO allow yourself time to reflect. When time begins, read the prompt carefully, gather your thoughts, and perhaps outline your basic approach.
- DO begin your writing with your ultimate legal conclusion. Start by saying, “Little Ana should go to Nursery School B because it will provide her with the most effective learning environment.” From here, build your argument in support of this statement. Jump right in, bring in facts for support, but remember not to retell the fact pattern.
- DO remember that you should explain why the other option is not the optimal choice. Persuading the reader that your conclusion is the best requires you to identify the strong points of the opposing viewpoint and discount them with facts.
- DO work for quality not quantity. If you follow the first three DOs above, you are well on your way to demonstrating that you can formulate legal arguments. If an essay is long, but confusing and rambling, it does not pack the same punch as a shorter, yet well-written one. Also, those who race to fill the most space also tend to have more spelling and grammatical errors. It’s unfortunate, but misspellings and bad grammar can quickly undermine the best of arguments.
- DO practice writing these essays at home before taking the LSAT. Get some sample prompts and work at considering the facts and turning out a well-written, logical, and persuasive essay. With practice, when you get to the LSAT essay section, despite being exhausted by the rigors of the prior sections, you will be able to craft your essay with a minimal amount of stress.
With all the work that goes into applying to law school, remember to keep these DOs and DON’Ts in mind, and your energy level up for that last section of the LSAT. While your LSAT essay might not be the most important factor in your law school application, in such a competitive process, why would you leave anything up to chance?