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Building Your Law School Application: The Explanatory Essay


This summer, we’ll be taking you through each aspect of building your law school application. Today, we’re continuing this series with the explanatory essay.

As we head into September, those of you planning on attending law school next fall should be putting together your application materials. This post is designed to cover another facet of law school applications: the explanatory essay. For those of you keeping score at home, we’ve covered letters of recommendation, the personal statement, and the academic index. Those topics are all universally applicable, whereas the explanatory essay may not play a role in everyone’s application process.

In a nutshell, the explanatory essay–or addendum–is a brief discussion of a topic that is not covered by your personal statement or diversity essays. As a rule of thumb, the explanatory essay should not exceed one page. Moreover, you should avoid over-editorializing–just present the facts. As one of my favorite Star Wars characters said: “stay on target.”

The explanatory essay can address a specific question raised by the school’s application form (e.g. “have you ever been convicted of a crime”) or it can itself raise and address a separate issue (e.g. an abnormally low semester’s GPA). In the former case, it is self-explanatory when you should write an explanatory essay–if you’ve been convicted of a crime. In the latter case, the explanatory essay is usually used to address either a low GPA period, a gap in your professional resume, or a low LSAT score.

In the case of a character and fitness essay, relating to some crime or misconduct, you should acknowledge your wrongdoing and provide some factual explanation (like you were rushing to the hospital and you ran a red light). The explanation should not inject your personal opinions–as I said before, stick to the facts. Alternatively, if you don’t have a factual explanation, you can discuss the ways in which the incident helped you grow (like you got a D.U.I. in college and have subsequently learned from the experience in a meaningful way). Make sure you acknowledge wrongdoing, don’t try to shift the blame, and include a section on how your character has been improved.

If, instead of a character and fitness question, you’re choosing to explain a low GPA or LSAT score or gap in your resume, you should make sure you have a legitimate explanation. Illegitimate explanations would include things like “I partied too much as a freshman” or “my girlfriend of three months dumped me right before finals.” Legitimate explanations would be things like a medical issue, a tragic event, or other similar occurrences. Additionally, if you’re discussing your GPA or LSAT, you should make sure that there is a clear disparity between the period you’re explaining and your prior or subsequent performance (i.e. if you got a 3.8 for a semester but you got a 3.9 overall, then you’re probably not going to need an explanation; likewise, if the difference in your LSAT scores is fewer than five points, then it probably doesn’t require an explanation). As above, you should succinctly explain the factual basis for your poor performance and move on.

If you’re sitting there thinking, “I wrote a personal statement, a diversity essay, and a ‘why ____ school’ essay, how can I possibly write another essay?” I completely understand. This is a pedantic and painful experience. But if you have a legitimate basis for an explanatory essay and a strong factual basis or demonstration of personal growth, you can turn a negative aspect of your application into a positive or, at least, reduce the sting.