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Optional and Unsolicited Materials: How Much Is Too Much?

BPPanna-lsat-blog-papersOptional and Unsolicited Materials: How Much Is Too Much?
Guest post from our friend Anna Ivey at The Ivey Files.

Are you in a tizzy about whether to submit extra materials that are not required as part of your law school applications? Lots of people are. Typically, their temptations revolve around extra recommendations, optional essays, and totally unsolicited essays. The conclusion they seem to be drawing, if discussion boards are to be believed, is that “more is better,” and my purpose in today’s blog post is to tell you that the discussion boards are wrong. Less is more.

1. Recommendations:

Many applications say something like, “Two recommendations are required but you may submit up to four.” You’re probably thinking to yourself, “If I submit fewer than four, I’ll look as if I’m not that interested.” Wrong. If they require two, send ONLY two unless you have very strong reasons for submitting more.

Most top law schools prefer academic recommendations (if they ask for any at all; both Northwestern and Berkeley have stopped requiring them altogether), and so the two you send should ideally come from people who have taught you, unless the instructions expressly say otherwise.

If you have been out in the workforce for a while and are changing careers, a professional recommendation can be interesting. In that case, in the hypothetical above (two required, up to four permitted), one of the two you send can come from a supervisor, or — if you’re lucky enough to be able to drum up two academic letters after being out of school for a while — you can submit the professional recommendation as a third letter.

Another exception would be if a school requires X number of letters but “encourages” more than X. For example, Michigan requires one but encourages three. In that case, it’s a good idea to try to drum up three, but even in that case, you should do so only if you are confident that all three would be glowing and add value. If you have only one that qualifies, send only that one.

Bottom line: there are very few instances in which you should be sending more than the required number. If a school felt strongly that more letters would be helpful, it would require or encourage more letters. Use the extras (that they permit) to send for very special circumstances only. And if a school requires X and doesn’t expressly permit more than X, send only X.

More of our tips on recommendations are here.

2. Optional essays:

Many applications invite submission of optional essays. Typically, optional essays might ask you to articulate why you are applying to that school, or they might invite you to discuss parts of your background that would contribute to the diversity of the incoming class. (Michigan holds the record, I think: they offer eight optional essay topics, although you are restricted to picking two.) No matter what the optional essay topics are, submit optional essays only if the following two conditions are both met: (1) you have something interesting to say on the subject (content) and (2) you can write about it very well in one double-spaced page (execution).

If, for example, you are applying to School X only because it’s a top school, or you are applying to School Y because you have a better chance of getting in there than a more competitive school, then you don’t have anything interesting to say about why you are applying. You might dredge up a few things to say about their “prestigious faculty,” “excellent reputation,” or “national placement,” but that’s not interesting either, because you could probably say that about any of their peer schools. In fact, if the reasons you’re giving could be copied and pasted into the same kind of essay for its peer schools, then it’s not specific (or interesting) enough. If you’re going to bother writing a “Why School X” essay, have something to say that really does distinguish that school (for you) from other wonderful peer schools.

Similarly, don’t twist yourself into a pretzel writing a phony-baloney diversity essay if you don’t have something meaningful to say about yourself on that subject. You can and should think of diversity broadly. Admissions officers are trying to put together an interesting mix of incoming 1Ls, all with different life experiences and backgrounds. Of course they are interested in underrepresented ethnicities, but they are also going to take note if your background is interesting for non-ethnic reasons. Maybe you have lived and worked abroad, or are a national or world class athlete, or come from the art world. Those are all elements that would mix things up in the incoming class. But that’s not *sufficient* to justify submitting an optional diversity essay. You also have to be able to say something meaningful about that particular element of your background, and how it has shaped you in a substantial way. It’s not enough to identify that you have that background; you have to explain why and how it matters. This piece also needs to be personal rather than abstract. If you can’t discuss that part of your background in a meaningful, personal, well-written way, showing not just the “what” but also the “so what” (why it matters to you), don’t submit the essay.

Bottom line: You are much, much better off showing them one really great required essay on its own, than sending them a really great required essay along with a merely so-so non-required essay. The latter actually detracts from your application and from the impression you’re making. Don’t dilute the impact or the quality of your great essay with something that is less than great.

3. Totally unsolicited essays:

If a school doesn’t expressly invite another essay beyond the required one, do not send an additional one just because you wrote this nifty other essay for a different school and you can’t decide. Follow the schools’ instructions. If they want one essay, send them one essay only.

Here, I distinguish between unsolicited essays and unsolicited addenda. Addenda are meant to explain a particular blemish in your profile, and that kind of piece can be helpful to an admissions officer even if she hasn’t expressly asked for it. For example, you might benefit from writing an unsolicited addendum about why your sophomore year grades were terrible, but only if you have good reasons to share, and the stated reasons will not reflect poorly on you. “I was too busy rushing my fraternity” is not a good reason and will not enhance your application. More on addenda here and here. (Note that some disclosure addenda are going to be required rather than up to your discretion. Those you absolutely do have to submit if the underlying facts trigger disclosure based on the application question. More on that here, here, and here.)

Bottom line: Send only solicited essays, and send non-required addenda only if they help your cause.

One of the things admissions officers are evaluating in your applications is (1) whether you can follow instructions and (2) whether you can express yourself succinctly. If you shower them with a bunch of unsolicited junk (and yes, that’s exactly what admissions officers think of most unsolicited materials), you are doing yourself no favors. As you’re wrestling with the temptation to send non-required materials, ask yourself: Does this extra piece show me off at my very best and add something new? If not, don’t send it. Less really is more.