The 250-Word Albatross
January 23, 2008
I know the deadline to apply to YLS is approaching, but I can't seem to figure out what to write about for my 250-word essay. I'm not sure what the Admissions Committee is looking for. Help!
Sigh. The 250-word essay. I remember putting off my Yale Law School application because of the 250, too (good thing that applying late to YLS doesn't affect your chances of admission!).
The 250 word essay, in case you haven't checked out our application, is an essay on any subject of your choice, which the Admissions Committee uses "to evaluate an applicant's writing, reasoning, and editing skills." In other words, this is your first exercise as a potential lawyer: say something meaningful in a limited space, and make it good. You'll be asked to do this repeatedly in the future: law school papers have page limits, and there are judges who will throw out motions or briefs that exceed their word number guidelines. Being persuasive and concise is the quintessestial lawyerly skill, and we want to see that you have it.
Honestly, though, the 250-word essay is really a gimme. It gives you a second bite at the personal statement—after all, given all of your goals, interests, opinions, accomplishments, backgrounds, and hobbies (just to name a few aspects of yourselves), you couldn't have possibly covered everything important about who you are in a two-page personal statement. So the 250 is a chance for you to explore something you care about that might have ended up on the cutting room floor in writing your personal statement. Maybe it's a policy argument. Maybe it's a piece about a hobby or passion of yours. Maybe it's a personal anecdote. There's not much you can't write about.
In fact, there are tons of "Dos" in writing the 250, and just a few "Don'ts." So it might be more helpful if I list the five major mistakes people make in writing their 250s and you can avoid them, thereby increasing your success rate exponentially. These mistakes are:
1. Not Keeping Your Essay at 250 Words or Less. Yes, it seems like it would be obvious that a 250-word essay should be, well, 250 words. I'm not sure why people choose to ignore this. Because they think what they have to say is so special that the limit doesn't apply? They didn't read the instructions? They don't know how to use the word counter on their computer? Not clear. Look. It's an excercise. The faculty who came up with this application requirement a billion years ago do not like to be mocked. Do I or the faculty reading your application actually count the words? Maybe—do you want to take the chance? Bottom line: Don't go over 250 words. If what you have to say is longer, edit it. And yes, definite and indefinite articles and prepositions count.
2. Writing the 250-Word Essay about Writing a 250-Word Essay. There are always a couple of hundred applicants each year who think they are pret-ty clever. So they write an essay which will go something like, "So I have to write a 250-word essay. Actually, now I have written 20 words so it's actually a 230-word essay! Wait, make that a 224-word essay!" And it will go on in this vein, subtracting numbers until the applicant has managed to write 250 words about absolutely nothing.
3. Giving 250 Words in Stream-of-Consciousness Prose. So, another couple of hundred people think that they can just barf out everything they didn't mention in their personal statement, putting a period after 250 words. As in, "I obtained my black belt at age 15. I like to sleep with my window open. My cat has fleas. I can bake an awesome apple pie." And so on. OK. So I indicated above that the 250 is an opportunity for you to talk about things you may not have mentioned in your personal statement. BUT YOU STILL HAVE TO INCORPORATE THEM INTO A COHERENT ESSAY. We are not asking for 250 words' worth of random facts about yourself. Remember: "writing, reasoning, and editing skills." This type of essay gets an F in all categories.
NOTE: I have never seen anyone using tactic 2 or 3 be admitted.
4. Not Proofreading Their Essay. Somehow, it seems, the 250-word essay is really prone to grammatical and typographical errors. Probably because people are putting it off till the last minute, therefore not going over it with a fine-toothed comb as they have done with their personal statement (though those sometimes have issues as well). Please ask someone to read your essay. There are things that spell-checker will not catch, but are still wrong. For example, "peek" vs. "peak," "Untied" vs. "United," "affect" vs. "effect," you get my point. Again, remember that this is a lawyerly exercise, and no one wants a sloppy lawyer.
5. Using the 250-Word Essay as an Addendum, or a "Why Yale?" Essay. This is not as egregious as the first four, but I mention it because I really think people who take this route lose an opportunity. First, you can add an addendum—about the C you got in Calculus, or the alarm that was going off during the LSAT—in addition to the required essays. The 250 doesn't preclude that (just keep it brief). Second, a listing of the courses or programs at Yale which intrigue you is nice, and shows that you've researched the school, but doesn't really add to the Admission Committee's knowledge about you (they already know Yale's courses and programs are great, they teach them!). You should really try to take advantage of the 250 to showcase your writing ability, and pursue a topic other than an explanation of the components of the application or a list of things that caught your fancy on our website. We want to find out more about what makes you tick!
I hope that the above pitfalls are helpful in guiding you in what not to do, and therefore in pointing you in the direction of what to do. The 250-word essay is rarely a dealmaker or breaker. Mostly, it offers the Admissions Committee a window into some small snippet of who you are, carefully and thoughtfully condensed into a few short, but meaningful, paragraphs. Think this isn't possible? Remember that the Gettysburg Address is only 272 words—22 words short (or long) of being the ultimate Yale 250.
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