Harvard Law Essay Questions

Harvard Law School LL.M. Essay Questions for Fall 2013

Sep, 06, 2012

Harvard Law School has “updated” their Master of Law application page for Fall 2010 admission, so I am updating my post Harvard LL.M. program as well.  Actually the application has not changed significantly for years and this is my first major update in about four years. The deadlines: For the LL.M. class beginning in September 2013, the application deadline is December 1, 2012. (We strongly encourage all application materials be delivered by November 15, 2012.)

While almost all my clients are applying to MBA programs,  I have extensive past experience working with applicants applying to LL.M. programs, but generally only work with a small number of applicants per year. For Fall 2012 admission, I worked with 5 clients with 1 accepted at HLS, another accepted at Yale,  2 each admitted to Columbia and NYU, three admitted to Georgetown, and one each to Chicago Cornell, Berkeley and UCLA. For Fall 2011, I worked with only 1 LL.M. client who applied only to Columbia and was admitted. I worked with no LL.M. applicants for Fall 2010. For Fall 2009 admission, I worked with three LL.M. clients, two of whom were admitted to Harvard. You can find their results here.  For me, working with very high caliber LL.M. clients is quite interesting.  Before establishing my own consulting service in 2007, about 30% of my clients between 2001-2006 were LL.M. applicants, but these days, it is a rather limited aspect of my work.  

I think everyone who applies to top LL.M. programs should think about the Harvard Law School essay questions even if they don’t intend to apply to Harvard: 

1. Harvard Law School is the top general LL.M. program. Yale and Stanford are harder to get into, but they are small specialized programs. Harvard has the best name brand reputation of any American university in the world and so does its law school.

2. Not a single one of the LL.M. admits to Harvard I worked with or know about ever rejected it to attend Columbia, Chicago, or other top general LL.M. programs.

3. For applicants who apply to Harvard, it is the hardest application they will likely have to complete. The only other exception might be UC Berkeley because of the need to have a very detailed plan of study, but that is arguable and highly variable.

4. Most importantly, those who apply to Harvard are also applying to the other top programs and many will most likely be utilizing their Harvard content to prepare essays for other schools. The rigorous analytical and legal thinking that makes for great Harvard essays will thus impact not only their chances for admissions at other schools, but all other applicants’ chances as well.

5. Therefore even if you don’t apply to Harvard’s LL.M. you need to apply the same level of intellectual rigor to your essays that a successful Harvard admit would be applying to his or her essays. Since you are competing with those who apply to Harvard, you need to write essays at the same level as required by Harvard.

In summary, Harvard has a more difficult set of essay questions than other LL.M. programs ask and most who apply to Harvard will be utilizing their content for other schools. So, even if you don’t apply to Harvard, you should be aware of what some of your strongest competition will be doing. Harvard has four essay questions (Taken from the online application) and gives a total of 1900 words.

The Personal Statement questions (taken from the online application):

Please read parts a. and b. below carefully and write an essay addressing both questions, with part a. constituting at least half of the total length. Footnotes do not count towards the overall word limit as long as they are limited to providing sources and citations. Your entire statement should be no more than 1,500 words—anything exceeding the word limit will be disallowed. Please type or word-process your statement, with your full name on the top of each page and your signature at the end, and attach it to your application.

  1. Briefly describe either an important issue in your field of interest or a current legal problem facing a particular country, region, or the world, and then propose a theoretical framework or a legal analysis or strategy to address this issue.
  2. Please tell us something about yourself—in particular, why you wish to pursue an LL.M. degree at Harvard and how doing so connects with what you have done in the past and what you plan to do in the future.

Important: Your personal statement must address the above questions specifically, and must be solely the product of your own efforts. We reserve the right to disqualify a statement written by, or with the help of, someone other than the applicant. 

Note: There is a word limit of 1,500 words; please provide a word count at the end of your essay. Please be sure to type or word-process your statement in 12-point font, with at least one-inch (2.5 cm.) margins on each side.

Now while (a) and (b) are the main questions, there are actually two other “essay” questions (taken from the online application):

Clearly no applicant should duplicate the content they write in essay (b) and in these two shorter questions, yet I believe many applicants do because they treat these two shorter questions as simply application questions and not essay questions. If you think of them as essay questions, you see that, in fact, Harvard gives approximately 2000 words maximum to each LL.M. applicant. This is more than you are likely to write for any law school with the possible exception of schools that don’t specify essay length.

Is This One Essay or Two?
Since the two questions are actually divided and you need to have at least 750 words for (a), I have always advised my clients to write each as a separate essay and not a single essay. While the instructions don’t absolutely specify that, it would surely make it easier to determine if part a. is at least 750 words if the two parts are separated.  Of course, there should be a connection between the two parts in as much as what you are interested in (a) should relate to what you discuss in (b) as well in terms of your academic interests and career plans.

Now let’s analyze the questions:
(a)Briefly describe either an important issue in your field of interest or a current legal problem facing a particular country, region, or the world, and then propose a theoretical framework or a legal analysis or strategy to address this issue.
Question (a) is what makes Harvard’s essay different from most other LL.M. applications. It is a real test of your analytical and legal thinking. It is also test of your ability to communicate something important in 750-1000 words. You will probably need at least 500 for (b) and (a) must be at least 750 words long. From my experience the most effective way to write (a) is to:

1. Identify a legal issue that you know really well and can provide a nuanced perspective on. Ideally it should also relate to what you intend to study at Harvard, but at minimum should be a reflection of your best legal thinking.

2. Write a long first draft, say 1000-2000 words.

3. Expect to go through at least four more drafts before it is close to being finished.

4. Show it to a lawyer or other legal expert who can assess whether what you say is actually accurate and impressive. With my clients, I always tell them to do this. Even if I am very familiar with the legal issue my client is analyzing, I ask them to try to get expert advice. If expert advice is not available, find the next best thing, a fellow legal practitioner whose opinion you trust.

5. If you use an admissions consultant, you should ask him or her to assess this essay within the context of your entire application and in comparison to other applicants who were admitted to Harvard. If you are interested in learning more about my services, please see my website.

(b)Please tell us something about yourself—in particular, why you wish to pursue an LL.M. degree at Harvard and how doing so connects with what you have done in the past and what you plan to do in the future.

This is actually a standard question though somewhat different from the standard catchall questions that most other schools ask. The real task is to think what you don’t need to include here, which requires looking at the next two essays first, so we will come back to this question.

Academic interests
For most other schools, this would be a standard part of the main question, but Harvard does it a little differently. This means that in (b) you don’t have to discuss your academic interests in detail because you will doing it here. In the context of your answer, provide the list they ask for. You can only focusing on two or three areas of legal interest in the application form.  I suggest you come across as someone with a very focused academic plan. Your academic plan at Harvard should be consistent with your future career plans.

Please elaborate on your plans. 
You should use this space to provide a specific career plan. You will have already talked about your future in (b), but at a more conceptual level. Here you should provide details of your future plans.

One thing to keep in mind: HARVARD IS FOR LEADERS. It does not matter if your leadership is as a judge, a prosecutor, a leading attorney in your field, a government expert, a scholar, or an in-house legal counsel, Harvard is looking for people who will make a difference. Your career plan is the place to show how you will use the legal knowledge you acquire at Harvard to become a credit to the legal profession. In (b) you will focus on “why?”

Now back to (b):
(b)Please tell us something about yourself—in particular, why you wish to pursue an LL.M. degree at Harvard and how doing so connects with what you have done in the past and what you plan to do in the future.
Given that you don’t need to provide the details of either your academic plan at Harvard or your career plans, there is plenty of room in (b) to focus on what Harvard wants to know:

1.Why do you want an LL.M. at Harvard? Explain clearly the reason(s) for obtaining an LL.M. and at Harvard in particular.

2. Connect to the past: You need to reveal something about yourself, in particular your motivations for pursuing a legal career and need to trace that motivation to your desire to pursue an LL.M. Tell a story that reveals something about you. If you are having difficulty understanding how to do that, I suggest taking a look at my earlier posts on law school essays.

3. Connect to the future: You need to explain why an LL.M. will help you achieve your future goals. The details for that plan will be discussed in your career plan essay. If you are having difficulty formulating goals, please click here.

A great (b) answer should effectively provide the conceptual backbone that connects all four essays because essay (b) is about your past and future motivations as a legal professional. Those motivations should certainly impact what legal issue you write about in (a) as well as your academic plan at Harvard and your future career plans.

Putting together a great HLS application is a time-consuming labor of love, but if approached early enough, it really is manageable.

-Adam Markus

I am a graduate admissions consultant who works with clients worldwide. If you would like to arrange an initial consultation, please complete my intake form. Please don’t email me any essays, other admissions consultant’s intake forms, your life story, or any long email asking for a written profile assessment. The only profiles I assess are those with people who I offer initial consultations to. Please note that initial consultations are not offered when I have reached full capacity or when I determine that I am not a good fit with an applicant.

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Picking up where I left off (Big Rule #1 for writing your law school essays), and continuing with the larger theme of learning how to decode your application instructions:

Big Rule # 2: Identify the Right Essay Type and Stay True to It.

The second most important thing you need to know when approaching your required law school application essays is that you need to pay attention to the essay question and make sure you are answering that question—not that other school’s question, and not the question you wish were being asked. (Unless, of course, a school invites you to ask and answer your own question, as Georgetown was recently doing in an optional essay.)

Most required law school essay questions fall into one of two categories, and I’m giving these categories totally artificial labels. You won’t see applications refer to them this way. Applications just refer to these as “essays” or “personal statements,” but for the purposes of guiding you, I want to break the application essay down into these two broad categories. So don’t get confused if these labels don’t show up in the applications themselves. It's more important to focus on the essay question itself than on the label a school is giving it.

The first kind of essay is what I’m calling the “personal” essay. Those essay questions tend to be very open-ended, asking you to write about anything that might help the admissions committee get to know you better, and they are typically asking you to write something of a personal nature rather than something about your professional ambitions.

That’s an important distinction from the second kind of essay, which I am labeling the “professional” essay. The “professional” essay questions tend to ask you expressly to discuss your motivations for seeking a law degree and want you to talk about your professional goals. In that case, it would be a mistake to send them a personal essay.

For 99% of applicants, those categories should be kept totally separate, even though 99% of applicants like to mush them together. You’ll experience the following temptation: you’ll write something moving and personal and revealing about yourself, and then your mom/neighbor/roommate/dentist/fairy godmother will read it and say: “But don’t you have to tell Harvard Law School why you want to go to Harvard Law School?” And so you take your completely wonderful personal story and slap on an artificial paragraph about why you desperately have to go to Harvard (or wherever), even though that paragraph has nothing whatsoever to do with the essay you just wrote, and the new concluding paragraph sits there in all its clunky, inorganic hideousness, and—congratulations— you’ve just ruined a perfectly nice personal essay. So the answer is: No, you don’t have to use your essay to explain why you want to go to law school, unless the essay prompt expressly tells you to.

Many law school applications don’t ask expressly for a professional essay. I know that is very counterintuitive to most applicants, but your essay will benefit if you resist that temptation to morph a nice personal essay into a professional one just to make your mom/neighbor/etc. happy. Blending the two kinds of essays almost always subtracts from them both, and you end up with this monster hybrid that’s less effective than if you had just stuck to one or the other. (I have seen some good hybrids, but they are not the norm, and much depends on their execution.) 

How do you determine if a school is asking for a personal essay or a professional essay? Here’s how I do this analysis (with real examples):

1. Does the essay question ask you mainly about why you’re applying to law school or about your professional ambitions? If so, submit a professional essay.


We are interested particularly in learning about your motivation and preparation for the study of law as well as any circumstances that you believe are relevant to the evaluation of your credentials.

Compose a statement indicating the reasons you want to undertake the study of law at X University as well as your special interests, life experiences, accomplishments, goals, and any other information that might be helpful to the Admissions Committee.

2. Is the essay question a really broad one that doesn’t ask expressly about why you’re applying to law school or about your professional goals? That points in favor of a personal essay. My advice is to submit a professional essay only if you have something really interesting or compelling to say on that question. (Most applicants don’t.) If the essay question emphasizes the word “personal,” that’s also a tip-off that they are not looking for a professional essay. Top-10 law schools typically fall into this category or the next (#3).


The personal statement is an important part of every application and your opportunity to demonstrate what you will contribute to our community. In general, a personal statement with a narrow focus on a personal attribute or experience is far more helpful to the Committee than either a broad statement about the law or a restatement of your resume.

3. Does the essay question suggest mostly personal topics with only a small piece that touches on your reasons for applying or your professional goals? This is the most typical kind of essay question for law schools in general, including many top-10 schools. Here, too, I would recommend submitting a professional essay only if it’s very strong; otherwise, submit a personal essay.


Essay submissions are an extremely helpful tool for evaluating your potential contributions to our community. As you prepare to write your personal statement and any optional essays, please keep the following in mind. First, we do not have a fixed checklist of particular attributes we seek in our students, and you will have the best insights into what is most important for us to know about you. Second, there is no set convention for communicating the information you choose to share. A successful essay might involve writing directly about expansive themes such as your goals or philosophy or background or identity, or very differently, might be a vignette that reveals something significant about you. In other words, think broadly about what you might wish to convey and how you might best convey it. There is no formula for a successful personal statement, and different individuals will find different topics to be well-suited to them. Applicants have, for example, elaborated on their significant life experiences; meaningful intellectual interests and extracurricular activities; factors inspiring them to obtain a legal education or to pursue particular career goals; significant obstacles met and overcome; special talents or skills; issues of sexual identity; particular political, philosophical, or religious beliefs; socioeconomic challenges; atypical backgrounds, educational paths, employment histories, or prior careers; or experiences and perspectives relating to disadvantage, disability, or discrimination. Any of these subjects, and many more, could be an appropriate basis for communicating important information about yourself that will aid us in reaching a thoughtful decision.

Enclose a statement of about two pages describing important or unusual aspects of yourself not otherwise apparent in your application. While admission to X Law School is based primarily upon superior academic achievement and potential to contribute to the legal profession, the Admissions Committee also regards the diversity of an entering class as important to the school’s educational mission. If you would like the committee to consider how factors such as your background, life and work experiences, advanced studies, extracurricular or community activities, culture, socio-economic status, sex, race, ethnicity, religion, or sexual orientation would contribute to the diversity of the entering class and hence to your classmates’ law school experience, please describe these factors and their relevance.

The personal statement should demonstrate your ability to communicate effectively and concisely. While you have the widest possible latitude in choosing the substance of your personal statements, experience shows that the most successful personal statements are those which develop a sense of the person, his or her values, aspirations, and concerns. A discussion of the unique contributions you would likely make to the student body, the legal profession, and ultimately the larger society, would also be well received.

All applicants must submit a personal statement with the application form. This is your opportunity to present yourself, your background, your experiences, and your ideas to the Admissions Committee. You may want to write about your intellectual interests, your career goals, your achievements, your family background, or your involvement in your community. It is up to you to decide what you want to write about and how you want to express your thoughts. Keep in mind that the readers of your personal statement will be trying to get a sense of you as a person and as a prospective X Law School student. We encourage you to be as candid and thoughtful as possible.

4. Does the essay prompt seem to give you no guidance whatsoever? Then you also have the freedom to choose which essay you want to submit, and you should submit your stronger one.


The statement should inform the Admissions Committee of any factors the applicant deems relevant to the admissions decision.

Are all these essay questions starting to make your eyes glaze over? Mine too! You’ll have to get in the habit of reading them closely, though.

If I seem biased against the professional essay, it’s only because that kind of essay is usually the weaker of the two for most applicants. It would be great if law schools all required one (maybe there would be fewer miserable lawyers if law schools did a better job weeding out professionally lost and confused applicants), but many schools don’t put a lot of weight on how seriously you’ve thought through your professional goals or how law school fits into those goals. In a perfect world, law school applicants would all have great reasons for seeking a law degree, but in my experience, most applicants don’t have even merely good reasons. (That’s a great opportunity for you to stand out as an applicant if you do have good reasons for going to law school.)

If you want to see examples of good and even great professional essays, ones that connect the dots from “here’s what I’ve done” to “here’s what I hope to do” and “here’s how a law degree fits into that trajectory,” I include some in my e-book in Chapter 8 on professional essays. I discuss personal essays in greater detail in Chapter 7.

Finally, I can't stress strongly enough that a great application essay has your voice, is based on your experiences, and tells us something important about who you are. Those things are all going to be different for different applicants. There’s no essay out there that is perfect or to be taken as some kind of template, and you could nitpick anything for the rest of time (and miss all your deadlines). Don't try to be someone else in your essay, know when to stop, and don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good. (Thank you, Voltaire.)

This post is excerpted and adapted from Chapter 6 of The Ivey Guide to Law School Admissions (2010 e-book version).

Former Dean of Admissions at the University of Chicago Law School and a recovering lawyer, Anna Ivey founded Ivey Consulting to help college, law school, and MBA applicants navigate the admissions process. You can find more admissions tips in The Ivey Guide to Law School Admissions, downloadable as an e-book. Join the conversation here in the blog comments and on Twitter and Facebook, or email us a new question for the blog. Always happy to hear from you.

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