What About the Writing Sample?

Almost whenever I work with a student on a long-term basis, eventually he or she will ask about the writing sample.  I get questions like:

  • How does it factor into my score?  (short answer: it doesn’t)
  • If it doesn’t count for my score, why should I care? (see below)
  • What should I do?
  • What shouldn’t I do?
  • How should it be organized?

The first thing you need to know is that the writing sample is NOT part of your LSAT score.  So why should you care about it?  Because the Deans of Admissions at the law schools to which you’ll be applying will see your writing sample (how much attention they’ll pay to it is another question entirely).

Before getting to some specific ideas about what to do (or not to do) on the writing sample, let’s take a quick look at what, exactly, the writing sample is.  They all look pretty much alike.  You’ll be given two options to choose from, and two criteria to base your choice on.  You’ll be asked to write an essay defending your choice.  The key to keeping a good perspective on the writing sample is understanding how an admissions dean is likely to use it in evaluating your application.  An admissions dean might have a few thousand applications to sift through, and a few hundred spots to fill.  3,000 writing samples times ten minutes per writing sample is about 500 hours, or close to 2.5 months at 50 hours per week.  Your mileage may vary, but I’m inclined to doubt that your writing sample is going to get a 10-minute read, or even a 5-minute read.  There are just too many other things that are easier to evaluate (like your GPA or your LSAT score) or more revealing (like your personal statement).

I firmly believe that you can’t possibly submit a writing sample that is good enough to get you into any law school, or even significantly improve your chances of getting into any particular law school.  What you can do is write one that’s bad enough to keep you out of a law school.  Put yourself in the shoes of that poor admissions dean who is trying to figure out which 300 students to accept, or, conversely, which 2,700 students to reject.  (S)he isn’t going to look for a brilliant essay on where to locate a hypothetical museum in search of any must-have students.  Would you?  Of course not.  You’d skim the writing samples over, hoping to find some that are so obviously bad that you can take them out of that hugs “maybe” pile and put them into the “no” pile, thus leaving you fewer applications to sift through.

In general, what might be so bad about a writing sample that it could be dismissed out of hand?  We’ll talk specifics in a moment, but in general:

  • Not following directions
  • Inability to formulate a logical argument/train of thought
  • Poor writing, including but not limited to (good lawyer phrase) poor grammar

By way of a golf analogy, you’re not trying for a hole in one.  You’re trying to keep the ball out of the lake.  A great writing sample isn’t going to help you much (if any) more than a good, or even a decent one.  But a bad one can kill you.  ok, enough generalities.  Let’s talk specifics:

  1. DON’T agonize over which side to pick.  You’ve got 35 minutes; pick a side, spend a little while outlining (I’ve seen 10-15 minutes suggested, which I guess is ok, though 15 seems a bit long.  This is more a matter of style than anything else), and get to it.  The admissions dean doesn’t care which of the two options you select.  The prompt will have support for both.  Choose the one you like, and have at it.
  2. DO pick a side.  If there’s one great way to use the writing sample to destroy your chances of getting into law school, it would probably be by turning in a writing sample that shows how both sides have plusses and minuses.  You’re going to be a lawyer.  You’re going to argue for a client.  This is not the time to show how open-minded you are and demonstrate your ability to see both sides of an issue.  Seriously, can you imagine in court?  “Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, this is a very close case.  On the one hand, my client has two witnesses that say he was in the library at the time of the crime.  On the other hand, like the prosecutor said, his fingerprints were on the murder weapon.  There’s good evidence on both sides…”  This is a persuasive essay.  Nobody cares which side you pick, but you’d better pick one.
  3. DO stick to the bullet points.  The next best way to mess your chances up is to substitute your own criteria for those provided to you as the basis for your decision.  There’s a reason they’re in bullet points.  Those are the reasons upon which your choice must rest.  Period.  If you think of some brilliant additional reason that would bolster your choice and you just can’t resist, then give it ONE sentence in your conclusion as a little icing on the cake, e.g. “Therefore, based on both of the reasons important to Jeremy, the store should be located downtown in the mall.  Moreover, this would give him an opportunity to cross-promote, by offering, for instance, discounted movie tickets with each purchase.”  I don’t even recommend doing that little, unless it’s just a BRILLIANT idea.
  4. DO acknowledge any glaring weaknesses to your side.  This one actually bears a little resemblance to practicing law.  If your side has any obvious weaknesses, you lose credibility with the judge and the jury if you simply pretend they’re not there.  You have to bring them up, then show why they don’t matter.  As a for instance, one writing sample from a past LSAT asks you to recommend between two restaurant locations, one downtown, and one just outside town.  One of the criteria involves the limited startup capital the owners have.  The downtown location has a rent of, as I recall, $500 per month, and the other location has a rent of maybe $300 per month.  If you choose to recommend the downtown location, you can’t ignore the fact that in the face of the owners’ limited financial resources, you’re suggesting that they choose the option where the rent is almost twice as expensive.  The way to do it is twofold: First, you bury that unfortunate fact in the middle of a paragraph.  If you want to emphasize something, you lead with it or close with it; if you want to de-emphasize something, you hide it in the middle.  Second, you immediately show why it doesn’t matter.  For instance: “It is true that the rent is an additional $200 monthly, but the high visibility in the downtown area should generate more than enough foot traffic to pay for the additional rent, which works out to less than $7.00 per day.”

As far as organization, just keep it logical and simple.  My own writing sample was a basic 5-paragraph college essay, minus one of the body paragraphs:

I. Introduction

II. Criterion One

III. Criterion Two

IV. Conclusion

First the intro, then talk about whatever the first bullet point is (wrapping that paragraph up by saying that based on the first criterion, your choice is better than the alternative).  Then talk about whatever the second bullet point is (wrapping it up the same way).  Then conclude, by pointing out that since by either of the two stated criteria your option is better, then obviously the overall choice is clear.  I wouldn’t over-write the conclusion, either.  Short, sweet, and simple.

Law school exams are essay exams.  As I recall, I had one multiple choice test in three years of law school.  Show the admissions dean that you can write coherently and follow directions, and you’re in there with a fighting shot.

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