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Yale Law School Essay Questions

Appendix C: Yale 250s

Published November 2009

Everyone who applies to Yale Law School must write, in addition to a personal statement, what is affectionately known as the Yale 250. This is a completely open-ended short essay (250 words, obviously) on any topic of the applicant’s choice. It sounds easy. It can become terrifying. If you decide to apply to Yale, have fun with it, but do treat this sucker to your best writing treatment. With this requirement, the committee wants to see that you are an excellent writer. Try to get some sort of powerful imagery or clever literary device in your Yale 250. Don’t be too experimental or abstract unless you actually have won a writing award. Simple clarity with some sort of profound thrust is the best target to aim for here. Witty humor is also great, if you can pull it off. Below is a collection of six very good examples of Yale 250s, in no particular order of success. The first essay includes some comments about why it succeeds, but the other short essays are presented on their own, to be enjoyed, or savored, or laughed at, or learned from.

1. Porgy and Bess

I leaned forward. The old woman beside me seemed entranced. We were at the Los Angeles Opera for George Gershwin's Porgy and Bess and had just heard "Summertime."

Porgy and Bess is a distinctly American opera—the story of an African-American working-class couple, set to American music idioms synthesized with European orchestral techniques. Its memorable arias and duets have escaped the confines of the opera house and entered the realm of popular music as irresistible tunes—often in hybrid form—that endear themselves to a public indifferent to classical music.

I expected the virtually all-black cast because of Gershwin's daring stipulation to hire only black principals. But given the paucity of non-white operagoers, I did not envision an audience that would mirror America's diversity. I surveyed the sea of black, brown, yellow, and white faces—many likely attending their first opera—and felt hopeful and proud.

The de facto segregation plaguing America softened that evening. Unlike many movies and plays depicting the African-American experience, Porgy and Bess drew a multiethnic crowd. America's finest black opera singers attained critical visibility in a domain that rarely receives them. Perhaps the soprano singing "I Loves You, Porgy" inspired the young black woman mouthing its words to someday perform them. Perhaps the haunting beauty of "Summertime" reminded the white woman beside me of the first time she heard the music—and first saw her place in our kaleidoscope of colors. I know that I, for the first time, felt I belonged at the opera.

Commentary 1: Porgy and Bess

This Yale 250 beautifully puts the reader in the shoes of an African American attending Gershwin’s opera Porgy and Bess. The sensory details are lush, and one could almost hear the singing: “Your daddy’s rich, and your mamma’s good looking, so hush little baby, don’t you cry.” This is a narrative about finding oneself in artistic representations of—sometimes painful—history, and sharing that experience with others. We learn that the author has always loved the opera art form, but now she finds another side of her kaleidoscopic self there—she shares the opera not only as an orchestral and vocal music lover, but also as a black woman. This essay releases a profound, encapsulated moment of awakening about art, life, compassion, and openness for others to share.

2. Violin Maker

He sat close on my right but seemed unaware of my presence. Etudes, sonatas, and suites ran together, each piece unimportant when compared to the sound of him playing. And this wooden box—for months my solitary obsession—was finished.

It was my first cello—the first instrument I made but could not play.

Building cellos is hard. Violins can be difficult, but are never so brutish and physical as the excavation of a cello. Carving a violin is fastidious and constricting. The stature of a cello, however, makes even the most delicate task feel expansive. Simple size yields a human presence: the work, which feels like collaboration, must be done on the cello’s terms.

But the change I felt confronting this cello as a violinist overwhelmed differences in construction.

The violins I had built and played for years were a collective project of inquiry—an introspective journey toward an elusive sonic ideal. Continual adaptation made them an expression of my playing, which had become so rooted in these fiddles that the once distinct acts of making and playing were inseparable.

This cellist discovered sounds in my work I could not predict or explore. By ending my conceit of complete understanding and vertical integration, he helped me appreciate my cello as a singular work rather than dismiss it, as I would a violin, as an inadequate manifestation of an ideal. He reminded me that all my instruments are tools for musicians; it is what they make with them that matters.

3. Bighead

I have an abnormally large head. It has been that way since birth – just ask my mother. In home videos, I can be seen futilely trying to balance my head on my neck, only to have it tip forward or backward. When I was nine, it got stuck under the bed while I was trying to retrieve a Lego. My parents told me I would eventually grow into it, but I am still waiting.

Though balance is no longer an issue, other problems have arisen. Whenever I do something that requires entry into a small space, I have to mentally check its size against the dimensions of my head. Putting on shirts stretches their collars, while removing them requires body contortions that would put a “sixteen”-year-old Olympic gymnast to shame. I steer clear of sunglasses - put a pair on a watermelon and you will see why. The same goes for hats. “One size fits all” excludes “gigantic.” In high school, I was forced to either remove padding from my football helmet or get one custom made. And, as if to drive the point home, I was given nicknames such as “Mr. Potato Head,” “Bobblehead,” and the beautifully blunt “Bighead.”

But alas, my head is a part of who I am. It helps to make me unique and stand head and shoulders - mostly head - above the crowd. While I have learned to embrace it, I know that it may be impossible for others to do the same.

4. The Buildings of Stories

Cross disciplinary methods of research are vital to promoting intellectual curiosity and

developing new and creative techniques for addressing familiar problems. Interdisciplinary studies contributed to my double major in English and architectural theory. While completing my undergraduate degrees, I sought connections between the two fields, examining the sense of place and fictional architecture created by authors such as Margaret Atwood and William Faulkner, who used interactions with architecture to reveal characters’ understandings of the world. By bringing broad human themes down to the basic level of the spaces characters inhabit, these authors grounded their epic messages in the everyday and presented stories that were both grandly heroic and fundamentally relevant. Throughout my research, I applied architectural theory to literature and combined my knowledge of architectural symbolism with fictional

descriptions of place, thus adding another layer of meaning to the worlds created by authors. This merging of an interdisciplinary approach with traditional theoretical devices helped me move beyond typical literary analysis.

The value of interdisciplinary studies also extends to the law, which requires sharp perception, insightful analysis, and inspired synthesis: trademarks of admirable academic pursuits. Legal scholars illuminate areas such as medicine, gender issues, and the arts by examining those disciplines through the lens of the law. Because legal reasoning informs many of society’s most pressing concerns, legal scholars include the brightest and most discerning intellectuals in our society. By combining my interdisciplinary background with an education from Yale Law School, I hope that I might join those esteemed scholars.

5. Multiple Heritages

“This is Flan. It’s a pastry from Peru. My family eats it all the time,” I told my fourth grade elementary school class.

At age nine, I treated my ethnic heritages—I’m the son of a Hispanic mother and an Arab father—as objects on a shelf, to be taken down or put back when needed.

“I’m proud to be a descendant of the Incas, and to also call the cradle of civilization—the Middle East—home,” I told my friend’s Indian father, who, in view of my dark skin color and thick, black hair, was convinced I was also Indian.

At age sixteen, my background, it seemed to me, would only sit well with others if treated as thought-provoking intellectual fodder – so I spent my time talking about history, religion, and politics.

“I grew up watching Spanish soap operas with my grandmother, but also attending Muslim Sunday School. I feel blessed to come from such a rare background,” I explained to a houseguest over dinner.

At age twenty-three, my non-conformist passions run wild, and I seek to differentiate myself in whatever way possible. The embrace of my background is a means to that end, rather than an end in itself.

“My parents were more similar than they were different. They also shared values—hard work, honesty, humility, and compassion,” I told my grandchildren while looking at photos of my parents.

At age sixty-five, I view my parents as, above all, human beings. Fundamentally, we’re all just people. No?

6. Volunteer Work

The sticky sweet splatter of saliva hit my face and I smiled – in part because my mouth and eyes were spared, but mostly because spitting was huge for Eddie. We were making progress.

Feeling the buckle of my shoe digging into his writhing calf, I shifted my weight. I freed a hand, pinning his head to the floor, discouraging his unsavory method of communication. The carpet absorbed his remaining projectiles, adding to the distinctive smell of group home - stifled and stale, boredom blended with frustration, sweat, and despair, all marinated in Pine Sol.

Eventually his anger softened. My grip loosened as his rage drained. Finally headed off to bed, he smiled slightly. In that moment I saw the original Eddie – not yet a victim turned predator.

Previously I knew only Eddie’s fun and feisty image. Unable to identify the mint extract beneath the chocolate in his cupcake, he accused me of poisoning him. Outraged by my suggestion to “do over” a disputed basketball play, Eddie convinced me that indecision was the only wrong call.

Later I saw Eddie, future felon. Squirming across from a mother who feared him and the little sister he violated, Eddie was terrified by what he had done. Shamed and ashamed, he was so alone.

In an environment where hugs were no longer appropriate and bedtime stories were not feasible, physical restraints, however uncomfortable, were the only way to be touched at all. Only after leaving [Group Home] did I realize I had been touched too.


» Continue to Appendix D: Ending on a Good Note
« Back to Appendix B: “Why Our School?” Essay


The 250-Word Albatross


January 23, 2008

Dear Asha,

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!

S.B.

Dear S.B.,

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.

Asha

Please submit questions to [email protected].

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