Writing Top Notch Application Essays

Government and public interest positions often require essays as part of the application. If you’re applying to Shaffer, Bank of America Foundation, Equal Justice Works, Skadden, or just about any other fellowship, you will have to write multiple essays. The DOJ Honors and Summer Law Intern applications requires two essays and all of the military branches require a motivational statement as part of the JAG application.

In these essays, common questions will ask you to provide an overview of your public service background, expertise in the relevant practice area, and the dreaded general question that ultimately amounts to “tell me about yourself” in essay format. If you’re used to applying for firm jobs, your first reaction might be to view these essays as annoying extra work but they are actually an incredible opportunity.

The good news about required essays in job applications is that they are taken very seriously. If you paint a good picture in these essays, other parts of your application that may have harmed you in the past such as GPA, not being on a journal, etc become infinitely less important. These essays take time to read and organizations would not ask candidates to write them if they didn’t intend to read them. Organizations are asking for these essays because they care about qualities, often commitment to service, other than grades.

The bad news about required essays in job applications is that they are taken very seriously. Even if you have loads of experience in the specific area the job you’re applying for specializes in, if you don’t craft essays that highlight that experience effectively, you probably will not get an interview.

So how do you a write a great essay for a job application?

Start your essays early

When I sent out this blog post, a very senior DOJ attorney who is responsible for hiring in his DOJ component encouraged me to add the following:

“When reviewing applications, well thought out applications stand out and generally are achieved through a longer process, so my admonition to your students would be to begin and complete the application soon. (He sent this advice to me on August 14 and the DOJ application is due on September 5). Put the application away for a week and then review it critically, finalize it, and submit it.”

You want your essays to be error free and to be the best they can be. As the DOJ attorney stated, that will only happen if you get time away from them and have others review them. All of that requires time. Start your essays early.

Run your essay drafts by a CDO counselor

Every counselor in the CDO has invested time in learning how to craft great application essays. When it comes to public interest and government organizations, I have devoted time to learning what these organizations, in particular, are looking for when they read these essays. I meet with employers one on one through my employer outreach meetings and make a habit of discussing essays in these meetings. I watch any webinar I can find on job application essays. I read blogs about job application essays. You get the picture. If you want to maximize the quality of your government and public interest job application essays, I’m your guy. I am happy to review drafts with you or to have a conversation with you to brainstorm ideas.

This year, be sure to send me your essay drafts as soon as possible. I will be out of the office from Thursday, August 31- Sunday, October 1 getting married and going on my honeymoon so I will be unable to review any essays during that period. If you want someone to review drafts with you during that period, any other counselor in the CDO is happy to help you and is fluent in essay drafting but because I am the public interest and government nerd who spends time really researching these essays in depth, it is ideal if you can run them by me. Aim to have them to me by Wednesday, August 23rd at the latest.

Keep upcoming deadlines in mind. The Washington Attorney General honors program application is due on Sunday, August 13, the DOJ Honors and Summer Law Intern applications are due on Tuesday, September 5, the Air Force JAG application is due on Sunday, September 10, Shaffer and BOAF Fellowship applications are both due on Friday, September 22, the Equal Justice Works application is due on Wednesday, September 27, and Army JAG is due on Wednesday, November 1, to name a few. If you start working on your DOJ Honors and fellowship applications at the last minute, I will not be around to review them so get started on them sooner rather than later.

Tell specific stories

Specificity is memorable. When reviewing your essays, the reader wants to be able to imagine you in action. Show. Don’t tell.

One of the questions on both the Shaffer and BOAF Fellowship applications is:

“Describe one or two previous public service projects in which you were involved and briefly (300 words) explain their significance.”

Be very specific. You only get 300 words so you may only get to talk about one project. Make it a project the committee will remember when they read your essay. Don’t just restate an experience that already appears on your resume. Instead, provide the human side of the story and say how it impacted you. Tell a story that shows that you are qualified to do the project you’re proposing.

If your proposed fellowship project is working with refugees on their asylum cases and you spent last summer working for a public interest organization doing that exact same work, tell a specific story related to that work but keep in mind what your resume already tells the committee. If you resume says “Drafted asylum applications for refugees from South America and prepared them for asylum interviews,” then repeating that in  your essay is a waste of valuable space.

Instead, tell a specific story about a refugee that you helped and how that experience was so meaningful, it made you certain that you wanted to pursue a public interest career. That story paints a picture and tells them information they couldn’t get from any other component of your application. Your resume informs the committee of the work you did. Your essay story shows the committee why you are passionate about the work.

Always ask yourself one question about your essays: could the reader get the information I am writing in my essays from somewhere else in my application? If the answer is yes, re-write the essay. Think of the essay as an amazing opportunity to tell the organization something about yourself that doesn’t appear elsewhere on your application.

Are you applying for a position with a disability rights organization and you first got interested in disability rights because your little brother is blind? Write your essay about that! The organization will see in your resume that you worked for disability rights organizations so repeating that information won’t help you.

Address every component of the essay

One of the essay prompts  in the DOJ Honors program application is:

“Why do you want to work for the Department of Justice and what attracts you to the each of the components you selected? (4000 characters maximum, including spaces)”

If you’re applying to five different DOJ components, your essay answer must specifically address why you want to work for each of the five components or the components you failed to address will not interview you. If you spend all of your time talking about your interest in the Antitrust Division and do not even mention the Drug Enforcement Administration, you’re not going to move on in the DEA’s hiring process and the Antitrust Division might disqualify you for failing to follow directions. If an essay question asks you to address three things, address all three of those things. If you find that you are going over the word limit, resist the temptation to address 2/3 of the things and cut content instead.

Show you have done your research on the organization

All of the military branches require a motivational statement as part of their JAG application. Each of the military branches does different things and they want you to understand how their branch is different or your application will not move forward. The Army operates primarily on the ground, the Navy operates on ships, the Air Force’s main mission is long distance air travel, and the Marines are the first responders. If your essay does not show that you know that, it is unlikely you will move forward to the next stage of the application process.

The best way to show you have done your research and know about the branch you’re applying to is to speak to JAGs in that branch and then reference those conversations in your motivational statement. Show that you understand how the branch works. None of the branches will guarantee you that you can work in one particular geographic area so you have to be willing to move anywhere. Your essay should indicate that you know that and are excited to fulfill the mission of that branch, regardless of where you end up being stationed. Your essay should also indicate that you understand that deployments are part of the job and provide some of the best learning opportunities that the military offers.

The same is true for any other application you’re writing. If you’re applying to the DOJ Honors program, your essay must show that you understand  the work that each and every component you’re applying to does. If you’re applying to a state AG’s office, show an understanding of the work of all of the divisions you’re applying to.

Understand that vague essay prompts are gifts

The DOJ Honors Application’s second essay prompt is:

“If you could tell the selecting official one thing about yourself, what would it be? (2000 characters maximum, including spaces)”

The DOJ takes this question very seriously and says that many applicants do not maximize this opportunity. And make no mistake-this essay prompt is a wonderful opportunity.

So much of law job applications are about credentials like grades, moot court, journals, dean’s circle, etc. Those that don’t focus on credentials focus on experience. If you’re applying for a job with the DOJ, Executive Office for Immigration Review, for example, and you have no immigration experience, you are at a disadvantage. But with a vague essay prompt like this one, you might have a shot.

If you have great public service experience and no immigration experience but your parents were first-generation immigrants, your essay to the Executive Office of Immigration Review should be all about that. If you never worked in a JAG office through an internship but all of your brothers and both parents served in the military, your motivational statement should talk about that.

When thinking about how to answer a vague essay question like this, if all else fails, tell another story about a client you helped or a project you worked on in one of your legal internships and how that experience reaffirmed your commitment to a career in public service.

Think of specific projects you completed and not just the office you worked for

I frequently see students sell their experience short because they don’t consider how specific projects they completed are directly related to a job they are applying for.

If you’re applying to the property division of a city law department and one of the major projects you worked on last summer involved reviewing leases, that experience is directly related to that division so your essay should address it. Just because you weren’t working for the property division doesn’t mean your experience working on leases is any less related to the job you’re applying for.

If you worked for an eviction defense organization last summer but ended up completing a major project related to immigration law while working for that organization, bring that up in an essay to an immigration law organization. That is the exact purpose of the essay! Sometimes, a resume does not tell the whole story and if you ended up spending most of your summer working on a project related to the organization you’re applying to, mention that.

Essays take time, require a lot of thought, and applying for jobs that require essays rather than just a resume and cover letter might seem like a burden. But start thinking about the essays as a gift.

When applying for a job, do you ever wish you could just have 5 minutes with the hiring manager to explain why you’re a great candidate? What would you say? Those are the types of themes you want to write about in your essays.

I can’t wait to read your essay drafts or have conversations with you about how to get started on your essays. You can email them my way or schedule an appointment with me on symplicity. I am in the office reviewing essays until Wednesday, August 30th. After that, you can reach out to any other CDO counselor and they will be happy to help.

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