Tackling the First Shaffer & Bank of America Foundation Fellowship Essay

So you’re applying to the Shaffer and/or Bank of America Foundation fellowships this year and starting to take a look at the essays. How can you write effective essays? What topics should you focus on in your essays? This blog post will discuss essay question #1 in detail and feature past essays from successful candidates.

My hope is that this blog post will serve as a helpful resource as you get started on your essays, especially for those of you who are reading this when I am gone in September. As you begin to develop drafts, I am here to review your drafts with you through August 30. On August 31 and afterwards, you can send your drafts to any other counselor in the CDO as I will be gone getting married and going on my honeymoon through September.

First of all, you can access all 7 components of both fellowship applications, see a summary of every single former fellow’s project, read a history of the fellowships, and get more application specifics on both fellowship websites. You can access the Shaffer Fellowship website here. The application is due on Friday, September 22 at 5 PM eastern and your application is considered complete when all 7 components, including both letters of recommendation, are emailed in PDF format to Heidi Baguer and cc’ed to me, Katelynn McBride.

Let’s start with Shaffer/BOAF application essay #1

The format of this blog post is as follows:

  1. Lists the essay question
  2. Describes my approach to the question
  3. Provides examples of actual past successful essays.

It might be helpful to scroll down and read the past successful essays first before reading my description so you have some context. I am going to reference excerpts from past successful essays when describing my approach to this question so it is beneficial to know first what the entire essays say so that you understand the basics of the proposed fellowship referenced in the excerpt.

Shaffer/BOAF Essay #1:

Give a concise (350 words) yet holistic description of your proposed public service plan.  In doing so, highlight what legal issues or societal problems your work will address and how your work will do so. How will your work further the mission of Notre Dame Law School?

My approach to this essay question:

This essay question is difficult because you only get 350 words to work with. Basically, this is where you get to explain the project you will be working on at your host agency during your two-year fellowship. The reader should walk away from your answer to this question understanding the main problems your project is trying to fix, how you are trying to fix them, and, of course, how your project furthers the mission of Notre Dame Law School.

Be sure to give specifics but first

Start the essay out with a concise one or two sentence description of your project

that tells the reader what group you’ll be serving and what the main goal of the project is. This sentence should say what your host organization is. For instance, one prior successful applicant wrote “My project’s goal is to eliminate barriers that prevent homeless children from accessing education in Illinois.” This is simple but informative. I understand what the project is trying to do and the group the applicant is trying to help. It’s not complicated, it doesn’t discuss obscure statutes or cases I have never heard of, and it gives me all of the basics I need to know to be interested in learning more about the project. The only thing I would change about this answer is add the name of the host organization to it.

Another prior successful applicant wrote “As a Shaffer Fellow, I will work with the National Immigrant Justice Center’s (NIJC’s) Asylum Project representing asylum seekers in the Chicago area.” This is also simple but informative. If I said this sentence to my 10 year old nephew, he would understand what this project does.

And a third successful applicant started their essay with the sentence “As a Shaffer Fellow, I will work with Public Counsel Law Center (Public Counsel) representing commercially exploited children (CSEC) in the Los Angeles area.” It is hard to imagine writing a clearer opening sentence.

Then, go into more detail from there about how you’re going to target the problems you identified using the law.

You want to incorporate a transition sentence that describes the scope of your project. (I.e. “My project has two central goals that I will seek to accomplish in three different ways.”)

For instance, a prior successful applicant wrote “The project has two aspects. First, I will work in the suburbs of Chicago, where there are less legal service providers and a drastic rise in poverty, to implement the rights and protections that are provided for homeless students in the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act. The Act makes it illegal to deny homeless students the ability to enroll in public schools. Second, I will work within Chicago to help families access preschool and selective enrollment schools, including magnet and charter schools, under the recently reauthorized McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act.”

This description breaks down the project into two components. The project is going to help homeless youth in the suburbs of Chicago and is going to help families in Chicago get access to preschools. The applicant references a statute and explains briefly what that statute is and why it is relevant to their project.

A second successful applicant wrote “NIJC’s Asylum Project relies on a network of pro bono attorneys who volunteer to represent asylum seekers; however, the number of individuals seeking representation has recently skyrocketed while the number of pro bono attorneys has remained stagnant. As a result, NIJC is unable to locate attorneys for many clients they have retained. Unfortunately, with only two attorneys, the Asylum Project is understaffed and forced to deny representation to asylum seekers with viable claims. My proposal will meet this need and ensure representation for those clients. ”

This description explains how the applicant’s organization is structured and why their project is needed. Whereas applicant #1’s homelessness project creates a new area of work for an existing organization to meet a specific need, applicant #2’s project expands an area of work that already exists within their organization. The description explains that their organization already represents asylum seekers but does not have enough attorneys to meet the need and so they are going to step in to fill that need. By the way, either type of project is perfectly suitable for Shaffer. Your project can create an entirely new area of work for an organization or expand an already existing area but no matter what, your essay must make clear which one your project is doing.

Applicant #3 wrote in their essay “As a fellow, I will receive client referrals from community partners and from the STAR court. I will identify the pressing legal needs of the CSEC population (this area of advocacy is generally undeveloped) and establish within Public Counsel the institutional expertise to service CSEC clients. I will conduct a comprehensive intake with each client and provide brief or extensive legal services on a case by case basis. ”

This description makes clear that applicant #3’s project will predominately involve direct client service of commercially exploited children but will also involve developing a new area of expertise within their organization for dealing with these types of clients.

You want the reader to have a clear idea of the specific work you will be doing as a fellow.

When I read your essay, it should inspire my brain to imagine you in action, working. That requires specificity. As a reader, I want to get a sense for how you will be spending your days as a fellow.

For instance, applicant #1 stated “During the first months of my project I will do outreach at back to school fairs, community service providers, and schools. I will engage in community education primarily in the suburbs of Chicago and also in Chicago proper, by implementing a training program for the staff of community service providers and schools. As the project progresses I will provide direct representation for homeless families. With the guidance and support of the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, I will represent clients by helping them navigate the application process, contacting school officials, administrators and attorneys, and representing clients through the dispute process. During the last months of my project, I will issue a report on barriers and possible solutions for homeless students to access education.”

When reading this description, I feel that I have a solid understanding for the tasks that the fellow will be doing throughout their fellowship rather than just a vague notion for what they are trying to accomplish. They mention very specific tasks such as conducting outreach at back to school fairs, implementing a training program, representing individual clients as they apply to schools and file disputes, and issuing reports about all of their work at the conclusion of the fellowship. I can see actually see them in action after reading this description and I have an idea for how they will be spending their days.

In this vein, applicant #2 wrote “Each client’s case begins with a comprehensive intake to establish the credibility of the client and viability of their asylum claim. Upon a determination of credibility and viability, NIJC will sign a retainer agreement. I will assume representation of clients who are not selected by pro bono attorneys. Representation includes filing an application for asylum, working with the client to submit an affidavit of events, obtaining corroborating evidence of persecution, and accompanying the client to the asylum interview. If the asylum officer grants asylum status, then the objective of my representation is complete. However, if the application is denied, I will appeal the decision before an immigration judge, the Board of Immigration Appeals, or the Seventh Circuit. ”

Again, the applicant includes specifics. They will be filing applications for asylum, developing affidavits and corroborating evidence, and attending asylum interviews. It is not left to my imagination what they will be doing as a fellow.

And applicant #3 wrote “In 2012, an innovative court called Succeeding Through Achievement and Resilience (STAR court) opened its doors to child victims of human trafficking. Despite the high demand for attorneys in this area of law, Public Counsel has only enough resources to staff one education attorney who spends a fraction of her time working with these youth. While ensuring that victims of human trafficking have adequate education is a necessary step to rehabilitation, there are additional barriers, such as access to public benefits, foster care issues, parking and traffic ticket disputes, and family law issues, which prevent these girls from integrating into American society and living life to their full potential. My fellowship will focus on breaking down these barriers. ”

The applicant gives us necessary background about a court that exists to handle the clients they are representing and discusses specific issues that their clients need assistance with such as foster care and family law issues.

Address the Notre Dame Mission component directly and explicitly

Don’t leave it to the reader to guess how your project furthers Notre Dame’s mission. It is perfectly fine to start this last sentence “My project furthers Notre Dame’s mission by…” Be sure to have a couple of sentences that specifically address this component. If you do not have room to address it in your essay, you need to cut.

There is no science to this question. Think of why you chose to attend Notre Dame. This may be a good time to re-read your admissions personal statement. Read about the history of the Shaffer Fellowship, think about Notre Dame Law’s motto “educating a different kind of lawyer.” Think about catholic social justice.

Let’s take a look at some examples….

Applicant #1 wrote “My project furthers the mission of Notre Dame Law School by seeking to serve some of the most vulnerable populations through legal services. Catholic Social Doctrine gives significance and value to children and the impoverished. Through my project I will be serving the community by helping homeless children receive an education that will serve to inspire their intellectual curiosity, provide resources to escape poverty, and help them to contribute to our society.”

Applicant #1 focuses on Catholic social justice and ties their project directly into those themes.

Applicant #2 wrote “My proposal focuses on providing a voice for those would otherwise be voiceless and forced to navigate the confusing and complex asylum process alone. Notre Dame strives to produce lawyers who view their profession as a vocation to work in the service of others. My representation of asylum seekers at NIJC will allow me to assume exactly that role. ”

This essay focuses on public service and law as a vocation and the applicant also specifically ties their project into those themes.

Lastly, applicant #3 wrote “Notre Dame strives to produce leaders who are passionate and dedicated to serving those in need. I consider myself to be one of those leaders, and my fellowship will vindicate the mission of Notre Dame and purpose of the Shaffer fellowship by seeking the fundamental needs and human rights of a group of survivors who deserve our aid. ”

Applicant #3’s essay is unique in that it focuses on leadership and nods to the purpose of the Shaffer fellowship.

All three of these essays address Notre Dame’s mission in unique but effective ways. There are countless additional effective ways to address it.

If you’re having trouble getting started on this essay, think about how you would describe your project to your grandmother if she asked about it. You would describe it in simple terms, avoid a discussion of statutes she had never heard of it, and focus on really emphasizing who you were helping and why, probably with a specific story of the type of person who needs your help. Do the same here. Don’t try to sound too much like a lawyer. Talk about statutes when they are relevant and essential to your project, of course, but you want to focus on simplicity and trying to convince an average non-lawyer human why your project is worthwhile and important.

Successful response #1 to Shaffer essay question #1 from a real successful applicant

In Illinois there are an estimated 54,638 homeless students, with approximately 20,200 homeless students in Chicago and 13,911 homeless students in the suburbs surrounding Chicago. Homeless students in Illinois face significant obstacles in accessing education such as a lack of resources, advocates, and discriminatory practices by schools.

My project’s goal is to eliminate barriers that prevent homeless children from accessing education in Illinois. The project has two aspects. First, I will work in the suburbs of Chicago, where there are less legal service providers and a drastic rise in poverty, to implement the rights and protections that are provided for homeless students in the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act. The Act makes it illegal to deny homeless students the ability to enroll in public schools. Second, I will work within Chicago to help families access preschool and selective enrollment schools, including magnet and charter schools, under the recently reauthorized McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act.

During the first months of my project I will do outreach at back to school fairs, community service providers, and schools. I will engage in community education primarily in the suburbs of Chicago and also in Chicago proper, by implementing a training program for the staff of community service providers and schools.
As the project progresses I will provide direct representation for homeless families. With the guidance and support of the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, I will represent clients by helping them navigate the application process, contacting school officials, administrators and attorneys, and representing clients through the dispute process.
During the last months of my project, I will issue a report on barriers and possible solutions for homeless students to access education.

My project furthers the mission of Notre Dame Law School by seeking to serve some of the most vulnerable populations through legal services. Catholic Social Doctrine gives significance and value to children and the impoverished. Through my project I will be serving the community by helping homeless children receive an education that will serve to inspire their intellectual curiosity, provide resources to escape poverty, and help them to contribute to our society.

Successful response #2 to Shaffer essay question #1 from a real successful applicant

As a Shaffer Fellow, I will work with the National Immigrant Justice Center’s (NIJC’s) Asylum Project representing asylum seekers in the Chicago area.

NIJC’s Asylum Project relies on a network of pro bono attorneys who volunteer to represent asylum seekers; however, the number of individuals seeking representation has recently skyrocketed while the number of pro bono attorneys has remained stagnant. As a result, NIJC is unable to locate attorneys for many clients they have retained. Unfortunately, with only two attorneys, the Asylum Project is understaffed and forced to deny representation to asylum seekers with viable claims. My proposal will meet this need and ensure representation for those clients.

Although NIJC has seen an increase in asylum seekers from Central America, about 40% of asylum seekers come from Africa. My fluency in French will be especially helpful for these African clients because only one paralegal in the Asylum Project speaks French. I will have approximately 20 clients at one time and the life-cycle of a case varies from several months to a couple of years.

Each client’s case begins with a comprehensive intake to establish the credibility of the client and viability of their asylum claim. Upon a determination of credibility and viability, NIJC will sign a retainer agreement. I will assume representation of clients who are not selected by pro bono attorneys. Representation includes filing an application for asylum, working with the client to submit an affidavit of events, obtaining corroborating evidence of persecution, and accompanying the client to the asylum interview. If the asylum officer grants asylum status, then the objective of my representation is complete. However, if the application is denied, I will appeal the decision before an immigration judge, the Board of Immigration Appeals, or the Seventh Circuit.

My proposal focuses on providing a voice for those would otherwise be voiceless and forced to navigate the confusing and complex asylum process alone. Notre Dame strives to produce lawyers who view their profession as a vocation to work in the service of others. My representation of asylum seekers at NIJC will allow me to assume exactly that role.

Successful response #3 to Shaffer essay question #1 from a real successful applicant

As a Shaffer Fellow, I will work with Public Counsel Law Center (Public Counsel) representing commercially exploited children (CSEC) in the Los Angeles area.

Human trafficking is not confined to developing countries: it has become a festering problem in the United States. The FBI estimates that 100,000 children are sold for sex each year in the United States, and many believe that number to be much larger. Los Angeles is unfortunately a host to particularly high volumes of human trafficking. Agencies have only recently begun to recognize these children as who they really are, victims and survivors in need of support, as opposed to criminals deserving jail time.

In 2012, an innovative court called Succeeding Through Achievement and Resilience (STAR court) opened its doors to child victims of human trafficking. Despite the high demand for attorneys in this area of law, Public Counsel has only enough resources to staff one education attorney who spends a fraction of her time working with these youth. While ensuring that victims of human trafficking have adequate education is a necessary step to rehabilitation, there are additional barriers, such as access to public benefits, foster care issues, parking and traffic ticket disputes, and family law issues, which prevent these girls from integrating into American society and living life to their full potential. My fellowship will focus on breaking down these barriers.

As a fellow, I will receive client referrals from community partners and from the STAR court. I will identify the pressing legal needs of the CSEC population (this area of advocacy is generally undeveloped) and establish within Public Counsel the institutional expertise to service CSEC clients. I will conduct a comprehensive intake with each client and provide brief or extensive legal services on a case by case basis.

Notre Dame strives to produce leaders who are passionate and dedicated to serving those in need. I consider myself to be one of those leaders, and my fellowship will vindicate the mission of Notre Dame and purpose of the Shaffer fellowship by seeking the fundamental needs and human rights of a group of survivors who deserve our aid.

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