How I Found Ideas for My Personal Statement for an LLM at Harvard: Part 2

Daria Levina

In this post, I continue to demonstrate how I ideated for my personal statement for the master of laws (LLM) degree at Harvard. You can find Part 1 here. There, I talk about moot courts, their subjective meaning, and how I used them in my application essays.

One of my most formative experiences was participating in the All-Russian Olympiads in law. I did 3 of them in high school and 2 at the university. The high school ones definitely impacted me the most.

I'll first give you the overall context and then the details of the experience. Like with the moot courts, my goal here is to show you how much material I analyzed before deciding what to include in an essay.

Why Doing Olympiads Was Formative

I won’t go into the details about my childhood here but will mention that it was extremely traumatic, and I am still dealing with the consequences of it. Unlike home, school provided stability and predictability. School was the place where the promises were kept, and taking certain actions led to expected results.

I was always on my own wave. I had a broad circle of friends, including a group of girlfriends, and almost no enemies. I was also respected by teachers, while never being their pet. This may sound unusual but that’s just how it was for me. At school, I felt valued, and people listened to what I had to say. School gave me the first experience of visibility and recognition.

I was lucky in a sense that I was able to deal with unhealthy family background by steering all my efforts into the academics. My sister, for instance, couldn’t do that; family trauma deeply affected her capacity to do well at school.

It is against this background that I started participating in the olympiads in the 9th grade.

In Russia, we had olympiads in the majority of school subjects. Unusually, law was one of them because some schools taught the introduction to law, as an independent subject or a part of the social science curriculum. There would be district, regional, and federal levels. If your school was big enough (mine was huge, about 2,000 people in total, 5 to 7groups 25 people each in each grade), there would be selection at the school level as well.

I lived in a village and went to a school in a near by town of about 30,000 people. In the entire 10 years at school, I didn't understand that I was socio-economically disadvantaged - because everyone was like that. A lot of my classmates lived in communal apartments, two or three generations on 20 sq.m.

Olympiads gave you an opportunity to go places and meet new people. Winning the federal level allowed you to get a state-funded place at a university without taking exams. Except for the olympiads, I don’t recall anything you could do there to get yourself out of nothingness (not that I was able to reflect on it at the time).

There were also monetary prizes. Not that I motivated by them but it was the very first money I made. Actually, it funded my first trip to study abroad – a summer school in English in London. I also got a bunch of other prizes - like two laptops, a camera, a pocket computer, and an MP3 player.

High School Olympiads in Law: Factual Description

In the 9th grade, I won the school competition and went to my first district olympiad in law. I did not prepare, I just applied common sense (I’m not sure how you are supposed to prepare for a law contest when you are 14). Apparently, common sense was not that common after all as I placed 2nd in the district and went to the regional level. There, I placed 3rd and went to the federal level. There, I also placed 3rd.

I just got hooked. I’ve always had such a deep need to feel intellectually realized, and the olympiads allowed me to meet it.

Over the course of three years, I participated in law, history, geography, literature, the Russian and English languages, the Russian literature, ecology, and biology. I won various prizes at the district, regional, and federal levels but was most successful in law.

Most of the time, I had no clue as to where to start, and the teachers were no help. They encouraged me but they didn’t know themselves, and in a school that big, they did not have a capacity to attend to individual students.

Occasionally, I could get my hands on the assignments from previous years but the olympiads had gotten progressively more difficult over the years, and by the time I entered the scene such assignments became quite useless.

A bit of preparation was provided by the training camp that the region organized for us before the federals. For the most part, however, it was team building, and they were too short anyway (5 working days).

For my solitary practice, I focused on reading the codes, especially the main ones: the constitution, the civil code, the criminal code, the civil and criminal procedure codes. I tried to understand the logic behind each norm and then reconstruct it, not based on rote memorization but rather on what the most logical scenario would be. I didn’t use textbooks and scholarly writings – I just didn’t understand how to navigate the maze of them, and studying the codes occupied me enough.

Each year, I’d skip school for a couple of months before the federal level in spring. Teachers would allow it because I had a track record of success, and they knew I was working intensely hard, not slacking off. Each day, I’d wake up at 6am and almost immediately start studying. I’d do a couple of breaks during the day to eat and then go to sleep at 11pm. I’d repeat this daily.

In the first year, I won the 3rd prize nationally. The same happened the next year, in my 10th grade.

In 11th grade, I made olympiads my sole focus because winning would give me a right to choose any law faculty in the country and be accepted without exams. I worked so hard I lost about 15kg and didn’t have a period for 6 months. I remember being in a completely altered state of consciousness – hyper clear, hyper perceptive, analytically slicing the reality with a knife. I was also in extremely bad emotional shape, because of all the stress, not eating much, and receiving zero support. (THIS IS NOT A RECOMMENDATION FOR HOW TO DO IT!)

That year, I got the 1st prize.

Comments and Guidelines for Your Essays

Now, notice how the last high school olympiad happened when I was17 (actually, I got the award on the exact day I turned 17 – April 25th).

When I applied for an LL.M., I was 23-24. That’s 6-7 years later.

In graduate applications, there is a rule of thumb that you should try to keep to stories from the last 5 years of your life. This is because the focus on childhood and adolescence is believed to weaken the personal statement. It can also be seen as backward-looking and avoiding adult issues.

There are, however, exceptions. You can use your childhood and teenage experiences to provide context for your later decisions or the events you'll be discussing in your personal statement.

For me, it made sense to include the olympiads because they determined the trajectory of my professional life. I don’t think I’d have become a lawyer if not for the olympiads. My grandmother was a historian, and my favorite subject at school was history. I was genuinely surprised when I did better in law than in history, as I thought I'd become a historian myself.


Now let’s compare the material I’ve just relayed (and analyzed when mining my background for stories) with what I actually included in the Harvard essay:

“For years, the glad game and Pollyanna’s irrepressible optimism were my philosophy of life, and changing the attitude toward a problem was primary solution. This continued until the high school: I entered All-Russian competition in law. As I prepared, I learnt: adjustment was not the only option. I may try changing the situation first. Law offers tools designed for this. Understood this way, law was for me about taking actions and making decisions, while leadership was an inherent part of the legal profession.That’s what appealed to me, and I chose law school. As I went through law school, this perception of law remained undistorted”.

Now, the question is why did I make this choice? Why so little and why this phrasing?

Because as much as I value this experience, the purpose of using it in the application was:

  • to indicate my commitment to law which started when I was a teenager. (Yours doesn't have to. It just so happened for me, and I wanted to highlight it.)
  • to show the academic track record of success. Master of laws, like any graduate program, is an academic program. So you have to show that you like school and will thrive in academic environment. You need a tangible proof, and winning an olympiad is one way to do it.
  • to connect it to my later choices and the search for meaning in the legal profession that ultimately led to the decision to apply for an LLM.

As you can see, most of the facts I described above did not make it to the essay. There is a brief description of the event coupled with its interpretation. Very importantly, in the same paragraph I link the olympiad experience to the decision to become a lawyer.

I really wanted to use the olympiads in the essay, but I had to be strategic about how much of the 750-word limit I could dedicate to something that happened 7 years prior. It had to be subject to the overall goal to explain my motivation for doing and LLM.

Since the experience was of enormous subjective importance to me, I also highlighted it my CV. However, I phrased it differently. I removed the mention to high school and phrased it in terms of prizes and awards that I earned. I could do that because the title came with the prize.

Generally, for all meaningful experiences I suggest looking for ways to included them into multiple parts of your application so that they stay with the admissions committee as something that distinguishes you and makes your application read like a coherent whole.