First Person Accounts (FPA’s) are meant to provide a first-hand account of Indian graduates who have pursued, or are pursuing, a post-graduate course (LL.M. or otherwise) from different universities across the world.

Aashna Chawla is an incoming LL.M. candidate at Harvard Law School, choosing to defer her admission to 2022 instead of this yea
Aashna Chawla

Aashna Chawla is an incoming LL.M. candidate at Harvard Law School, choosing to defer her admission to 2022 instead of this year. A 2018 graduate of Amity Law School, Aashna has been clerking at the Supreme Court of India since she graduated.

In this FPA, she discusses her reasons for applying to Harvard Law School, the finer aspects of the LL.M. application itself, and a whole lot more.

(Edited excerpts)

Let’s start at the start – when did you begin planning for a foreign LLM? What are some of your expectations from the LLM? 

To do justice to this question, let’s start with a little about who I am. I’m a girl who loves intellectual adventures! I love libraries and can read books for days on end. Some might even call me a geek, but don’t get we wrong, like every other student out there, I don’t like reading my curriculum.

It’s the things they don’t teach us in law school that fascinate me the most.

To my delight, I decided to choose a profession (i.e. law) which at some point of time might require you to learn anything – from how one suffers different gunshot wounds, to even the science behind constructing a rollercoaster – in order to defend their client.

It was this inherent curiosity which instilled in me the idea of pursuing an LL.M. from a foreign law school. The difference in teaching styles and variety of subjects offered in LL.M. courses at foreign universities is what motivated me to continue my academic endeavours outside India.

Since then, the sheer thought of a LL.M. from one of the best law schools in the world was nothing short of magical. The chance to study at an internationally renowned university brought a sparkle in my eyes, and was a great motivation for me to work hard in law school, chisel my imperfections and be a better version of myself.

At Harvard Law School, I want to fulfil exactly those dreams. I look forward to studying at the largest library in the world, experiencing a campus full of students from various jurisdictions, and having intellectually stimulating discussions that make you question the very basics of your understandings.

Mostly, I look forward to learning from the scholarship of the best professors in the world. I would like to focus my studies on arbitration and constitutional law since they have been my primary concentrations, and would like to gain in depth knowledge of the theoretical underpinnings of the doctrines pertaining to these two subjects.

Since studying at Harvard has always been a dream, consider me no less than a child who visits Disneyland for the first time in their life! The excitement of having the Harvard experience seems unparalleled, and I look forward to going back to academics.

How did you go about selecting just where to apply? What were some of the more useful resources for research? 

The decision of where to apply is one of the most crucial choices one needs to make. It becomes more important since it’s a choice you make before you even start narrowing the specifics of your application, and yet the choice you need to stick to till the very end of your application process.

My choices were clear from the very beginning, I had made a list of six U.S. universities which I wanted to apply to: Harvard, Stanford, Columbia, NYU, Cornell and Berkeley. However, this choice is personal to your area of specialization, and your end goal. For instance, students who want to become academicians might rank Yale as their top priority, others interested in Tax will prioritize the International Taxation program at NYU.

It all depends on what you want from an LL.M., and the field you want to study.

The best resources to help you make that decision is the website of the concerned university. Make a list of 10-12 universities that you would like to study at and visit their website – check their curriculum, the degree requirements,  the campus, etc.

Another helpful resource is LL.M. Guide.

“It is also extremely helpful speaking to alumni from the colleges you wish to apply to. In my case, this was my primary source of information.”

In case you can, it is also extremely helpful speaking to alumni from the colleges you wish to apply to. In my case, this was my primary source of information. Luckily, I knew at least one person who had attended the law schools I was applying to. This gave me a first person account of what the law school experience is like, and was extremely helpful in guiding me through the application procedure.

Any advice on how to approach LLM applications in general? How early to begin, things to keep in mind etc? 

A few tips I would like to share would be :

  • Don’t apply to all the law schools you know of. Select your top 5 or 6 and focus on those applications.
  • Begin your applications on time and don’t leave anything, including proof-reading, to your last day. The stress of a deadline might get to you and can affect the quality of your application. Try finishing your SOP well in time so that you can read and re-read it to make those last minute changes.
  • The first thing one should start on (and finish) is your TOEFL/IELTS and the documents required by LSAC. Although it might be the easiest part of your application (intellectually), it is time consuming and should be completed way before you start writing your SOP (ideally this step should be completed by July/August of the year of application).
  • Keep your CV as concise as possible. It should be well rounded and balanced. Leave the details and specifics of your work experience for your SOP.
  • Try writing a fresh SOP for every law school. While it seems like a mammoth task, it is achievable. I understand that you might have the same achievements to write about, however, your SOP should not and cannot be a one size fits all piece of writing. Different law schools look for different things. Go through each law school’s class profile for the past years, speak to a few alumni and see where you fit in. For each law school, emphasize on the achievements that make you fit in a particular spot in their class profile, and just touch upon the rest. The idea of a different SOP means you focus on different achievements and catalogue details of different experiences for different law schools, depending on what they are looking for.
  • Take the advise of a third person. Some of my the people I know used the guidance of an LL.M. counsellor, instead I choose to call my friends and get after their life to proof read my SOP and give me their suggestions. Thankfully, I had some great friends who tirelessly helped me through the application process, and would stay up with me entire nights to help me draft properly. They would read and re-read and re-read my SOP to check the flow and consistency. I would not have been able to make it without all their efforts, and I cannot stress enough on the importance of having a third person read your SOP. It gives you great insight into articulation and you can test if the point you want to make is coming out clearly. So keep all your friends close during this time!

Lastly, and most importantly, keep calm! LL.M. applications can be stressful for many people. I remember panicking and feeling like I’m going around in circles while drafting the different SOP’s for my applications.

If you find yourself in the same position, relax and take a day off the applications – do something that makes you happy. It’ll give your mind some rest and you might start with a fresh perspective after a much needed break.

When it comes to the HLS application in particular, how did you approach the essay questions? Any thoughts on what worked in your favour? 

The essay question is something you need to devote time and thought towards. When you’re applying to Harvard, I’d suggest you keep double the time just for your Harvard application compared to other law schools as it’s an application which requires an essay on a current legal issue in your country with your proposed solution, in addition to a regular SOP about yourself and why you want to do an LL.M.

My approach to the essay question was to write about a legal issue I truly believe in, and one that I had extensively researched on. Given the fact that I had a full-time job during my application period, and did not take a break to prepare my application, having my research and reading in place was a huge relief!

The fact that I chose a topic I was passionate about, and had worked on and read about for months together worked in my favour as the basis for my essay and my thought formulation was clear. All I had to focus on during the time of my application was the articulation of my thoughts.

I’d suggest choosing a topic related to a matter/issue you worked on not too long before the time of your application. If you have extensively worked on an important matter in your chosen field, it might be a good idea to take that as your starting point and develop an issue around it.

This is one aspect of the Harvard application where I feel they judge how well you understand the situation in your own country. Therefore, reading about and having a holistic perspective of the issue and its impact on various sectors of the country is key.

At the same time, your issue must be something unique and contemporary, not something which has been written about time and again.

Also keep in mind that the solution to the issue you address is the key factor in your essay which you should take time to develop and not take lightly – this is where the application of mind counts. While choosing your issue is important, the solution you offer must be unique and well thought of – it is critical to your application.

Lastly, any advice for the Indian law graduate who is considering a master’s abroad? 

For all the prospective LL.M. applicants out there, I’d suggest :

Firstly, choose what you do wisely, and balance your CV. While working hard and getting good grades does matter, it is not the be all and end all of applications to top law schools. In the five years you spend in law school, set yourself apart from the rest. Try your hand at everything. Do a little bit of all the activities your law school offers (and of course, it goes without saying, try your best at winning a few), but don’t over-do any one thing. You might enjoy it, but it comes across as one dimensional.

Secondly, by the time you apply for your LL.M., you should have something concrete on your CV which demonstrates your interest. The first thing they will look for is what you did if you were interested in a particular field of law. How did you take your interest in that field further post your graduation? What action/work signifies your interest in the field? The answers to all these questions should come out of the work and activities you exhibit in your CV.

Thirdly, as a law student, try your hand at something different. Intern with a company, see what its like to be in-house counsel, also try a ministry under the Central Govt. or the NITI Aayog internship program. While you’re in law school, don’t be too focused on any one type of internship. This is your time to experiment and decide what you actually what to do. So divide your time equally amongst the various internship options you have. Also, if you have the time, try interning for more than a month, maybe 2 or 3 months. Stability shows that you learnt more at a particular place.

Lastly, technically, HLS does not require work experience before you apply. However, work experience is always preferred and personally, I would highly recommend it. You need to experience the workings of an office as well as a court before you do your masters. It also helps gain clarity on what you really want to do, and the subjects you really want to study.

Further, work experience will help you grow – intellectually, which in my opinion, is extremely important. Your intellectual growth will help you grasp an LL.M. better.

Another important factor which comes with experience is maturity. In law school, it might seem that one is good at writing, however, there’s always room for growth, and your growth can be seen from the way you draft.

Sometimes, I see my own writing from last year and get surprised as to how immature I was in framing an issue in a certain way. The same goes for my SOP, of which I had countless versions with a new one almost every day. And yet, if I glance at it today (a few months after my application), I still have things I want to edit!

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