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Ethan Oak was admitted to HLS via the Junior Deferral Program (JDP). In this post, he shares his unique path to law school, his plans for his deferral period, and some words of encouragement for future applicants. 

I’m grateful to have received an acceptance to Harvard Law School’s Class of 2025 via the Junior Deferral Program!  For this blog post I want to candidly share the non-traditional experiences I had before applying to law school, which the admissions team considered in evaluating my fit within HLS’s diverse community.  I believe that HLS admissions is willing to consider stretch and non-traditional candidates like me who have an atypical set of life choices in order to foster an inclusive community.  I hope readers of the blog will find inspiration in their own unique and personal stories, no matter how conventional or unconventional, to overcome the inertia of self-doubt and apply to Harvard Law.  As Roy T. Bennett said “Do not fear failure but rather fear not trying.”

My past was typical of a middle class kid born in Salt Lake City.  I was born to immigrant parents from Korea and Canada and ultimately raised by my divorced single father.  As a high school student aware of the prohibitive costs of college, I enlisted in the Army in hopes of securing education funding and attended Army Basic Combat Training during the summer before my senior year.  After graduating high school and serving in the military full time for about one year, I volunteered for two years as a missionary for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in both Romania and Moldova, where I learned to speak Romanian fluently.  As the end of my missionary service approached, I applied to MIT despite doubts about my competitiveness for admissions – I had done the legacy SAT on the old scoring scale, had a three-year gap after graduating high school and had not done even basic math in years.  To my surprise, I was accepted and pondered whether I had won the lottery or got my death wish!

Initially, MIT’s academics were brutally difficult for me because I had been out of school for so long (as an example, I remember distinctly struggling with multiplication and long division while completing introductory calculus).  However, the attention to detail and personal resilience I practiced as a soldier and a missionary helped me bridge the academic capability gap quickly enough. While not a panacea, a bit of elbow grease combined with a willingness to ask for help is often sufficient for most academic ills during an undergraduate program.   Having arrived on campus late compared to my classmates, I decided to graduate in three years instead of four at the end of my freshman year.  This imposed an accelerated decision cycle for my career and graduate school plans.  Thus despite my fears that HLS would not take my application seriously, I applied and was thankfully accepted as a second year student with junior status at MIT.  At the same time, I successfully navigated the McKinsey interview process and converted a summer internship into a full-time offer; after I graduate from MIT in May 2020, I will join the Boston office for two years as a generalist consultant before matriculating to law school.

I shared my personal story to sway the admissions committee, but I believe what informed my desire to study law was probably most important as they considered my candidacy.  My motivations grew collectively out of my military, missionary and MIT experiences and eventually shaped my decision to pursue law school.

First, while serving as an intelligence analyst in the army, I came to appreciate concerns that legacy laws, and the history of legal precedent, might be insufficient to protect civil liberties given the possibilities, and corresponding threats, of emerging technologies.  Should technologies advance faster than existing legal frameworks, independently evolving intelligence systems could collect data that infringes upon protected freedoms.  Thus, I felt a personal desire to study the law to be a future thought partner within the intelligence corps and to help shape evolving case law and new legislation fundamental to protecting rights enshrined in the constitution.

Second, as a missionary in Romania I developed a deep appreciation for the country, the Romanian people, and the Romanian language; however, I also developed a disdain for the culture of corruption and the rule of graft that exists in parallel to the rule of law.  While Romanian laws have the potential for fairness, my personal experiences with Romanian immigration authorities, business people, police and even hospital administrators showed me the ugly truth that money, and favors, can tip the scales of justice; consequently, I saw Romanians immigrating in large numbers to other countries, within the EU and further afield, to seek fairness.  My experience in Romania taught me that although lawyers are often caricatured as self-serving in jokes, the importance of a healthy legal system and well-trained legal professionals to the happiness of every person cannot be overstated.  Therefore, despite the significant investment of time and money a legal education requires, I had an even greater conviction to study at Harvard.

Third, my time at MIT has taught me how tenuous each person’s right to privacy is.  I learned with the universal adoption of mobile devices, innovation in payments and the declining cost of information storage, governments can easily collect data devoid of personal information but successfully identify a target person with 95% accuracy.  MIT researchers confirmed this was possible using as little as the dates and locations of four credit card purchases.  The future implications are wide-ranging as advances in STEM touch nearly every aspect of our lives.  With the propagation of edge computing, the internet-of-things and big data, privacy as we know it could be significantly threatened in the absence of strong legal protections.  This fueled my interest in seeking admission to law school as nothing makes me more passionate than keeping the government from becoming an all knowing entity.

Whatever your reasons for reading this blog might be, whether you are toying with the thought of or are fully committed to a legal education, I would ask you to put aside any self-doubts and not fear failure.  Rather, fear not trying and wondering what could be.  I spent a lot of mental energy wondering if applying would be a good use of my time; however, that question can never be answered satisfactorily until after you hit “submit” on your application.  We each have a unique story to share and the potential to contribute, so I hope you’ll join me in sharing a vision of yourself with the HLS admissions committee in the future.