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Personal Statement Primer

Posted: Tue Oct 19, 2010 9:58 pm
by billyez
Every once in a while, I'll open my e-mail and find a message from someone on TLS. Most of the time, it's a request to read a Personal Statement. When that's the case, I feel pretty nostalgic for the days I would pour over Personal Statements; those that we sent to me by PM and those that I just looked over in the PS forum. I rather enjoy assisting people in their endeavors and I still do. If you happen to be reading this and don't tend to frequent the PS forum or post much there, I recommend you do so. It may be the only place on TLS where snarkiness is a rarity and people really appreciate any help you give them.

Anyway...1L year is a pretty demanding thing and whoever tells you otherwise is most likely a liar - any time spent on TLS is time better spent elsewhere at this point. But if there's one thing I've learned, it's that as much a time sink 1L is, it's necessary to have something fun on the side (besides drinking and this law school's sport of choice). So, this is going to be what I have on the side - a handy primer for ways to attack a PS and how to avoid the pitfalls that typically crop up. I've noticed that the same issues seem to reappear in weak personal statements and strong, memorable statements seem to have similar characteristics - they might use the essential elements in different ways but the same elements are there. I've also noticed that there isn't really a place where common suggestions can be anthologized for the next class. So, this is my very unambitious attempt at doing so.

Note however, that this is really nothing more than a misadventure. A way for me to get over my complete and utter failure to understand Contracts and escape, even if it is just for a blissful moment, the certainty that I will be below median. With the true purpose of this exercise in mind, I'm not going to dedicate a lot of time to this. When it suits my fancy I'll write about the subject. When it doesn't I won't. I might run through all my ideas within five posts. Fine. The goal is just helping out at least one 0L. I can do that in five posts.

Re: Personal Statement Primer

Posted: Fri Oct 22, 2010 10:30 pm
by billyez
Note: The best way to point out mistakes in writing or demonstrate good writing is to...well, not talk about it but to show it. I'm certain there are examples I could post up here from PS's that are in the PS forum but I'm going to refrain from doing so. Those individuals posted their writing to be critiqued, not to live on as examples of good or bad pieces of writing - in other words, it doesn't seem right to slap and paste them on here...even with their permission. Thus, I'm going to advocate what should be done regardless when you want to write well; read all kinds of writing. Dissect them. Figure out what works and what doesn't. Separate the good from the bad and integrate what you like into your writing. Just don't expect to read any here.

...Actually, the above Note needs to be emphasized: read as many PS's as possible. This is especially true if you aren't really used to writing or if you're having a hard time coming up with the how you want to write this.


Ah, another day. Another chance to believe I understand Contracts - only to be certain that I don't really. At least LRW has been slain for the week. There is that victory to savor. In any case, unconscionability was the word of the day. So tonight, I'm going to talk about that which I find to be unconscionable in a Personal Statement.

The Center Cannot Hold

"Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold... " - Yeats

This is actually a misnomer. The problem isn't that the center cannot hold; it's that there is no center.

A statement without a center cannot hold the reader's attention and cannot convey the message you wish the reader to receive. The entire enterprise falls apart. Reading a PS like this is a truly bedfuddling experience. How do you recognize them? It's actually not that hard. After you finish reading the passage sit back and ask yourself, "Do I understand, with a reasonable degree of clarity, what the writer wanted to communicate?" If you have to stumble upon your answer at any point, then there's a problem. A PS needs to be clear with it's intent - it needs to be centered less importantly on a event and more importantly on an idea. The PS as a whole is a tapestry and every thread needs to work in concert with the other. Every part of it needs to contribute to the central idea you want to communicate. Do not meander but guide every element of your prose with purpose. PS's that don't abide by this rule often feel scattershot; they talk about resilence and then spend an entire paragraph talking about their family without connecting that paragraph to their theme. They start with one central idea, but their presentation of the story seems to focus on something else altogether. In the worst case scenario, you have a PS that tries to hit on several themes without focusing on any one of them. You have a very limited amount of space to inform the reader about a part of yourself - you're PS will be far more effective if you focusing all your energy on one part rather than every part.

This phenomenon is fatal to a PS and it must be remedied. Reading a PS without a strong core is like climbing a ladder that is missing four or five steps. Every chance you take another step, you have to look down and break your concentration. When I read a PS like this, I have to read the statement two or three times before I feel comfortable deciphering exactly what the message of the statement is. I do that because I like reading helping people out. I doubt that admission officers are as willing out what PS writers meant to say.

The Solution: There are two ways to remedy this - first, you need to have a strong thematic structure. This isn't something you need to impose on yourself when you're writing your first draft and just beginning to hammer out what you want the PS to be about. But after awhile, you need to start considering not only what you're trying to communicate with your PS, but also how you want to connect the dots. One of my favorite things to do is to both start and end with my theme. If you've written the PS in a thematic manner then it'll work well. Now, don't take this too literally - I saw a PS that started with one word and that one word was their theme. That clearly breaks the "show, don't tell" lesson of writing. If you have to do that during your rough draft that's fine; whatever makes you feel comfortable at that point. But by your final draft, the story should "show" your theme sufficiently without you spelling it out.

The second way is the perhaps even more important: You must get a number of people to read your PS. When they read it, don't just ask them what they thought about your writing. Don't just ask them, "Was this good?" Ask them, "what do you think this statement is about?" If most of them struggle with an answer, then you've got some work to do. You need to make your theme clearer. You need to tie the knots tighter. <insert metaphor or platitude here>. But seriously, having as many eyes looking over your paper is important - but asking them the right questions after they read it is just as important. If a normal person can't read it and get the theme then your statement has failed the litmus test.

Re: Personal Statement Primer

Posted: Thu Jan 20, 2011 3:09 pm
by billyez
"I think I want to go to law school."

No, you don't. You don't "think" you want to go to law school. You don't "...think my experiences will enable me to be succeed at XXXX Law School." You know. You wouldn't have taken the LSAT otherwise or gone through all the trouble of filling out these applications. A PS should exude confidence - it certainly shouldn't being ho-hum on a matter like this.

I freely admit that this might just be a peculiar pet peeve of mine. Maybe admission office's don't care whether you say "I think" or "I know". But when used in moderation, strong language emphasizes ones conviction and determination. Note that I said in moderation. Exude confidence, both in writing and in life, but don't drown your story in certainy to such a degree that you start sounding obnoxious.

Re: Personal Statement Primer

Posted: Thu Jan 20, 2011 3:32 pm
by billyez
"Kill your darlings"

It's inevitable. There's a sentence in your personal statement that you love. It's so perfect. Sure, it's a little long-winded, but that metaphor is just so cool. Or maybe it's a phrase that you put in that you simply can't dream of taking out; after all, who could do without that quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson? If it wasn't in your PS, then the whole thing would fall apart.

The problem is, no one who reviews your PS thinks much of that sentence. When asked about it, they don't see what it contributes to the essay as a whole or even worse, it distracts them from what's going on. That metaphor is cool and all, but what would be cooler is another sentence that goes to the substance of your narrative. That quote might encapsulate our feelings, but why don't you spend the time you use explaining that quote to further explain your feelings?

Writing is an inherently selfish act. It gives you complete control to say and do whatever you want within the confines of a page and sometimes, it's fine to be wedded to your feelings and to your words. But a PS is a persuasive essay - as much as you may feel you're writing it for yourself, it's not meant for you. You have to dislodge your feelings and ask yourself a series of questions as you read every sentence: What value does this sentence add to my PS as a whole? Could I say it in a more concise manner? Does this sentence really need to be there? - Be frank, honest, and ruthless with yourself when you do this analysis and then decide whether you need to "kill your darlings."

Always remember, "Simplify, simplify," - Henry David Thoreau. Or to be less pretentious, "omit needless words." - Strunk & White

Re: Personal Statement Primer

Posted: Mon Feb 14, 2011 10:07 pm
by billyez
"I want to go to Harvard Law School because..."

I read a PS that someone sent me awhile ago that included a paragraph that started with a variation of the above sentence. Initially, I admit I recoiled almost reflexively. But then I did my near obligatory second, more careful review of the PS and was surprised that it actually worked in the context of the story.

This is quite rare. It might be the first time I've begrudingly accepted "law school" paragraphs in a PS. This is for good reason. Just think about it for a second - you're paying the application fee, you're filling out these applications and writing this PS, you're submitting rec's not hard to gather that you really like the school you're applying to and want to attend. This example is especially glaring. If you're applying to the T14...why do you need to bother using up an entire paragraph saying why you want to go to that school and why it's perfect for you?

There's another reason why I also strongly believe that these types of paragraphs should not be within a PS; it's a matter of space. We're talking two pages double-spaced for most schools. This is not a lot of space to unravel a piece of your character, a slice of your life that distinguishes you from the rest. Using a paragraph to elucidate on a point that the school is most likely already aware of is not a wise investment in my opinion. Not only does it take away space with which you could be wrapping up your essay in a powerful fashion, or developing your can even shatter the concentration of the reader if you don't lead into it correctly. Stephen King once wrotes that, "Writing is telepathy" and how true that is. One of the worst things you can do is break the chain of thought that has been established by inserting a paragraph that just contains cookie-cutter reasons for why you want to go to the law school - heck, I don't think you should have them even if you have good reasons. I'm a firm believer in this. Save it for your LOCI.