P.S. Boot Camp: Overcoming Obstacles...But Not Really (Part I)
August 20, 2010
Sorry I've been away from the blog . . . we admissions deans take vacations too, and I was in the Great State of Texas for the past week. Love Texas—I have to be honest, if you like Mexican food, Connecticut is definitely not where it's at.
Anyway, this week we'll look at the ever-popular Overcoming Obstacles essay. In Part I of this topic, I am going to focus on what constitutes an "obstacle." But before I go there, let me just give the profile of the OO essay, which is pretty straightforward: the OO personal statement starts out with a problem that the applicant confronted and then details (ostensibly . . . more in Part II) the steps the applicant took to get past the problem. The intended effect of the OO essay is to have the reader say, "Holy cow! That's amazing! There are very few people who could have done that!" This reaction, in turns, provides a compelling reason to admit the applicant if the other parts of the application are extremely strong, or at the very least to overlook parts of the application that may be somewhat weak.
Let me start by saying that I have nothing against the OO essay per se. I have admitted people who have written very compelling OO essays. However, this is a very delicate essay to write, and you should think of your situation very carefully before moving in this direction. To wit, you should first recognize whether the problem you intend to write about is, in fact, an obstacle.
By way of illustration, one of the personal statements I read last season involved a student who had some very interesting experiences—including a legal internship at a major nonprofit in New York City. However, she focused her entire personal statement on her attempt to take an advance math course without taking the prerequisites, and her subsequent failure in the course. The applicant was upset, because to that point she had always done well in her classes. After a period of intial anger at her professor, then herself, she took all of the prerequisites for the math class, then the same class she originally failed again, and aced all of them.
Folks, here is the deal. There is a difference between an obstacle and a disappointment. Obstacles are major hurdles in your life—things that many people, if they are fortunate, will not have to deal with. These are things like serious illness, divorce, abuse, war, poverty, fleeing from persecution,etc. Remember that I am reading close to 4,000 applications a year, and they include people who have dealt with these and other issues. Having gone through something like this doesn't automatically give an applicant a leg up in admissions (more on that in Part II of this topic), but it does provide some perspective with which to look at the entire pool of applications.
Disappointments are things you wanted, but you didn't get. Disappointments are good things: they encourage us to reflect on what's important to us, and give us opportunities for personal growth. But, because they are based on things you wanted—and may have expected (which is why you are disappointed when you didn't get it)—what comes across when you write about them is not your aplomb or resilience in the face of adversity (which is usually unexpected), but self-absorption and immaturity. Things like failing a class, losing an election for class president, or getting rejected from a dream school, while they were probably a big deal at the time, aren't that important in the grand scheme of things . . . and your self-awareness and understanding of where you are going in the grand scheme of things is what I want to read about.
Focusing on disappointments can also give a mistaken impression of your priorities. For example, the student who chose to write about her grades rather than, say, her experiences at her legal internship (which I would think would be more relevant to a law school personal statement), suggested to me that she was extremely concerned about external validation. This would make her a poor fit at Yale, which has no grades or class rank. What you choose to write about (and not write about) says a lot about what you think is important, so make sure to choose your topics wisely.
What if, though, your disappointment is something that has affected your application, like in the case of the failed class above? Well, this would be the perfect opportunity to use an addendum. If this applicant had simply added a short addendum which said, "In the fall of my freshman year, I attempted to take a very difficult math class, which I failed. I subsequently took the prerequisites for that class, and retook the same class again, and received A's in all of them. I hope the Admissions Committee will take this into account when reviewing my transcript," she would have covered all the points she needed to about her grades, while freeing up her personal statement for other, more important topics. In fact, she probably would have gotten the reaction she originally desired, which is for me to admire her tenacity and perserverence in mastering a subject. You don't need two pages for that.
There's a mistaken impression generally that you have to have suffered in some way in order to be a compelling applicant. That's not true. If you're fortunate to have encountered only minor bumps in the road on your path to greatness, consider yourself lucky and think about how being in that position has affected your choices and values. You'll have a clearer picture of why you're at the point of applying to law school, and have a better personal statement as a result.
off topic, but if we are dinged as first year applicants, how would it affect our chances applying as a transfer student a year later. Would you look at the first file at all? And also, which law schools did you accept your transfer applicants from for this cycle?
August 6, 2010 3:22 PM
Indian Dude said:
I am delighted to see you are blogging during the summer. Is it okay to end sentences with a preposition in our law school personal statement. Please refer to the model example below.
"Love Texas—I have to be honest, if you like Mexican food, Connecticut is definitely not where it's at."
August 8, 2010 1:00 AM
I just recently discovered this wonderful treasure trove of information. I would like to thank you for your candid advice.
I would love to attend Yale Law School, but unfortunately part of my overcoming an obstacle will preclude me from being considered. Three years ago I developed muscular dystrophy. During my recovery process I decided to finally finish my undergraduate degree so I could then pursue my goal of attending law school. Unfortunately I just could not physically attend campus classes so I did my research and enrolled in a regionally accredited non-profit school that allowed 100% online attendance. When I contacted Yale Law School admissions about the impact of my online degree, I was informed that while there was no policy in place to deny applicants that received their degrees online, Yale had never admitted anyone that fell within that category and there was no reason to believe that would change anytime soon.
So even though your advice is for Yale Law School, I believe it will be useful in general for applying to any law school and I would again like to thank you for your efforts.
August 8, 2010 2:20 PM
Vassar 2013 said:
@Asha: An entertaining read! My question is: What if the disappointment (not obstacle) was the very reason behind your application? Suppose the example applicant failed a biology or chemistry class and realized that med school really wasn't her thing. In that case, the disappointment of failing the class led to her rethinking her goals and ultimately, changed the direction she would choose in life, something that she chose to focus on in the personal statement. In such a case, I would think, an addendum wouldn't do. Now if she chose to focus on her failing grade, would she still come across as immature or would she come across as someone who can critically analyze the path that took her to being a law school applicant? (I understand that just eliminating one option isn't obviously reason enough for picking another, but let's assume that she has other strong reasons as to why, with the med school option eliminated, she picked the legal route).
Great! While we're doing that, perhaps Asha could also address whether it's okay to end interrogative clauses with periods instead of question marks in personal statements. Please refer to the model example below.
"Is it okay to end sentences with a preposition in our law school personal statement."
August 9, 2010 12:39 PM
@the_leif_guy: Your rejection as a 1L has no bearing on your chances as a transfer, which is heavily based on your first-year grades and law school recommendations. We do not review your first-year file in our normal transfer process.
This year we accepted transfer students from Pepperdine, Berkeley, George Mason, UPenn, Columbia, NYU, Michigan, UVA, Hastings, Vanderbilt, and Georgetown.
August 9, 2010 1:12 PM
@Indian Dude: I would counsel against ending sentences with a preposition in your personal statement. The sentence you quoted has two features which make it a poor model for your statement. First, it's written on a blog, which is considerably more informal than a graduate school application. Second, the phrase "where it's at" is a colloquialism (see, e.g., http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EPfmNxKLDG4), which makes sense in the context of a blog that is meant to be entertaining and engaging to a younger, hipper audience. By contrast, your law school application will be read by older professors, who probably won't know or understand colloquial or slang terms, and it ought to take a more serious tone overall.
Hope this is helpful!
August 9, 2010 1:21 PM
@Vassar 2013: I think the incorporation of a disappointment in the way you mentioned is fine. What I hear you saying is that you actually wouldn't be focusing on the failing grade as much as illustrating how that provided the impetus for you to reexamine your substantive interests. In such a case, you're really not explaining how you "overcame" your disappointment/failure, but rather explaining how you ended up being interested in law school, which is what you should be doing. You're on the right track!
August 9, 2010 1:29 PM
@Steve: Thank you for the feedback! It sounds like you are a true example of "overcoming obstacles." As for admission to Yale, it is true that it becomes very hard for us to evaluate applications from academic programs with which we aren't familiar. The other things is that we rely heavily on recommendations by professors, and it does seem like you would be disadvantaged in that respect if your attendance was entirely online, since it would not give your professors an opportunity to really get to know you personally and see your interaction with the rest of the class.
Keep in mind that we do accept students as transfers, so if you go to another law school and do extremely well, that can be a basis for admission.
Glad you are reading the blog and good luck!
August 9, 2010 1:35 PM
Lewis Farris said:
@Asha: This is off topic for the thread but relates to applying in general. Would you consider being elected to Phi Beta Kappa as an accomplishment? Are a large percentage of applicants members of Phi Beta Kappa? And does such a distinction have any bearing on admissions?
August 12, 2010 9:30 AM
@Lewis: Phi Beta Kappa is definitely an honor, and should be listed in the "Honors and Awards" section of our application (and a similar place in your resume, if not near your educational degree). I'm not sure what percentage of our applicants are PBK—I would say many, but not all, of the people we admit are in the society. The weight it carries really depends on who is reviewing your file and what the rest of your application looks like; it probably wouldn't be determinative, but it certainly can't hurt.
August 13, 2010 9:26 AM
gold bullion dude said:
Thanks for the great article about perspective. There are several valuable points to take from this that apply to many areas of life.
August 16, 2010 8:55 AM
@Asha: Thanks for your posts - they are very helpful while undergoing the admissions process.
I have a question about an OO personal statement: while in my 2nd year of college, I developed an eating disorder, an experience that led me to change majors from pre-med to history and decide that I wanted to pursue law instead of academia. Would this be an acceptable topic for my PS? I am using an extended "hunger" metaphor to compare my intellectual curiosity, which has led me to explore such diverse fields, with my resilience in overcoming a disease that made me fight my physical hunger.
August 17, 2010 7:52 PM
Debrah Prada said:
Thanks for sharing!!
September 2, 2010 9:46 AM
John Chastain said:
Your observations about Obstacles v. Disappointments are spot-on... but it's appalling that a law school could consider such things relevant to an applicant's qualifications, except possibly to demonstrate his or her writing skills. (... though I suppose if the applicant handled his/her own divorce....) My law school never knew about my childhood Obstacle (one of those you list), but they admitted me based on what they knew, and I did just fine. And given your well-taken distinction between Obstacles and Disappointments, it's disingenuous to say that an OO essay about, e.g., illness, divorce, abuse, war or poverty is no more "compelling" than one including nothing of that magnitude—nothing that "compelling."
October 8, 2010 10:56 AM
@John Chastain: Thanks for your comment. I don't think my post is advocating that applicants write about obstacles. Personal statements are open-topic: the choice of what is relevant to that student's qualifications is left to the applicant. The purpose of my post is to encourage applicants who choose to focus on such things (and many of them do) to think carefully and critically about their experiences and how they present them.
If you read Part II of this post, you'll see that I am equally circumspect of essays that deal with "real" obstacles, and illustrate why they may be no more or less compelling than a neutral, "non-obstacle" essay.
October 8, 2010 12:15 PM
John Chastain said:
I read both parts, and I commented because you seemed to be saying that some experiences (e.g., losing class election) aren't worthy of mention, even if they loomed larger than all the applicant's other experiences at the time. The thought of applicants expounding on the heavier Obstacles listed in Part I reminded me of an ancient, tawdry TV show, "Queen For A Day," where three sobbing women would tell their hard-luck stories, and afterwards whichever contestant received the loudest applause (as shown by an on-screen meter) would win the washing machine, sofa or fridge du jour. I hope few of your applicants are tempted to tout their bad experiences as credentials. There's something demeaning about that, especially in a context as irrelevant as an application to law school... and especially in writing. BTW, I meant to mention in the first msg that the ABA Journal Weekly mentioned this blog in a piece on "Law Zombies." And speaking of toilsome pasts, I'm Virginia Law '77.
October 8, 2010 1:10 PM
Impressive post Asha.
October 4, 2011 12:45 AM
Chapter 11: Overcoming Adversity (Topic)
Published November 2009
If you have overcome a major adversity in your life, often manifest as a tragedy that demonstrates your resourcefulness, commitment and energy to overcoming loss, then you should consider writing about that topic. In this chapter, you will find statements on political violence, alcohol-related death, rape, and diagnosis of debilitating disease. These topics are traumatic instances of loss, usually relating a story in which the applicant experiences a major life change. Adversity statements can be considered a type of diversity statement. When writing on overcoming adversity, an applicant reveals how his or her distinctiveness was forged in response to a crisis. With this topic, one usually seeks to show courage under pressure. The writer accepts that something awful happened and shows what he or she did to help make the new situation better. This is usually an emotional statement, in which the applicant showcases his or her leadership skills. These statements are typically not humorous, but they can be inflected with humor that balances the emotion, as in Essay 17: Kenyan Immigrant.
17. Kenyan Immigrant
Professors boycotting classes due to nonpayment of salaries. Idle students rioting against the injustice of a careless government leaving a deserted campus like a war-zone. I had experienced many educational strikes during my schooling years in Kenya, but none like the one that occurred in 1996. I was an undergraduate student at the University of Kenya studying law. The professors had not been paid for six months and their strike was intended to draw the government’s attention towards this injustice. Most students either left the campus or joined in the rioting, but fuelled by my passion for education and empathy for the lecturers, I organized study groups for students in my class sections, Legal Methods and Torts, to help those who wanted to review the work we had covered thus far. Further, I joined the student committee that was set up to petition to the government to end the strike, but I knew that the government was not one to be persuaded into doing anything. Eleven months after the strike continued, I made a difficult decision to leave family and friends to pursue my education in the United States.
My father raised me to believe I could do all things if I set my mind to it. This prepared me for my first taste of life in the United States—my father’s sister whom I secretly referred to as the “Iron Lady” because I never remembered seeing a smile on her face. She forcefully enrolled me in the local community college and said it was at least better than any college I could have attended in Kenya. To her surprise, I made the Dean’s list and was one of the two selected out of 40,000 students to represent my college at the “All Missouri Academic Team,” for which I received a plaque from the Governor of Missouri. My aunt smirked when I mentioned that I had applied to Princeton. She didn’t think I had a chance to attend a prestigious school, musing that prestigious schools were for the rich. The day I received my acceptance letter into Princeton, I knew that my journey towards the pursuit of knowledge had begun, and never again will I be denied the attainment of education because of reasons for which I had no control.
My curiosity about the economies of developing countries brought about my major of Economics. I completed the intense degree in four semesters, not the six it would take an average student to complete, a feat my faculty advisor thought was impossible to accomplish given the very intense curriculum. I wrote for the Argus, the Princeton paper and enjoyed the process of getting bits and pieces of information and putting them together to make a coherent news story.
It is exactly a decade since I left my family in pursuit of education, but my passion to use my life and career to make a difference still remains. This passion has animated the many causes I have advocated through my work as the Director of Public Relations for the Kenya Business Forum and my active involvement in the Fate Foundation. I was able to organize book drives that resulted in over 2,000 books being donated to improve the libraries of some government-run schools in Kenya. Through my role as Operations Accountant in the Information Management and Investment Performance Departments at Morgan Stanley, I was responsible for ensuring that the company’s Board of Directors received adequate financial highlights for the performance of the company’s over 250 mutual funds. The preparation of these highlights often entailed research into the complex legal and transparency issues that surround many mutual fund and investment transactions. I have worked closely with the legal department of the company and have learned a great deal about Corporate Law, Corporate Finance and Securities Law. I have seen the law in action, and I am intrigued by the intricacy and subtlety of this instrument.
My study of the legal profession and my interest in applying it towards social justice will be informed by my numerous experiences of social injustice in my home country of Kenya. No one should be denied the opportunity to be educated or be denied their means of sustaining a living due to reasons they have no control over. My intent is to spend a few years after passing the bar practicing law to gain practical experience. After that, I would like to obtain an LLM and teach Law. Though the experience I had teaching law courses during the strike cannot be compared to the real act of teaching as a law professor, the patience, determination and passion that motivated me to teach during the strike, I believe, are the core qualities that constitute a true teacher.
Though I still believe that I can do all things, if I set my mind to it, I also know that I cannot change the entire world. Nevertheless, I feel an obligation as a human being to make the biggest difference that I can. With the knowledge of the law and by using it to address social ills across the globe, I will help build to a society that is fairer tomorrow than it is today. As a law student, I look forward to sharing my experiences with my classmates and to learning the skills that will help me accomplish this goal.
Commentary 17: Kenyan Immigrant
Topic: Overcoming Adversity (Immigration from a third-world country)
Structure: Personal Narrative
Thesis: I beat the odds by being admitted to Princeton, where I excelled and influenced others, and I can do it again.
Elements of Style: The iron lady; themes of racial, class, and national prejudice
Committee Appeal: Tangible Impact on Individuals or Groups, Intellectual Excellence, Real World Experience, Multiple Perspectives, Pro-Active Starter, Uniqueness
Success Rating: 10/A+
This is an exceptional personal statement that admissions committee members will really like. Never once has this applicant backed down from goals, and the harder it got for him, the higher he reached. He structures the statement as a chronological personal history and writes specifically about his academic journey from Kenya to Princeton to working for a large corporation.
The most gripping aspect of this personal statement is the author’s valuable personality (his ethos). The essay begins with vivid images of idle students rioting and a strong sense of the moral dilemma of the professors: confront exploitation or stay committed to students. In the wake of the breach, this student takes over the mantle of the teacher, and this is how he first chooses to establish his credibility in the essay, thus showing in a crisis, he is a leader. He also uses logical persuasion to great effect. For example, the writer’s explanation of his decision to major in economics is a masterstroke: with astonishing verbal economy—just 14 words—the author offers an important and compelling rationale for his undergraduate major: “My curiosity about the economies of developing countries brought about my major of Economics.” This not only helps the committee understand him better but also shows that the applicant understands himself.
In the second paragraph, the applicant uses humor to provide a character sketch of his aunt in Missouri. Then he plays off that humor in the rest of the paragraph as he describes his successes by the facial expressions of the Iron Lady. Her smirk when he applies to Princeton is wonderful, because it perfectly captures her frustration with class injustice and her secret pride in her nephew’s achievements. The essay reaches a climax at the end of the second paragraph, when the applicant gets into Princeton. This floods the essay with a sense of accomplishment and excitement, because the applicant has used education to get to the heart of the beast that controls power. And he used his formidable writing skills combined with his personal history to get there. He also says he is in control of his life, and he has shown it by rising to all academic challenges. He completed a rigorous major in two years instead of three, and no one will doubt a major at Princeton is rigorous.
Throughout the essay, the applicant mentions the areas of law he has studied and is interested in, which shows that he has been taking steps to ensure a successful law degree for many years. He also gives evidence for other positive qualities in himself. For example, he wrote for the Princeton newspaper, giving evidence for his aptitude with analytical reasoning and verbal communication skills. And he collected 2,000 books for Kenyan schools, demonstrating that he has impacted many people. He understands the complexity of investments, and has worked for significant companies in the business world and has tried to learn about corporate law from hands-on training. He compares law to a complex instrument, a subtle and apt analogy, because it lets us know in a few words that he understands the law as man-made construction that aids human society but that needs specialized technicians to service it.
In the fifth paragraph, the applicant returns to the opening narrative, interpreting both his story and that of his Kenyan professors. He lays out his plan for practicing law for a few years and then teaching law. He backs up this last claim by reminding the reader that he already possesses the qualities that motivate an excellent teacher, which he demonstrated when he proactively organized his peers during the strikes in Kenya and took on the role of a teacher. In the final paragraph, he shows his humility, but then quietly overwhelms that again with a rhetorical flourish signaling his desire to work with classmates, students and his fellow man.
This is an excellent example of a personal statement.
18. Gordie Day
I believe that my experiences as an undergraduate at the University of Colorado are what have most prepared me to become a successful law student.
During my freshman year at CU-Boulder, I quickly became a leader within my fraternity. Shortly after initiation, I assumed the position of Music Chairman. The following year, I held two elected offices, the Marshal and the Social Director, both of which were part of the fraternity’s Executive Board. The offices that I held within the fraternity allowed me to develop as a leader and taught me how important it is to recognize both my strengths and my weaknesses when working within a large group. After so much ardent participation in my fraternity, I recognized that I was not performing up to my true academic potential. My junior year, I returned to Boulder with a new, energetic focus toward my studies. However, this change in perspective was minor in comparison to the impact of what happened next. During the first month of my junior year, Lynn "Gordie" Bailey, a freshman within my fraternity, died of acute alcohol poisoning after a night of heavy drinking. This tragic event would change me forever.
Waking up to firefighters banging on my door, I was in shock and disbelief to find out that a friend of mine could suddenly be dead. The days that followed were filled with events and feelings that I will never forget as long as I live. Within hours of waking up, my friends and I had to withstand questioning from the local authorities, witness our home become a police scene, and deal with the media constantly bombarding us with questions about Gordie. This was without a doubt the worst day of my life. Although the situation was still surreal to me, I knew that I would never forgive myself if I did not deal with the loss of my friend with strength, compassion, and accountability. A friend and I organized a candlelight vigil for that Sunday night in front of the fraternity lodge. It was heartbreaking to say goodbye to a friend who had died so young, but having my closest friends by my side gave me the strength and support that was crucial on such a distressing night. On Tuesday, I traveled to Dallas, Texas to attend a memorial service organized by Gordie's family. This was the most difficult thing that I have ever done. Meeting the family and friends of my deceased friend was extremely emotional, but in the end I knew that I had done the right thing. After many tears were shed and hugs exchanged, things settled down on campus, but I still felt that there was more to be done. In response, three friends and I began an alcohol education campaign that we named G.O.R.D. (Guidelines and Objectives of Responsible Drinking). The effort was a memorial to remember our friend, but we also wanted to help prevent future tragedies through peer-to-peer education. Shortly thereafter, we had the support of the entire CU Greek community, as well as the blessing of the fraternity’s national office and Gordie’s family. That year, we hosted an educational event that was attended by approximately 1,200 university students and community members. G.O.R.D. has without a doubt made a positive impact on the culture of the University of Colorado. A year after Gordie’s death, when several sorority women became physically sick at a social event, the leaders of these organizations responded with maturity. Keeping Gordie in mind, the heavily intoxicated girls were transported to Boulder Community Hospital, where they were treated for alcohol poisoning. When the president of one sorority was interviewed about the events of this night, she recalled “Gordie Day,” which was sponsored by G.O.R.D. the week before to commemorate the one-year anniversary of Gordie’s untimely death. “Gordie Day” had obviously made an important and lasting impression on the minds of CU’s student body and sorority leaders responded properly when they were faced with their own crisis. The development of Guidelines and Objectives of Responsible Drinking was truly the best thing that came out of such a terrible tragedy.
This personal story highlights an extremely emotional and formative period in my life. The reason that I chose to write about this event is that it served as a wake-up call for me and explains the drastic change in my academic performance over my years as an undergraduate. Although Gordie's death is not the only event that changed me for the better during my time at the University of Colorado, it is definitely the most significant. My fraternity, which had provided me with invaluable leadership opportunities and a great social network, also showed me how close my college friendships were during such a dark time in my life. Gordie's death solidified my feeling that I needed to better myself intellectually and personally. As a result, I have an increased capacity to be an involved and committed student, a strong and sensitive leader, and an individual with a strong desire to have a positive impact on society. In the semesters that followed my friend’s death, I excelled both in the classroom and in the community. I held several leadership positions within G.O.R.D., as well as traveled to my fraternity’s national convention to discuss the lessons that I had learned through the death of my friend. Also, I worked with another student alcohol education group on campus, Student Emergency Medical Services, as well as with the CU administration and the Greek community to help build a stronger and more accountable community at the university. I know that my motivation to achieve distinction inside and outside the classroom will continue as a law student and, along with my life experiences, will prepare me to be a successful lawyer.
Commentary 18: Gordie Day
Topic: Overcoming Adversity/Personal Tragedy
Structure: Personal Narrative
Thesis: Gordie’s death brought out my exceptional leadership ability
Elements of Style: A moving story
Committee Appeal: Tangible Impact on Individuals or Groups, Good Leadership Skills, Works Well with People
Success Rating: 8/A-
This is not a typical personal statement that uses fraternity duties to show leadership qualities. This statement uses a fraternity experience to craft a narrative of community tragedy, leadership, and recovery with positive change, all of which demonstrate the applicant has many of the qualities of a successful lawyer. The topic is the death of Gordie, a fraternity brother, from alcohol poisoning. The applicant demonstrates his leadership skills by detailing the steps he took to ensure his college campus was educated about responsible drinking and intoxication. He uses an emotional story to appeal to the universal human values of friendship and honesty. He also shows he is a community leader invested in community dialogue and a self-starter with the ability to plan and implement large undertakings that impact many people. He is organized, self-confident, and has good oral communication skills. The applicant shows his written communication skills with a vivid, energetic description of the morning after Gordie’s death. In the last paragraph, the writer steps back from the narrative, explaining, in retrospect, why he chose to write about this personal experience and how it positively affected his academic performance. This is an excellent essay for showing off community leadership skills.
There is so much focus on community leadership in this essay that academic achievement comes across as secondary. Top law schools do value academic achievement, especially from young applicants. The author writes in the last paragraph that he excelled in the classroom after Gordie’s death, but a specific detail would make the claim less vague. For example, he could add a sentence in the last paragraph about how he chose to write a senior thesis for his major or how he became interested in a certain topic that led to a longer project. This would please the person on the admissions committee who wants to hear about academic and analytical achievements and their connection to an applicant’s community activism. Overall, the pacing is right; however, the third paragraph is too long. Starting a new paragraph after “… in the end I knew that I had done the right thing,” would mark a psychological shift in the applicant. It would show the applicant standing back and deciding to initiate a positive change in his community after Gordie’s death. This would contain the emotion of Gordie’s death in the third paragraph, and the reader could then find the positive repercussions of the tragedy in the last two paragraphs.
Although this essay is about an emotional topic, the writer needs to tone down his language. Superlative words and phrases like “as long as I live,” “without a doubt,” “never forgive myself,” “the most difficult thing that I have ever done,” “extremely,” and “truly”—all from the third paragraph—actually undermine the sincerely affecting nature of the narrative. 19. Surviving Rape
I have never been much of a pragmatist. But like all arts students, as graduation loomed, I began to dread the inevitable question: “Now what?” “Now,” I’d say, feigning the insouciance of youth, “I can practice saying ‘Would you like fries with that?’” Not surprisingly, then, when I announced my decision to go to law school, everyone around me was stunned. For the first time, I knew what I wanted to do with my life. I’ve always been brimming with ambition, but just what I was ambitious about was another question altogether. But all of a sudden, it had hit me: law school was the perfect way for me to undertake work in the humanitarian field.
It all started on a July afternoon in 2001 amid the humid chaos of Bombay. I was all of seventeen years old, taking a taxi through downtown to see a friend. To make a long story short, I was sexually assaulted that afternoon by a stranger old enough to be my grandfather. I was shocked, frightened but most of all, in denial. In about a month, I was scheduled to leave for Richmond, London where I would start my first year of university, and so I convinced myself that I could put this traumatic experience on the back burner. Naturally this didn’t work, and my repressed grief began to manifest itself in several ways. To make things worse, the atmosphere at Richmond only festered my misery. The excessive lifestyle of most students was not only uncharacteristic of me as a person, but also came as a huge cultural shock. Moreover, with the exception of a few sociology classes, I was unchallenged and hence, unmotivated. My general unhappiness is well reflected in my poor performance in my first semester of university.
Still, even as my GPA gained some semblance of respectability, I found myself falling into an abyss of depression and unhealthy behaviour. A friend encouraged me to apply as a transfer student to her university, and so on a whim, I did as she said. When I got the news that McGill University in Montreal had accepted my application, I was both elated and frightened. What if I’d gotten too used to academic complacency to cope in a notoriously rigorous school? Taking the chance, I moved to a country even further away from home. To date, it is the best decision I have made in my life. The intellectual environment was tailor-made for me. It was invigorating, challenging, demanding and didn’t allow for stagnancy. I thoroughly enjoyed my classes, worshipped my professors and met several like-minded people who went on to become close friends. But perhaps the most important part of my McGill career came in the form of its Sexual Assault Centre. Still grappling with my personal life, I made a decision to volunteer at the student-run Sexual Assault Centre of McGill Student’s Society (SACOMSS) and continued to do so for two years. For the first time, I allowed myself to grieve, and it was only then that I started coming to terms with my ordeal, a requisite for my peace of mind. After graduation, I worked as a Programme Officer for India Centre for Human Rights and Law (ICHRL) in Bombay with their Campaign Against Sexual Harassment unit, where I carried out sensitization and awareness trainings on issues of gender and sexuality-based violence both with Complaints Committee members as well as with the youth.
When I first started thinking about this personal statement, I was loath to write about the sexual violation I had experienced. I was afraid of sounding like I was trying to garner sympathy, but the truth is that that experience has shaped who I am in several ways since it led me to work in the field of women’s rights. Working as a social worker and activist in ICHRL, I realized that without an understanding of the law, I was largely impotent in making a difference. The best way for me to continue working in the field of justice and humanitarianism was to procure a degree in law. I decided that I would combine my interests in international relations, sociology and human rights by pursuing an education in International Law with a focus on human rights.
There are several factors that attract me to McGill Law: I loved every minute of my undergraduate career at McGill and am truly in love with the city of Montreal. Moreover, McGill’s outstanding reputation, and its International Law Society are two more reasons for me to be drawn to this wonderful school. Since I can read and write French, it seems apt for me to apply to and hopefully re-attend my former alma mater. I am well aware that my LSAT score is not up to par with other applicants, but I am truly one of those people who do not fare optimally on standardized tests. For instance, I scored only a 1200 on my SATs but eventually graduated in the top 15% of my class. Similarly, my TOEFL score of 637, while respectable, does not adequately convey my proficiency in the English language. I am thus confident that my mediocre score does not reflect on my intelligence, ambition, capability and diligence.
Commentary 19: Surviving Rape
Topic: Overcoming Adversity/Personal Tragedy (Rape)
Structure: Personal Narrative
Thesis: A personal tragedy reoriented my goals.
Elements of Style: Overcoming and moving on
Committee Appeal: Good Law School Fit
Success Rating: 7/B+
This is a risky subject to write about, but the applicant has done it well, mentioning honestly that she didn’t want to write about the topic, but it was so much a part of her life that it influenced her decision to volunteer with certain organizations and to want to focus on certain fields in law school. Sexual assault is a startling topic to find in a law school application, but the applicant handles it well. It is only an appropriate topic because her experience had so much direct impact on her decision to go into law. There are strictly limited specific details about the incident, as in this case there should be. The incident itself is full of pathos, so the applicant’s rhetoric should not be emotional.
This applicant has had a terrible crime committed against her, and yet she shows that she still loves and has a great capacity for compassion for others, including those she has helped in her volunteer work and in her career after college. She discusses her specific interests in the legal field and the steps she has taken to prepare herself for a career in law. She explains that she has gone as far as she can on a certain path, and the next step forward could only come from the attainment of a legal degree, which she is ready to pursue. She also gives specific reasons for why she wants to attend McGill Law.
Most admissions committee members will be uncomfortable with the topic of rape, but they will recognize the applicant was a victim, and they will certainly not judge her law school qualifications based on her confession. In light of this, the applicant needs to do more work presenting her academic qualifications for law school. First, she needs to tighten and focus her writing. She must show that she is stable and possesses a sharpness of intelligence. She should cut out all the details of her personal suffering. This is a harsh reality, but the committee wants only to be impressed by the applicant’s abilities and characteristics that triumph over tragedy. They want to see a career woman in the making. The essay should not be apologetic.
The introductory paragraph is a false start. It does not add enough humor to balance how much it takes away by initially presenting the applicant as unfocused with a lack of ambition. The first paragraph should be cut, and in its place might be a narrative of the applicant taking care of someone else during the time in which she volunteered with SACOMSS. She could also begin by taking the reader through the steps a rape crisis counselor takes a victim through, which would demonstrate her practical knowledge. Most importantly, she should start strong and self-confidently, because law schools want to believe they get the best, most stable candidates possible, and that they have wrested the best candidates away from the other best schools. There is usually an exchange, in which the admissions committee members are trying to see 360 degrees around the candidate to check for weaknesses, but the applicant is also turning to hide potential weaknesses from the committee. Personal statements are not a place for extreme honesty, but they cannot be too insincere either. For example, this applicant should not apologize for her mediocre standardized test scores in the last paragraph. That will key others in that she has bad scores on these tests, and it will end the essay on a negative note. Depending on the actual circumstances, of course, perhaps she could say simply, “Since English is my third language, my standardized test scores neither reflect my proficiency in English nor do they reflect my intelligence, ambition, capability, and diligence.” She should also end more positively. Finally, she needs a paragraph on her interests in college in the main body of the essay, such as what she learned in sociology classes or any research she participated in or achievements. This would give the committee a richer perspective on her intellectual and analytical abilities, in addition to examples of her academic excellence that cannot be represented by standardized test scores.
This personal statement edited might look something more like this:
[When a woman comes to us after suffering the crime of rape, we hold her hand, surround her in a protective space, and comfort her as she goes through the trauma, the sadness, denial, shock, anger, fright, grief, depression. And we are her support network for as long as it takes her to regain some peace of mind. This is what it is like to be a rape crisis counselor.] In college, I volunteered for two years at the student-run Sexual Assault Centre of McGill Student’s Society (SACOMSS). [I was not only part of a support system for other women, but they were the support system that helped me regain my peace of mind.]
I grew up amid the humid chaos of Bombay. When I was seventeen years old, taking a taxi through downtown Bombay to visit a friend, I was sexually assaulted by a stranger old enough to be my grandfather. Several weeks later, I left for college in London.
I was unhappy my first year at Richmond University. My native Bombay was no longer a safe place for me, but neither was London, where the excessive lifestyle of the students did not nourish my indomitable love of learning. A friend encouraged me to apply as a transfer student to McGill University in Montreal. I was accepted; I took the chance and moved to another country, with another language, even farther from home. The intellectual environment was tailor-made for me. It was invigorating, challenging, demanding and didn’t allow for stagnancy. I thoroughly enjoyed my classes, worshipped my professors and met several like-minded people who went on to become close friends.
[paragraph on interests in college, such as what she learned in sociology classes and any research she participated in or achievements]
After graduation, I returned to Bombay to work as a Programme Officer for India Centre for Human Rights and Law (ICHRL) with their Campaign Against Sexual Harassment unit, where I carried out sensitization and awareness training on issues of gender and sexuality-based violence, both with Complaints Committee members as well as with the youth. [With this organization, I was able to raise awareness in over x number of people.] As a social worker and activist in ICHRL, I realized that without an understanding of the law, I was largely impotent in making a difference. The best way for me to continue working in the field of justice and humanitarianism was to procure a degree in law. I decided that I would combine my interests in international relations, sociology and human rights by pursuing an education in International Law with a focus on human rights.
There are several factors that attract me to McGill Law. McGill’s outstanding reputation, its International Law Society, and my fluency in reading and writing French make it an excellent choice for my goals and qualifications. Since English is my third language, my standardized test scores neither reflect my proficiency in English nor do they reflect my intelligence, ambition, capability, and diligence. I am dedicated to working in the field of women’s rights, particularly in the area of sex-based violence crimes. Now that I have completely reclaimed my peace of mind, I am committed to helping other women who have needlessly suffered, and I am eager to make greater progress by taking my education to the next level.
The applicant rewrote her essay based on this feedback, and was admitted to her top choice, McGill University, one of the top two Canadian law schools.
20. Parental Disability
My father is an extraordinary man in more ways than meet the eye, but what does meet the eye is his confinement to a breath-controlled wheelchair. For my dad, the shockwave of middle age was both premature and uniquely unforgiving. At the age of forty he was diagnosed with chronic progressive multiple sclerosis, a condition that would eventually take almost complete control of his muscles. At first, his symptoms were imperceptible to my optimistic young eyes, whether it was shortage of breath or involuntary muscle spasms. His physical degeneration occurred virtually in sync with my own mental and physical growth. By the time I was an active, athletic teenager, my father’s muscular control had completely abandoned him below the neckline. There was a time when I thought of him as a victim, an innocent man whose physical autonomy had been unjustly impounded. But my father’s disability has been far from a stopping point for himself, for me, or for anyone associated with him. My family’s collective perseverance and audacity is a constant source of inspiration for each of us individually and all those around us.
But a frightening truth looms behind this familial pride: in reality, if it were not for the resilience of the Canadian medical system, my family would be without the means to manageably survive. This fact has come glaringly to the foreground throughout my experiences in the US and abroad. On one family trip, my father’s wheelchair started to malfunction erratically. I pushed the uncooperative mechanical beast to a local disability specialist. Here I came face to face with inadequate medical coverage. The store was teeming with desperately unwell patrons, clearly a last resort for the neglected. As the store’s mechanic methodically salvaged our family vacation with a soldering iron and some pliers, he related to me his own struggles with disability. The frequent medical treatment he needed along with a series of gainless battles against his insurance provider had bankrupted his entire family just in time for his wife to be diagnosed with cancer. The experience left me with a lingering disquiet; that family could so easily have been my own.
Every day, as I lace up my running shoes and head for the trails, the adrenaline reminds me just how fragile a liberty physical mobility can be. And every day, without fail, my father spends a hefty chunk of his precious energy on his voice-activated computer, carefully selecting and forwarding stories he knows will interest me. It is these headlines of social injustice that jump out in my head as I run. Yesterday it was “lack of health insurance kills six times as many Americans each year as 9/11 did”; the day before was “insurance companies working harder than ever to deny coverage to those who most need it.” Although there are issues where my dad and I actively disagree, there is no doubt that I am my father’s son. He has instilled in me a social conscience that has become the driving force of my life.
It would be much safer for me to pursue a legal profession north of the 49th parallel, in the comforting world of Canada’s socialized medicine. But I doubt I could maintain my peace of mind, knowing that families facing medical crises are being crippled in the US. In a country where medical costs are the number one cause of personal bankruptcies, there is an unquestionable need for legal aid. The ongoing dependence on service and support in my family has boiled over into my life-goals. At this point I feel passionate about and devoted to the idea of a profession in medical law, but the road is yet unpaved. One thing I do know is that my life will be a journey of success and compromise, service and sacrifice, and all the other ingredients that uphold strength in community.
Commentary 20: Parental Disability
Topic: Overcoming Adversity (father’s disability)
Structure: Personal Narrative
Thesis: I am sensitive and motivated.
Elements of Style: Compassion for father’s situation
Committee Appeal: Intellectual/Academic Excellence
Success Rating: 6/B
This essay is structured as a personal narrative of family tragedy, and the topic is insurance coverage from the perspective of a father with chronic progressive multiple sclerosis. The applicant shows how growing up with a wheelchair-bound father has given him a unique perspective on healthcare in the United States. Specifically, the applicant has seen first-hand how American insurance companies can suspend coverage for families crippled by illness who cannot afford to fight back. As a Canadian who has benefited from socialized medicine, he intends to learn more about the American healthcare system in an American law school, and to specialize in medical law in order to become a legal representative for families who have been mistreated by insurance companies. This essay makes its admissions argument by emotional appeals (pathos), which is provided by the father’s stoicism as he endures his devastating illness. This candidate demonstrates compassion and social consciousness, and he supports traditional family values. He is active and athletic. He uses rhetoric to argue that he, a Canadian, is doing American law schools a favor by choosing to study law in the United States, where he argues his unique interests and goals are most needed.
This essay is primarily about the father, not the candidate. Personal statements should demonstrate one’s abilities, skills, and personality. This statement gives the reader a glimpse into the applicant’s personality through a tribute to the father’s courage, but it does not offer insight into the applicant’s abilities or skills. The applicant needs to use the narrative to work in his accomplishments. For example, did any of the articles his father forwarded to him incite him to action or organization? What kinds of jobs or college classes did the applicant’s interest in medical law encourage him to seek out? The admissions committee is looking for the writer to demonstrate his longstanding and active engagement with the issue to which he professes a fervent commitment, because the committee would like to see that the applicant is both personable and a good leader who has influenced others. The applicant needs to be clearer about his intention to help families mistreated by insurance companies, if that is what he intends to do.
The author should also think about tone. The first paragraph ends with the applicant’s family being inspired by its own “perseverance and audacity”—an emotional solipsism that does nothing to help the writer appeal to his reader. Furthermore, the applicant’s overall strategy—depicting himself as the Canadian savior of America, sacrificing himself by leaving “the comforting world of Canada’s socialized medicine” for the “crippl[ing]” U.S.—does not seem calculated to appeal to an American admissions committee. The writer has crossed the line between what admissions committees do want—self-confidence and passion—and what they do not want—pompousness and prejudiced fervor. The writer does well to address the state of U.S. health care—a timely issue about which many people are passionate—but needs to adopt a more reasoned tone in his approach to this subject.
Finally, the essay needs a clear and forceful ending. The penultimate sentence beginning “At this point” makes the reader think the candidate could and probably will switch his interest away from medical law. It would be better to express firm commitment to medical law in this essay. Also, journey metaphors are overused, and the applicant would do better to end on a more concrete note.
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