Chapter 13: Chronological Growth (Topic)
Published November 2009
Often there is an experience in a person’s life that encourages, forces, or allows them to grow up. For many people, this is a study abroad experience, where they are exposed to other cultural perspectives. Traveling abroad encourages students to develop skills in planning, organization, and responsibility, as well as in foreign language skills. Study abroad is a natural indicator of growth because, upon return, one experiences re-acclimating to an old life that seems, somehow, too tight. Admissions committee members read many personal statements about study abroad experiences. That said, the topic of growth from a study abroad experience has the potential to be dull for the reader. If you decide to write about your study abroad experience, try to pick a great story and use plenty of sensory details. Spice up any hum-drum chronological growth statement with an organizing metaphor, a reoccurring image, or a vivid character sketch.
26. High-Stakes Law Experience
During my last semester at Wellesley, having already taken every political theory course offered, I enrolled in a class entitled “Courts, Law and Politics.” On the first day of class, Professor Burke handed out index cards so we could write down the requisite introductory information: Name, Class, Email, Phone Extension. But he added one more question: Are you planning to go to Law School? I quickly wrote down “Yes,” since, for as long as I could remember, law school was always in The Plan.
When Professor Burke read my card, he took advantage of the certainty with which I answered his final question. He jokingly commented that the point of his class was to convince students like me not to go to law school because, as he put it, “most students don’t really know what lawyers do.” I laughed but vowed not to be swayed. After all, I hadn’t allowed a frightening introductory class to dissuade me from studying political theory, a subject in which I later flourished and excelled. Why should I allow this one professor’s joke to shake my confidence in pursuing law school?
* * *
One afternoon, I barged into Professor Burke’s office unannounced after completing that week’s class reading, Broken Contract, Richard Kahlenberg’s memoir about his years at Harvard Law School and his struggle to harmonize his liberal ideals with the mounting pressure to pursue corporate law. “How is it,” Kahlenberg wrote, “that so many students can enter law school determined to use law to promote liberal ideals and leave three years later to counsel the least socially progressive elements of our society?” The question struck me. Law school and becoming a lawyer had always held its place in my long-term life plan; yet, looking back, I had also always dedicated my time and energy to pursuing the liberal trifecta: equality, liberty and justice. From my first research paper at the age of seven on Susan B. Anthony to my stint on the Hill learning about Asian Pacific American political causes to encouraging students to vote as Chair of the Committee for Political and Legislative Action, I had taken pride in consistently searching for ways to increase opportunity, level the playing field, and advocate for those whose voices were seldom heard. Rarely had I considered that, as a lawyer, that might not always be the case. Could I proudly represent both the PG&Es of the world and the trifecta at the same time?
On that day, in Professor Burke’s office, I panicked. I didn’t want to sell out or give up my idealism, but at the same time, I recognized that my past studies and work experiences naturally culminated with a career in law. Part of me was angry—angry at Professor Burke for assigning me a reading that shattered my confidence. The other part of me was scared. Never had I so blindly dedicated myself to an idea I knew so little about. Reading Kahlenberg’s memoir revealed that I had no actual conception of what it was like to practice law or the demands of the career. I was, as he had said, just another student planning to go to law school with no realistic notion of what lawyers actually did.
I can’t recall the majority of Professor Burke’s advice, but I do remember his assurances: only I could change my beliefs and, if he knew anything about me, he knew I wouldn’t take a job in a place where I couldn’t be proud of my work. On that day, I decided that if I was going to go to law school, I was going to enter knowing exactly what I was getting myself into.
* * *
Almost a year later, on a cold February morning, I sat, surrounded by attorneys and other paralegals, in a conference room at Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison, LLP, to hear the latest updates on the largest case ever to be handled at the firm. This case, characterized by several state and federal investigations and a growing number of civil lawsuits, was an all-encompassing monster that demanded the cooperation of almost one hundred attorneys and over twenty paralegals. As associates described the legal basis for each claim, the ongoing discovery process, and their strategies to protect the interests of the company, I listened intently and in awe. By then, I had worked at the firm for almost eight months, and during that time, I saw my responsibilities grow as I adapted flawlessly to the pace of work, hours and demands of the firm. I worked long hours, all-nighters, and “all-weekenders” in order to finish projects on time, and my experience provided me with a realistic picture of attorney life.
While attorneys presented on ERISA, RICO, securities and derivatives issues, I filled with excitement as I matched my past projects to the timelines the attorneys spoke of. In my mind, I saw how my work fit into the larger legal strategy and the story my firm was trying to advocate to the courts. A senior associate closed the meeting by simply stating: “No matter what you're doing or where you end up, know that you are a part of a team that is making history. And that is something you should take pride in.”
* * *
Six days later on February 9, 2006, American International Group, Inc., the world's largest insurance provider, agreed to pay $1.64 billion to settle federal and state charges of fraud, bid-rigging, and improper accounting. It is the largest regulatory settlement by a single company in U.S. history. While the sum itself is shocking, the monetary value of the settlement cannot overshadow the value of the commitment our case team made to ensure that the company fully cooperated with state and federal officials. The next day, the firm credited “a star team of . . . attorneys and paralegals who worked around the clock and traveled around the world” for AIG's “unprecedented” positive relationship with regulators. That day, I was in Bermuda, scouring AIG’s archives for documents. Covered in dust from moving nearly one hundred grimy boxes, I read the firm’s press release and beamed with pride, knowing that I had helped make history. Despite my initial fear of defending large, profit-driven corporations, I managed to help protect a multi-billion dollar company from the detrimental effects of its management choices. There is a difference between a corporation and those who run it, and while there is an obligation to bring those men to justice, there is an equal responsibility to preserve the company in the interest of shareholders, other employees and those who utilize the company’s services. At that moment, I forgot all about the long hours and all-nighters, the monotonous and tedious tasks, the paper jams in the copiers and the paper cuts, the high expectations, and the pressure for perfection. I remembered, instead, the lessons I had learned along the way: communication is key; organization and precision are necessary; patience under pressure is invaluable; and above all, a flexible perspective is vital. Sometimes there are large, greedy corporations that prey on the individual, but other times, and in this case, there are greedy individuals who prey on the companies they run. In that minute of reflection, a realization crossed my mind: my grandiose view of law was gone, and in its place was a truer understanding of the practice of law.
My view of law is still idealistic in its effects, but entirely practical in its exercise. Fusing my knowledge of political theory, which constantly searches for the ideal, with my experience in a law firm, which celebrates tangible results, I bring a conception of law that balances its normative nature with its descriptive qualities. And more importantly, through all this discovery and self-exploration, I created a personal understanding of law that I can not only practice, but also take pride in.
Commentary 26: High-Stakes Law Experience
Topic: Chronological Growth, Mentor (Professor Burke, trading idealism for realism)
Structure: Personal Narrative
Thesis: I understand law practice and have been in the “field.”
Elements of Style: Confident and motivated energy
Committee Appeal: Tangible Impact on Individuals or Groups, Intellectual/Academic Excellence, Real World Experience, Good Leadership Skills/Works Well with People
Success Rating: 9/A
This is a truly exceptional law school personal statement. The candidate structures the statement as a narrative of personal growth, and her topic is what led her to learn more about the responsibilities of a lawyer in a firm. This essay is full of specific details, including unique details chosen for the competitive edge they give against other candidates. Her narrative follows a dynamic plotline in which she starts out with great self-confidence, then falters, is guided by a mentor through the crisis, and then proactively seeks more knowledge in a new realm that restores and even boosts her self-confidence to a new level. This is a standard format for a law school personal essay, but this candidate shows herself to be one of the best applicants in the pool because she has already excelled in real-world law experience (she was one of twenty paralegals working on the largest regulatory settlement by a single company in U.S. history). Through her legal work, the applicant impacted hundreds of individuals. Being able to claim this fact is the climax of the essay, which all the other component parts work to set up and enhance. Even her stint on Capitol Hill is subordinated to this achievement. The applicant chose a narrative that keeps her human, but makes her look like a star in the end.
The specific details about this event make the narrative both genuine and impressive. Law school admissions committee members know very few applicants will have dug through dusty files to gather evidence for a trial, and almost none will have traveled to an overseas territory to do so. This applicant speaks exactly the right rhetoric that will appeal to the admissions committee audience. For example, she uses a comparison to explain how she “excelled and flourished” in one area, which is comparable to another in which she expects to excel. She tells the reader about the organizations in which she has held leadership positions by working them into her argument about how she has valued liberal politics in school. This way they seem perfectly appropriate to the context and seamlessly woven into the narrative, while they contribute evidence for why this candidate should be admitted. A less rhetorically sophisticated essay might just state the leadership positions, but not use them to make a larger point. The candidate’s rhetorical treatment of what went through her mind when she read the press release is also rhetorically masterful: She tells the reader that at that moment she did not remember the bad times x, y, z, but she remembered the lessons learned, including a, b, c. This clever sentence lets the reader know that she has experienced the mundane aspects of the profession (dust, paper cuts, copy jams), so she knows what she is getting into on that front. The writer could have said she remembered the good times and described some moments with her team, but instead she made a better rhetorical choice and described the lessons she learned from the experience. The reader can tell the lessons she learned are genuine, and it turns out that these are important skills to hone in order to be a good lawyer: communication, precision, patience, flexibility. Thus, the applicant pithily showcases some of the qualities admissions committee members look for, while suggesting she is now knowledgeable about the various demands of the law profession. She gives an intelligent, self-taught description of a corporation as more than those at the highest levels. The candidate ends positively with a strong character, underscoring her confidence, self-determination, and promise to succeed in a law career.
This essay is quite long. If necessary, the third-to-last paragraph and the last paragraph can be cut, since they do not add anything particularly new to the statement. The second-to-last sentence contains unnecessary jargon. The narrative about Professor Burke is possibly a bit dramatic. Surely she didn’t fling open her professor’s office door and literally barge in. Law schools don’t want to think a candidate will have future crises in which she defies common rules of decorum. It would be fine to say simply, “One afternoon I showed up at Professor Burke’s office unannounced after completing that week’s class reading, Broken Contract, Richard Kahlenberg’s memoir about his years at Harvard Law School and his struggle to harmonize his liberal ideals with the mounting pressure to pursue corporate law.” The applicant will probably want to have Professor Burke write a letter of recommendation for her, as well as one of the lawyers at Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison, LLP. In the paragraph in which she describes the lessons she has learned from the AIG case, she might want to talk about teamwork, since this is especially important to admissions committees. It could be done by writing, “communication with the team is key.…” Finally, to work in evidence of her intellectual and analytical abilities when she describes the dusty files, she could claim to sift through files quickly and efficiently while gathering evidence that would make the strongest argument.
27. Uganda and Cambodia
Outraged, I walked out of the large lecture hall on the first day of class my freshman year of college. As I left, I could still hear the professor rattling off percentages about the relationship between open markets and poverty levels, without acknowledging the incalculable human suffering these figures represented. A young anti-globalization activist, I felt more comfortable being tear-gassed at protests than with this presentation of ideas different than my own. As I left the room, the professor jokingly remarked, “I guess she won’t be taking the class.” A few students laughed uncomfortably; my chest tightened in righteous anger.
What did my boycott of the class accomplish? The professor would never know what angered me about his presentation. It would be my senior year before I learned the quantitative relationship he had explicated—knowledge that would have helped me understand the global reality I felt to be so unjust. Although I excelled in college, I spent much of it safely on the political fringe, avoiding classes and interactions that might challenge my solid, simplistic ideas.
These ideas crumbled when confronted by the complexity of the developing world. First, during a semester studying development in Uganda, I found that the people at the World Bank with whom I was doing research were not the money-grubbing caricatures I had believed them to be. Then, in Cambodia the following summer, I was crushed when the indigenous poverty-relief organization I had received a grant to work for closed in an embezzlement scandal. This complex reality—in which the apparent villains and victims do not play their assigned roles—did not fit into my neat categories of good and evil. The line between them blurred and my own place in the resulting chaos became unclear. What was I doing in these countries halfway around the globe? Was I trying to relieve the proverbial white man’s burden and assuage my own guilt? My passion and activism were brought into question by a reality far murkier than I had believed it to be.
Reeling from this sense of confusion and loss of identity, I fell back on the Tibetan Buddhist tradition of my parents. After college I did a month-long meditation retreat called a dathun. During the long hours of meditation, I realized that I had never looked at my own mind. At school, I was so busy learning about the world that I had not examined my interactions with it. I began to see that my indignation usually created more confusion than understanding or change, and that my American goodwill was naïve at best and neocolonial at worst. By dismissing opinions that differed from my own—leaving the metaphoric classroom again and again—I had, on a small level, replicated a common pattern of intolerance. My inability to engage with the professor and the angry tightening in my chest as I left the classroom are no different than what fuels partisanship and political violence around world. Although my life had always appeared to be dedicated to others, I realized I had no idea how to be of real benefit. I did not want to continue to live in this way, so I devoted myself to the practice and study of meditation and immersed myself in Boulder, Colorado’s substantial Buddhist community.
A science of the mind, the practice of meditation has allowed me to see through my seemingly solid opinions, thoughts, and emotions. I have found that whether selfish, altruistic, trivial, or profound, they are fleeting; they rise and fall away one moment to the next. In between them are gaps filled with an empathetic awareness that remains constant, like the continually shining sun behind the ephemeral clouds. This awareness sees suffering—my own and other’s—and tries to ease it, often using theories and opinions to order the world and make it legible. This basic desire not to suffer was the seed for my belief in the supremacy of protest and villainy of the World Bank. I believe it was also at the root of my professor’s vision of a numbered reality. We are not that different after all.
I stopped believing in my theories and opinions so rigidly once I saw the process by which they are formed and the basic human desire for happiness at their root. My professor’s numerical presentation of open markets and poverty levels was correct according to his logic and priorities—as was my critique according to mine. They are, in fact, complementary snapshots of a reality so complex it can only be approximately captured. This realization has not made the pursuit of theoretical knowledge seem futile. Rather, as I continue my study of global justice, the importance of both my professor’s and my perspectives has become clear. They now coexist in my mind—helpful but incomplete theories that expose each other’s assumptions. This thought process is the result of my Buddhist training in the middle way between the extremes of fanatical belief on the one hand, and the rejection of the pursuit of knowledge on the other.
This tolerance for contradicting truths has spawned a playful curiosity as well as the desire to engage. In discovering the basis and biases of my own opinions, I am excited to learn about those of my once sworn enemies. Why do social conservatives and free-market economists think the way they do, and where is the common ground on which we can stand and explore what the world needs? I want to stay in the classroom with the professor whose perspective I disagree with, identify the truth in it, and challenge it fully instead of running away. Training, in meditation, to touch into the basic human awareness that underlies these myriad perspectives has given me the open-minded confidence to listen—and then disagree if necessary. This willingness to leave the gated communities of our own opinions is necessary in a society that allows all of those opinions, those imperfect snapshots of reality, to coexist. I want to be in the room where the laws that form that society, and protect the competing opinions of its people, are debated and created. I no longer want to protest outside.
Commentary 27: Uganda and Cambodia
Topic: Chronological Growth (experiences in Uganda, Cambodia, and with Buddhism)
Structure: Personal Narrative
Thesis: I have become shrewd but tolerant.
Elements of Style: A rant
Committee Appeal: Intellectual/Academic Excellence, Real World Experience, Pro-Active Starter
Success Rating: 6/B
This author is driven by personal commitments. The essay is structured as a narrative of personal growth, explaining why the applicant shifted from an insular to a cosmopolitan young woman. She describes developing a resourceful, eager, and strong character from a once stubborn attitude. The topic is how the real world clashed with her theoretical personal views. To cope with her awakening, the author turned to Buddhism, which taught her the importance of meditation and mediation, periods of calm followed by a middle path. And this subsequently taught her the importance of staying calm in a heated situation as well as the value of compromise. She also understands the importance of dialogue, and she makes it clear that she is ready to back down from the views she was protecting in order to open herself up to points of view she has never fully considered. She has also demonstrated that she can be strong-willed and formidable if certain situations in law school and beyond require these characteristics.
The heart of this essay is not the freshman teacher, but the awakening experience the author had in Uganda. Perhaps it would be better to begin with a specific story about a World Bank employee interacting with someone in Uganda; the author could then describe how her views began to change in that moment. To start with the freshman class story is to start negatively with a poor first impression of the applicant’s character because the reader is asked to envision an entire room laughing at the applicant for her naïve idealism. It matters how one first presents oneself in a personal statement, and it can be hard to recover from an initially negative self-presentation. The author might want to consider writing the essay from a different perspective, perhaps by using a more authoritative, reflective narrator who interprets the experiences with a mature perspective. Right now, the essay is narrated from the perspective of a person in the moment, becoming increasingly indignant and then confused and full of questions. This invites the reader to feel the same frustration and confusion in the third paragraph, but this emotional journey might be lost on the reader because there are not any specific details about Uganda or Cambodia that would put the reader in the moment. The essay seems to begin over again at the end of the fourth paragraph, when the applicant reevaluates her personal commitments. The reader wants to have made progress by this point, to have been told what qualities make the applicant a good candidate for law school. Introducing a retrospective narrator from the beginning could easily solve this. A wise narrator, who is of course a picture of the author now, who has distance and perspective on the events, would be able to make sense of the younger self’s feelings in a positive light. This narrator would be able to take the reader out of that confused mind into a more informed place by interpreting what was happening in a way that brings out the positive qualities of the author’s journey, such as a searching mind, the ability to experience doubt, and willingness to embrace other cultures.
One contradiction in this essay seems to be that the author asserts her individuality throughout the essay, but this jars against her Buddhist commitment to selflessness. The tone of the essay often seems angry, with phrases like “outraged” and “sworn enemy,” rather than the reflection of a still mind. College is a time to be receptive to many new ideas. The essay would end more powerfully if instead of saying she would like “to stay in the classroom with the professor whose perspective I disagree with, identify the truth in it, and challenge it fully instead of running away,” she could describe how she did go back to that professor (or another one in her department) and debate. This would demonstrate that she now actively seeks out social interaction and coalition building, that she is not a loner, and that she has impacted others. If this essay included a few more personal details and interpretation of the evidence it gives, then it would better tell why the candidate should be admitted to law school, not just that it is something she very much wants. This essay is an example of how an extremely talented applicant can choose a tone that actually hurts the application.
28. UK Study Abroad
The sight of the New York City skyline has twice signaled the finality of significant chapters in my life. In both instances, despite four years between them, the moment my airplane landed, I looked out the window and saw the same familiar scene of monolithic skyscrapers protruding from the city with the same familiar sense of internal progression and development. These two experiences, first in Rocky Ford, Colorado, and then in Edinburgh, Scotland, though cities separated by much more than mere distance, have facilitated a personal understanding of my own self and the world which I inhabit. Perhaps it was because I view New York as my home and carry with that sentiment all of the comforts associated, that I found it truly necessary to leave it in order to find the answers to some internally pressing questions. Therein lay the leading cause for what would become two of the most noteworthy experiences in my life thus far, both of which would test my ability to accept, and be accepted by, a new culture while defining the person who I was and was going to be.
Rocky Ford, Colorado has a population slightly over one thousand, and literally no Jewish denizens. Therefore, when I, along with fifteen other Jewish teenagers preparing to enter their senior year of high school, embarked upon a journey to the small town just across the New Mexico border, I was timid and concerned to say the least. Through the American Jewish Society for Service, a non-profit organization, we were commissioned to construct and repair homes for many of the town’s citizens, most of whom lived below the poverty line. Immediately upon arrival, we were treated differently by the native population; we were given an inhospitable welcome and glanced at by on-lookers as we walked through the town’s streets, yet we continued to perform the task at hand. Within two weeks, we had begun work on homes for almost ten families, and were clearly affecting an undeniably positive impact upon the community. Through our laborious work, town leaders and citizens alike began to slowly commend our ambitions, and, most rewardingly, some even began to volunteer their time and effort to rebuild their community alongside us. The ultimate signal of our acceptance into their society came on the evening of August 10, 2001, when the town of Rocky Ford threw a dinner party in appreciation of all that we had accomplished over the course of our seven weeks in the region. For the first time in my life, in that small Midwest town, I encountered the breadth and diversity of the American social landscape, and, furthermore, I was confronted with innovative ideas and beliefs, which I had never before known, and never will forget.
Although I had lived on my own for two and a half years while attending Binghamton University, I had always enjoyed the convenience of a three hour car ride home if necessary, therefore when I chose to study abroad in Scotland’s vibrant, yet cozy, capital of Edinburgh, I harbored sincere reservations. Although only four years earlier I had immersed myself in an entirely new culture in Rocky Ford, I could not fathom the vast societal differences I would encounter in Scotland, furthermore without the close support of my friends and family members. Despite the fact that the official language of Scotland is English, there are numerous linguistic and cultural differences that made the transition from my American lifestyle increasingly difficult. Within days of my arrival, however, I came to perceive my time in Edinburgh as a chance to learn about myself and the world in which I live from an entirely new perspective, and I seized that opportunity. By meeting individuals of various backgrounds, from Europeans to Africans and Indians, and traveling throughout the continent itself, I was able to explore and understand global matters from diverse, and often non-American, points of view. I often forced myself to listen rather than speak, thus opening my mind to new cultural ideas, many of which I had never before encountered. Similar to my experience in Rocky Ford, my journey to Edinburgh, and throughout Europe for that matter, opened my eyes to entirely new and interesting methods by which I could evaluate myself and those around me, allowing me to view and analyze issues from a vantage point which had previously been inaccessible to me.
As I looked out the window of the airplane on May 16, 2006, upon that picturesque skyline, having returned from just over four months spent abroad in Edinburgh, I thought back to the day I left, four years earlier, for Rocky Ford. That shy, timid, unexposed boy who ventured to southeastern Colorado had finally been given a brief glimpse into the world that he inhabited, and had witnessed the diversity of people and ideas surrounding him. That journey of personal growth, however, did not end in Scotland for me. I plan to take my ambitions for further change to law school, and hopefully allow them grow and flourish in that environment.
Commentary 28: UK Study Abroad
Topic: Chronological Growth (Rocky Ford and United Kingdom experiences)
Structure: Personal Narrative
Thesis: I work well with others and am generous.
Elements of Style: Cultural appeal of September 11
Committee Appeal: Works Well with Others
Success Rating: 5/B-
This essay demonstrates that the applicant has immersed himself in various cultures, has had cross-cultural experience in which he stepped out of his comfort zone, and that he enjoyed the experience and learned to fit in. This essay is structured as a personal narrative of growth. For his topic, the applicant has chosen two specific events of particular importance in his life. These trips demonstrate that he has influenced others and offered community service. The applicant has shown the tangible impact he has had on individuals in Rocky Ford, in the form of houses and community appreciation demonstrated by the banquet. For this reason, the Rocky Ford portion of this essay is stronger than the Edinburgh portion. The powerful mythos submerged in this essay is that the New York skyline changed between the time this applicant returned to New York after being in Rocky Ford, several days before Sept. 11, and when he returned after being in Edinburgh, several years after Sept. 11. This is so subtle it might be lost on an admissions committee member reading fast, but it implies that, like the New York skyline, the applicant was drastically changed by these events, but instead of something being taken away, like the lives and towers were, this applicant built and strengthened his character and personal experience in the change he underwent.
The rhetorical structure of this essay, which is the deep mythos and pathos of Sept. 11, needs to be more clearly articulated, or else the New York City skyline should not be the structuring image. The applicant needs to acknowledge that the skyline changed between his two landings, and he needs to make an explicit connection between changes in the New York City skyline and his life. As it stands now, the two topical events, Rocky Ford and Edinburgh, aren’t rhetorically linked by anything other than that they are both trips to other cultures, and Sept. 11 is not there.
Drawing on the shared cultural experience of Sept. 11 is not enough. The applicant needs to give more evidence of how his experiences developed specific positive qualities in himself, such as leadership, intellectual and analytic abilities. For example, he could rewrite the sentence in the introduction about “internally pressing questions,” which he never explains, to make clear that he left home to find leadership qualities in himself. Then in the paragraphs that follow, he could describe and interpret experiences that give evidence of his leadership qualities. The admissions committee must have evidence to back up broad assertions. In the Rocky Ford paragraph, for example, the applicant could discuss what it was like to work with a team of people like himself, which gradually expanded to include members of the Rocky Ford community, whom he at first thought were very different from himself. He could give an example of how he learned to value teamwork—both the ability to delegate and the ability to collaborate with others. Then he could conclude this paragraph with how he became more self-confident, mature and developed his oral communication skills from this experience. This way, the statement creates a critical mass of evidence for why the candidate would be an asset to law school. In the final paragraph, the applicant could also refer back to his experience in Rocky Ford and link it to Sept. 11 by stating his belief that being able to understand the point of view of others is important to law, and increasingly important to our global community.
This statement needs more specific details about Edinburgh. He might want to give more examples of how he influenced others in Europe. For example, did he hone his persuasive skills in discussions with friends from different cultures in discussions about Sept. 11; or, is there one person in particular who sees the world differently because of their conversations? What specifically did he learn from his friends from other cultures? In talking with people from many cultures who met in Edinburgh, perhaps he came to acknowledge that there were many more cultures much more different from those he had experienced that he would like to learn more about. Perhaps this inspired him to begin to learn about international law, or perhaps his travels in Europe inspired him to begin studying French. Specific details can make all the difference.
In another paragraph after discussing Edinburgh, or in the final paragraph, the applicant might want to give one or two sentences about his experience of Sept. 11 and the repercussions the tragedy had in his own life, either by developing some of his qualities or by fueling his interest in law. For example, did he follow the lawsuits resulting from the event, or the state and national laws that changed because of the terrorist attack? He should take out the “four years earlier” because it leads the reader to think both the Rocky Ford and Edinburgh experiences happened after Sept. 11. The applicant should not describe himself as “shy, timid and unexposed,” in the last paragraph because these are unnecessary negatives. Perhaps he could end with a statement about his continuing growth and the skyward rebuilding of his home skyline.
29. Delmarva Shorebirds
From Ordinary to Honors
Winston Churchill once said, “The farther backward you can look, the farther forward you are likely to see.” Churchill’s statement is extremely evident in my path toward law school. Appearing to be a typical straight out of undergraduate law school applicant, I bring much more than that to the table. My academic achievements speak for themselves as I graduated with honors in only three years. However my path toward college was not as successful. I attended a competitive private high school and was among the bottom tier of students in my class. Going into my undergraduate studies, I was excited to get to a new place in my life, but did not realize my potential for academic success.
My success in high school was marginal at best. I was barely a B student. My first days of high school were rough, leaving my home area to attend a private school where I did not know a single other person. The discomfort I felt translated into a not so great first two years and I only ended up a B student because of a fairly successful senior year.
I again decided to leave my comfort zone as I attended the University of South Carolina (USC), six hundred and fifty miles from home. One of my very first courses was a seemingly meaningless course, titled “University 101: The Student in University.” The course was essentially a welcome to school course, an easy A, and some fair warnings and instructions for surviving the college experience. To most people including myself, this class appeared to be a waste of time. I could not have been more wrong.
I quickly began to get very involved in the class, and it became a major factor in my comfort and success at USC. My instructor, Dr. Gene Luna, was a huge part of this. Being the Director of Housing as well as the Director of Student Affairs, Dr. Luna helped me become comfortable on campus and get involved with various activities. He pushed everyone in the class to succeed, and I soon realized it was not about University 101, it was about the rest of our first semester, and our continued success as we went onto our degree.
I realized how poorly I began high school. With that in mind and my newfound comfort at USC, I thrived early on. I knew I could succeed, and I had an instructor that cared as a great resource to my success. While other students were struggling to adjust to college life, I was able to relax and easily make it through my first group of classes. I felt as if I was better prepared for college life because of my tough course through high school, and my comfortable introduction to college life.
The college lifestyle seemed to work together with my learning style. Many students get to college, have an abundance of time on their hands and end up wasting all of it. For me it was a relief to have some free time, and I used the time to excel in my class work and still have a great social experience. The more independence I obtained, the better I was able to deal with it.
My early success has allowed me to push myself as of late in order to graduate in three years. My comfort at school allowed me to take up to 21 credit hours per semester, get involved on campus with activities and part-time jobs, and continue to succeed in my coursework.
I entered my undergraduate studies as someone who struggled in high school, coming into school with only 4 of my 127 required credits completed. Presently, I look forward to graduating with a perfect 4.0 grade point average in only three years and attending law school to pursue a career as an attorney. I look forward to the challenges ahead, and am finally realizing my full potential for success.
Commentary 29: Delmarva Shorebirds
Topic: Chronological Growth (Raising GPA), Mentor
Structure: Organizing Quote, Personal Narrative
Thesis: I reevaluated my life and goals in college.
Elements of Style: Tribute to a mentor
Committee Appeal: Good Leadership Skills, Works Well with Others
Success Rating: 3/D
This applicant chose to structure the personal statement around a quote. Winston Churchill wrote some of the most memorable quotes in the English language; he was an artist of the epigram. For this reason, he is over-quoted and often cited out of context, but he is always loved. This applicant also chose to tell a personal narrative about a mentor who changed his life. The title and the quote are both about change through time. The title is “From Ordinary to Honors,” which suggests the personal statement will be structured by chronological growth. The quote suggests the writer will look at his past mistakes and accomplishments in order to make well-evaluated choices about the future. The author’s angle is “I get more responsible with age.”
The biggest problem with this personal statement is its lack of specific details. The reader doesn’t feel like he or she gets to know the applicant. The writer doesn’t explain why he respects Winston Churchill, nor does he explain how the quote applies specifically to him. Furthermore, he gives no specific details about the law school he is applying to and why he feels he is a good match for that school. The reader learns from this statement that the writer feels he has improved as a student thanks to a teacher named Dr. Gene Luna. There are no specific details about the author or his mentor. The reader is also told that the applicant began school with four credits and graduated from USC in three years, all of which can be learned from the transcript.
This essay’s implicit theme is that the writer achieves success in a comfortable setting. But what law school touts “comfort” as a central characteristic of its environment? The rigorous and competitive atmosphere of a J.D. program is, this writer sets us up to believe, akin to his “competitive private high school” experience; it is, in other words, a setting in which he is likely to flounder. The other problem with the emphasis on success and comfort is simply that it is redundant: in this 650-word statement, variations on the word “success” are used a dozen times, and forms of “comfort” appear over half a dozen times. The personal statement should develop and expand the applicant’s strengths, or show them at work in a variety of contexts, rather than just reiterate them.
The essay sets up valuable points of entry where specific details could illustrate why this applicant would make a good law school candidate, but these opportunities are missed. For example, the personal narrative about the mentor, Dr. Gene Luna, lacks a story. The writer might, for example, elaborate on the claim that Luna “pushed everyone in the class to succeed.” How? At what? Did everyone in the class take up the challenge, or is the writer’s experience unique in some way? If, for example, the applicant discussed how Professor Luna taught his class about USC’s commitment to working with endangered species, and the applicant organized a special workshop to read and discuss the legal literature on animal rights, then that would give the admissions committee a specific story that illustrates the applicant’s qualities of motivation, leadership, analytic ability, and organization. In such a case, the applicant would want Professor Luna to mention this contribution in a letter of recommendation, in order to verify the story and therefore verify the applicant’s assertions about his qualities and character.
This personal statement also sets up a potentially powerful quote to create a thematic backbone for the essay, but the essay does not unpack the rhetorical power of the quote and weave that power through the essay. This writer needs to sit down with the quote and spend time unpacking the various levels and resonances of it in relation to his life and goals. The quote by Winston Churchill this writer chose as his epigraph is, “The farther backward you can look, the farther forward you are likely to see.” The writer of this statement should have looked back at least as far as the time when Churchill said this, since the quote itself is about the value of history, not the value of an individual life. However, a cunning writer could beautifully bend the quote’s meaning to encompass one life, while at the same time invoking world events of great significance that have impacted him. For example, if the applicant were able to mention a grandparent who had some significant connection to World War II (and therefore Churchill) and who influenced the applicant by teaching him lessons about life or law, then the quote would have both cultural and personal significance, in addition to specific details that would contribute to developing the author’s personality. A rhetorical strategy such as this would allow the quote to unfurl its full power, and it would elegantly bind the quote to a personal history, one that impacts, and is impacted by, others.
Finally, this essay focuses too much energy on negative aspects of the applicant’s personal history. Focusing on the fact that the applicant was among the bottom tier of students in his high school class does nothing to recommend the applicant for law school. Law schools, especially top law schools, expect applicants to have been high-achievers all along. Showing improvement over time might not be the best structure for this applicant to choose in the final draft of the personal statement. Improvement over time is best used when the applicant has had to overcome a major difficulty, such as a learning disability, a major accident, or moving to a new country with a new language, not just moving to a new school.