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TLS Guide to Personal Statements: Table of Contents   Foreword
Chapters: 1   2   3   4   5   6   7   8   9   10   11   12   13   14   Appendixes: A   B   C   D   E   F   G


Chapter 14: The Mentor (Topic)

Published November 2009

Many people can identify one person who helped them excel intellectually or to find themselves when young adulthood had them reeling. You may decide to organize your personal statement around a mentor if you made friends with someone who helped you along your developmental path by inspiring you, challenging you, or simply caring about your welfare. Distinguish yourself from the mentor, and do not let the essay become too much about the mentor. The following two essays explain in what ways the authors listened to their mentors’ experience, so that they did not choose their own paths in ignorance. These authors make the mentors likeable. They capture the feeling of wisdom the mentors imparted. They also demonstrate that they acted on the insight the mentor offered. This topic goes well with the character sketch structure.

30. Debate Skills

As I walked into Professor Deatherage’s office my heart was racing. Scott Deatherage was the Coach of the Decade for the 1990s and had won two more National Debate Tournament championships by 2003. He had taken me under his wing when I arrived, wide-eyed in Chicago. Four years later, after the best tournament of my life, I was going to tell the man who believed in this small town Texan that my debate career had come to an end. What would he say?

That summer I had spent countless late nights reading everything about global agricultural policy and had produced a policy proposal that was selected by almost every team on our squad to defend during tournaments that year. In my freshman year I had not known where to start on my first research project, but now entering my senior year I had produced a 700-page file made up of newspaper, book, and law review articles and congressional testimony on every aspect of agricultural subsidy policy.

During the season, my partner and I had gone toe-to-toe with the best teams in the nation. Northwestern debate had brought me from a small town orator to an analytical strategist. As I moved through my senior year, I realized that I had learned an amazing amount about myself through debate; however, the time had come to think about the big picture. Our coaches taught us that in a debate round, if one attempts to win every point of contention, then he or she will be spread too thin and lose the entire argument. In the larger picture of my academic career, I needed to choose between the activity I loved and getting the most of the academic opportunities available to me. My application to write an honors thesis in the English department had recently been accepted. The research and critical reading skills that I had honed over the past four years were now to be turned to novels and theoretical essays. If I decided to do both debate and my thesis, then I would succeed at neither. As Professor Deatherage told us again and again, “you must choose, because if you go for everything you will win nothing.”

Working on my honors thesis illuminated how valuable debate was to my intellectual development. I read each paper as I had each article for debate. I had been drilled in argument structure, discriminating between critical and unimportant details and summarizing the central theses of what I read. With the guidance of my advisor, Professor Brian Edwards, I did go on to write a thesis of which I am very proud. The outstanding instruction at Northwestern University exposed me to new worlds of knowledge, and debate had gave me the tools necessary to develop my own critical lens to take full advantage of that knowledge throughout my life.

Since college I have moved to the Bay Area with my wife as she pursues her doctorate. I have used these years to explore my interests to determine my future career goals. As I researched numerous fields I took an inventory of my skills and interests. The skills I listed were those that drew me into debate in the first place: public speaking, critical reading, argument analysis, persuasion, and research. I will be able to best use these skills in the legal field.

Currently I work for a company that specializes in producing electronic, educational toys. This has opened my eyes to the complex challenges facing companies dependent on proprietary technologies and content that, for financial reasons, must manufacture products in nations without lengthy traditions of copyright and patent protections. I think Stanford’s Science, Technology, and Intellectual Property Law Program would be an excellent fit for my personal interests and skills. The close ties with companies in Silicon Valley and the Bay Area facing these challenges daily makes Stanford the ideal location for me to pursue my legal studies.

In his office Professor Deatherage warmly listened to what I had decided. I will never forget the elation I felt when he expressed his pride in watching me mature into the debater and person I had become. Being from a small town in Texas himself, he understood what it meant for me to have come as far as I had, and that I was ready to face another challenge.

Commentary 30: Debate Skills

Structure: Personal Narrative
Topic: Mentor (Leaving the debate team to write a senior thesis)
Thesis: I have excellent skills in argumentation, along with realistic goals and maturity.
Elements of Style: Logical
Committee Appeal: Intellectual Excellence, Regional Uniqueness
Success Rating: 9/A

What’s Strong:

The essay is energetic, and it lauds debate skills, both of which will make the admissions committee sit up and gratefully take notice. It begins with suspense and fulfills the promise of the resolution at the end of the essay. The essay teaches a lesson to everyone who reads it, which is not to overextend oneself, but to choose goals wisely and see each one through to the best of one’s abilities. This candidate has an excellent character, or ethos, in which he demonstrates strength of will and pride in his accomplishments. His rhetoric also suggests he, like the professor whose background he shares, will grow into a master of his field and an inspiring supporter of others. This is an excellent essay.

The applicant was admitted to both Stanford and Berkeley, which have the finest intellectual property programs in the nation.

What’s Wrong:

A few minor adjustments will make this essay stand out as exceptional. In the first paragraph, the applicant should mention at which college Professor Deatherage coached. This will allow the applicant to get across that he was debating with the best college debaters in the country. He should integrate the paragraph on soul-searching after college with the paragraph about his job at the toy company. He should also discuss what he did at the toy company, and why he chose this job. Telling why he chose this job will underscore the claim that he carefully chooses each goal and fulfills it to his full potential before moving on. For example, he should state what skills he expected to acquire or improve from this job (such as negotiation, public speaking, patent law, or whatever skill it was that he wanted to develop). He should then state that he did improve those skills, and that he is ready to move on. He should give more specific examples about what he achieved on the Northwestern debate team. For example, the author should more clearly convey that the team competed nationally, and whether his team won a national title. Furthermore, was his debate league the highest level for debate teams in the country, before actual professional debates in the courtroom and policy offices? This information will help the admissions committee put the applicant’s accomplishments into perspective by giving evidence that he is one of the best debaters in the country. The applicant should also make sure Professor Deatherage writes him a recommendation letter because the admissions committee will want this to substantiate what the applicant claims about his debate skills, and will enjoy reading about the narrative from another perspective. Finally, the author should replace most of his uses of the past perfect tense with the past tense. The reader encounters over a dozen instances of “had” in the first three paragraphs alone—a jarring interruption in otherwise smooth-flowing prose.

31. Korean American

According to the Bible, we are created in God's image, with a unique beauty that is all our own. Yet, for most of my life, I cringed at the face that I saw in the mirror. To my family, my shiny black hair and yellowish skin were proud reminders of my Korean heritage. To me, they were painful evidence that I was different from the other students in my grade school classroom. For many immigrants, moving to America is an exciting opportunity to develop an identity that embodies the best aspects of two cultures. Unfortunately, when I arrived in the United States at age four, I did everything possible to condemn the Korean part of my heritage. In a classroom filled with blonde, blue-eyed students, my Asian features drew unwanted comments and scrutiny. Each night, I showered furiously to "whiten" my skin, so that I would resemble the other students. In my childish mind, being different meant being inferior, which was simply too painful to bear.

A key part of my assimilation plan was to master English, which helped me to establish an identity that was separate from my parents. The more proficient I became in my new language, the more I detested their broken English and heavy accents, which were a constant source of embarrassment. Each year, my awkward experience on "Open House Night" forced me to confront the disparity between my public and private worlds. Unlike other children, whose parents spoke effortlessly with the teachers, I spent the entire night serving as translator for my mother and father. In those painful moments, I feared that I would never be accepted in this new world that I yearned to call my own.

By the time I enrolled at Torrance High School, my primary goal was to be "100% American." Accordingly, I distanced myself from the Korean Students Association in favor of cross-country and track, where I could socialize with the popular Caucasian students. As graduation approached, I seized the chance to continue my education in a diverse East Coast environment. I rejected prominent colleges and universities that boasted a high percentage of Asian students in favor of Brandeis University, which offered a prestigious politics program and a selective, mainstream population. In such an illustrious group of student leaders, activists, and geniuses, I hoped to shed the final remnants of my immigrant identity.

Everything changed the summer before college, when my paternal grandmother died in Korea. At my father's insistence, I accompanied him to Seoul to handle the details of her funeral. When I first arrived, I was overwhelmed by the sights, sounds, and smells of such a strange land. I was angered by every aspect of this culture, which I had tried so valiantly to deny. Sensing my restlessness, my father encouraged me to attend a series of sermons given by U.S. Senator Paul Shin at a church in Seoul.

Over subsequent weeks, I was moved by the Senator's inspirational sermons, which conveyed his devotion to serving God in whatever way he could and his considerable pride in his Korean-American heritage. One Sunday, I had the honor of meeting with Senator Shin for a one-on-one conversation and prayer. In his comforting presence, I admitted my anger and frustration with my dual heritage, which I viewed as a detriment in American society. I was emotionally tired of trying to reconcile my outside appearance with what I yearned to be inside.

For a few moments, Senator Shin simply listened in silence. Then he quietly shared his own experiences of leaving Korea as a young boy to be raised by an American family. For him, South Korea held horrible memories of abandonment, starvation and abuse. As a child, he witnessed a homeless friend resort to suicide on the train tracks to escape the harsh reality of winter. Once he came to America, the Senator had a real chance at life: food, housing, an education, and a loving family who supported his hopes and dreams. Although he had every reason to deny his Korean heritage, which had given him nothing but pain, he embraced it with enthusiasm. Eventually, he came to see his unique background as a way to connect with people and promote God's word.

To my surprise, Senator Shin continued to face discrimination in America, even after decades of public service. Unlike me, he endured it with honor and integrity, because he was proud of who he was and what he had been put on earth to do. During times of doubt, the Senator turned to God for the strength to lead. He also took the time to give back to other immigrants who were trying to find their way. I was touched to know that someone who had endured so much pain could be so thankful, successful, and insightful. For the first time, I was proud of the seemingly insignificant hyphen between Korean and American, which I had always tried to deny. After a week of tears, humility, learning, and prayer, I opened my heart to the half of my heritage that I had suppressed for so long; I became a Korean-American.

Eventually, I understood the nature of my anger and frustration. For many years, I viewed my two nationalities as parents that I had to choose between, although both of them had played an integral role in the person I had become. To deny one while embracing the other would mean denying a sacred part of myself. To me, America is my fatherland; it has given me a home, an education, and the chance to fulfill my destiny. Korea, on the other hand, is my motherland; it has given me my body, language, and culture. Although I have taken thousands of showers, my skin will always retain the yellowish color of my ancestors. To deny my Korean heritage would be to deny its rich and noble history, of which my parents are justifiably proud.

With the Senator's help, I acknowledged the value of knowing and accepting exactly who I was, even if it was different from the norm. He helped me to revive my faith through prayer to fulfill God's plan for my life. During my last month in Seoul, I volunteered at an organization that helped bi-racial residents of South Korea deal with discrimination. The heartbreaking situations they faced, which threatened their ability to survive, incited my sense of activism. I returned to the United States with a passion to learn more about my Korean heritage and to help new immigrants adapt to American culture.

At Brandeis University, I abandoned my original plan to "blend in" with the mainstream population. Instead, in addition to my double major in Politics and Sociology, I completed a minor in East Asian Studies, because I wanted to learn more about Asian languages, culture, and politics. I also joined the Korean Student Association and the Brandeis Asian-American Student Association, which promoted a sense of unity and acceptance on campus. As a leader in these groups, I organized forums, speakers, and social activities to enable Asian and international students to discuss topics of political and social interest. During Asian Pacific Heritage Month (APAHM), I coordinated an Asian arts festival at Brandeis called Shades of Asian America (SKIN), which showcased the music, dancing, writing, and fashion of Asian-American designers. This creative extravaganza, with its high energy fashion show, allowed us to break the stereotype of Asian-Americans as shy, quiet, analytical types.

Assuming a leadership role in these activities was a growth experience that reinforced my flair for activism. When I discovered that Brandeis did not offer any courses about Korea, I lobbied the administrators to create a class about Korean history, culture, politics, and language. Although the university did not create the course, they hired a sociology professor, Nadia Kim, whose classes about Korean immigration included issues relating to race, ethnicity, and identity. In addition, to leading the forums on Asian-American history and politics, I conducted my own research on the topics, which reinforced my passion for the Korean culture. At the same time, I continued to nurture the parts of my personality that were decidedly American; through my work on the student paper and activities board, I became a student leader who represented both the majority and minority viewpoints on campus.

During my senior year, I worked as a researcher and translator for Professor Kim, who lobbies on behalf of Korean immigrants. While translating documents for her, I humbly learned about the challenges that most immigrants face when attempting to achieve the American dream. I acknowledged my need to use my considerable gifts, including my fluency in Asian languages and cultures, to help other minorities succeed. As a legal assistant and assistant director of employee relations at GN Computer Networking Corporation, I am privileged to work for an Asian-American company that encourages diversity by hiring, training, and developing talent in the Korean-American community. Further, by conducting business with companies in Seoul, we provide a tangible boost to the Korean economy.

When I look to the future, I am buoyed by Senator Shin's fine example of hope and activism. Before I met him, I could not imagine how my Korean identity could benefit my new life in America. His kindness and insight have allowed me to view my bi-cultural background as an asset that enables me to build a bridge between two disparate cultures. As an attorney, I will have the skills to help immigrants understand and protect their rights in America. In doing so, I can attain justice for clients who would not otherwise have a voice in the legal system.

I am also committed to guiding minority teenagers onto the proper path, as Senator Shin so graciously guided me. After law school, I hope to establish a non-profit organization that matches minority students with jobs and internships in their proposed areas of study. I also plan to lend my voice to initiatives such as the Dream Act, which provides a mechanism for immigrant children to obtain legal residency in the United States. My unique background, including my legal experience at GN Computer Networking Corp. and the District Attorney General's Office, will add considerable value to my law school class. After a lifetime of preparation, I am eager to devote my future to the welfare of the Korean-American community. It is my calling, which I am honored to answer.

Commentary 31: Korean American

Topic: Mentor (Religious leader)
Structure: Personal Narrative
Thesis: When I learned to value diversity, I became a leader.
Elements of Style: Acceptance and faith
Committee Appeal: Good Leadership Skills, Real World Experience, Uniqueness
Success Rating: 8/B+

What’s Strong:

This is an excellent essay because it combines a poignant narrative with an impressive, swift stream of accomplishments in college. The statement is organized as a personal narrative and the topic is overcoming internalized prejudice. This author leads her audience, directing what they think of her struggles, intellectual abilities and achievements, rather than waiting for them decide. This is the mark of a very self-confident leader, and it is rare, but very desirable, to find this kind of voice, or ethos, in a personal statement. For example, the author gives strong reasons for why she chose Brandeis specifically. Whether it is true or not, this makes the reader believe the candidate could easily have gone to Harvard or Princeton, but deliberately chose another course. By analogy, this also leads the admissions committee to believe that she has researched their law program thoroughly and knows exactly what she wants to gain from the experience. The ninth, tenth and eleventh paragraphs are the strongest in the essay because they provide a rapid-fire account of her achievements in college. These paragraphs are excellent examples of exactly what admissions committees are looking for in a personal statement. Paragraph thirteen also gives an excellent example of the author’s goals after law school.

What’s Wrong:

This essay must be counting on uninformed white readers, because it plays fast and loose with its treatment of diversity. For one thing, it uses Asian American and Korean American interchangeably—in paragraph 12, for example, the author professes knowledge of “Asian languages,” but has only mentioned knowing Korean, and says she works for an “Asian-American company,” but it only works with the “Korean-American community.” This could alienate Asian American readers who are not Korean. The author’s introductory paragraph is also confusing and reductive. She lives in a place “filled with blonde, blue-eyed students”; however, Torrance is known in California for having a substantial Japanese-American population.

The essay is long. Some schools invite this, but if the essay needs to be shortened, the author should consider cutting several of the paragraphs about Senator Shin, because the parts of the statement most relevant to the admissions committee are the ones that discuss her teamwork, leadership, and intellectual pursuits: all of the things the author accomplished once she achieved a strong sense of self and self-confidence.

The essay needs to conclude by making clear, strong claims about the applicant’s future plans. This author’s claims are at times vague or implausible. For example, the author says she “will have the skills to help immigrants,” but does not say that she plans to help them. The author would do well to be more specific about her goals: Does she intend to work in the non-profit sector, or instead expect to do some pro bono work while working at a firm? Also, the proposal to establish a non-profit organization seems far-fetched, since the author has not described experience with non-profit work or job training expertise.

The religious enthusiasm in this essay could be alienating to some members of the law school admissions committee. They might not be religious or they may expect writers of personal statements to know that the genre is primarily a place to showcase intellectual and analytical achievements. For better or for worse, post-graduate education programs expect applicants and students to be private about their religious beliefs, unless they connect their faith to their career as a lawyer (for example, one may intend to work as counsel for a religious non-profit). In this essay, it would be better to treat religious faith with a lighter touch. For example, it is fine to say that the author attended a series of sermons by Senator Shin. This lets the admissions committee know that the applicant is describing a religious experience and that she has a powerful belief system, but it also balances this aspect with Senator Shin’s incredible achievements as a public servant. One way to present the author’s experience in Korea might be something like this:

Over subsequent weeks, I was moved by the Senator's inspirational sermons, which conveyed his devotion to serving in whatever way he could and his considerable pride in his Korean-American heritage. One Sunday, I was honored to have a private audience with Senator Shin. In his comforting presence, I admitted my anger and frustration with my dual heritage, which I viewed as a detriment in American society. I was emotionally tired of trying to reconcile my outside appearance with what I yearned to be inside.

For a few moments, Senator Shin simply listened in silence. Then he quietly shared his own experiences of leaving Korea as a young boy to be raised by an American family. For him, South Korea held horrible memories of abandonment, starvation and abuse. As a child, he witnessed a homeless friend resort to suicide on the train tracks to escape the harsh reality of winter. Once he came to America, the Senator had a real chance at life: food, housing, an education, and a loving family who supported his hopes and dreams. Although he had every reason to deny his Korean heritage, which had given him nothing but pain, he embraced it with enthusiasm. Eventually, he came to see his unique background as a way to connect with people.

To my surprise, Senator Shin continued to face discrimination in America, even after decades of public service. Unlike me, he endured it with honor and integrity, because he was proud of who he was, what he had accomplished, and what he knew he could achieve as a leader. He also took the time to give back to other immigrants who were trying to find their way. I was touched to know that someone who had endured so much pain could be so thankful, successful, and insightful. For the first time, I was proud of the seemingly insignificant hyphen between Korean and American, which I had always tried to deny. 
To deny my Korean heritage would be to deny its rich and noble history, of which my parents are justifiably proud.

With the Senator's help, I acknowledged the value of knowing and accepting exactly who I was, and keeping that faith. During my last month in Seoul, I volunteered at an organization that helped bi-racial residents of South Korea deal with discrimination. The heartbreaking situations they faced, which threatened their ability to survive, incited my sense of activism. I returned to the United States with a passion to learn more about my Korean heritage and to help new immigrants adapt to American culture.

Overall, this is an extremely well-written personal statement from an accomplished young woman.


» Continue to Appendix A: Reach School Risk-Taking
« Back to Chapter 13: Chronological Growth (Topic)