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Chapter 3: The Rhetorical Approach to the Personal Statement
Published November 2009
Convincing Your Audience to Admit You to Law School
This book presents a rhetorical approach to the personal statement. A rhetorical approach builds on a classical tradition of oratory and argumentation—a classical tradition, in fact, from which we derive the contemporary practice of law. Rhetoric focuses on understanding the occasion of speech (or writing) and the expectations of the audience whom you wish to convince of the validity of your claims. Modern rhetoric is the art and science of persuasion. The rhetorical approach is therefore the ideal approach to the personal statement, because it allows you to achieve your three main objectives: (1) to eliminate any reasons your reader might have to doubt your potential; (2) to inspire readers to act on your behalf; (3) to persuade members of the admissions committee to admit you to their school.
Personal statements can appeal to readers in four main ways: logically, emotionally, ethically, and culturally. Every sentence in your personal statement will use one of these rhetorical appeals, whether or not you are conscious of it. Becoming conscious of how you are deploying these rhetorical appeals—paying attention, in other words, to what your writing is saying and how it is saying it—will allow you to become a more careful and competent (and ultimately more compelling) writer. You may want to jump ahead and read an example of each type of statement; a representative statement is cited at the end of each section.
Logical Appeals are the most common and straightforward way to convince a reader to believe in your argument. Use a logical appeal—facts, figures, expert testimony, or syllogism—to substantiate your claims. You should use logical appeals in your personal statement in a few different ways. First, as you read in the previous section, you should justify every substantive claim you make with compelling supporting evidence. Saying you are a hard worker is not enough; you must give evidence of your industriousness. Second, you should use the personal statement to offer a logically coherent narrative of your relevant past experiences and future plans. The admissions committee will not brook internal contradictions or logical flaws in your essay. Finally, you should demonstrate your aptitude for legal thinking by showing that you understand how logic and argumentation work.
Emotional appeals speak not to the logical mind but rather to the emotions of your reader, building a bridge of human sympathy between you and another person. If you tell a story of personal tragedy, human suffering, or triumph, your reader will almost certainly react. After all, though the admissions committee may largely be composed of admissions consultants, professors and lawyers, your readers are human beings moved by both reason and feeling. If you describe terrible suffering, you will make your readers sad. If you tell a story about overcoming adversity, you will make them happy. But be careful. Appealing too much to emotions—writing wrenching descriptions, invoking fear or guilt, or even using one too many glowing adjectives—can turn readers against you in a heartbeat, especially if they feel manipulated, coddled, or offended by your rhetorical maneuvers. Use emotional appeals (sometimes called “pathos”) sparingly, tastefully, and carefully.
Ethical appeals persuade your reader to trust you, demonstrate your worthy character, and inspire confidence in your judgment. The admissions committee wants to admit a class of law students who are credible, competent, and likeable people. Committee members should want to meet you and get to know you after reading your personal statement. Any sentence in your personal statement that contributes to the overall picture of your positive, trustworthy, self-confident, and authoritative character is a sort of ethical appeal. For example, if you describe a record of community service to support the claim that you are interested in public service, you are making a case for your good character.
Of the four basic types of rhetorical appeal, the ethical appeal is the most important for your personal statement. You want to demonstrate that you are a perceptive leader who can communicate well with others, that you are open to new experiences, and that you are an enthusiastic person. You do not want to come across as too formal, stuffy, or technical. You also do not want to sound arrogant or self-absorbed. In the final analysis, every other rhetorical move you make should substantiate your claims about your good character (sometimes called your “ethos”). Your good character will become, for your advocates, the most compelling reason to admit you to law school.
Cultural appeals, a more subtle form of rhetoric, builds on the fact that we share certain stories, myths, and cultural ideas. When someone refers to Snow White or “The Force,” most of us will recognize the reference. Sentences that draw their power from a shared sense of beliefs, values, myths, sayings, and symbols appeal to shared cultural horizons (this is sometimes called using “mythos”). When skillfully used, cultural appeals add resonance to your argument and forge a strong connection between you and your reader.
Cultural appeals can be used in your personal statement in a number of related ways. Keep in mind that you should appeal to the values you are likely to share with your readers, such as the desire for success, love of freedom, and respect for honesty, among others. Be sure to articulate these values in ways that are genuinely universal. Nothing will grate on your readers as much as a disharmony between their cultural values and the values expressed in your personal statement. Likewise, be aware that many personal statements will invoke collective experiences such as the September 11 terrorist attacks. What may seem profoundly resonant to you may end up seeming clichéd to a committee that has to read fifty September 11-related essays. Finally, if you are describing your experiences with foreign or unfamiliar societies, you may need to make some allowances for readers unfamiliar with that culture or its practices. If you think the reader will not be able to relate to a story you tell in your personal statement, try to rework your narrative so that your audience can connect to it imaginatively. Use vivid and telling sensory details. Explain words or phrases that are unusual. In other words, be a good storyteller.
» Continue to Chapter 4: Choosing Structure and Topic