Why are these personal statements good?

(Personal Statement Examples, Advice, Critique, . . . )
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ivankasta
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Why are these personal statements good?

Postby ivankasta » Tue Jun 13, 2017 2:12 am

I will be applying next cycle, so I've been thinking a lot lately about how I am going to write my personal statement. Just recently, I've started reading examples of "good" personal statements, but I'm really surprised at the type of statements I've found. The essays in this link (http://blog.spiveyconsulting.com/all-sample-personal-statements/) are pretty typical of what I've been finding.

All of these essays, which are presented as model personal statements, seem to me like they say nothing about the actual applicant. They all just seem like exercises in creative writing. Sure, everyone who wrote these statements is a great story teller, but we're applying for law school, not a creative writing masters program. I get the feeling from all of these essays that the writers started by asking themselves "What event, formative or not, has happened in my life that I could make a nice story out of?" then "What nice-sounding lesson can I retroactively fit into that narrative?".

I would think a better approach would be to first ask "Why do I really think that I will succeed in law school?" (which is a difficult question) and then "How can I communicate my answer as clearly and convincingly as possible?" I think that a good answer to the first question might be a little boring and most likely won't fit into a neat narrative that you could publish in a short story collection. But I'd like to think that the admissions officers aren't children who we need to goad into giving our statements their due attention with some silly narrative about a cat or coping with quitting the baseball team (C'mon, really?? You had no sense of your individualism before you quit baseball? You just saw yourself as baseball man and nothing else? It's so melodramatic, I know this guy doesn't believe half of what he's writing. I feel like I'm being lied to in all of these statements).

I feel like I could write a much more informative, useful, and honest personal statement by abandoning the creative narrative format altogether and instead just being candid about what I believe my strengths are, why I believe I have them, and how they will contribute to my success as a law student and eventual attorney. I think I could best present this in a clear, easy-to-follow essay with no twists-and-turns and no flowery language. So why all the fuss over creative writing? Why is there not more of a focus on actual content in terms of a realistic assessment of an applicant's strengths? This is law school, after all. I might just be a naive applicant, but I don't think I'll begin many memos with "The air was heavy and flat, permeated only by the distant monotonous drone of a fax machine laboring on its newest creation."

Why do these creative narratives seem to be the universally accepted standard for personal statements? What am I missing?

cavalier1138
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Re: Why are these personal statements good?

Postby cavalier1138 » Tue Jun 13, 2017 4:57 am

You're missing why Spivey highlighted those statements. The vast majority of personal statements are boring rehashes of the applicant's accomplishments, all tied together with a brief statement about what a great attorney the applicant will be. The "creative writing" statements are the exception, which is why they tend to work better when done well.

Show, don't tell.

AJordan
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Re: Why are these personal statements good?

Postby AJordan » Tue Jun 13, 2017 6:23 am

I think there's something to be said for the fact that emotion is universally affecting. A statement that can do that without journeying into the nauseating realm of pathos is going to stand out/above personal statements incapable of doing so. These statements communicate those feelings and motivations without being saccharine.

A personal statement isn't a resume rehash. I would hazard a guess, backed by anecdotal evidence from former deans/current consultants, that a bunch of PS are essentially that. It's a chance to give the committee something else to set you apart. Do you want to be "Fraternity President talking about community service number 72 of 300" or do you want to communicate something that sets you apart?

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A. Nony Mouse
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Re: Why are these personal statements good?

Postby A. Nony Mouse » Tue Jun 13, 2017 6:54 am

ivankasta wrote:I feel like I could write a much more informative, useful, and honest personal statement by abandoning the creative narrative format altogether and instead just being candid about what I believe my strengths are, why I believe I have them, and how they will contribute to my success as a law student and eventual attorney. I think I could best present this in a clear, easy-to-follow essay with no twists-and-turns and no flowery language.

As people have suggested, doing this tends to turn into a rehash of the resume and other information already available in an application. Also, frankly, a lot of applicants are K-JD, and have pretty much the same strengths and believe they have them for the same reasons. (The other issue that I, personally, have with the "why I want to be an attorney and why I'll be successful as an attorney" is that many many many many applicants don't actually know much about what it means to be an attorney or what is required to be successful as one, and answering those questions tends to put that on full display. Adcomms are probably nicer than I am about expectations of 0Ls, but I don't think this route is always helpful.)

Now, you may have experiences that you can bring to bear to your law school app more effectively than some people. I also don't think creative writing is required (done badly it's probably worse than the alternatives). But if you're going to talk about your strengths it's probably best to show as much as possible rather than tell, and people tend to want to just tell.

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MikeSpivey
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Re: Why are these personal statements good?

Postby MikeSpivey » Tue Jun 13, 2017 8:15 am

The typical applicant, about 19 out of every 20 you read in admissions (which then gets really boring really quickly), writes about themselves in both a boring and bloviating manner. Which is entirely understandable because how often in life are you asked to write about yourself? But, because when you've read 5,000 pages of this you start entirely tuning such writing out. They -- at best -- get zero bump from their PS. They are not in the least bit memorable. SO if you are grading the application 1-5 (where 1 is high admit and 5 is deny, and you are vacillating between a "3" (WL) and "2") admit, you want to have that memorable dumb. Each of these statements do that.

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ivankasta
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Re: Why are these personal statements good?

Postby ivankasta » Tue Jun 13, 2017 12:33 pm

Thanks everyone for the replies. Your answers definitely helped me understand why essays like this tend to outperform their numbers, but I still can't shake my sense that, while these creative essays are better than the large majority of personal statements, the best essays look very different.


A. Nony Mouse wrote:As people have suggested, doing this tends to turn into a rehash of the resume and other information already available in an application. Also, frankly, a lot of applicants are K-JD, and have pretty much the same strengths and believe they have them for the same reasons....

many many many many applicants don't actually know much about what it means to be an attorney or what is required to be successful as one...

Now, you may have experiences that you can bring to bear to your law school app more effectively than some people. I also don't think creative writing is required (done badly it's probably worse than the alternatives). But if you're going to talk about your strengths it's probably best to show as much as possible rather than tell, and people tend to want to just tell.


If I understand correctly, you're saying that most applicants (especially K-JDs) would be unsuccessful at making a purely rational appeal to their strengths, both because they don't know what strengths are relevant and because they likely don't have many relevant strengths that are not shared by most other comparable applicants. And while you don't go this far, this idea would seem to imply that applicants like this would be best served by at least piquing the admission officer's interests with a good story.

I suppose that I agree with all of that, but I'm not sure I agree with you that applicants with unique, relevant strengths should aim to show rather than tell. Of course, you don't want to get into the territory of "I'm a genius, people love me, and I'm damn good looking," but I feel like a nuanced statement of the unique skill set you bring to law school can be a lot more informative and compelling if it's not crammed into a creative narrative. For example, if an applicant studied and critiqued art throughout her undergrad, she could write an interesting statement about how art criticism requires the ability to look at something from all sides and to be able to distil the most relevant pieces of information from a complex system. I think that an essay like this could give a lot of insight into the applicant, but I don't see how that same point could be made as clearly and fully in the form of a short story.

MikeSpivey wrote:The typical applicant, about 19 out of every 20 you read in admissions (which then gets really boring really quickly), writes about themselves in both a boring and bloviating manner.... But, because when you've read 5,000 pages of this you start entirely tuning such writing out. They -- at best -- get zero bump from their PS. They are not in the least bit memorable.


I suppose this is echoing what I wrote above, but if an applicant actually has good insight into a unique skill set they possess and they are able to convey that insight, wouldn't that in itself make the statement memorable without the need for a story?

I guess my main hang-up is that I feel as though these narrative-style statements sacrifice honest, detailed personal insight for the sake of making the statement entertaining. Of course, as you've pointed out, a boring personal statement is the last thing you want, but isn't there some way to make your statement memorable and captivating without having to compress your ideas into a nice story?

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MikeSpivey
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Re: Why are these personal statements good?

Postby MikeSpivey » Tue Jun 13, 2017 12:42 pm

Ivankasta,

It would probably be impossible for you to entirely get where I am coming from unless you had done admissions for many years. And you should 100% go the route you feel most comfortable, for certain. These "stories" if you will, are sophisticated to pull off. But for an admissions file reader getting so sick and so bored of everything sounding painfully similar -- they really can do the trick. I will end on an anecdote. I had a client last year with a 169 LSAT. She really fought the idea of doing to story -- she hated hers (I loved it) and we had numerous difficult discussion. She jus happened to wake up one morning and say "the hell with it I will listen to this guys advice" and really got into not just her essay, but all aspects of her application. She is at Harvard Law School right now. So they can work for you.

All the best this cycle! Like I said, do what is best for you.

Mike

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A. Nony Mouse
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Re: Why are these personal statements good?

Postby A. Nony Mouse » Tue Jun 13, 2017 1:09 pm

ivankasta wrote:If I understand correctly, you're saying that most applicants (especially K-JDs) would be unsuccessful at making a purely rational appeal to their strengths, both because they don't know what strengths are relevant and because they likely don't have many relevant strengths that are not shared by most other comparable applicants. And while you don't go this far, this idea would seem to imply that applicants like this would be best served by at least piquing the admission officer's interests with a good story.

I suppose that I agree with all of that, but I'm not sure I agree with you that applicants with unique, relevant strengths should aim to show rather than tell. Of course, you don't want to get into the territory of "I'm a genius, people love me, and I'm damn good looking," but I feel like a nuanced statement of the unique skill set you bring to law school can be a lot more informative and compelling if it's not crammed into a creative narrative. For example, if an applicant studied and critiqued art throughout her undergrad, she could write an interesting statement about how art criticism requires the ability to look at something from all sides and to be able to distil the most relevant pieces of information from a complex system. I think that an essay like this could give a lot of insight into the applicant, but I don't see how that same point could be made as clearly and fully in the form of a short story.


You're misreading me (or I was unclear). When I say "show" I don't mean you have to write a short story - I just mean use concrete examples rather than tell the reader something. Re: your art criticism example - instead of just saying that art criticism requires the ability to look at something from all sides and to be able to distill the most relevant pieces of information from a complex system (which, frankly, describes almost all humanities-type study that I'm familiar with so doesn't sound unique at all, even if art majors are less common), give an example of your experience with a specific painting (or whatever) that shows you actually employing those skills. I can tell the reader as many times as I like that I look at things from all sides and distill the most relevant pieces of information, but just saying that is unconvincing. (I can say I'm a Heidi Klum clone, too, but that doesn't make it convincing.) Show the reader how you do it. That doesn't have to be creative writing, it just has to be concrete, specific, and memorable.

So when I say "show don't tell," I don't mean "write a story just like the PSes you cite," I mean only, "if you don't want to tell a story like those, be very careful to think about how to make your discussion of your strengths as vivid and memorable and specific as those stories." And I mention that here because telling schools about your skills and abilities is really subject to telling not showing.

(I didn't write a story, but I did try to focus my PS on a few specific experiences that showed my strengths, rather than just describing myself.)

Also I think you're being way too cynical about these essays. I think they're full of honest, detailed, personal insight. (I am also kind of suspicious of someone's personal insight which says "I will be a good lawyer because I studied x or y in school." You don't know yet if you will be a good lawyer, or why that will be the case.)

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KissMyAxe
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Re: Why are these personal statements good?

Postby KissMyAxe » Tue Jun 13, 2017 1:30 pm

You're completely missing the point. Youre looking at the personal statement in a vacuum. Yes, if you were only submitting a personal statement, it probably should be about your strengths. But you're Not, you're submitting a personal statement, transcript, resume, and recommendations. The admissions should already know from the others that you can succeed in law school. If they don't, nothing you say will help you. The goal of the personal statement isn't to say, "look how great I am. I can succeed in law school" (newsflash: law school Isn't that hard). You want to tell a story, And force the admissions office to put a face with the numbers. It not only helps you stand out, but if they see you as a person they like and not just as 3.5/169 #7, and envision you fitting into the school, then you're more likely to get the nod over someone else.

There's also the problem that doing something about how you're well-suited to be a lawyer, either comes off as overly self-congratulatory, dull, or naive. But what do I know. You do you man.

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ivankasta
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Re: Why are these personal statements good?

Postby ivankasta » Tue Jun 13, 2017 1:36 pm

Thank you all for taking the time to write such detailed responses. Your replies really helped me think this through and I'm pretty convinced by what you've written. Reading through the linked statements again with your comments in mind, I can definitely see why my initial reaction did not give these statements their due credit.

Cheers

locomonster1
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Re: Why are these personal statements good?

Postby locomonster1 » Wed Jul 12, 2017 4:30 pm

I've just posted regarding your initial feeling that the "very best" ones look quite different. viewtopic.php?f=2&t=279596&p=10074277#p10074277

whitecollar23
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Re: Why are these personal statements good?

Postby whitecollar23 » Mon Jul 31, 2017 9:10 pm

Just thought I'd chime in since I have some experience advising people with their statements professionally.

Succinctly, your statement should latch onto something significant in your life story and bounce the points you want to get across from that foundation. Feel free to PM me with specific questions.

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heyduchess
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Re: Why are these personal statements good?

Postby heyduchess » Tue Aug 01, 2017 5:33 pm

MikeSpivey wrote:Ivankasta,

It would probably be impossible for you to entirely get where I am coming from unless you had done admissions for many years. And you should 100% go the route you feel most comfortable, for certain. These "stories" if you will, are sophisticated to pull off. But for an admissions file reader getting so sick and so bored of everything sounding painfully similar -- they really can do the trick. I will end on an anecdote. I had a client last year with a 169 LSAT. She really fought the idea of doing to story -- she hated hers (I loved it) and we had numerous difficult discussion. She jus happened to wake up one morning and say "the hell with it I will listen to this guys advice" and really got into not just her essay, but all aspects of her application. She is at Harvard Law School right now. So they can work for you.

All the best this cycle! Like I said, do what is best for you.

Mike


Any chance she was a splitter...?

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MikeSpivey
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Re: Why are these personal statements good?

Postby MikeSpivey » Tue Aug 01, 2017 10:29 pm

heyduchess wrote:
MikeSpivey wrote:Ivankasta,

It would probably be impossible for you to entirely get where I am coming from unless you had done admissions for many years. And you should 100% go the route you feel most comfortable, for certain. These "stories" if you will, are sophisticated to pull off. But for an admissions file reader getting so sick and so bored of everything sounding painfully similar -- they really can do the trick. I will end on an anecdote. I had a client last year with a 169 LSAT. She really fought the idea of doing to story -- she hated hers (I loved it) and we had numerous difficult discussion. She jus happened to wake up one morning and say "the hell with it I will listen to this guys advice" and really got into not just her essay, but all aspects of her application. She is at Harvard Law School right now. So they can work for you.

All the best this cycle! Like I said, do what is best for you.

Mike


Any chance she was a splitter...?


Reverse splitter, yes.




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