Let me start off by saying what this article is not. This article is not about how to write a “good” personal statement. Such standard advisories abound, and they exude a type of typical shtick regarding misspellings, poor use of grammar, awkward use of language, word limit, or proof reading that inevitably gets in the way of the really important question on every writer’s mind: what the hell am I supposed to write?
Notice, I did not say “what the hell am I supposed to write about.” That is also not the subject of this guide either. Whether you are the most boring man on earth, or “you don't always drink beer, but when you do, you prefer Dos Equis” your personal statement can still be a pile of rubbish on the page. Notice for instance that in all those Dos Equis commercials, the most interesting man in the world never got into law school.
Rather, it has been the experience of the author that most guides fall short at the most important stage. After feeding them a list of topics, and exhorting the applicant to “Be yourself!” the guide ends with a series of rather bad essays which are supposed to be good examples of personal statements. Whole books on how to write personal statements have been written in this format: a few generic guidelines, “50 essays that worked” and no link between the two. Worse, often there is no link between what one’s reading and the fundamental question one’s still scratching his head about when it is all read and done, “wait, what the hell am I supposed to write again?”
Thus, this article starts where those others typically end. Rather than walk through a framework and then show a mash-up of whole, often meandering essays, we are going to focus on short bits of writing of extremely high quality. We are going to demystify what a personal statement is, and go into some detail about what that means (what those oft-neglected implications are) and then we are going to proceed to describe precisely how to write a kind of statement here termed (perhaps here first-coined) as the “pastoral statement.” This is by no means the only type of statement available, but it is the only one admissions officers usually describe when they talk about “those outstanding personal statements that really spoke to them.”
Ok, so here’s how we are going to proceed. First, we will look at we are trying to write. Then we are going to talk about the “pastoral statement”, both what it is, how it is formed and what it means, and then we will deconstruct short, powerful written samples from historical pastoral statements.
One. What the hell you are supposed to write.
Don't be afraid to talk to us about an unusual experience. It is often these experiences, and your recounting of them, that can speak volumes to us about you, your level of self-reflection, your imagination, how you understand and engage the world around you, and what you could bring to the Law School. We also encourage you to write your personal statement in a narrative tone so that more of your personality and who you are comes through in the writing. You should envision the personal statement as your opportunity to have a "conversation" with the Admissions Committee.... – From a past U. Wisconsin application
The biggest problem with personal statements is that “statement” is a misnomer. Personal statements are not meant to state anything at all. In fact, the less they state, the better they often are. How can this be? As we will do often in this tutorial, let us look at an example of a piece of writing that is actually a “statement”:
As an undergraduate, I have taken particular interest in the structural frameworks within which society’s institutions confront recurring moral and ethical problems. Academically, I have focused on political institutions’ reflection of the society’s ethical sophistication, with special emphasis on the legal and judicial system in the United States. Additionally, my extracurricular activities have presented several opportunities to confront the ethical dilemmas of leadership in the unique circumstances indigenous to a university community. Together, my academic and extra-academic work have prepared and focused my interest in continued study of the law and legal institutions.
So what’s the problem here? It is clearly personal, and it is very clearly a statement. The problem here is one of trust. Admissions officers simply do not know the applicant. An actual statement shows them nothing about the thought process which underlies what they can see for themselves on the applicants transcript, resume, and in their recommendation letters. The admissions committee is not really looking for you to tell them anything at all (which again, seems strange, since the first thing one thinks when they think Personal Statement is “I want to explain who I am…”)—rather, the committee is trying to figure out how to make sense of the applicant and the last thing they want is to be told how to do that.
This is why a good personal statement is often simply, by selective cognitive dissonance, actually regarded to be a good essay with YOU as the protagonist. Of course, nobody told YOU that.
This is a critical point. There are many, many, types of essays which feature the writer as the protagonist, and not all of them are pastoral. However, no matter what one chooses to write, he or she must drive the plot. A personal statement that stages an argument, or otherwise deviates from the pastoral style nevertheless brings the writer to the fore in a way which makes the writer seem wise, thoughtful, sensible, excellent, and/or noble. However, trying to tell the admissions committee that one is, in fact, “thoughtful, sensible, excellent, and/or noble” as a Statement (since the name Personal Statement implies one should, after all) often ends up among the very worst essays the committee reads. For a case in point, take this applicant’s attempt to tell the admissions committee why they are such a good candidate:
The best preparation for the study of law is a broad-based undergraduate education. Studying a variety of subjects in both the natural and social sciences develops both reasoning and communication skills. Students must learn to apply logic to mathematical and social problems and to communicate using both words and numbers. In addition, extra-curricular activities and work experience improve a person’s problem solving abilities and communication skills. My diversity of academic and extra-curricular experience is my strongest attribute as a law school candidate.
So, the take home message here is that a personal statement tells a story and that story features the applicant in some way. The easiest way to do this is to actually write a story about the applicant (again, an argument from a passionate position could also be a fine, etc.) and this is the pastoral personal statement, the kind that nearly everyone describes (or tries to write) when talking about personal statements.
Two. The Pastoral Personal Statement and how to write it.
Whenever someone tries to advise applicant’s on what to write their personal statement about, almost universally, they are exhorted to write the pastoral personal statement. The following example, for instance, is taken from the DeLoggio.com as “good” topics for personal statements:
- Your proudest personal achievement. Look for something that doesn’t show on your resume or transcript -- learning to swim, saving money for a long-range goal, making a bookcase, painting a picture. Explain why it was important to you: why was it a goal, why had you failed to do it before (or failed to try), what was different that enabled you to accomplish it now, and what you learned about the world or yourself from having accomplished it.
- A major event in your life, either good or bad. This could be a trip, a family illness, a move to a new city. Explain what life had been like before the event, how the event changed you, and what you learned from it.
- A changed belief. Explain where the old belief had come from -- family, peers, life experiences. Tell what made you rethink the belief, and what you believe now. Explain why the new belief is important to you.
Even when describing BAD topics for personal statements, pastoral statements are inevitably described. The difference is bad topics often involve external drama. The reason they are considered bad is always because, well, because. No one can give a great answer. As the great teller of stories David Mamet puts it, “People have tried for centuries to use drama to change people’s lives, to influence, to comment, to express themselves. It doesn’t work. It might be nice if it worked for those things, but it doesn’t. The only thing the dramatic form is good for is telling a story.”
Thus, the applicant, not knowing what they hell his or she is writing, gets confused. “When people tell me Personal Statement, they mean ‘tell a story’ he thinks. Well, I told one.”—Hell, the applicant might have told a hell of a story. But that story might not carry any water because of its dramatic form, which is good only for the story, not for the applicant.
So a pastoral personal statement should feature a personal struggle one which reveals character. No other type of conflict is allowed. It just does not work. The more external circumstances press in on the protagonist of the story, the less and less credibility the protagonist has. Giving up credibility is a terrible thing to do in this instance, because the protagonist should also be the author.
Now, no one can say what one should write at this point. This is what admissions officers find mysterious. They can be moved by the story of an afternoon at the movies with a grandfather who has passed away and reject an applicant with the same profile who wrote about all the obstacles (abuse, poverty, etc.) he or she overcame. Because the topic does not make the statement. The statement makes the statement, and the most important part of the statement is the hook.
The hook for a pastoral personal statement should almost inevitably be the first sentence, of the first paragraph of the statement. This line is the most important line in the statement (if it is the hook) because the reader says “Wait…wow”—it is interesting, and it embodies the theme of the statement. If the sentence is humorous, the statement is humorous. Long and lilting, the statement should be long and lilting.
The author is serious that EVERY good Pastoral Statement should begin with this line. Here are three examples that make the point.
As a little girl with olive skin, long black hair and large, dark but definitively non-western eyes, I was constantly subjected to the fascinated stars and inquiries of people curious about my nationality. Hurt by the subtle implication that I might be different from the other kids, I would smile and give the elusive response I’m an ethnic mutt. In this age of political correctness, those words would probably never leave my mouth today, but an amalgamation of unusual and distinctive elements is actually still the best way to describe myself.
Look closely at the first sentence. Then read the rest of this opening again. This statement has already won the reader over, and already set up the plot: this is the story of my personal struggle for identity. Now again:
Until my mid-teens, I had believed that my father died when I was four years old. As a teenager I was told that the man I thought was my father was not my natural father. In order to conceive, my mother opted for a process known as Artificial Insemination by an Anonymous Donor, or AID. This revelatory information prompted me to research the AID phenomenon and the ramifications it posed to me as a child fathered in this unusual manner.
Again, read the first sentence. A whole different style here: factual, terse. Yet, the plot is already upon us: the author’s personal struggle to come to terms with his conception. Now again:
Two summers ago I worked as a black foreman of an all-white construction crew in rural Georgia. It proved to be an extraordinary experience which taught me a lot about myself and which sparked my interest in becoming a lawyer.
Again, the style is different still. This writer eschews all but the most important adjectives (i.e. all-white). Yet he opens with a hook which begins a compelling story. This will be about his personal struggle to overcome stereotypes: his and theirs.
The take home point is this: work on this line. Write a whole essay and try to find the line. Then write a new essay with that line in the first position. Don’t copy paste the old one. Write the essay that flows out of the line. Your new personal statement will move mountains compared with its progenitor.
Now, there are many writers who never struggled with identity, which seems like a very conducive topic to the pastoral statement (it is!). Yet one’s struggle for identity can be hiding in the lightest of topics. No one ever said that figuring out who you are had to be a life-and-death struggle.
This links in with the following whole essay example, which is quite lighthearted, written by TLS’s very own Objection. This is perhaps one of the best pastoral personal statement, in terms of brevity and dedication to the form, the author has read. Since this is a Yale 250, we will use this statement to think also about how one might write a whole personal statement on the topic.
Here it is:
I have an abnormally large head. It has been that way since birth – just ask my mother. In home videos, I can be seen futilely trying to balance my head on my neck, only to have it tip forward or backward. When I was nine, it got stuck under the bed while I was trying to retrieve a Lego. My parents told me I would eventually grow into it, but I am still waiting.
Though balance is no longer an issue, other problems have arisen. Whenever I do something that requires entry into a small space, I have to mentally check its size against the dimensions of my head. Putting on shirts stretches their collars, while removing them requires body contortions that would put a “sixteen”-year-old Olympic gymnast to shame. I steer clear of sunglasses - put a pair on a watermelon and you will see why. The same goes for hats. “One size fits all” excludes “gigantic.” In high school, I was forced to either remove padding from my football helmet or get one custom made. And, as if to drive the point home, I was given nicknames such as “Mr. Potato Head,” “Bobblehead,” and the beautifully blunt “Bighead.”
But alas, my head is a part of who I am. It helps to make me unique and stand head and shoulders - mostly head - above the crowd. While I have learned to embrace it, I know that it may be impossible for others to do the same.
See the hook? See how it’s brevity communicates that this will be a short essay on a simple theme (a big head?).
Now if the opening line established the conflict, the second paragraph establishes the struggle to cope, or come to grips with, the conflict. This should happen in your whole personal statement as well. This is a story after all, don’t ruin the end! Let it build, let it be a struggle to overcome. That is exactly what the second paragraph of this statement is for. In a full-length statement this should end the first page (of a two-pager).
Now the last paragraph brings the climax, which is the resolution of the struggle (here it is just shrugging off the teasing). In an actual personal statement, the climax could vary, finishing out most of the piece or only taking about a paragraph.
The last piece of every Pastoral is a denouement. It is the final aspect of the Pastoral, and it is the part where the resolution is either (a) ongoing and takes the applicant into law school and beyond or (b) is resolved but has made the applicant who they are and thus propels them into law school. Even the above essay has one. It is all of and only the last sentence.
So, to wrap up, one might think of a personal statement (over 2 pages) as fourths. The first fourth establishes the existence of a conflict. The second describes the efforts to cope (these can even be real, scary, bare-your-soul failures). The third shows the resolution (“I cleaned myself up”) and the last propels the applicant into law school, brings us to the “right now” and talks about the future. The lengths can vary, but these common mistakes kill statements:
- Setting up the conflict for a whole page or more (examples abound).
- Omitting a real, inner(!), struggle, taking us right to resolution (examples, again, abound).
- Omitting a satisfying resolution, or giving a resolution in action but not an inner triumph or change. (“So I just left”).
Look closely at these mistakes. They jive well with the “examples of personal statement mistakes” written in every guide—but aren’t these clearer? Once you know what you’re doing, or aren’t doing (i.e. writing a Pastoral), you can fix what’s broken more easily.
So what have we done? We’ve explained that a personal statement is a story with YOU as the protagonist. The Topic is not a panacea, in fact, it’s not even that important. The easiest and most common type of personal statement we have termed here “The Pastoral” and it involves a story in four parts, with the most important element a hook for the very first sentence of the very first paragraph. Though not every bad statement lacks a hook, none of the best statements lack one. Telling a story with a real struggle to cope makes for the most compelling statements, and inner conflict is the only kind of Pastoral that actually works.
Now to see if this makes sense or is just a bunch of empty advice, go to the personal statements forum and begin to read. See if you can spot the elements of the Pastoral (more than 80% of personal statements are in this style). See, especially, if you can spot the mistakes.
Then sit down, and start to write your own.