Chapter 10: The Character Sketch (Structure)

Published November 2009

The character sketch is a structure (rather than a topic) because it is a style of writing that can be applied to any specific topic. Myriad things beside individuals have a character: a group of people, a group of houses, an industry. In Essay 14: South Dakota, the writer describes the character of a region. In Essay 15: Magazine Industry, the writer describes the character of her career field, and in Essay 16: Russian Grandfather, the applicant describes the character of an individual. In the personal statement genre, a character sketch is typically used to add vivid descriptive details and to create a character that the author then defines himself or herself against. With a counterweight, the author can also paint herself in more complicated shades of gray. Including a character sketch helps trim down the ego in a personal statement, reducing the number of tedious sentences beginning, “I….” With this structure, avoid openly criticizing someone or some group. Show qualities or values of that group, which leads readers to make their own conclusions about the character you are sketching. This invites readers to be mentally engaged with the writing while they evaluate the character for themselves; this also keeps you from seeming too judgmental. This type of structure is the gateway to good storytelling.

14. South Dakota

Home for me is a small, sturdy town in West River South Dakota—whose conflation with the comparatively gentrified and green farmland east of the Missouri River is to be made only at the risk of rough correction by residents of both bank sides. My mother, however, draws her roots from Omaha, Nebraska, a location that earned its place on my personal map as the site of my school holidays. Although separated by a length of exactly six hours seated in the right-hand backseat of the family car, it is in the overlap of these two places I have found two of my most important resources, curiosity and determination, with which I confront obstacles and opportunities.

When in Omaha, I would often explore the childhood bedrooms of my mother’s eight siblings. These old rooms with their shelves and closets filled by books became for me miniature, delightfully idiosyncratic libraries. Tucked away from the cheerful din of the waves of kith and kin washing through my grandmother’s doorway, I pilfered these goldmines and in doing so discovered the vista of my mind’s eye—a landscape that would powerfully influence my intellectual world to come. Through the course of countless Thanksgivings and winter breaks, I gobbled down stretches of Nancy Drew adventures (including every mystery solved by that titian haired sleuth before 1979). Eventually I passed from Nancy Drew to de Quincy and Dickens

I brought my fascination with literature home as a hobby to Winner, where people seemed to be most seriously interested in reclaiming that 1996 state football championship and by if it would rain enough for the sunflowers to get ahead of the weeds. Although I never did get a very tight grasp on football’s finer points, the capacity for persistence that I gained while growing up in Winner formed the foundation on which I later laid academic pursuits. Of what I have accomplished in my areas of study, very little can be credited to miraculous flair or native instinct. The bulk of my academic personality may be defined by “try”—the word people in rodeo stands use when they refer to the rider who is jumping over the arena fence, trampled hat in hand after a particularly valiant, if unsuccessful ride. The word is, of course, just another way (ungrammatical at that) to refer to passion and hardihood. Still, the noun form of “try” has been in my lexicon since childhood, and it is thanks to the special circumstances of my modern-day rural upbringing in the Midwest that I developed my sense of steady perseverance. The many ranching and farming friends and family who daily confront both natural obstacles and, increasingly, upheavals in the very structure of the agricultural way of life have shown me the worth of working, and working hard.

Shortly after my eighteenth birthday, another signal six-hour drive brought me to Nebraska’s small capital city, where I enrolled in the state’s flagship university. A short distance from the scene of my childhood holidays, I now had the resources of the region’s largest university at hand. No longer confined to the book collections of my aunts’ younger days and the even less complete collection found in the old local library, I learned to abide by an old maxim. Rather than pull books off shelves according to the talent of their cover artists or slavishly follow titian-haired sleuths across multiple authors and decades, I have learned to pursue rational trains of inquiry. I anticipate with pleasure the further developments of my intellectual capabilities that the study of law will bring.

Commentary 14: South Dakota

Structure: Personal Narrative
Topic: Growing up in the Midwest
Thesis: I am observant and shrewd.
Elements of Style: A literary statement, showing the applicant is a reader and a great writer.
Committee Appeal: Intellectual Excellence, Regional Uniqueness
Success Rating: 7/B+

What’s Strong:

This essay has a powerful regional voice and brilliant local color. The author writes with such comic charm of Midwestern towns that the piece is irresistibly pleasant to read. From the description of her hometown as “sturdy” in the first sentence to the comic suspense about whether the sunflowers will “get ahead of the weeds,” the author shows she is an extremely talented, and highly-trained, creative writer. It might be hard for the untrained eye to notice the subtleties that make this essay a work of art, but they are there, and because of this, the author releases herself from some of the conventions of the law school personal essay. She’s therefore free to let her regionalism seem to get ahead of her ambitions, when all the while she is showing off her rhetorical skill. This author uses doublespeak to present herself as an innocent from South Dakota and to turn a keen and comic eye on the places of her youth and the idiosyncrasies of the residents, including her own family. She is effectively winking at admissions committee members at top law schools on the coasts, and giving them a delightful Willa Cather-like release from the tedium of law school personal statements. This candidate has a personality and intelligence that comes through loud and clear in her writing.

What’s Wrong:

The applicant does not tell us anything about her accomplishments in college; we don’t even learn her major! Nor do we have any indication that she is even interested in the law, much less a compelling sense of why she should be chosen over other articulate—and law-loving—applicants. She should keep the hilarious paragraph on the rodeo, but if there is enough space, she should give the reader another chapter of her personal narrative about what happens when she gets to college, with new characters and new comic, shrewd observations. Perhaps there was one creative writing professor who took her under his or her wing but who ended up fostering not a future M.F.A. student but a scholar with a passion to pursue the J.D. Without being too obvious, this would encourage the admissions committee members who were reading fast, to take another look.

15: Magazine Industry

The early morning light flooded the studio as I nervously began to unpack over a quarter of a million dollars worth of product onto eight consecutive tables. I knew I had to move with speed and precision. It was 7:30 AM, and every glass, vase and blanc de chine figurine needed to be on display, labeled and its packaging neatly stored by the time the photo-shoot began at 10 AM. Most importantly, nothing could be broken. My hands trembled as I unpacked Baccarat pieces worth more than my yearly salary, but I moved quickly, and by the time the photographer and stylist were ready to begin, everything was in its place.

It was my first photo-shoot as the decorating intern for the XYZ Magazine. I was excited, eager and extremely oblivious. Having landed such a coveted position—an eight-month paid internship acting as the department’s assistant—I was ready to contribute and absorb as much as I could from those around me. Little did I know that at photo shoots I was to be like a child in a strict household: seen and not heard.

I’ve always been curious, and eager to learn, perhaps to a fault. I want to know not just the cause of the effect, I want to understand why the whole process has occurred. As a result, not knowing the politics of my environment, I politely asked editors questions during the down time. “What makes that shot ‘organic’”? “Why did you select those pieces for the table vignette?” I quickly deduced that I would be better off observing as much as I could, taking notes, and asking questions later.

Even after I outgrew the role of intern and became a full-fledged Editorial Assistant at ABC magazine, I still wanted to understand as much as I could about the industry and to grow within my position. I knew I needed to work on more challenging projects to move ahead, and I also knew wouldn’t received them unless I asked. Six months later my persistence paid off. I was rewarded with my first byline: an article about mess makeovers—which was fairly ironic considering I am the queen of clutter.

In the last four years as I’ve slowly climbed the editorial ladder, I’ve consistently demonstrated curiosity, a love of learning, ambition and the desire to challenge myself—all qualities I believe are essential to excelling in the study of law. Though working in the magazine industry has been exciting, and at times glamorous, I want to work in a field where the fruits of my labor are felt more deeply than a set of bound pages that will eventually find their way to the trash. I want to work in a field that makes a difference in my life as well as others. I know law is that field. I hope that you will allow me the opportunity and privilege to spend the next three years studying, learning and continuing to challenge myself at [insert name] University.

Commentary 15: Magazine Industry

Structure: Personal Narrative, Character Sketch
Topic: Leaving the magazine industry
Thesis: I succeeded as an editor, but I need more of a challenge.
Elements of Style: Sensory language
Committee Appeal: Tangible Impact, Real World Experience
Success Rating: 6/B

What’s Strong:

This personal statement could be said to sketch the character of the magazine industry. One needs to be careful that the character or industry sketch doesn’t overtake the applicant’s presentation of his or her character. The applicant needs to position himself or herself within or against the sketch. If within, then it will help us understand where the applicant is coming from; if against, then we can assume the applicant has values opposite to what he or she describes. This applicant appears to have values opposite to those valued in the magazine industry, where she chose to make her first career. The reader can assume that she values exploring new situations with questions and generously teaching those who have less knowledge than she does. She values openness and friendliness, depth of analysis, and endurance.

This candidate has diversity appeal because she has had a career in the magazine industry, so she brings a completely different perspective on the world than someone fresh out of college. She composed a lovely narrative introduction of her first photo shoot as a decorating intern; one immediately wonders what kind of product is worth over a quarter of a million dollars. Technology? Something illegal? And then comes the answer: fine art. Someone trusted her to arrange these valuable pieces, and because she has been put in a position of such responsibility, she has made a tangible impact in the real world. To make the introduction even better, she might say what the shape of the Baccarat figurine was, so the reader can make a lasting mental image of the wonderful scene.

What’s Wrong

Much more could be made of this essay! An enormous opportunity is here, but the candidate has made several poor rhetorical choices. It is okay to make a career change, but an admissions committee will expect a candidate to give specific examples as evidence of the qualities and skills one did develop in the career that will translate well to law school. This essay reads more like a defense of her decision to leave the magazine industry than a mature decision to change fields and carry all of her skills and experience to her next career. When the applicant does make brief claims about her qualities—“curiosity, a love of learning, ambition and the desire to challenge myself”—she does not back these claims up with specific evidence. Everyone has curiosity, love of learning and ambition. Telling the committee this accomplishes very little. The candidate might show curiosity by saying she took notes and gathered questions during photo shoots and meetings; she then asked photographers and senior editors for 10-15 minutes of their time at their convenience. As it is, the candidate says she wants to learn, but she gives in to the “seen and not heard” atmosphere too quickly. Admissions committees would like to see more evidence of persistence or else more reflection on her experience of being silenced by work politics.

This applicant demonstrates more persistence when she asks for and gets to author an article. The reader wants to be happy for her but is prevented by being told that the article is on something she doesn’t care about. On top of that, the reader finds out the applicant is “the queen of clutter.” It’s an attempt at humor, which is good, but it falls flat because law schools don’t want disorganized students. Remember, law schools are trying to find weak points so that they can reject a candidate; it’s the candidate’s job to keep turning to hide minor weaknesses such as messiness. Did writing the first article help make her more organized? That would be a positive outcome. The reader does wonder if the applicant only had one byline in her magazine industry tenure. The applicant should include other responsibilities she sought: Did she get other articles; what were they about? She should also evaluate the effects this job had on her: what real world experiences made her more savvy, mature, or better able to handle tough situations?

The applicant’s reason for leaving the magazine industry is very weak, and her reasons for pursuing a legal education are also weak. She says she has determined to leave the magazine world because her work ends up in the trash. This is a very negative perspective that makes her appear like she’s failed at art magazine journalism. She would benefit more by reminding the admissions committee that she had thousands of readers, and her article likely inspired many people to organize themselves! She should not say her job was “at times glamorous”; that will put off the committee members by sounding shallow. Finally, the desire to go to law school doesn’t make her a good candidate. A strong candidate will give the admissions committee ample evidence of intellectual excellence needed to succeed in law school.

16. Russian Grandfather

“The options are simple,” my parents told him. “Either you come with us or you will never see her again.” My grandfather sighed and responded, “Where my heart goes, my body must follow.” And with that he left the only home he had ever known (a small town in the Soviet Union), suffered what became a permanent estrangement from his brother and father, and began the journey to a new life in the United States for the person he claims is his passion, me. This is a moment I do not remember—I was only three years old at the time—but one that has shaped the person I am today.

My grandfather has survived not only what others couldn’t survive but also what most people cannot even imagine. Born just a few years before the start of WWII, my grandfather was a member of a Jewish family living in the USSR during the Holocaust; at one point, he was put on a wagon that was headed for a concentration camp, but in the confusion surrounding the forced deportation, his mother managed to yank him off the cart and leave the area so fast that the wagon departed without my grandfather. While all this was going on, my grandfather’s father was in the Soviet military, fighting and becoming permanently injured for the country that allowed the persecution of his family.

My grandfather’s teenage years were not much better; he came into adulthood during Stalin’s reign, a time of persecution and loss. In addition to the daily struggle to survive, my grandfather suffered the loss of his mother and his sister to cancer when he was very young. My grandfather was lonely, hungry and persecuted for much of his young life, and yet, despite these circumstances, he managed to become a celebrated soldier in the Soviet army, a dedicated professor at a technical college and a happily-married man.

But my grandfather’s success and happiness were short-lived. In 1984, my grandparents were forced out of their respected careers and into low-paid factory jobs because of their religion. When I was born into this family in 1985, we all lived together in a one-bedroom apartment in a small, rural town. My mother, father and I shared the living room, while my grandparents and my mother’s younger sister shared the bedroom. We survived on the meager salaries of my father and grandfather as well as the added income from my mother’s night shifts at a local alcoholism treatment clinic and my grandmother’s ability to trade labor for necessary foods such as sugar and meat.

In 1989, when my grandfather made the fateful decision to follow his heart, my grandparents, parents, aunt, and I traveled to Italy on our way to America with the coveted status of political refugees. This, of course, did not stop the officers of the Communist Party from confiscating the small amount of money, jewelry and valuables we were able to acquire before we left. Somehow, my family was able to survive the six-month layover in Italy before arriving in America where they began the grueling task of survival by working two and three jobs. My father left us shortly after our arrival in Chicago, and the family was forced to rely on one less salary. My grandfather would be up at four in the morning for work so that his lunchtime could be spent on the 1.5-mile walk to take me to a family friend who would watch me until my mother could leave one job to pick me up and go to another.

And though it would be logical to believe that no time was spent enriching the life of the four-year-old they were raising, my family did the impossible and managed to pay full attention to my development. Despite the fact that each member of the family worked two or three jobs, my family was determined to raise a culturally and intellectually educated child. As a result of this determination, I have vivid memories of riding atop my grandfather’s shoulders during the weekly trips we took to Chicago museums, art galleries, and libraries. When I began to speak English better than Russian, my newfound language skills created something of a barrier between my grandfather and me, but he managed to be my father, grandfather and teacher throughout my early childhood.

My grandfather taught me to skate, to fish, to throw, to bike, and to cook. He taught me the meaning of hope, passion, dedication and love. But most of all he taught me how to be strong and reach for goals that may seem unattainable. From him I learned that anything can be overcome, that it is possible to carve your own path and that there are people who, with all the obstacles against them, will succeed and sacrifice for others.

Most of all, in his own way, my grandfather introduced me to the legal system. My grandfather was a victim of vicious anti-Semitic laws in his country of origin but the beneficiary of favorable immigration laws in this country. From the laws that oppressed my family in Russia to those that allowed us to start over in America and become citizens, the legal system has been intertwined with every aspect of my life.

Through the study and practice of law, I hope to be able to do for others what my grandfather did for me. I’m already looking forward to the moment at graduation when the dean of the law school confers the degrees—and if I’m very lucky, my grandfather will be at the ceremony to share the moment with me.

Commentary 16: Russian Grandfather

Structure: Character Sketch
Topic: Mentor
Thesis: My grandfather influenced me to want to be a lawyer, and I want to please him.
Elements of Style: Pathos of grandfather; Tragedy of Russian Jews in the twentieth century
Committee Appeal: Multiple Perspectives
Success Rating: 4/C

What’s Strong:

This is a touching personal statement that immerses the reader into twentieth-century world history through a personal narrative. The applicant structures the essay around what she has learned from an important mentor: her grandfather, and gives a good sketch of his character. The topic is her grandfather’s struggle to raise her standard of living and educational opportunities. The applicant describes how she has been the hope grounding a persecuted and uprooted family. This personal statement is rich in pathos, so it makes the admissions committee feel emotion. It also brings the cross-cultural tragedy of the Holocaust to a personal level for the admissions committee, who will be moved by the grandfather’s story.

What’s Wrong:

This personal statement is about the grandfather and not the applicant. The admissions committee members will likely be very touched by the story, but they learn nothing more about the applicant than that she has Russian-Jewish heritage and an immigrant work ethic. This is not enough for her personal statement to work to her advantage. The committee is going to be looking for her accomplishments and qualities in addition to the obstacles her family overcame to put her in a position to succeed. The personal statement is more than a personal narrative; it is a genre in which the applicant chooses narratives based on what they teach the audience about the applicant’s achievements, skills, and potential for success. This narrative doesn’t teach the audience about the applicant’s achievements or skills.

This writer needs to pare down the grandfather’s story and use the extra space to tell her own. As described here, the grandfather has a great moral character (ethos), but the applicant hasn’t developed her authority: Her character (ethos) needs to rise above the story of the grandfather. She can do this by providing more arguments for why she should be accepted to law school. This way the essay will better balance logical and emotional appeals, whereas now it relies almost exclusively on emotional and cultural appeals. For example, in the sixth paragraph, the author describes, “Weekly trips we took to Chicago museums, art galleries, and libraries.” The applicant needs to interpret this for the admissions committee in a way that points out her unique, remarkable qualities: She might explain how these trips helped her fit her story into a more international narrative. This, combined with her personal history, gave her a better perspective on international affairs than most Americans possess. She could also explain how these weekly trips to museums cultivated her individual style and self-confidence as she became familiar with the great works of art housed in Chicago. Interpreting the narratives by showing what positive qualities they developed in the applicant will give the admissions committee reasons to admit an applicant, not just sympathy for her family’s plight.

This applicant needs to provide more information for the admissions committee about educational and (if applicable) employment experiences, because these stories will show her adult qualities and characteristics. Right now the essay only describes the memories of a very young child. The essay tells the reader that the applicant values reaching for goals that may seem unattainable, but it doesn’t show the reader how she has reached for goals and succeeded in her own life. What were some of her accomplishments in college? In the penultimate paragraph, the writer would do well do speak more specifically about her interest in the law. For example, is immigration law her primary interest? Rhetorically, it is fine to break away from the theme of the grandfather, but it is always good to return to the main theme at the end of the essay. Perhaps instead of the vision of law school graduation at the end—which leaves the reader contemplating the inevitable death of the grandfather—the applicant could repeat her grandfather’s quote, but within the context of her life and goal to attend law school: “Where my heart goes, my body must follow.”


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