Chapter 8: The Personal Narrative (Structure)
Published November 2009
The personal narrative is the most common structure for the personal statement genre. In this structure, the author tells his or her story. The personal statement is a brief but high-density autobiography, with certain zones you want to weight more heavily. In the personal narrative structure, you relate a representative story, a choice you made, or an event that changed the course of your life. You tweak the story, like a photographer would compose a self-portrait, to make it represent yourself in a particular light. A strong personal narrative, whether it presents one or more than one story, should have an organizing theme linking the parts of the statement. By beginning with a theme, a metaphor, or an image that you then end with, the essay concludes satisfyingly—as Samuel Taylor Coleridge said—with its tail in its mouth. With any structure or topic, you should always remember you are trying to persuade your audience to admit you to law school. You do this most powerfully by describing specific examples that show you possess intellectual excellence, leadership abilities, abilities to work with a team, that you have reached beyond the safety net of college, and that you can look at issues from multiple perspectives. Also try to use your narrative to persuade your admissions committee reader that their law school is the best fit for you.
1. Silicon Valley Start-Up
Eighteen months ago, I was sitting at my computer, wedged between a dripping coffee maker to my left and the company’s CFO five feet to my right. Every keystroke shook the flimsy fold-out card table that served as my desk, on loan to the company from another employee’s garage. We were packed in the largest of three rooms in a 2,500 square foot space baking in the heat generated by ten co-workers in close quarters, fifteen running computers, and an abnormally warm summer. On the glass doorway was etched the ghostly lettering of the former company occupying the space, serving as a grim reminder of the ever-present possibility of failure.
Two weeks earlier, I had been in my company’s small conference room sitting at the table surrounded by familiar faces from my last employer. Silicon Valley is incestuous: teams migrate from one company to the next, so I was not surprised to find myself recruited to join my old boss’s newest project. They were selling another David versus Goliath story, featuring a small rag-tag team of engineers defeating a seemingly insurmountable industry leader. Despite my skepticism, I still had a free-running imagination fed with nostalgic thoughts of Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard working on their first audio oscillator in a Palo Alto garage. But at my last start-up company, we had challenged a corporation for a piece of the industry pie, and nine years and $330 million dollars later, the company was a hollow shell doing mostly engineering contractor work. I was lucky enough to join that company late in the game and sell my stock options early, but many others spent a significant portion of their career at a company that came close to glory but ultimately fell short: Goliath 1, David 0.
This time they were telling me it was going to be different; they were always saying this time would be different. I asked them how a small, poorly funded start-up company could go against a giant corporation, which was also the undisputed king of our market, with nearly $400 million in quarterly revenue. After signing a non-disclosure agreement, I was let in on the big secret, the meaning of the “C” in the company name: we were going to use recent innovations in carbon nano-tubes to revolutionize the industry. These nano-scopic cylindrical fibers that allow unparalleled circuit density would be David’s tiny, secret sling.
With the financial incentive of stock options and the confidence gained by working with a crack technical team, everyone was working at full capacity. There were scribbled drawings with names and dates taped up on a wall. These were the jotted ideas from our team of electrical engineers and physicists with M.S. and Ph.D. degrees from schools like Harvard, Stanford, and M.I.T. One posting was my recent workings of a carbon nano-tube electro-mechanical configuration bit, an idea that a co-worker and I had developed that I would write up and the company would push through the patent process. By packing a dozen well-caffeinated physics and electronics geniuses into a pathetic three-room rental that resembled a low-budget movie studio, we had created the primordial soup of intellectual invention. As a result of our collective ideas, our seasoned team, our innovative ideas, and nano-technology being the latest buzzword in investment, we were soon funded by venture capitalists for $10 million. It was immensely exciting to be the tenth employee in a growing start-up company that would have to upgrade offices and dramatically expand staff in an up-scaling war against the industry titan.
The increased design responsibility and unbounded architectural creativity that comes with working for a start-up is unparalleled. However, the necessity of side-stepping patented intellectual property belonging to our competitor, which covered all aspects of our design, from manufacturing to testing, placed a heavy burden on the design team. This danger was extremely real, as a similar start-up had collapsed following an infringement lawsuit related to unauthorized reproduction of a bit stream. As the designer of three different components, I examined our competition’s sixteen patents related to the memory aspect of the device. It was immensely satisfying to study, absorb, and then circumvent patent claims as I designed a conceptually similar but un-patented version of three memory blocks.
I am interested in serving as general counsel for a corporation focused on advanced semiconductor technology. My diverse work experience and master’s degree provide a perfect foundation to tackle the issues faced by a general counsel. I am drawn to the challenges I will find at the intersection of intellectual property, product liability, and corporate law. At this juncture in my life, I seek more challenge and personal growth in a field that calls on my written skills, attention to detail, and love of technology. My background in nano-technology will bring a unique perspective to the NYU classroom and will make me extremely marketable upon graduation. By pursuing a law degree, I intend to enter a profession that aligns with the interests and aptitudes I have discovered and developed through real work experience. It is through deep personal reflection that I have decided that law is the natural extension of my training, personality, and talents.
Commentary 1: Silicon Valley Start-Up
Structure: Personal Narrative
Topic: Internet Start-Up
Thesis: I led a multi-million dollar design team; I can succeed in law school.
Elements of Style: Comparison to David & Goliath (Cultural Appeal)
Committee Appeal: Tangible Impact, Real World Experience, Pro-Active Starter, Good Leader
Success Rating: 9/A
This is an excellent personal statement because it shows this candidate has had a tangible impact on organizations, and probably on the global economy. The statement keeps the reader engaged by giving a meaningful story with background, context, conflict, and resolution. It also provides a peek into the mysterious and increasingly legend-generating world of Silicon Valley start-ups. This is a good model for someone who has been out of college for a while, but who hasn’t been working in a law firm. The essay is focused on career goals, with career history to back up the writer’s plans. This person is a doer, not a dreamer. The writer shows a depth of technical knowledge and strong analytic reasoning skills that go far beyond linear thinking, especially in the description of finding new solutions to highly technical problems that do not violate patents. The statement creates desire in the admissions committee to admit this person because other companies seek to hire the applicant and venture capitalists are willing to support the applicant with substantial funds. This statement will inspire members of the admissions committee to act on the applicant’s behalf because he has successfully reached beyond the safety net of college.
This applicant demonstrated his strong written communication skills by writing a compelling statement that uses several kinds of rhetorical appeals. Logic is used to show how his analytical ability helps to keep the company afloat in the same waters where others have foundered. He uses touches of emotional appeals when he describes the “primordial soup of intellectual invention” inside the cramped office. The analogy in which he compares his small start-up and the industry leader to David and Goliath uses both emotional and cultural appeals to excellent effect: The story is one everyone knows, and so just by invoking the names, the writer brings a powerful story into his narrative without using valuable space. This mythic story becomes a theme woven throughout the essay. It is a rhetorical device that establishes a connection in the reader’s mind between this candidate and a leader known for his compassionate personality (King David). This writer has also composed the statement so that he comes across as an authoritative, competent, thoughtful, and honest leader. This statement helped earn the applicant acceptance to NYU School of Law and Columbia Law School.
This essay is too focused on the details of the story and fails to give sufficient evidence for why this person is a good candidate for law school. This essay is structured as a personal narrative, and the topic is the applicant’s professional experience. The first paragraph is wholly descriptive prose that has very little to do with why this person is a good candidate for law school. The first paragraph lacks a thesis or a direction for the essay. Ideally, the reader should find a microcosm of the essay in the first paragraph.
The second-to-last paragraph packs in the most value to the admissions committee for the space used, but the background story is important for this paragraph to be so powerful. To make the background story do more work for him, the writer could plant more indicators of his positive qualities and characteristics in the early part of the essay. For example, he could mention how he used his oral communication skills to communicate with his design team and supervisors, so that the admissions committee knows he feels that mastery of oral communication skills is important.
The last paragraph is where the applicant draws together his themes with his self-assessment and goals. He should mention what his master’s degree is in. This writer commits the common error of throwing in the name of the school receiving this statement as a token. Any law school program could fill that place. The writer doesn’t appear to have done research about the law program at NYU. Is he drawn to NYU School of Law because of their expertise in intellectual property, or does the applicant feel that being in New York City will put him in contact with East Coast technology specialists who will give him a leg up in his career? The writer needs to persuade the NYU admissions committee that NYU is the only school for him, and he can do this by interpreting how the school’s particular strengths will advance his goals. Despite these quibbles, though, this is overall a fantastic personal statement.
2. Senior Design
Senior Design—the year-long capstone course and college-wide competition that engineering students learn about on their first day and do not stop thinking about until their last. It forces them to draw from all they have learned. It is a test of perseverance, creativity, and technical knowledge. It was also, rather unexpectedly, the catalyst in my decision to study law.
The philosophy of the Senior Design course was to foster a spirit of entrepreneurship. To that extent, we had to conceptualize, design, build, and test our project considering real-world constraints such as time, cost, and technical feasibility. Finally, we had to “sell” it to a panel of industry judges during a poster presentation.
My team agreed to implement an idea I had for years but didn’t have the know-how or resources to build. We designed a point-of-sale (POS) system for restaurants where customers could place their own orders and pay directly from their tables. It consisted of a graphical touch-screen display unit at the table, pager units for wait staff, and a kitchen unit where all orders would be displayed and managed. All communication was wireless, using state-of-the-art Bluetooth technology. We dubbed it TruePOS.
The professor feared our project was too ambitious. Even now, it is difficult to say if this was true. My team meshed together well, but like any fabric, there were bound to be rips. We were almost torn to shreds the last few weeks: sleepless nights, arguments piling up, parts not working, and families tested to the limits of their patience. But our sacrifice paid off. Among 21 teams from civil, mechanical, and electrical engineering, as a whole considered to be the best group in the history of the competition, we won the grand prize. At the awards banquet, almost every professor, student, and industry invitee told us that we should get a patent as soon as possible.
As we stood on the stage accepting our award, I could tell we were feeling many of the same emotions: elation, relief, gratitude. As I looked at my teammates, with their earnest, eye-scrunching smiles, I came to a realization. I was not the same person I was a year ago. It was as if Senior Design was a glowing, red-hot crucible, and I was a placed inside, melted down, and tempered in a new mold. My basic substance was the same, but I had taken a different shape. I had grown complacent, but I now felt a renewed fervor. Although I hadn’t given it much consideration earlier, I knew the next step in my life: we would get that patent.
My teammates and I met with the Director of the Office of Technology Transfer, Ken Sherman, at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Ken explained the basic patent process including the concept of prior art and asked us to do a patent search on the United States Patent and Trademark Office website. As I conducted this search, I realized that, to my own shock, I enjoyed it. I found myself wondering what it would be like to sit down with the engineers and scientists behind many patents, hashing out the technical details and helping them draft the document that would secure their intellectual property. Most inventors lack the necessary skills to protect themselves. I would be good at helping them, I thought.
My interest in patent law, and now the law in general, has only continued to grow. I have been devouring information on law school, and I cannot wait for the challenge. I believe that Columbia Law School presents the best opportunity for my legal education and is undoubtedly my first choice. I have contacted several students and alumni who attest to the challenging, yet rewarding experience Columbia provides. Many of my friends and most of my family live in New York, many just minutes away via train. I have always relied on a strong support network, and Columbia would allow me to not only continue this habit, but strengthen it. My plan is to practice law in New York; Columbia’s placement history would help me realize this goal.
My decision to study law came from an unlikely source. My strong academic record and background as an electrical engineer provide a pragmatic foundation for my success in law school. I feel prepared to study law at Columbia University, and I feel that I can offer Columbia something in return. I look forward to beginning my legal career at Columbia.
Commentary 2: Senior Design
Structure: Personal Narrative
Topic: Design patent
Thesis: I designed an ingenious device and want to learn about patent law.
Elements of Style: Modern feel, and technological savvy
Committee Appeal: Intellectual Excellence, Pro-Active Starter, Good Leadership Skills
Success Rating: 8/A-
This essay has all the best elements of an exceptional law school essay. It has enthusiasm, building excitement, and triumph. The applicant gives the reader an “ah ha!” moment when he announces his idea for the Senior Design competition. The invention, TruePOS, strikes the reader as a great idea, promising benefits to customers and restaurant owners alike. This candidate has achieved greatness, and he offers great promise to achieve it again through creativity, technical knowledge, and drive that makes him stay up all night to accomplish his goals. He has a reason for wanting to go to law school: to learn about patent law, because he is sitting on a patent that could potentially make him millions of dollars. This applicant has worked with a team, and more than that, he is naturally both the leader and the glue for the teams he organizes. He gets passionate about what he is working on. He is motivated, ambitious and clever. He has substantial intellectual and analytical abilities. This statement is a pleasure to read. It uses the description of one key event to showcase the applicant’s array of talents.
The applicant does a good job of conveying his particular interest in Columbia Law School: intellectual fit (Columbia’s patent law program) and geographical location (proximity to family) are valid reasons why Columbia Law School is his first choice. This statement assisted the applicant in securing admission to Columbia Law School, amongst others.
While this essay tells a great story, it conveys it through language that is at times clunky and unvarnished. The essay starts with a sentence fragment, and the first paragraph contains a somewhat inexplicable shift from present to past tense. These are not trivial questions of pedantry; the law depends upon the precise use of language, and so these errors could signal to the admissions committee that the writer’s verbal acumen is not equal to his technical expertise. The author’s metaphors—of fabric and crucible—do not bring the language to life or help the reader visualize the scene.
The last two paragraphs are not as strong as the previous paragraphs. The applicant needs to capitalize on his ability to understand the language of engineers, and to make an argument for why people with his background are needed as patent lawyers. He needs to create as much desire as he can in the Columbia admissions committee to want him as part of their class. If possible and/or plausible, he should compare the Senior Design competition at his university to one at MIT, or some other well-known university, so the committee has a clear frame of reference for his great achievement. The committee would like to think they are getting one of the best and brightest engineers in the country. When describing the design process, the applicant might want to say which parts he was responsible for creating. He also might be able to look up how many patents came out of the Senior Design program, and use that number to his advantage. 3. Stay-at-Home Dad
In the spring of 1999, my son, Charlie, was just learning to crawl, and my wife, Margaret, was in her last year of medical school. She was also set to begin an obstetrics and gynecology residency in July, which would require us to move. Since I would therefore be leaving my job as a teacher at IS 104, a New York City middle school, I used the opportunity to reevaluate my career goals. I took great satisfaction from my work as a teacher, but I had realized early on that the children I was most concerned for needed as much help at home and in the family courts as they did in a classroom. That belief, along with my desire for greater intellectual challenges, convinced me that I wanted to attend law school. If I took the LSAT in June 1999 and worked for a year while applying to law schools near Margaret’s program, both residency and law school would finish in 2003. Then, with Charlie turning five, we could move to an area with good public schools and begin our professional careers. It seemed like a great plan. But as I thought about what life for my family would be like while we implemented it, I could not dismiss the lessons I had learned in my years as a teacher.
Foremost in my mind was a class of twelve E.D. (“Emotionally Disturbed”) eighth-grade special education students I had during my first year of teaching. Most lived apart from both their parents, and they were my only class in three years to be completely unrepresented at parent-teacher conferences. They had little in common with the geeky-looking, middle-class white guy standing in front of them, and even less interest in getting along with him. For those first months they shoved, insulted, and threatened me on a daily basis. Finally, in January, I found the answer: I started a track team and recruited heavily from that class. Almost instantly, I went from enemy to “Coach,” and in the classroom, pushing gave way to high fives. Our first semester had been all but wasted, but in the rest of the year, we covered the Roaring Twenties, their fears about AIDS, and anything else I could fit under the wide umbrella of “Social Studies.” By year’s end, they were easily my favorite class. To me, they represented a dramatic illustration of how the lack of stable homes and involved parental figures had affected the kids I taught. They also showed me what even a little quality time with an adult could do for a child.
The life my wife and I had envisioned would give Charlie a mom who spent up to 120 hours a week at the hospital and, simultaneously, a dad who practically lived at the law library. That plan was increasingly difficult to square with my experiences at IS 104. I initially wrestled against the solution that kept occurring to me, but eventually I told Margaret that I wanted to become a stay-at-home dad. At first, she worried that, far from receiving the intellectual stimulation I craved, I would be bored at home and would resent her for holding me back. Margaret was also concerned that “delaying” law school would turn into “giving up” on it. She left unspoken her fear that she might respect me less if I stayed home. In truth I shared even her unspoken fears. Still, reason told me that what I proposed was the right choice for our family. I assured Margaret that, to keep my brain active, I would continue running my part-time IT business. I argued I would not feel held back because, instead, I would take pride in doing what my family needed me to do. Law school could wait – Charlie’s childhood would not.
When we moved for Margaret’s residency at Stanford, I began my life as a stay-at-home dad. There was a period of adjustment – despite knowing that I was doing the right thing for our family, my previously breadwinning male ego was still catching up. Other people seemed to struggle with my role, too. A playgroup leader asked Charlie and me not to return for a second play date because some of “The Girls” were uncomfortable with the idea of having a father in the group. Prospective IT clients tended to underestimate me when they learned exactly why I telecommuted. In public, strangers often asked if I was “babysitting,” or they said words that are nails-on-a-chalkboard to any at-home father: “Oh, so you’re Mr. Mom?”
But negative or awkward experiences were rare, and the positives blew them away. Every day, I got to play with my son, and later, my daughter Sophia. I could take them to see their Mommy whenever she had an unexpected slow-down at the hospital, which made residency more bearable for everyone involved. At home, we made crafts and danced and read. I felt good about trying to push gender-neutral toys, even if I had to smile ruefully as Charlie still turned his Legos into guns and Sophia still gravitated towards all things pink. More recently, I have coached soccer, introduced algebra to my seven-year-old, and volunteered at school. Most of all, I have given my children what I hope is the right mix of hugs, discipline, and fun. Both are now as kind and happy as they are bright, and seeing them develop into such great kids has affirmed my decision to stay home to raise them. What I once approached as a duty I now regard as a true privilege, and my wife’s respect for me has grown in these years, not shrunk.
My wife and I once feared that I would give up on going to law school or that my brain would atrophy while home with the kids. Instead, I became more efficient and more ambitious with the time I did have to myself. For pleasure reading, I tackled academic texts on such topics as Islamic history, an interest I have had since college, and Constitutional theory. During naps, preschool, and late nights, I taught myself Cisco network administration, accounting, and anything else I needed to know to run my business. On behalf of the practice my wife joined after residency, I have analyzed physician productivity and evaluated the financial viability of a major real estate venture. Most recently, I played a pivotal role in the successful renegotiation of a multimillion-dollar contract with Blue Cross/Blue Shield. My work and self-study have honed my analytical skills far beyond their levels of seven years ago, and have broadened the areas of law in which I am interested. I will be a far better law student in 2008 than I could ever have been in 2000.
This next year will bring many exciting changes to my family and me. Some of them, such as the fact that both kids will be in school full time and need me less during the day, will come whether I begin law school or not. Others, such as my wife rearranging her schedule so she can be at home when school lets out, will result from the same sort of conscious decision to act for the good of our family as I made over eight years ago. When I arrive on campus next fall, I will approach the study of law from a mature and potentially unique perspective, driven by the same values, dedication, and sense of personal responsibility that have guided me throughout my adult life as a teacher, husband, and father.
Commentary 3: Stay-at-Home Dad
Structure: Personal Narrative
Thesis: I am mature, self-motivated, compassionate.
Elements of Style: Modern man
Committee Appeal: Tangible Impact on Individuals, Intellectual Excellence, Real World Experience
Success Rating: 8/A-
This is a type of personal statement that will probably become more common as highly intelligent, professional couples begin to share the responsibility of childcare. And fields, like law, that have typically been male-dominated are increasingly responding well to professionals trying to better balance work and family. This is still a very fraught issue, however, which comes directly out of women’s movements of the last century. This personal statement gives the reader a very modern-feeling perspective on professional couples from the point of view of a man actively sharing childcare with his wife, whom he respects as his intellectual equal. The applicant describes prejudice he has had to deal with as a result of his choice, in addition to his initial doubts about how his decision could have changed the dynamics in his own family. The major theme is also intertwined with the theme of society’s duty to care for children, in terms of both public education and legal representation.
The applicant gives a heartfelt personal narrative of his experience working with children in a presumably economically disadvantaged part of New York City, and from there he moves on to his decision to provide care for his children as they grow up. The emotionally disturbed students at IS 104 provide a strong counterpoint for the applicant’s own more privileged children. The core of this essay is what kids need: They need parents or community members who are there for them. There are no soapbox speeches on the state of child neglect, abuse or abandonment in the United States; the author just offers a personal narrative that is sincere and honest, humble yet intelligent. Women reading this essay might like it because the author is willing to embrace an alternate gender role to ensure his children have stimulating, loving formative years. He understands women and children and what they need to be happy. He has accepted responsibility for his family and community, and now he wants to have a chance to fulfill his potential in a professional field. All of this makes the candidate unique. He seems to be in a good place to begin a law career, and he is motivated. His personality and enthusiasm come through, along with his self-confidence and maturity. Above all, he has shown, without needing to tell, that he would bring compassion and open-mindedness to his legal studies.
The applicant also gives concrete examples of his intellectual and analytical abilities in the sixth paragraph. The applicant is a self-starter: He has managed his own IT business for at least the past six years. During this time he also learned new skills to help his business grow, and he worked with his wife’s medical team to analyze and negotiate ventures to help her business grow. He reads books for pleasure on history and constitutional law, which demonstrates the positive quality of being a lifetime learner. In the fifth paragraph, the author reveals he also has a daughter, and that is a happy surprise. He resists telling silly stories about what the babies did; throughout the essay he is focused and mature.
This personal statement narrates a very real drama faced by highly intelligent, motivated couples who want to have a family but do not want to leave their children entirely in the hands of a nanny or a daycare program. The applicant shows a great deal of respect for his wife’s ambition, compassion for the needs of children, and most importantly, he shows why he would be an excellent candidate for law school.
This applicant was accepted into Penn Law School even with a 3.3 GPA (from Harvard), counterbalanced by this strong personal statement and a 99th percentile score on his LSAT.
The essay is a little bit baggy; there is room to tighten it up and still expand on why this applicant would be a good candidate for law school. He could cut sentences 3-6, about visiting mommy, dancing and reading, in the weaker fifth paragraph, and then expand the excellent paragraph six. Paragraph six, showing the applicant’s self-motivation, is the meat of the essay for the admissions committee. Here the applicant conveys the skills he has been honing the last six years and the growth he has made since college. The applicant needs to use this paragraph to better explain how he has impacted others. For example, he could easily work in his successes in college by adding on to the first paragraph something like this: “My wife and I once feared that I would give up on going to law school or that staying home with the kids would cause my brain to atrophy after a rigorous and exciting college education spent studying history and taking on leadership positions in the pre-law society and university newspaper staff.” He also needs to tell the committee more about his success as an entrepreneur. What kind of business did he start? How many clients did he have? Did the business grow over time? He could also give more information about the real estate venture he helped with, and how he put his analytical skills to work.
If he really wants to work with children under the law, he should talk a little more about what kind of help he believes children need from lawyers. He is very focused, so he should also give specific reasons why he wants to be accepted at a particular school. In the last paragraph, he should remind the admissions committee members that he is dedicated to helping children in his community and to excelling in both his law classes and in the legal field, so that they will have no doubts that he will be as dedicated to the study of law as to his children.
4. Happy Camper
To one extent or another, I think that everyone who grows up in this country is indoctrinated in a world-view of which this nation is the center and the rest of the world is at the periphery. In such a culture where priority is placed on the individual, it is natural to consider your experience at the very center and marginalize the rest.
Children are naturally self-centered, and probably are more so if growing up in a sheltered environment, as I did. Coming from a traditional, well-off nuclear family, my childhood experience was focused by my innate ideas about the world and my place in it. Even so, I think I was more open about new experiences and travel than the other kids I grew up with. Thanks to my family’s love of camping as our primary recreation, I had visited every state in the country and most southern provinces in Canada by the age of 16. Although this is something of a uniformly North American experience, it did foster in me an appreciation of change, a sense of mobility, and even a certain degree of restfulness. Indeed, it was probably the experience of camping in rural Québec—and not being able to communicate with the campground owners, who spoke only French—when I was 10 years old that touched off my desire to learn the language and travel to France.
As a result, I have been a confirmed Francophile for many years now. Yet, despite growing up in the state with the largest percentage of Hispanics in the country, I never made any effort to either learn Spanish or get to know the culture—much less befriend anyone of a different background than my own. And this attitude persisted until this June.
Motivated mainly by the desire to learn a highly useful Romance language, I went to Mexico this summer—and fell in love. The people, the food, the attitudes, and the language itself, all inspired me to open my mind towards this culture I had previously dismissed, with the result that now, back in Oklahoma, I am continuing my studies in Spanish and making every effort to involve myself with groups on campus as well as individual students I meet with Latin American backgrounds.
I’ve noticed a similar phenomenon after beginning to study the Russian language this year. Most of my life I have had a vague, undefined and poorly understood contempt for communism, Soviet Russia, and anything related that was supposedly threatening to our way of life. But since beginning to study the language, the country’s history, and the people, I have discovered an equal passion for this culture. I speak Russian whenever I can, to the consternation of my family and friends, and spend many hours talking with the Russian students I’ve met through my student job.
While travel and broadened knowledge of other parts of the world may not be the only way to develop a more affectionate viewpoint of other people, societies and cultures, it certainly serves to destroy these preconceived notions we grow up with. My experiences have both made me a better person and helped me to reach out to others in a similar fashion. International law offers me an opportunity both to use my passion for new experiences and to be a part of a rapidly changing process. I am motivated both to learn more about this process and as well as the prospect of someday influencing it. Although one benefit of my travel experiences has been to broaden my personal scope, I know that what I have seen and done represents only a tiny slice of what our world has to offer. I’m ready to participate in more of it.
Commentary 4: Happy Camper
Structure: Personal Narrative
Topic: Language acquisition
Thesis: Languages have helped me learn about the world and its needs.
Elements of Style: Becoming bolder
Committee Appeal: Intellectual Excellence, Multiple Perspectives
Success Rating: 7/B+
This essay praises the value of travel and foreign language acquisition to overcome preconceived notions of others. The author has traveled and been exposed to cultural differences. She has also studied languages intensely. Cultural studies aims to fight many of the prejudices that are also overcome by open-minded travel. This essay takes up several of the themes in cultural studies; however, the themes are given first-hand perspective rather than theoretical discussion. First-hand experience allows for the inclusion of specific details, which admissions committees prefer.
The author’s camping experiences stand out as unique. They give the impression that she is always moving, learning, and experiencing the world. Camping is not an elite form of travel, so the fact that she begins learning about other cultures “on the ground,” gives her a genuine and sympathetic character (good ethos). The reader believes her claim that she wants to immerse herself in other cultures, to meet the people, and not just see the sights. In the context of the essay, the author suggests that each of the fifty states in the U.S. has its own culture, just as each has its own laws, and she has experienced them all. Traveling in North America gradually evolved for her into international interests in France and Russia. Then an interest in the Spanish language returned her home, to Spanish speakers in her town. After discovering a new perspective on her everyday life, she is ready to move out again into the field of international law.
The applicant was accepted to both Yale Law School and Harvard Law School. With her 4.0 GPA and 180 LSAT, her main goal was to write a personal statement that would not be an obstacle to her admission. This statement achieved that goal and was even beneficial, although the statement could have been vastly improved.
The rhetoric needs to be reshaped to reflect an intrepid, worldly law school candidate, which she is, rather than a sheltered, somewhat timid applicant. The essay lacks specific details that could illustrate the author’s positive qualities, such as leadership, resourcefulness, negotiation, organization. The only specific detail in the essay is that once the author could not communicate with a Québécois camp manager. This essay is too focused on starting new languages without pausing to explain how the author used each language to influence others, understand the world from a different perspective, or attempt cultural assimilation. The author should work in one or two narratives that show her interacting with others as a leader or part of a team. Admissions committees seek out collegial, self-assured candidates who work well with others. Most of the first two paragraphs, up until the introduction to camping, should be cut. The author needs a more powerful introduction in its place in order to grab the reader and establish a thesis that is then woven throughout the essay. The introduction, as it stands, introduces the author as self-centered and sheltered; it would be better to introduce her as a multi-lingual world-traveler.
Because the candidate has only studied Spanish for a few months, the rhetoric needs to make up for it being a new interest. The author could write the essay as a travel narrative that ended back at home, with a new perspective on her history and culture. This might be an essay that needs a quote about travel. At any rate, it needs a clearer thesis, explaining why the candidate values travel and languages. For example, she could explain that travel and language acquisition contain within them a challenging and exciting array of academic, creative, and professional pursuits. This will satisfy admission committee members that the candidate has not studied languages to the exclusion of other academic and analytical pursuits.
Here is an example of how the essay could be revised:
[I traveled one hundred thousand miles—to all fifty states and [four] countries—and learned three languages, before I could understand what was in my own backyard.] (While travel and language acquisition may not be the only ways to develop a more sophisticated understanding of other individuals, societies and cultures, they steadily tear down preconceived notions we unwittingly grow up with.)
My family considered travel an essential aspect of education. Our primary recreation was camping. By the time I was sixteen, I had visited every state in the country and most southern provinces in Canada. [Comic description of recreation vehicle?] Once in rural Québec, (description of setting and attempted conversation with campground owners). [This was the first time I experienced a language barrier. I was ten years old, and I determined then I would learn French. By the time I graduated from high school, I had succeeded at this goal, and I was fluent enough to spend one summer (working at a vineyard in France). Description of skills acquired in this country.]
[From this experience I realized the enormous benefits to be gained by learning languages. In college, I continued honing my French language skills. I often read French newspapers online to get a better sense of the repercussions of the United States government’s actions on the international community.] [When one enters another culture’s language, it becomes easier to enter its perspectives. I began studying Russian in college so that I could come to a better understanding of the political situation in the former Soviet Union, as it were, from the inside out. Since beginning to study the language, the country’s history, and the people, I have… To improve my Russian language skills, I sought out a job that puts me in contact with Russia students. [Description of job.] This work allows me to spend many hours talking with Russian friends about changes in the former Soviet Union over the past decade. (A specific detail about an interaction with a Russian friend.)]
[After much travel and language study, I recently looked again at my home. To my surprise, I found I saw it with new vision. I began to be interested in the community I had previously been eager to escape.] Oklahoma has the largest percentage of Spanish speakers of any state in the country. [I found that I wanted to be part of the community that surrounded me my whole life, and which extended out through most of Central and South America and over to Spain. Spanish is the official language in twenty countries, and spoken in more than twenty other countries.] I immersed myself in the language in Mexico last summer. The people, the food, the attitudes, and the language itself, all inspired me to open my mind towards this culture I had previously dismissed. Now, back in Oklahoma, I am continuing my studies in Spanish and making every effort to involve myself with groups on campus as well as individual students I meet with Spanish-speaking backgrounds. [specific details related to Spanish-speaking student groups, law or career goals]
[When I begin a new language or a new course of study, I see it through to the end, and I excel in the possibilities open to me once I have mastered the foundations. I intend to put my language skills to work in a career in international law.] I am motivated to learn more about the rapidly-changing process of international law. Although my travel experiences have broadened my scope already, I know that what I have seen and done represents only a tiny slice of what our world has to offer. I am eager to participate in more of it.
I am a thinker, but not one to think out loud. I love myself, but am not in love with the sound of my own voice. I want to be loved, but not at the cost of not loving myself. I want to know everything, but realize that nothing can ever be known for sure. I believe that nothing is absolute, but I can absolutely defend my beliefs. I understand that chance is prevalent in all aspects of life, but never leave anything important to chance. I am skeptical about everything, but realistic in the face of my skepticism. I base everything on probability, but so does nature...probably.
I believe that all our actions are determined, but feel completely free to do as I choose. I do not believe in anything resembling a God, but would never profess omniscience with regard to such issues. I have faith in nothing, but trust that my family and friends will always be faithful. I feel that religion is among the greatest problems in the world, but also understand that it is perhaps the ultimate solution. I recognize that many people derive their morals from religion, but I insist that religion is not the only fountainhead of morality. I respect the intimate connection between morality and law, but do not believe that either should unquestioningly respect the other.
I want to study the law and become a lawyer, but I do not want to study the law just because I want to become a lawyer. I am aware that the law and economics cannot always be studied in conjunction, but I do not feel that either one can be properly studied without an awareness of the other. I recognize there is more to the law than efficiency, but believe the law should recognize the importance of efficiency more than it does. I love reading about law and philosophy, but not nearly as much as I love having a good conversation about the two. I know that logic makes an argument sound, but also know that passion makes an argument sound logical. I have philosophical beliefs informed by economics and economic beliefs informed by philosophy, but I have lost track of which beliefs came first. I know it was the egg though.
I always think very practically, but do not always like to think about the practical. I have wanted to be a scientist for a while now, but it took me two undergraduate years to figure out that being a scientist does not necessarily entail working in a laboratory. I play the saxophone almost every day, but feel most like an artist when deduction is my instrument. I spent one year at a college where I did not belong and two years taking classes irrelevant for my major, but I have no regrets about my undergraduate experience. I am incredibly passionate about my interests, but cannot imagine being interested in only one passion for an entire lifetime.
I love the Yankees, but do not hate the Red Sox. I love sports, but hate the accompanying anti-intellectual culture. I may read the newspaper starting from the back, but I always make my way to the front eventually. I am liberal on some issues and conservative on others, but reasonable about all of them. I will always be politically active, but will never be a political activist. I think everything through completely, but I am never through thinking about anything.
I can get along with almost anyone, but there are very few people without whom I could not get along. I am giving of my time, but not to the point of forgetting its value. I live for each moment, but not as much as I worry about the next. I consider ambition to be of the utmost importance, but realize that it is useless without the support of hard work. I am a very competitive person, but only when competing with myself. I have a million dreams, but I am more than just a dreamer. I am usually content, but never satisfied.
I am a study in contradiction, but there is not an inconsistency to be found.
Commentary 5: Minimalist
Structure: Personal Narrative
Thesis: I am a clever risk-taker.
Elements of Style: Literary play with contradiction and a variety of verbal punning
Committee Appeal: Intellectual Excellence, Multiple Perspectives
Success Rating: 7/B+
This personal statement is constructed like a poem: there is a rhythm to it that draws the reader in; there is also verbal play and the construction of a somewhat mysterious self-portrait. This applicant had an impressive 4.0 GPA and 178 LSAT, so he or she could be a risk-taker with the personal statement. This essay stands out because it is more artfully designed than other statements. This is a good strategy if you are sure of your standardized scores or if you are applying to a reach school and so are trying to get yourself noticed (see Appendix A: Reach School Risk-Taking). An experimental personal statement such as this is just as likely to succeed as to flop, because some admissions committee members value creativity while others will be put off by the lack of specific details. In its uniqueness, it is unclear how difficult this statement was to write; most admissions committee members will probably give the candidate the benefit of the doubt and see it as highly original rather than a series of clichés. Some people have privacy boundaries that a traditional personal statement crosses. This author may have revealed what he or she was comfortable sharing with the admissions committee.
This statement works by a clever rhetorical trick: The author will repeat a word in the same sentence but shift the meaning to a different, often contrary, usage. For example, the author writes, “I believe that nothing is absolute, but I can absolutely defend my beliefs.” Most of the sentences are linked in a daisy chain of associative ideas. For example, the first paragraph moves through the author’s views on thinking, loving, and doubting. The author then gestures towards interests in philosophy, morality, law, economics, music, sports, and politics. In the third paragraph, the applicant tells us he or she is good at synthesizing diverse information. The admissions committee will like this ability, as well as the humor that concludes the paragraph with the chicken-and-egg joke. The statement ends with a character sketch indicating the author is friendly but ambitious and complex. And finally, there is an important punch when the piece ends: “I am a study in contradiction, but there is not an inconsistency to be found.” This statement worked for the applicant because this person was accepted everywhere, including Yale and Stanford, and was offered a $63,000 scholarship to NYU.
Although this statement is put together like a poem, it lacks the internal logic and consistency that would make it an outstanding example of the personal statement genre. The author starts out very well, linking each sentence to the previous one, but upon close analysis, the chain link falls apart rather quickly. In the first paragraph, talking connects quiet thinking to self-respect, and then love connects self-respect to healthy relationships, but after this, the author enters stream-of-consciousness mode. We learn the author is not religious. He or she writes, “I know that logic makes an argument sound, but also know that passion makes an argument sound logical.” The problem with a sentence like this is that it does not give the reader specific evidence that this person is either logical or passionate. It tells without showing anything. This personal statement encases the author behind a rhetorical wall that does not allow his or her personality to emerge. We do not have a sense of whether this person is trustworthy because we have no specific stories or examples to evaluate for the author’s ethical appeal.
The fourth paragraph is somewhat damaging to the author when we learn, “I spent one year at a college where I did not belong and two years taking classes irrelevant for my major.” The admissions committee will wonder: Why didn’t you belong at that college? Why did you take random classes for two years? Can you be trusted to maintain your focus in law school? The word play at this point waffles between clever and stale. This statement would do better to begin and end with the verbal play, but to have a solid paragraph or two in the middle of personal narrative, in which the admissions committee members really get to know the person behind this rhetorical show.
6. Coming Out
I could barely understand Harrison over the background chatter of the rugby party, so I only caught the tail end of his question: "…thought I heard something in practice, and, well, are you gay?"
I smiled at him, and shook my head, even as I felt my stomach lurch. What had I done wrong? Had some inflection given me away, or had I responded suspiciously to some inscrutable cue or prompt? I had spent my post-pubescent years carefully perfecting a façade: ruining my posture and changing my walk to hide all evidence of my training in ballet; vigilantly monitoring the pitch and tone of my voice; dressing poorly, shaving sporadically, and generally presenting myself as the polar opposite of the gay man as conceived in the popular imagination. I was a skilled performer in a different kind of closet drama, one so long-running that at times I could almost forget I was on stage.
Until I shook my head at Harrison, however, I had never lied outright. In high school, I had promised myself that if anyone asked me directly about my sexuality, I would be honest. I then proceeded to do everything in my power to prevent such questioning. After entering college, and realizing that many people could recognize the signs of repressed homosexuality when they saw them, I had refined this endeavor. I started making the effort not just to appear straight, but not to appear closeted. Thus, I became a vocal defender of gay rights, assuming no one would suspect someone so openly supportive of gays might conceal his own sexuality. I gained further credibility by predicating my support on my experiences as a biracial individual, often citing the anti-miscegenation suit Loving v. Virginia as the crux of my argument for gay marriage. I tolerated no homophobia in my presence, and eschewed macho affectation.
This ruse seemed completely successful. In fact, I began to despair that no one would ever see through it, for even as I dreaded exposure, I craved it. By my senior year of college, it had begun to weigh on me that I was going to graduate without any of my friends or teammates knowing who I really was. Then Harrison, a younger student whom I did not know well, ripped my pretenses to shreds with a question, which suggested that all my efforts had been for naught.
I could have used his query as an opportunity to come clean, but I had a failure of nerve. I knew I was selling my happiness short for my desire to fit in, but this desire was so deeply ingrained in me that it seemed impossible to resist. After years of living in South Texas, where my appearance, Midwestern accent, and inability to speak Spanish marked me as an outsider in most circles, I was not eager to risk alienation once again. Yet in attempting to avert it, I ensured it. Obsessing over issues of personal identity, I became increasingly disengaged throughout the year, both socially and academically.
I found succor only in my senior thesis, on the system of outlawry in early medieval Iceland. In researching my thesis topic, I waded through dense statutory codices and ancient trial records, seeking to understand the legal issues underlying various events in the Icelandic sagas. Learning to view a society through these dispassionate filters was a fascinating intellectual exercise, and a welcome distraction from the emotional turmoil of my personal life. By the end of senior year, my thesis was the one accomplishment that I could look back on with unadulterated pride. Everything else seemed in tatters, and I graduated in dejection.
Three years later, I stood in a ballroom in central Reykjavík. Corks popped, streamers rained down from the ceiling, and dozens of voices sang out in chorus: the Icelandic parliament had just granted gay Icelanders and their relationships full equality under the law. I had the good fortune to be in town on an intensive language program, and was invited to the official announcement. I thought of all that had transpired in my life between that uncomfortable rugby party and this festive affair. Shortly after the personal nadir of graduation, I finally decided it was time to come out. I confided first in my best friend, and with his encouragement, I embarked on a mission of declaration. My disclosure was met with near-universal support and far, far less surprise than I had anticipated. I realized I had been a fool to carry such a heavy burden for so much longer than was necessary. With that weight off my shoulders I immediately started to grow in confidence and maturity, immersing myself in work, building strong new relationships, and generally enjoying life more fully.
In Reykjavík, I gathered with strangers from many different countries, yet I felt among us a sense of community. I was celebrating rights I might never enjoy, but my contentment on the occasion was not lessened by this knowledge. For once, it did not seem to matter what anyone else might think of me. I had gotten to where I needed to be, and I knew that fear and equivocation would never hold me back again.
Commentary 6: Coming Out
Structure: Personal Narrative
Thesis: I know myself and have grown in confidence and maturity.
Elements of Style: Ethical appeal
Committee Appeal: Intellectual Excellence, Multiple Perspectives
Success Rating: 6/B
This is an intensely personal essay about overcoming fear of societal prejudice and accepting one’s sexual orientation. Gay rights has made great strides recently in the U.S. and in other countries. Sexual orientation is very much bound up with law and politics, and it is a powerful subject for a law school personal statement. This man’s story is not an uncommon tale, but his candor here makes him an important diversity candidate for the law school admissions committee. His openness helps the committee balance out potentially under-represented voices in their law school class.
This candidate’s work on the history of law in Iceland is fascinating, and it showcases his intellectual excellence. His rare knowledge of both medieval law and Icelandic law also makes him a unique addition to the law school class. His ethical appeal, or authorial tone, in the essay makes him extremely likeable. He achieves a rare combination of powerful self-awareness and charismatic gentleness that should appeal to the committee members. He was absolutely right not to discuss any personal relationships. This is a honest personal statement, courageous and commendable.
This is a single vignette, with a little bit about academic achievement by way of the senior thesis bleeding into the experience in Reykjavik. The reader is left wanting to know the candidate better. What races is he? What major was he in college? What drew him to law? What aspects of it does he like? How did he come to study medieval Icelandic law? Answering more of these questions, while trimming down some of the coming out story, will make this a more powerful statement. If the author is an expert in medieval Icelandic law, it would be appropriate to teach the reader something about that field. The admissions committee member might lean over to another committee member and say, “Hey, did you know…?” Teaching the reader a tidbit of knowledge helps the essay become memorable and adds to your uniqueness factor.
7. Belorussian Lawyer
Within every person is a complex and unpredictable set of distinguishing characteristics. Although people throughout history have tried to forecast each other’s behavior and aptitude for success, we still cannot state, with one hundred percent confidence, that a person with a certain number of mathematical characteristics is capable of success. However, the possibility of making an accurate forecast increases with a careful analysis of each individual.
I, just like many other law school applicants, believe that I am capable of successfully going through the three years of graduate education, passing the bar exam, and being able to practice law. The question is what makes me different from other applicants and why should I be chosen for the highly desirable place in your educational institution.
A personal statement always sounds like a self advertisement, and it is not an easy task to speak on your own behalf. It would be rather banal to list all my qualifications and conclude that I and no one else am the best and the most qualified candidate. I believe that it would be more appropriate to say that in the past I was one step away from becoming a lawyer, and I am ready and willing to make it happen again.
My decision to practice law goes back to the year of 1996. That was the year when I successfully graduated from a provincial high school at the top of my class and decided to enroll in one of the top-ranked Belorussian law schools. Back then law was a new field of study for the newly-formed Belarus. This country had just emerged from communism and was experiencing a high demand for legal system development, while at the same time experiencing a shortage in knowledgeable law specialists. Despite the skepticism of my relatives and friends, I passed all my entrance exams with the highest possible grades, and I was admitted.
The three years I spent studying law completely changed me. I studied history and the development of jurisprudence, constitutional, civil, and labor law. However, I found myself extremely interested in criminal law courses. As a result of my scholastic achievements in criminal law studies, I was referred by my criminal law professor for an internship in the District Attorney’s Office in Minsk, Belarus. For the duration of my internship, I assisted with a number of crimes investigations and proved myself a knowledgeable specialist.
In 1999 my family made a decision to immigrate to the United States. It will be unnecessary to describe my emotional struggles related to this choice. On November 17, 1999, the airplane from Minsk to Los Angeles turned me from a promising law student into an unemployed immigrant from the former Soviet Union. Although I knew that my ultimate goal would be to receive a college education, I thought that there would never be another chance to become a lawyer. I found a well-paying job in a field totally unrelated to my educational background and have started working towards my undergraduate degree in business administration with the prospect of being promoted within FedEx and continuing my professional growth in the express delivery industry.
Now, approximately one year before my graduation from California State University, Northridge, my English language skills have dramatically improved. The language barrier that I once experienced living in California has diminished. I realize that I can still become a lawyer, regardless of all the obstacles I faced in past years. Being trilingual (English, Russian, and Belorussian), having adapted to a new culture, and having successfully completed a bachelor’s degree in business make me a unique candidate for law school. But in addition to this, in Belarus, I was also able to watch a legal system forming, and this experience itself gives me a unique perspective on law.
The future of this country that has become my home is very important to me. From my point of view, the current crime situation in the United States is a weakness of the American legal system. I believe I can make a difference in this, my chosen field. I already have some practical skills from my education in Belarus, which, in combination with my future education, will give me a rare, possibly irreplaceable, perspective from which to proceed in my career. I am eager to share my perspective with colleagues in law school. Given a chance to pursue legal studies in the United States, I expect to make a big difference, not just in my own life but also in the lives of others. I am a person of great dedication and willingness to succeed. And these characteristics will help me to complete what I started ten years ago.
Commentary 7: Belorussian Lawyer
Structure: Personal Narrative
Topic: Leaving Belarus
Thesis: I have already practiced law in my native country, and I seek to practice in the U.S.
Elements of Style: Immigrant work ethic
Committee Appeal: Real World Experience, Pro-Active Starter, Multiple Perspectives, Uniqueness
Success Rating: 6/B
This applicant’s unique background makes him a strong candidate for law school. He attained a legal education in a country forming its legal system around him. He therefore has a rare perspective on the birth of law, and he probably has a deep understanding of the reason and logic behind certain choices new nations make. The structure is chronological personal history with an interesting background. The topic is his legal education in Belarus and his challenging move to the United States just as his law career was beginning. This applicant shows that he has the ability and dedication to succeed in his own country, and that even given the substantial obstacles posed by a new culture, he has the intellectual ability and the will to establish himself as a leader. He also has the motivation and maturity to reenter his chosen field on the terms set by his new culture, which means for him, starting all over. This applicant knows what he wants; he has a plan for the future and great career potential. He works well with people, as demonstrated by his criminal law professor’s recommendation of him for the internship in Minsk and by his success within FedEx.
A much stronger essay would cut the first three paragraphs, instead beginning, “In the past I was one step away from becoming a lawyer, and I am ready and willing to make it happen again.” As it is now, the first three paragraphs offer platitudes any applicant could say, without introducing the applicant’s rich personal story. Cutting these paragraphs allows the writer to set himself apart from the start and gives him more space to add details about his experiences that will flesh out his narrative. One or two more sentences could be added about what it was like in Belarus as the legal system crystallized around the applicant. A good place to put this would be after the sentence that ends, “…a shortage in knowledgeable law specialists.” One specific detail or story about the new country’s legal system would dramatically enhance the essay. For example, the writer could describe the construction of a new parliament building or the young country’s decision to follow the lead of another established government. Showing some knowledge of the Belorussian legal system would substantiate his claim to having already completed a law degree in Belarus. In the same sentence, the applicant could show he understands that laws are made on the best models available, and they can change when those models are updated in certain historical moments. Finally, to show he works well with people and is comfortable in a leadership position, the applicant could give a brief description of his management duties with FedEx.
8. Mormon Conflict
People of faith are often told to “be in the world, but not of the world.” Unfortunately, no one ever specifies which world. For me, there have always been two. The Mormon world and the world outside seem ever in conflict, and I’ve lived caught between them. My fight to inhabit both worlds without being defined by either has made me who I am today and set me on the path to law school.
My struggle with the Mormon world began on my first Friday in kindergarten with five words from a particularly reverent six-year-old named "Mike Jensen" (the name has been redacted). My dad was finally taking me to the zoo’s new shark exhibit that weekend, and I just couldn’t hold in the news. “I’m going to the see the sharks,” I practically shouted as my class gathered in a circle for large group. My teacher asked when I’d be going, and I enthusiastically replied, “The day after tomorrow!” Enter Mike Jensen, sitting cross-legged at the opposite end of a circle that included nearly every acquaintance I’d made in my short life. As a now familiar look of dismay played slowly across his face, he offered his five-word condemnation: “But Daniel, that’s a Sunday.”
So began my alienation from and struggle with the Mormon world. I was a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints in name but not necessarily in spirit. My mother raised me in the church, while my agnostic but supportive father encouraged me to form my own beliefs. My beliefs did not prohibit me from visiting the zoo with him on the Sabbath, while my classmates’ fathers--both heavenly and earthly--forbade it.
My actions clashed with those of more devout Utahans many more times in my childhood. Sometimes these clashes were humorous, as when I found myself defending Darwin’s theory of evolution against widespread ridicule from a lunch table full of high school classmates who subscribed only to the six-day theory. More often, they were tragic.
The most harrowing experience I’ve ever endured was explaining to my ecclesiastical leader who was also my grandfather that I would not be serving a mission for his church (as all nineteen-year-old Mormon males are expected to do), but would instead be continuing my education at the University of Virginia. After years of struggling against a culture that desperately wanted me to share its beliefs, I had finally decided to take my father’s advice and seek out my own. Knowing I couldn’t do this in Bountiful (yes, it’s really called “Bountiful”) under constant pressure to fully convert, I disappointed my friends, my congregation, my grandfather/bishop, and half of my family by forgoing a mission and leaving Utah in search of what we used to call the “real” world.
I came face to face with that world on my first Friday of college as I watched my particularly irreverent roommate named "R. Gregory Kingston III" (name has been redacted) pour three beers down his throat through a funnel. An impressive feat, to be sure, but not one I hoped to emulate. I had left Utah in search of a place where one’s faith need not define him and where differences are embraced. As I became ever more immersed in college’s culture of celebrated cretinism, I realized that such places don’t really exist.
I was as much at odds with the “real world” as I had been with the Mormon world. I didn’t drink or smoke, I thought it was a good idea to stave off sex until marriage, and my idea of a “party” was viewing all three Back to the Future movies in a row while a rousing game of Scrabble raged on in another room. Though the University preached a message of understanding and acceptance, my personal mores were as much under fire there as my doctrinal edicts had been in Bountiful. Making the difficult daily decisions to forgo alcohol and resist the hook-up culture, I once again found myself estranged from the world I inhabited.
This Friday, as I sit in my Charlottesville law office, overlooking the colonial outpost’s historic downtown, I realize that it’s only thanks to my struggles against those two worlds that I am now able to live in my own. The obviousness of my differing values forced me to maintain them without apology. Others eventually came to respect that, and, while I never truly felt a part of either culture, I learned to thrive in both. I graduated Bountiful High School as a popular student body vice president with good friends who had stopped trying to convert me. I finished college (after just three years of identity crises!) with good grades, a strong sense of self, and a core group of friends who understand and respect my beliefs. Though difficult at times, my perpetual isolation from a cultural identity forced me to form my own and taught me to stay true to it.
It also made me fall in love with law for the most visceral of reasons. In law, my problems do not exist. There are no Mormons and no agnostics in law. There is no culture and no doctrine. Law concerns itself only with blind justice and the maintenance of a fair system. As someone who had always been defined by his faith or lack thereof, I’ve longed to work in a field where it is not an issue. More importantly, my social alienation has taught me what it’s like to be the one against many. I know how it feels to defend a harmless zoo trip to a room full of hostile kindergartners, to espouse Darwin against fundamentalist teenagers, and to be the only guy holding a root beer at a frat party. I know what it’s like to stand alone against an unfriendly system, and I find it truly inspiring that Americans are never forced to do so. Instead, the accused faces the system with an advocate legally bound to be as infinitely trustworthy as he is loyal. I can think of nothing nobler or for which my life has better prepared me than to spend my career as that advocate, against whatever world my client and I face next.
Commentary 8: Mormon Conflict
Structure: Personal Narrative
Topic: Identity Crisis
Thesis: I stay true to my values.
Style: Ethical Appeal
Committee Appeal: Uniqueness
Success Rating: 6/B
The wise tone of this statement suggests the applicant is grounded and knows himself well. His tendency to observe situations and weigh options makes him seem prudent. His story of “escaping” a repressive Mormon upbringing is memorable, likeable, at times comic. The story acts as an allegory, showing the reader that this applicant is not afraid to stand up for what he believes in. He is kind-hearted, but he is not a people-pleaser. He will be able to stand up for his beliefs against those who disagree with him, whether those are colleagues in law school, in a law firm, or on the bench. He makes plans and follows through with them.
The statement conveys a strength and diversity of thought that will be appealing to certain law schools such as Berkeley, where this applicant chose to attend.
The biggest problem with this personal statement is that the reader does not learn about the author’s academic credentials. The writer focuses too much on his childhood and describing his extracurricular experiences in college. These sections need to be trimmed down in order to provide more space for describing his intellectual achievements, work-related impact on others, or real-world experience related to leadership or problem-solving. The author needs to be aware that when he describes himself as observant, the admissions committee will also assume that he is tentative and unsure about swift decisions. He needs to include an example that assures the committee he has matured beyond that indicator of insecurity. Another problem with this essay is the author’s idea that law is completely objective. By saying, “In law, my problems do not exist….There is no culture and no doctrine,” he comes across as idealistic and naïve. He needs to admit that law is not without cultural influences. In his own example of Charles Darwin and natural selection, law confronted religion face to face. Mentioning the Scopes Trial or the Kitzmiller intelligent design case would add a much-needed boost to the author’s academic credentials. He might rephrase his concluding paragraph to praise law as a field studying human rights.
9. New York Artist
“What’s the difference between Elina and a radio?”
My mother has an arsenal of jokes and anecdotes she uses to lovingly embarrass me whenever we are in public. I was the talkative child of a linguistics Ph.D. student and Soviet political protest organizer. I learned to speak English by sitting under the kitchen table while she taught. In 1989, two refugee camps and a homeless shelter later, I became an immigrant, and some sort of an aspiring linguist myself.
From my mother I inherited an intense idealism, almost to the point of detriment, a love for language and funny looking toes.
My first languages were visual arts and metaphors. I attended Students Art League in NYC for 5 years; I took portfolio classes at PS1-MOMA, foundry in college and wheel throwing at an upstate museum. Language, to me, is any form of expression that can be used to convey a personal perspective of the world, regardless of whether it is a visual or verbal medium. In addition to speaking with images, I speak with fiction writing. In a more traditional sense, I am trilingual, with plans of learning Spanish this spring in Argentina. When you have a passion for the symbols, the medium becomes arbitrary.
* * * * *
“Oh my god!!” I screamed in the middle of Dr. Utting’s Stuyvesant High School A.P. Biology class as I watched an airplane hit the World Trade Center two blocks south of the school, where my mother was scheduled to attend the Risk Waters Risk Management Conference at Windows on the World, on the 106th floor. I fell apart. I left school and started wading my way through the crowd towards the then-standing towers. Six hours later, I walked into my apartment, shaking off dust. My mother walked in several hours later. She was late for work.
That week I bought crayons and spent a great deal of time drawing with my mother. We talked our way through the next few weeks. Before that time, I only had a vague idea about those principles my mother had fought for so violently during my childhood. I understood that we had been unsafe in the USSR, because my mother taught English, because she held secret meetings in our kitchen, and because my family translated books. After the day that the World Trade Center fell down, ideas that had seemed foreign and indistinct to me began to solidify. My mother had been persecuted because she fought for human rights by implanting subversive political ideals into the community. Whereas I had once felt that the most effective language I possessed was my artistic voice, I began to see myself in the context of the political community. My dreams of attending Cooper Union for art morphed into dreams of becoming fluent in a new language: the semantics of political theory. When the World Trade Center collapsed, I suddenly realized that while I may live in New York, I also live in the world. That day was the impetus of my political awakening, and has thrust me towards the pursuit of an increased fluency in the language of politics.
I learned that crayons can nurse away fear. I also learned that although visual arts were, and would remain a passion, as well as my native language, my voice was in international political discourse. College became my chance to learn to speak this new language. My concentration sits comfortably between departments. Political Theory taught me the methodology with which I approached a rigorous interdepartmental load of courses aimed at understanding the role of race and racism, religion and gender in history and in politics. Rousseau quickly became my favorite author, and I have been referencing him ever since. Political and legal theory is the foundation that I have applied to my studies of race, racism, gender, power inequality in international discourse, and it may just be the language that I really learned sitting under a kitchen table in Moscow when I was five.
From my mother I inherited the determination to convey my ideals, to debate, to argue, to gossip, and yes, funny looking toes. I talk with my hands. I talk with my pen. I talk with clay, with charcoal, with ink, with my eyes and with the passion of a neurotic émigré New Yorker.
According to my mom, “The difference is that a radio has an off switch.”
Commentary 9: New York Artist
Structure: Personal Narrative
Topic: September 11 repercussions
Thesis: I am artistic and interested in linguistics.
Committee Appeal: Uniqueness
Success Rating: 4/C+
The structure of this essay is a personal political awakening. The topic is the way September 11 revealed the applicant’s desire to study politics. The writer starts with an explanation of her cultivation of artistic language and artistic self-expression. She goes on to say that her experience of September 11 made her want to learn the language of politics to make a difference in public policy, not just to aestheticize her protest through artistic self-expression. The mother is a mentor figure who instills love for language into her daughter and teaches her that there are many sign systems other than verbal language through which humans communicate and express themselves. The applicant has a keen understanding of the construction of language and sign systems generally, which will help her understand the construction of law and legal language.
There seem to be two essays here. One is about the nature of using sign systems for artistic self-expression. The other is the desire to make political choices in one’s life that have tangible returns. The author would do better to pick the first one or to find a way to better unify the two essays. The applicant needs to give more reasons for why her sensitivity to communication would make her a good lawyer. The way the essay is written now, the applicant appears to be so invested in the art world that it is difficult to believe law school and a legal career would make her feel fulfilled. It is easy to say the events of Sept. 11 catalyzed her decision to go into law, but she needs to give more specific details about how she has prepared herself for a law degree. She needs to let the committee know she understands the demands of a legal career, and that her creativity is just one aspect of what she has to offer law school.
The essay offers a jumble of information, and the reader has a hard time determining the relevance of Rousseau, toes, crayons, and other elements of the essay to the writer’s interest in law school. It would probably be better to answer the joke at the beginning. It would also be best to cut all the jokes about toes and to cut out the drawing with crayons after Sept. 11. These details come across as immature and unnecessary. The committee would like to know how the applicant found out more about the new language of politics and law in which she became interested. In the third paragraph, she should mention the three languages she already speaks. It is okay to have the Sept. 11 disruption in the middle of the essay, but the applicant needs to set it up a little bit better in the first three paragraphs. For example, she could use the words “New York City émigré” closer to the beginning to make sure the reader grasps that she is a New Yorker. The applicant might want to remind the admissions committees that Russia was one of the great centers for the study of linguistics in the twentieth century, and she might consider adding that she carries on that heritage, passed down from her mother’s teachers, in her analysis of legal language. Finally, it is easy to mention a great political theorist such as Rousseau, but it is harder to incorporate that theorist’s ideas into one’s own philosophy. Ideally, this applicant would quote Rousseau on language, and explain the quote, in order to tie her love for Rousseau in with her love for linguistics. Stating that Rousseau was both a political theorist and an artist would allow her to knit these two aspects of her own character closer together, and it would serve to unify the two parts of her personal statement.
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