Chapter 9: The Organizing Quote (Structure)

Published November 2009

This structure typically begins with a quote. It can be a sentence or phrase someone famous or someone you know said or wrote. Who you quote sets the tone of the statement. For example, if you use a serious quote by a president or political figure, you send a message that you care about politics. If you pick a humorous quote, then you set a humorous tone for the essay, which ideally should be carried on throughout the essay. If you use a humorous quote by a famous political figure, then you should strike a tone of worldly understanding with an undercurrent of pleasant wit. The combinations are as infinite as choice quotes.

If you use this structure, you have a choice of either starting with a quote and building the essay around the quote, or starting with a tone you would like to set and choosing a quote that will help you set that tone. Your tone should probably match your personality. For example, if your personality is upbeat and extroverted, you would do well to choose a quote that is likewise upbeat. If you are a smart introvert, your personality will come through best with an intellectually-edged quote, calculated to penetrate the reader’s mind. You may present yourself in any way you like, but do be aware of how you are presenting yourself based on the rhetorical choices you make.

By using a quote, you basically piggyback on someone else’s life, appropriating their idea or character, standing behind it, and presenting it as your shield. You want to find ways to incorporate the quote into the main body of your essay. Ideally, you should return to the quote at the end of the essay and reword it in some way that is relevant to you. For example, in Essay 11: PR Agency Builder, the author opens with a comment made to him (“Look, I’m trying to open a PR company…and I think you’d be a good fit”) and concludes with a similar compliment turned toward the law school admissions committee (“Look, I’m trying to study and practice law and I think you’d be a good fit”).

10. Ubuntu

“A person with ubuntu is open and available to others, affirming of others, does not feel threatened that others are able and good, for he or she has a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that he or she belongs in a greater whole and is diminished when others are humiliated or diminished, when others are tortured or oppressed.” - Archbishop Desmond Tutu

We could hear the sound of music all the way from the bus. Slowly walking toward the community center, the sound grew louder. Children step-danced, clapping and banging on their rubber boots in intricate patterns, offering smiles and high-fives as we headed inside.

The community center was one of many I visited during a month-long trip to the Eastern Cape of South Africa last July. Cold, dirt floors, peeling paint, faded posters on the wall, yet bustling with life. Overcrowded, but not to the point of claustrophobia. Full of life, energy, commitment to each other. This, we were told, was the embodiment of ubuntu, a philosophy of southern Africa which means, in essence, that we are all in this life together. While each center was different in its own way, each shared these same basic characteristics. But bright eyes masked fear, vibrant smiles covered uncertainty, and warm hugs served as walls hiding pain.

Considered one of the epicenters of the HIV/AIDS epidemics in Africa, South Africa has a current infection rate of one in four. I'd learn later that about half the children in the yard were infected with the disease. So as I looked around the room of Xhosa people sitting in folding chairs, some with babies swaddled to their chest, I couldn't help but divide the room and think that statistically, at least 25 of them would likely be infected. Most appeared anxious, staring at a volunteer in the front of the room explaining the AIDS test and their options should their test come back positive. My wide eyes matched theirs.

I have no personal connection to the disease. I know no one infected, and I know my New England upbringing has kept me securely sheltered from the world's famines and epidemics. So one may find it unusual that as I have grown, I have become so drawn to public health, human rights, and international health policy.

Perhaps the source of my passion indirectly comes from my training as a journalist. As I progressed through college, my evolving reporting skills changed the way I digest situations. I notice color more closely, analyze sound in more detail, and note expressions and facial features more readily. The reporter's notebook in my mind is constantly filled, reflecting on every moment. Standing in that center in South Africa, I soaked in the details of my surroundings and was struck by a new feeling – not only the urge to write about what I was seeing, but to change it. Same were the details, and the sentences formed in my head as they normally would. But my perspective had changed. No longer did I want to write about the change makers – I wanted to be the one making change.

During my college years I sat as an editor of a dogged weekly student newspaper and freelanced for my city's daily broadsheet. I have interviewed Maya Angelou, covered riots in the streets of Boston, and tracked the story of a missing autistic student. I have exposed the failures of Boston's restaurant inspection system, a task that included close reading and analysis of more than 1500 pages of public documents. As the first member of my immediate family to earn my bachelor's degree, I have an intense desire to succeed, to learn as much as I can about everything, to soak it all in and be as appreciative as possible of the benefits I have received from education.

My young journalism career has been energetic and passionate, and my attention to detail and ability to analyze difficult facts and situations has allowed me to be successful in this field. Some may look at my drive to attend law school as an abandonment of journalism, but I see it as a commitment to an ideal true journalists hold close to their heart – the aim of informing the public of the hardships of the world and, through their words, inspiring social and political change.

But I'm not trying to be heroic – after seeing what I have seen, there can be no heroics - only doing what is right, what is necessary, what must be done – or not. You can either embrace the spirit of ubuntu by reaching out to help your fellow man – or not. I believe that there are significant failures in our country and countries abroad. Failures in public health, in civil rights, failures in our prisons and in adequately addressing poverty. I can observe, soak in the moments, the places, the feelings, and turn them into journalistic story after story, but I have come to realize in my heart that this is not enough for me.

And so I pursue an education in law so that I may return to Africa, return to the hundreds of NGOs that make a small but noticeable difference each and every day in the fight against HIV/AIDS, malaria, tuberculosis, and other diseases plaguing the continent. In some small way, I know I can make a difference.

I believe that I belong to a greater whole. I strive to make a difference. I strive to have ubuntu.

Commentary 10: Ubuntu

Structure: Quote
Topic: Experience in South Africa
Thesis: I developed strong verbal and analytical skills as a journalist that I want to bring to law.
Elements of Style: Vivid descriptions
Committee Appeal: Intellectual Excellence, Real-World Experience, Multiple Perspectives
Success Rating: 9/A

What’s Strong:

This is a very strong personal statement. The author is obviously an excellent writer, who has combined logical appeals, with ethical, emotional, and cultural appeals to produce a statement that will leave many readers with chills. The author teaches the reader about South Africa and about ubuntu through a story of his personal experience there. Most of the readers will have no first-hand experience of South Africa, so the author provides vivid description that conjures up the scene before the reader’s imagination. This author used keys words like “close reading,” “analysis,” and “attention to detail,” which immediately catch the eye of the admissions committee members. Furthermore, the author gives specific examples of his analytical skills. The writer acknowledges his age and idealism, yet his self-reflection makes him seem wise and dedicated. He also comes across as smart, determined and caring. He has real-world experience in journalism and in the third world. He depicts himself as a fresh, positive hard worker and good collaborator who sees himself as part of a larger picture. It is also impressive that his interest in journalism took him around the world, to explore crises threatening our world as a species. While learning about public health and civil rights as a journalist, he decided he wants to do more than educate; he wants to impact situations by becoming a lawyer.

This applicant was able to secure not only admissions to but also scholarships from top law schools, including $60,000 from the University of Chicago and $45,000 from the University of Virginia. His 3.7 GPA and 172 LSAT are enough to gain admission, but this exceptional personal statement undoubtedly helped him receive these scholarship awards.

What’s Wrong:

The applicant might consider adding in a few sentences about any tangible impact his journalism had on his college or local community. As an editor, was he in charge of allocating substantial funds? Which classes was he drawn to in college that might prepare him for law school? Overall, this is an extremely strong statement with little need for improvement.

11. PR Agency Builder

I had been freelancing two months when Vijay called. “Look, I’m trying to open a PR company that’ll target the South Asian audience and I think you’d be a good fit, James.” This struck me as being a little strange, as I’m not South Asian nor had I ever worked in PR, but Vijay was convinced I’d be able to make it work. “We have one client right now, a Swedish calling company that’s trying to expand into the U.S. Can you come to a meeting with one of the founders tomorrow and get started?” I showed up the next day and six months later, their South Asian user base has gone from 40,000 to 80,000 and the PR agency has two additional clients, a subsidiary of the biggest Indian company in the world and an Indian American cable network. Over the course of building the PR agency, I’ve had to negotiate deals with newspapers and online publications, coerce editors into running stories about my clients and persuade companies that my services are worth paying for and that my marketing and business development plans are worth implementing. Each day I’ve learned something new about business or working with a diverse group of people with differing goals, but my job has lacked in that it doesn’t present the deep theoretical problems and focused analysis that I love.

It was February of my senior year in college, and as I sat in my German Idealism seminar, another student raised her hand and asked, “But if we can only know things as they exist in our minds, what would happen if I looked at my brain while I was thinking of my brain? What would I be thinking of?” The class laughed and the professor scowled and gave a cursory response to what he thought was a stupid, surface-level question, but something about it really made me think. Up to that point, I was immersed in the theoretical world and spent almost all of my time debating, writing or reading about philosophy, politics and law. Over the last few months as it became clear that I was the top philosophy major, several of my professors and close friends lobbied me to apply to graduate programs in philosophy and get my Ph.D. This path sounded good on the face of it. I enjoyed writing my honors thesis, reading and analyzing dense texts on theory and debating with professors and other students. But something about that question had really struck me: Did I want to spend the rest of my life arguing over points of theory that I could find no plausible way to connect to the lives of millions of people around me? Even though I loved theory and writing analytical tracts about philosophy, I knew that it lacked the “in the world” experience that I craved.

As I worked after college, I found myself reading more and more books on law and the Constitution. I became the person my friends went to when they had legal trouble with a landlord or a boss, as I found I enjoyed searching through books of state and federal code, exploring the law and how it could be applied to my friends’ situations. And then it made sense, the last eight years I’d been preparing to go to law school. It is a perfect synthesis of my creative, entrepreneurial drive that focuses on praxis and my inability to ignore deep, theoretical thought and analytics. As a result, I’m placing the call to [insert] Law School. “Look, I’m trying to study and practice law and I think you’d be a good fit in helping to achieve those goals, [insert law school].”

Commentary 11: PR Agency Builder

Structure: Personal Narrative, Organizing Quote
Topic: Entrepreneurial and intellectual drives
Thesis: I excel in as a practical business manager and in the academic sphere.
Elements of Style: Journalistic, elegant writing style
Committee Appeal: Tangible Impact,Leadership, Intellectual Excellence, Real World Experience, Multiple Perspectives
Success Rating: 8/A-

What’s Strong:

This essay provides an excellent example of an introductory sentence that grabs the reader abruptly into the story. The statement is included in the “The Organizing Quote” section of this book because business management guides often advise entrepreneurs to call up a colleague and say this powerful quote, “I’ve got a problem, and I think you can help.” The introduction brings together an ideal mix of humor, action, and responsibility, which makes the main character—the applicant—extremely likeable. The narrative pulls the reader in, and we feel delight when the hero helps the PR company grow enormously in six months. This essay has a journalistic feel, heightened by the first clause, “I had been freelancing two months.” There’s a sort of 40’s Bogart-film feel to that phrase. The reader is not sure what intellectual services he’s been offering, but he’s apparently good enough to support himself at it. He doesn’t particularly need to talk about the freelancing; it’s just another feather in his cap, as he makes the most out of his 600 words. The reader surmises that the applicant is likely earning a good income with his work at the PR company. The author portrays himself to excellent effect as a highly desirable resource, someone who is wanted by enough professionals that he can pick what suits him best. This in turn builds desire in the admissions committee for him to pick their law school. The applicant continues building desire in the admissions committee by admitting (seemingly reluctantly) he was the top philosophy student in his university program and that his professors actually tried to persuade him to become an academic philosopher. (Ideally, this would be backed up with a letter of recommendation from one of these professors.) The brevity of the statement helps the applicant because he manages to toss off enormous business and academic achievements, as if everything comes easily for him and there are many more achievements he doesn’t have space to include. Whether he is or is not, he comes across as one of those superhuman people to whom everything comes easily. The admissions committee should really like this statement because the candidate demonstrates leadership, teamwork, real world experience, multiple perspectives and intellectual excellence, all while remaining humble, congenial, and energetic.

This candidate is willing to admit he still has much to learn, and that he, like his friend Vijay, is willing to ask for help. The final sentence is humorous, but it is also a powerful analogy calculated to appeal powerfully to the admissions committee: Just like Vijay trusted the applicant was the best one for the job, the applicant extends the same trust to the law school admissions committee, flattering them that their school is the best one to educate him. The candidate also effectually compares the law school to himself, cementing a bond of high-achievement between the two of them. This has a way of reversing the power differential, making the admissions committee members pleased to be compared to this clever candidate. This is a mature, self-aware person, with a great ethos. He comes across as smart, funny, subtle, winning, the kind of person people listen to and follow. The candidate gives evidence that he’s been on top in an international company and in an intellectually rigorous classroom. His claim that he is intellectually curious, but that he is more interested in praxis than theory rings true. This is a solid, outstanding statement, and many admissions committee members will fight for this student.

What’s Wrong:

This is an excellent example of a personal statement. The applicant might want to mention a few more specific details: what kind of freelance work he did, the topic of his honors thesis, what he thinks his classmate’s question about the brain reveals. Overall, this is a very strong statement.

12. Alice in Casinoland

Seven Impossible Things

Spending much of my childhood in casinos has certainly been a formative experience. For one, I didn’t know the entire arcade floor of Circus Circus, known as the Midway, closes at midnight on weekends. For another, I didn’t know it is illegal for a ten-year-old child to be walking through the casino gambling area with his eight-year-old sister in tow. Fortunately, the casino employees were very helpful once I explained to them that I was looking for my father. It was not very surprising then, years later in my freshmen year at college, my parents divorced, and I was told the family was bankrupted, mired in gambling debt. After all, the time I spent in casinos has taught me more than the operating hours of Circus Circus or the Nevada state laws. It has prepared me for the details of my father’s gambling and, oddly enough, it has prepared me for law school as well.

Most Saturdays, my father would leave my sister in my care at the Midway with twenty dollars each for the arcade. Although the money was for entertainment, in a family where the financial tension is palpable, money becomes sacrosanct and the desire to save is very strong. On one hand, there was the guilt of spending. On the other hand, however, I was usually left at the arcades for eight hours or more. I may have been the only child to methodically apply a risk-return analysis to every arcade game at Circus Circus. My solution was to excel in skill-based games because those games awarded good players with continuous play. A game that allows players to compete against each other with the winner continuing indefinitely was perfect for my budget. As it turns out, this is very conducive to cooperative learning. The arcade is a very friendly atmosphere and opponents are always helping and teaching each other. It is ironic that my father unwittingly fostered a love of collaborative learning by leaving his children by themselves.

My preference for collaborative learning is largely the result of my time at the casino - I have constantly sought to understand myself in an effort to avoid the same mistakes as my father. I avoid drinking, smoking and gambling because I may be predisposed to addictive behavior. According to Black, the oldest child in an addictive family is labeled the family hero and behaves as “the little adult.” [1] The child is responsible and typically very intelligent, the mediator, the perfectionist and the caretaker. It was painful to realize that a complete stranger could describe aspects of my personality so accurately with a turn of a phrase, but I have learned to leverage and appreciate the traits that arose from my unique experiences. I have been the family negotiator, translator and mediator since I was ten. My parents did not speak English so I was the de-facto conduit between my family and the Western world. I was also the caretaker. I watched over my sister whether we were at the casino or at home, and since I graduated, I visit my mother every week and give part of my salary to her every month. Caring for my family has nurtured a desire to serve in a boarder context.

I have always held a fascination with the implications of technology on our laws and conversely our laws on technology. Today, the law is seen as a barrier to technology and innovation. More often, instead of “the law and technology,” the attitude in the media and the forums of technical communities has been “the law against technology.” The Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) is almost universally hated in the technology world. Understandably, incidents such as when the Secure Digital Music Initiative (SDMI) censored Princeton Professor Edward Felten under the DMCA contribute to the outcry of academics and technologists. These incidents and controversial patents such as Amazon’s 1-Click patent have raised many concerns. The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office has declared itself under siege, unable to stem the workload crisis. Critics argue the current system is stifling innovation with too many vested interests to affect real change. Undoubtedly, the rabbit hole goes quite deep. As a technologist, I may only be able to sympathize with the plight of Professor Felton, but as lawyer I will be able to understand our legal system and participate in the reform.

I am inspired by the humor and energy that exudes from Boalt’s faculty, from Dean Berring’s quip on how he may hold a record as one of the few students to transfer out of Harvard Law School to Robert P. Mergers’ jab at the government when he wrote, “My proposals are directed primarily at the PTO, the courts, and Congress. Because there is very little chance that any of these entities will act on them, I can be bold.”[2] The humor and energy is also evident in Berkeley’s balance between strong education and relaxed quality of life. Dean Berring’s remark on how he throws out his notes each year to ensure that he thinks about the issues afresh with the students and to explore them as a group, is a testimonial to this balance. Furthermore, I am passionate about the public interest and constitutional implications of emerging technologies, such as the explosive growth of Internet gambling. The Berkeley Center for Law & Technology, the Berkeley Technology Law Journal and the student group at are ideal institutions to explore the ethical advancement of technology. These institutions will also allow me to help others explore their passions and work toward the school’s success - ultimately, it is a symbiotic relationship, and I can only take as much as I’m willing to give.

According to Freakonomics the following three factors correlate with higher test scores: the parents are highly educated, the parents speak English in the home and the parents are involved in the Parent Teacher Association (PTA).[3] My parents did not finish high school nor did they speak English in the home. My parents did not participate in their children’s lives, much less in the PTA. But it is because of these factors, and not in spite of them, that I was valedictorian of my high school, graduated from college in the top eight percent of my class while working twenty hours a week, and improved my LSAT from the 48th percentile to the 95th percentile with three months of preparation. In his essay on business concepts and patent system reform,Robert P. Merges references the White Queen in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There:

"Now I’ll give you something to believe[" the White Queen remarked.] "I’m just one hundred and one, five months and a day."

"I can’t believe that!" said Alice.

"Can’t you?" the Queen said in a pitying tone. "Try again, draw a long breath and shut your eyes."

Alice laughed. "There’s no use trying," she said, "one can’t believe impossible things."

"I daresay you haven’t had much practice," said the Queen. "When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast."[4]

The Midway was my prelude to Boalt’s collaborative atmosphere. It may seem impossible to believe that Circus Circus is a breeding ground for Boalt Law students, but perhaps if I was admitted, the White Queen will make time for seven impossible things before breakfast.

Commentary 12: Alice in Casinoland

Structure: Quote, Personal Narrative, Overcoming Adversity, Analogy
Topic: Casino life
Thesis: I overcame economic disadvantage to excel academically.
Elements of Style: Literary reference to Lewis Carroll
Committee Appeal: Good Law School Fit
Success Rating: 7/B+

What’s Strong:

This applicant chooses to structure his personal statement as a combination of a personal narrative about overcoming odds and a meaningful quote. There is also a light undercurrent of problem-solution analysis, which could be made more palpable. This is a great structure, but the three elements need to be melded together into one organic whole. The main topic is how the applicant made the best of growing up in the Las Vegas casino Circus Circus—potentially a wonderfully unique topic. It is excellent that this applicant researched UC Berkeley Boalt School of Law and gives specific reasons for why he has chosen Boalt. This statement has a strong conclusion in which the applicant discovers the theme of his essay, which he has been setting up all along the way: In the final sentence, the audience learns the full meaning of the title, which is about daring to achieve seemingly impossible goals, including getting into a top law school. The conclusion pulls together all aspects of the essay and ends with a rhetorical flourish that leaves the reader smiling with comprehension at the clever rhetoric. The applicant incorporated the recommended changes below, and he was admitted to Berkeley.

What’s Wrong:

All the elements of a good personal statement are here, but they need to be supported by more academic accomplishments, and the rhetorical links between the elements need to be strengthened. Nearly half of the personal statement presents the memories of a ten-year-old, and the central quote comes from a children’s book. These aspects raise a red flag for the admissions committee, who might wonder if the applicant has made the transition to mature adulthood, or if he has had trouble moving beyond the abandonment he experienced in the casino as a child. So, the applicant must clear away the doubt in the reader’s mind, and to do this, he can cut back on the amount of space given to descriptions of the casino and use more evidence from his adult life in college and beyond to demonstrate that he has all the mature qualities law schools value.

The story the applicant tells is, at its heart, a sad one. That sadness is best balanced by humorous and witty rhetoric, so that the audience experiences both joyful playfulness and poignancy. The applicant’s choice to compare himself to the White Queen in Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass employs a cultural appeal (mythos) because everyone knows the basic story of Alice in Wonderland. The White Queen sees possibilities where everyone else sees impossibilities. She is both ridiculous and wise in Through the Looking Glass. The applicant quotes one of her wiser comments to Alice just before the White Queen turns into a sheep: “Why sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.” For the White Queen’s powerful quote to link the beginning, middle, and end of the essay, though, the White Queen’s quote needs to be connected to Las Vegas. One way to do this would be simply to use the word “impossible” in the introductory paragraph, since that is the keyword in the essay. For example, the writer could describe Las Vegas as, in some sense, an impossible city, a city of larger-than-life illusion and enthralling spectacle, where many gamblers want to believe they will beat impossible odds.

If the White Queen took her belief system to Las Vegas, she would probably bankrupt herself before breakfast. The author, on the contrary, would not, because he knows the difference between the impossible that is worth fighting for and the impossible that is not. To make this more evident, the applicant might structure his essay around six impossibly difficult circumstances he has overcome in his life; for example, (1) neglect, (2) gambling debt, (3) a language barrier, (4) no educational precedents, and (5,6) two other circumstances he overcame in college, such as uniting a diverse group of people for a common academic goal, or solving a difficult technology problem by using analytical skills and thinking outside the box. Each of these problems should be given a paragraph, with specific evidence showing that each was solved, and with each solution came the development of valuable qualities, including intellectual ability, analytic ability, imagination, motivation, maturity, organization, teamwork, leadership, self-confidence, and oral and written communication skills. The seventh impossible thing he currently believes will come to pass is, of course, that he will be admitted to UC Berkeley Boalt Hall School of Law.

As the personal statement stands now, the applicant seems to be a loner. Law school admissions committees would like to see more evidence that he can both work with a team and delegate. He explains that he developed collaborative learning skills from being abandoned in the arcade, but he needs to give a specific example of how he has used his skills in collaborative learning as an adult.

The fourth paragraph is not integrated into the personal statement, and it is not personal. It should be integrated into the paragraph on some “impossible” aspect of technology the applicant has overcome. The applicant needs to explain what relationship he has had with patent law as a technologist, and what makes him desire to reform the laws. It’s great, however, that he described the quagmire of “law against technology” as “the rabbit hole,” because this choice of words continues to pave the way for the White Queen. This would be a good paragraph to expand on future goals. For example, does the applicant see himself as a patent lawyer?

Instead of footnotes in a personal statement, one should just mention the name of the author and the title in the main body of the text. The personal statement genre is more like a cover letter than an academic essay, so footnotes are out of place. And finally, double-check that the dean you mention, if you mention one, is still the dean of the law school.

13. Kentucky Governor’s Scholar

“The measure of a man comes down to moments, spread out like dots of paint on the canvas of life. Each decision seems insignificant at the time, but the decisions accumulate until one day you realize that they’ve made you the man that you are.”


For nearly eighteen years these words hung at the corner of my mirror, put there by my mother as a daily reminder of the inherent responsibility we all possess in shaping the course of our lives. Misplaced during my college transition, I stumbled across this quote, tucked harmlessly away in my desk drawer, while agonizing over the creation of the “perfect” personal statement. Immediately I felt a sense of calm as I was taken back to my quaint Kentucky home, and immediately the impetus for this statement became obvious.

Going to school in Frankfort, Kentucky, it is impossible to define yourself in academic terms. In an environment that rewarded mediocre athleticism before intellectual achievements, and with counselors who, at times, seemed to deliberately undercut the importance of academic advancement, the skills I had been taught to value at home simply did not translate into “success” in the outside world. As a result I actively sought to hide my intelligence, developing a shy personality and an underwhelming sense of self-confidence that stuck with me through much of middle and high school. I wasn’t afraid of being made fun of or not “fitting in,” but, through the subtle socialization process I had been exposed to, I had begun to discount the skills I possessed, and thus devalue myself as a person. With the Governor’s Scholars Program, that began to change.

The choice was simple: either I spend the summer working and socializing with friends, as in the past, or I attend the Governor’s Scholars Program (“GSP”), a six week program, held at colleges around the state, involving the top 1,000 high school students in Kentucky. Almost uncharacteristically (being shy I usually gravitated towards familiarity) I chose GSP, and spent my junior summer at Eastern Kentucky University researching and discussing a multitude of topics with my fellow scholars. The dialogues were engaging and professors thought-provoking, however, the most substantial impact of GSP came not from academic development but from social exposure. I distinctly remember being called out by Dr. Foster, my politics professor, when I too-readily conceded an opposing viewpoint during a heated debate. It was the first time that a teacher had shown any real interest in my intellectual ability, and the first time that my lack of self-confidence had resulted in a negative outcome. Experiences such as this, coupled with the shift in lunch discussion topics from tv shows and gossip to books and favorite colleges, made me realize that Frankfort was not representative of the rest of the world and, more importantly, that my poor sense of confidence and adolescent attempts to “conceal” my intelligence were both self-perpetuating and self-defeating.

I returned for my senior year with this knowledge, determined to buck the trend of blaming others for my faults and allowing my environment to dictate my opportunities. I vigorously prepared for the SAT, researched potential colleges, and, over the scoffs and eye rolls of my counselors and peers, applied to many of the nation’s best schools. Luckily I was accepted at Vanderbilt, and again I had a choice to make.

This time the decision was not so simple. As a Governor’s Scholar, I was guaranteed a full scholarship to many of the colleges in Kentucky and, although my parents assured me that they could shoulder the financial burden, I felt almost remiss in asking them to completely support me for another four years. Moreover, although they supported my desire to attend a top college, my parents offered to buy me a car if I stayed in Kentucky. Add to this my friend’s plans for apartments and summer parties, and the decision became, for me, one between fun vs. work, friends vs. unfamiliarity, and complacency vs. pursuit of dreams. Yet, building upon the impetus from GSP, I choose to pass on the car, guaranteed friends, and familiar surrounds, preferring instead to attend Vanderbilt, an option that I viewed as both a challenge and a new start; a place where my old self would be merely a shadow, a place where I would be free to succeed on my own terms.

The last four years at Vanderbilt have been amazing. I’ve had the opportunity to study abroad, tutor local children, and meet lifelong friends. Still, it would be impossible for me to detail the impact of these four short years in two pages, and thus I choose to present you with what I believe to be the two most important decisions in my life. Without these two seemingly minute choices, I would never have overcome my lack of confidence, never have allowed my intellectual curiosity to wander, never have felt as if I “belonged” in the world I had idealized outside of Frankfort, and, most importantly, never have been able to assertively make my most recent decision: that of attending law school. This decision leads me again into unfamiliar territory; by graduating from Vanderbilt, I will be the first in my family to receive a four-year degree, and thus, in attending law school, I will also be the first to pursue a professional degree. I whole-heartedly welcome this challenge, and will pursue it with the same curiosity, maturity, and conviction that I have shown throughout the first 21 years of my life. I sincerely hope to see you in the fall. The decision is now yours.

Commentary 13: Kentucky Governor’s Scholar

Structure: Quote, Regional Uniqueness
Topic: Growing up in Kentucky
Thesis: The Governor’s Scholars Program helped me redefine my life goals.
Elements of Style: Gaining self-confidence
Committee Appeal: Hard-working
Success Rating: 4/C

What’s Strong:

This essay opens with a quote that is meaningful to the candidate. He uses this quote to guide his chronological narrative of personal growth from a quiet teenager into an accomplished young adult. He gives arguments for why the major intellectual events in his life were “choices.” The impetus for his success came from within himself, and this shows him to be an intelligent and driven applicant.

What’s Wrong:

This candidate represents himself too negatively throughout the essay. A personal statement is never the place to confide insecurities to an admissions committee that is looking for reasons to reject candidates. This candidate shows us images of himself as a shy, insecure teenager, but he does not counter those with specific details of himself as a leader and risk-taker in college. This leaves the reader unsure how far the applicant actually came out of his shell and to what extent he developed his intellectual, analytical, and social skills.

The writer needs to cultivate a more charismatic personality. That could be as simple as cutting out all the negative self-assessments. He also needs to give the admissions committee more evidence for why he would make a good addition to their law school class. This will probably need to come from several more specific details about achievements in college, such as winning a debate contest, organizing an academic event abroad, or working closely with a professor on an honors thesis argument. These could also fit in the theme of “choices” that have made him the person he is. The two choices he currently describes—GSP and Vanderbilt—should be significantly cut down to make room for more mature choices in college. Right now his argument is: Twice I picked my education over my friends, so I should be admitted to law school. This is not enough to be accepted.

The essay would be stronger if in the first paragraph everything after “desk drawer” were cut. Instead of addressing the admissions committee, the applicant could include one sentence telling us what it’s like to grow up in the Appalachian Mountains in Kentucky, which has traditionally been one of the poorest states in the U.S. This should not be an openly negative assessment. This would emphasize his geographical diversity compared to the other candidates. The second paragraph should be cut completely. He could simply write, “I chose to spend my junior-year summer at Eastern Kentucky University researching and discussing a multitude of topics with my fellow scholars. The Governor’s Scholars Program invited the top 1,000 high school students in Kentucky to meet and study together during a six-week summer program at several colleges around the state. I distinctly remember being called out by Dr. Foster, my politics professor, when I too-readily conceded an opposing viewpoint during a heated debate. It was the first time a teacher had shown real interest in my intellectual ability. [The next class meeting I did not concede as easily, and by the end of the summer, I had made great progress in my debate and argumentation skills, etc].

“I returned to Frankfort for my senior year determined to attend the best college I could. This was an important choice for me, since neither of my parents graduated from college. I vigorously prepared for the SAT, researched potential colleges, and, over the scoffs and eye rolls of my counselors and peers, applied to many of the nation’s best schools. I was proud to have been accepted to Vanderbilt. My parents offered to buy me a car if I stayed in Kentucky, but I chose the intellectual challenge of Vanderbilt, a place where I would be free to succeed on my own terms.” By composing it this way, the shyness and lack of self-confidence are vaguely there, but not sinking the essay. The remainder of the essay should be filled with specific examples of “curiosity, maturity, and conviction” in college. The moments the applicant chooses to describe would fit the essay best if they showed him gravitating toward law and developing the best qualities of a lawyer: teamwork, leadership, excellent written and oral communication skills, excellent analytical abilities, excellent argumentation skills, or attention to detail. The essay would also be stronger if the references to law school in the last paragraph were cut. A candidate may choose to go to law school, but ultimately, the law school chooses the candidate. All the candidates applying to law school have chosen law, so it adds nothing to say one has chosen law, as if one is doing the profession a favor. Furthermore, admissions committees generally do not like direct address, especially to be told the decision is theirs. They know that, and the rhetorical move is useless.

It would be better to end the essay by returning to the opening quote. The author could research where the quote came from and mention this at the end, perhaps adding a coda speculating a little further on the quote. For example, the applicant could complicate his quote by adding that some moments do not seem like a choice: a path simply appears that is irresistible to the prepared mind. The dots of paint one day are suddenly not an abstract work of art; a picture has emerged, and the psyche, then, finally, knows itself.


» Continue to Chapter 10: The Character Sketch (Structure)
« Back to Chapter 8: The Personal Narrative (Structure)


[1] Black, Claudia (1981). “It Will Never Happen to Me” Ballantine Books. ISBN 0345345940

[2] Merges, Robert P. (1999). “As Many As Six Impossible Patents Before Breakfast: Property Rights for Business Concepts and Patent System Reform”. Electronic Commerce Symposium, 588

[3] Levitt, Steven D. and Dubner, Stephen J. (2005) “Freakonomics : A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything”. William Morrow. ISBN 006073132X

[4] Merges, Robert P. (1999). “As Many As Six Impossible Patents Before Breakfast: Property Rights for Business Concepts and Patent System Reform”. Electronic Commerce Symposium, 578 quoting from Carroll, Lewis (1871) “Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There”