Personal statements: What not to do

Sometimes I will unexpectedly stumble across an item I wrote at some point in the distant past, and upon rereading, I’ll be thrilled to discover I still like it. That’s a wonderful feeling—very self-affirming.

That is not the feeling I get when rereading my law school personal statement. More accurate adjectives include “shame,” “revulsion,” and “horror.”

After a couple of seasons in this position, way back in 2003 or so, I got up the nerve to go dig out my application file from the huge storage room hidden deep in the recesses of Hutchins Hall. Given the weight I put on personal statements when I read them, going back to check out my own seemed like a clever idea. Without actually remembering, I’m going to guess that I expected a nice self-affirming experience, but alas, no. I loathed my personal statement to such a degree that I had the Looper-style existential crisis of realizing that if I had been my own dean of admissions, I would not have admitted myself. I returned my personal statement to the vault, resolving never to speak or think of it again.

But as Freud got famous for observing, repressed thoughts have a tricky way of coming back on you. My stupid personal statement would worm its way into my brain every once in a while, and finally, about a year and a half ago, I got the idea of tearing it apart for this blog: part philanthropic, educational gesture; part exorcism. It took me another year or so to get the nerve to go dig out my application file folder again, and yet another six months to beat back the waves of nausea that washed over me every time I peeked at the essay inside. But here we are. I think I’m ready. Let’s just tackle this horrifying task bird by bird.1

Often I am asked, “What’s a good subject for a personal statement? Do I have to explain why I want to attend law school?” No!, I unambiguously respond. (I say it just like that, with an exclamation mark.) While your life path to law school might very well be in the background of whatever you write, it is certainly not necessary—and usually not desirable—to make it an explicit rendering. Often, even well-considered reasons behind wanting to attend law school are fairly mundane and simply expressed, not to mention shared by many candidates, with the result that any essay focusing principally on them is not particularly compelling. Occasionally, candidates will have very targeted, well-established career interests (e.g., the emergency room doctor who wants a career in health law; the school superintendent who wants a career in education law), and those make for compelling essays. But “I would like to have intellectual challenge in my career; I like unraveling problems; I like research and writing,” are such bland—though completely valid—explanations that they inevitably fail to engage the “personal” part of the personal statement mission. So, while those motivations might be the undercurrent of a personal statement, constructing the essay as an explicit “because A, then B” endeavor is not likely to be riveting.

Another bit of advice I frequently give along those lines is that people who have had experiences very early in life that set them on the path toward law should focus instead on something of more recent vintage. Don’t tell me about how you got an idea as a child about wanting to be a lawyer—I would prefer to know why, now that you’re an adult, your application is in front of me.

Given my standard advice, how much, on a scale of 1 to 10, do you think I loved reading this opening line? “My interest in law school began when I was eight.” Really, just terrible.

From there, my long-ago self went on to explain that that was the year my mother went to law school. Now, my mother’s move was a pretty bold one in 1972 for a 38-year-old mother of three in Main Line Philadelphia, and 40 years later, I still find it admirable and inspiring. I may have just finished generally criticizing this sort of theme (and this shows the danger of general advice), but it seems not impossible that this could have been an interesting topic. Yet, for reasons mysterious to me now, I seem to have made a deliberate choice back in 1989 to explore my topic in the most ham-handed imaginable way. (And let’s just politely avert our gazes from my having identified my mom’s degree, in the second sentence, as a juris doctorate.)

Mostly, my personal statement is hard to read because of the hyper-formal tone I took. I can dimly remember writing with my unknown audience in mind, and picturing them as super, super, super stiff and humorless and scary—also, for some reason, I pictured at least 10 of them simultaneously reading my application. Unsurprisingly, writing to please an audience like that turns out to make for clunky prose—not to mention really awkward, unnatural phrasing.

The whole thing is peppered with words that seem a little—off. I don’t remember doing this, but it reads as if wrote it out normally and then went back to up the syllable count, substituting five-dollar words for my daily quotidian vocabulary, like some horrible Google translate feature gone awry. Here’s a little writing advice from Stephen King on that score: “Any word you have to hunt for in a thesaurus is the wrong word. There are no exceptions to this rule.”2 (I would have been better served to use a dictionary, given that on at least one occasion I misused a word completely: “disinterest,” which means “lack of bias,” when in fact I meant “lack of interest.”)

Doubtless, it was this same classing-it-up impulse that led me to quote Judge Learned Hand, whose work I had never actually read. Again, I don’t remember doing this, but I presumably combed through a book of quotations to find something inspiring. (Remember, this debacle occurred pre-Internet; I actually had to go to a lot of effort to produce such an unreadable mess.) I’m going to take as an article of faith that, however much you may love the one sentence you have stumbled upon, quoting people whose work you do not actually know is always a bad idea.

My personal statement is also tedious; it is totally expositive, completely devoid of detail or anecdote. I could have told the funny story about the time I got dragged along to a meeting my mom had with her scariest professor, and announced upon exiting (while still in the doorway, mind you) in my loudest eight-year-old voice, “I think he’s NICE!,” and segued from that to something about how I should be admitted because I had already gotten over Paper Chase-style neuroses. Or I could have told the story about how I once got dragged along to class and sat in the back row next to one of her classmates, another non-traditional student (Episcopal priest turned Vietnam War protester turned would-be lawyer), who gave me whispered explanations of everything that was going on in the discussion, and credited him with some inspirational force. Or I could have told the story about her very young study group partner, who pulled me aside one day (in our living room, mind you) and whispered, “Go away, kid; you bother me,” and explained that I was devoted to the cause of a jackass-free law school. And so on. But I chose instead to explicate in ponderous prose that I was Called To The Law. Shudder.

The flaws are not merely stylistic and thematic. The specific content stinks, too. I veered wildly between being braggy in a quite direct, unnuanced way, and talking excessively about other people, without clearly explaining the significance of those other people to me. And, as if I had never, ever been taught anything about constructing an essay, every paragraph is essentially a stand-alone endeavor. I did not seem to have any particular point I wanted to build to—I was, instead, largely throwing out separate thoughts that seemed potentially persuasive. Focusing on one particular thought or event, and developing that thoroughly, would have been likely to be more productive.

Have I mentioned it was awful?

In retrospect, I have a pretty good idea of how I came to write something so misguided. What I intended to write was something like this: My mom went to law school when I was young. It was an unusual move, and I admired her. In fact, though, she ended up absolutely hating being a lawyer, and then she died when I was in college, still hating it. That combination of circumstances made me really second-guess my previous certainty that The Law Was For Me. I therefore took some time to work in a law office and experiment with some other activities, and consider what I wanted from a career. Mission accomplished, and here I am, Michigan Law School. So, why didn’t I just write that? Because at the time, I was really uncomfortable with the idea of writing about my mom to strangers; even four years after she died, it was still very much an open wound for me, and I was leery of in any way exploiting it. So, instead, I wrote in a completely elliptical way, and never connected the dots—to the extent, weirdly, that I never even said that she had died, just that she had gotten sick. There were two possible solutions for my fundamental writing problem: either pick some less-fraught subject or force myself to be direct.

The good news is, the hot waves of mortification that wash over me when I read it carry with them some helpful perspective. The personal statement is very important, but it is just one piece of the puzzle, balanced by the considerable amount of information elsewhere in the application. (At a completely practical level, this is one of the great virtues of the optional essay prompts we provide; for people tormented by the task of writing a free-form personal statement, the direct, focused questions often lead to a much better result.) Even though I retain a hard little nugget of disdain in my heart for my 24-year-old self, I have learned to be more generous to others. Knowing how badly I flubbed it makes me very admiring of those who don’t, but also more forgiving of those who do. (And very thankful to Allan Stillwagon for having been forgiving of me.) Approach your personal statement as a five-minute conversation with a normal human being, at the end of which you hope the normal human being is thinking, “This person would be well-suited to be at XYZ law school when fall (or, perhaps, summer) comes.”

And for heaven’s sake, go easy with the thesaurus and Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations.

-Dean Z. Senior Assistant Dean for Admissions, Financial Aid, and Career Planning

1Bird by Bird by Annie Lamott is my all-time favorite book on writing. Shout-out to Lisa Rudgers, who recommended it.

2 Stephen King’s On Writing is my second-favorite book about writing. I have to dissent a bit from his anti-thesaurus edict, though. As one blogger noted, “Actually, I can think of one exception to this rule. I generally don’t pluck words I don’t know out of a thesaurus unless I’m trying to be funny, but if a word is on the tip of my tongue and I can’t for the life of me think what it is, the thesaurus is a good way to find it.”