Your Personal Statement: Transforming Your Harrowing Writing Experience into an Inspired Journey
By Karen Graziano • September 10, 2016•Law School, Pre-Law
Many will lead you to believe the LSAT is the most difficult part of the law school admission process. The test is challenging, but it’s an analytical test with a clear process: learn the test, complete questions, and repeat. It tests analytical ability, and it makes you work hard for every point, but there’s actually more frustration from another component of the process: the personal statement. It’s a completely different type of challenge. You hear it in applicants’ voices, see it in their posture, and identify it clearly when they cancel meetings and act noncommittal about topics.
When an applicant says he or she is “thinking” about a topic, then I call on my expertise teaching writing for almost two decades. I recognize the exact situation and the “resident” who has set up shop: the “terminator”. For writing faculty, the “terminator” is lurking every day in every class – trying to impede students’ creativity. The “terminator” weakens, belittles, devalues, and even destroys the creativity and the confidence of writers. The “terminator” isn’t our impartial judge, arbitrator, or adjudicator—it’s a consummate, seemingly indestructible brute wielding its brawn. Much of teaching writing is teaching about possibilities, about the writers’ possibilities and potential. It’s about building up students so that they can accept constructive feedback in a positive way and turn it into purposeful prose. It’s about helping the writer relinquish the “terminator” and release, rework, and revise ideas.
The “terminator” is the voice telling the applicant to come up with something better, more unique, beyond his or her experience because the applicant’s actual experience simply isn’t good enough. Applicants feel dogged by the process itself. Confident applicants suddenly become unsure and insecure about committing to an idea about themselves: They don’t understand the process and what the admission committee is looking for in the personal statement. Think Josef K in Kafka’s The Trial. Drive alone – while necessary to transport a student to this part of the process – can’t summon what the applicant needs here. The applicant needs something else, something different.
Transforming this Harrowing Experience
To contain, quell, and then quash the terminator, I rouse the best of my resources and rally. After all, we’re not dealing with a Kafkaesque situation here: We know the inflictor and the goal. The “terminator” is fear; the goal is to keep the applicant confused and unsure. Unlike Josef K, the applicant knows why he or she is being subjected to this type of torture: Simply, it’s high stakes. It’s summing up who the applicant is in 2 or 3 pages, in 500 to 650 words. It’s the applicant out there on the page—waiting to be judged. See what I mean? Suddenly, the best accomplishments feel like stale white bread: colorless, lifeless, just less.
Let’s climb out of that spiral—after all, we remember what happened to Josef K. – and focus on the task at hand. If any of the following sound like you, you have succumbed to the “terminator,” and we need to revise your thoughts to empower your writing.
The “terminator” is at work if you have uttered any of the following:
#1: “I can’t give them what they want.”
- Thinking about what “they” want is different than understanding the target audience and sharing your skills and talents.
#2. “I don’t have anything unique to share.”
- Simply, yes, you do!
#3. “Everything I want to say has already been said by someone else.”
- No, it hasn’t! Yes, applicants may have talked about working at Morgan Stanley, teaching with Teach for America, or pursuing Mock Trial, but they didn’t have your unique experience and don’t possess your combination of strengths, values, and qualities. Your voice is unique.
#4. “WHAT DO THEY WANT??!!?”
- They want you to share who you are as a person. How have you used your skills and qualities? How have you contributed to your community? What story can you share that represents who you are? How can you convey it in an interesting way?
#5. “Can I recycle my college essay?”
- No. Take a long look at it again. Typically, it doesn’t resonate with a student after several years of college. It’s better to keep it in your rear view mirror.
#6. “I was told not to write about my study abroad. It’s cliché.”
- There’s a list of cliché topics: how you like to argue and how you enjoyed your study abroad top the list. Why? First, they’re cliché if you write them like everyone else. Second, consider what you’re conveying and why. For arguing, do you really love to argue? Or do you analyze? Does anyone like someone who likes to argue?! What exactly are you arguing about? Do you have a point of view about a topic that’s interesting – and what did you do to learn about it? How did you pursue that interest? For a study abroad, remember that no one’s itinerary is interesting – no one’s! Why did you study abroad? What specifically did you learn? How does it apply to your future career path? You need to dive in to these experiences. Can you connect the dots from an experience to your future in law? Are there transferable skills and qualities?
#7. “My mother told me to write it like a cover letter.”
- It’s not a cover letter. It should be a compelling story.
#8. “My father told me it needs to analyze law.”
- This isn’t an analytical research paper. They don’t want you to rewrite your Constitutional law paper. They want you to show who you are as a person, not how you analyzed a specific case in a course. If, however, your research of a particular case sparked your interest, and you took steps to explore this area of law in related internships that becomes interesting to admission committee members.
#9. “My teacher told me I should talk about my science award and research.”
- Your accomplishments are important for your application, but listing your awards and research in a personal statement is the equivalent of an itinerary. Ask yourself too: Do you sound more like a scientist who should work in a lab? Have you connected science to law? Is there a specific quality that you’re trying to emphasize here? Were you able to? Is this information represented adequately in your resume? referenced in a recommendation letter?
#10. “I’ve been thinking about it – for a few months.”
- Thinking isn’t brainstorming. For writing, you need to brainstorm on paper. Thinking is procrastinating. Put words on the page. Don’t be a critic. Be open to all ideas. Start to work through your ideas.
#11. “I’ve been looking at a lot of examples.”
- Oh, no! This quickly becomes an issue. Suddenly instead of thinking about your own life experiences, you have a noisy conversation in your mind—with many different voices talking at the same time. Your own voice will be hard to discern. This makes the application feel less unique and increases procrastination.
So what’s the way out of this Kafkaesque uncertainty? Here are the top 6 steps to help you fight through and proceed when you feel like you’re stuck in personal statement quicksand.
1st Step: Let go
Rather than thinking about the best idea that admission deans and admission committee members have ever read, step back. Apply that wonderful meditation technique: Let it go. Let go of the fear of not being good enough, of not writing perfectly, of not being what you think they want.
One of my favorite writers about the creative process, Julia Cameron, author of The Artist’s Way series, sums up this quandary in The Right to Write, explaining that our writing has become stifled through the learning process in schools: “Schools drill us about how to say what we want to and the how-to involves things like proper spelling, topic sentences, and the avoidance of detours so that logic becomes the field marshal and emotion is kept at bay. Writing, as we are taught to do it, becomes an antihuman activity. We are forever editing, leaving out the details that might not be pertinent. We are trained to self-doubt, to self-scrutiny in the place of self-expression. As a result, most of us try to write too carefully. We try to do it “right.” We try to sound smart.” Therein, lies the problem: We’re expecting perfection when we really need to seek ideas. Our expectations of our writing have become too grand for our abilities and life stories.
Letting go allows us to “begin where you are” as Cameron states. “Wherever you are is always the right place. There is never a need to fix anything, to hitch up the bootstraps of the soul and start at some higher place. Start right where you are,” Cameron encourages. Now that you have let go, you can move forward.
2nd Step: Recognize
With your blue skies mindset, refocus. Recognize what your innate talents are, your strongest qualities, and your strengths. What do you value? What do you believe? What do you care about? How do others describe you? What would they say your strengths and best qualities are? Identify your foundational qualities, strengths, and values, and you’ll be able to realize your theme for your personal statement.
3rd Step: Relish
Now, it’s time to appreciate and savor your skills, values, and strengths. Relish your unique way of being, living, seeing, and experiencing the world. This is who you are. This is why you are where you are. This is what you have to share.
4th Step: Brainstorm
You’re primed to share your ideas now. Brainstorm stories that demonstrate your skills, values, and strengths. Write it all out. Thinking about it doesn’t count. Start with questions. If you highly value your commitment to service, how did this begin? Why do you value it? What qualities, skills, and strengths did you show? For example, if you were highly involved in community service, what’s a specific service event that you most identify with and that demonstrates who you are as a person? How have you been a leader, initiator, or contributor? What story do you have to share? Set the scene: Brainstorm dialogue, location, your thoughts and feelings. Find your real, authentic, colorful story.
5th Step: Share
This is a task most fraught with concern. The “terminator” can arrive on the scene if you ask someone to read your statement who doesn’t have a good understanding of the admission audience and purpose of your statement. Your faculty member, parent, or brother or sister may seem like a great choice, but I’ve seen these well-intentioned supporters unwittingly release the “terminator”. They may nudge an applicant to talk about something other than the applicant’s skills, values, and strengths. The personal statement can begin to sound more like a cover letter or resume or turn into an essay that would have been adored in your English Composition course, but not one that is helpful for law admissions.
Be highly selective in whom you share your statement with. Ask your readers the following question: When you finish reading it – regardless of what you know about me – what do you think it conveys about me? What 2 or 3 qualities do you think about? This is what’s most important. Then ask, do you recall any other stories or examples of these qualities? Or any other details about the stories I mentioned? Then, thank the person and move on. You are most interested in the theme: What has the reader taken away about you? Does this match your intention?
6th Step: Embrace
Now, it’s time to embrace. When I work with applicants through this process, I have one goal in mind. It’s summarized in a quote by Sebastian Coe, a middle-distance runner who won two Olympic gold medals: “Throughout my athletics career, the overall goal was always to be a better athlete than I was at that moment – whether next week, next month or next year. The improvement was the goal. The medal was simply the ultimate reward for achieving that goal.” Here, the goal should be for the applicant to show who he or she is as a person – to truly reflect him or her. I always ask applicants: Do you think the personal statement reflects who you are as a person? This is so important. If it feels stifled, unauthentic, designed to impress, or is a casualty of focusing on the wrong things, then the writer needs to restart this process. While the “ultimate reward” is having the admission committee appreciate this story as much as the applicant does, when writing about life experiences, if the writer focuses on the experience itself, rather than trying to impress, then he or she will be more effective.
Embarking on an Inspiring Journey
Once applicants are through this process, they tend to describe the journey in a different way. The initial exasperated, maddening trial-like feeling reminiscent of Josef K turns into a Santiago-like journey from The Alchemist: fear becomes promise; stagnation becomes action. Like the transformative journey in The Alchemist, the bedeviled personal statement can become an opportunity to realize a unique voice with dreams and goals rather than a manufactured version of what the applicant thinks the admission committee wants. Writing what you think the audience wants won’t work. You will sound insincere. Be yourself with a purpose, and remember that, as Santiago did: “To realize one’s destiny is a person’s only obligation.” Here, realizing your unique story is your obligation.
Letting go, recognizing your strengths, relishing your unique abilities, brainstorming your stories, sharing your ideas and refining, and then embracing your authentic story bring the applicant full circle: back to self, back to the ultimate questions: What do I have to share with this community? Why do I want to pursue this? What do I want to accomplish? How have I and how will I share my qualities, skills, and strengths? What are recognition stories that exemplify these skills? How will law school enable me to realize my skills and strengths and pursue my mission – if that’s working as a corporate attorney structuring deals, as a civil rights attorney protecting an individual’s or group’s rights, or as a real estate attorney negotiating commercial purchases?
When you can answer these questions, you have clearly journeyed through this process and can create an authentic personal statement that conveys your strengths and vision. Keep in mind that while “Purpose is the reason you journey. Passion is the fire that lights the way.” As Santiago shared: “It’s true; life really is generous to those who pursue their Personal Legend...” Your personal legend is your mission—and it involves understanding how you can use your unique combination of skills and qualities on your journey. Your job in the personal statement is to convey this, not as simply a logical statement, but as a felt experience. Start with Step #1: Let go so you can let yourself share your story.
About the Author
Karen Graziano, J.D., is a graduate of Fairfield University, Fairfield, CT, with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Communication and English and American University Washington College of Law (WCL), Washington, DC, with a Juris Doctor degree. She is intrigued by others’ stories and is devoted to helping others “develop their ideas in writing and quest in life.” She achieves this mission through her work as an adjunct professor, teaching Writing, Communication, Leadership, Professional Development, and Legal courses for undergraduates, MBA, and joint JD/MBA students, and as a consultant, recently launching Graziano Career Works, LLC, where she strives to educate and empower clients to develop and achieve their educational, academic and professional writing, and career goals. She assists companies and universities in achieving their strategic mission and increasing employee and student engagement through workshops. Karen founded the Law School Advising Program, Leadership & Professional Development Program, BRIDGE Society, and 1-credit Series of Professional Development courses, which includes Professional Development and The Legal Profession, for Villanova University’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. At Villanova, she served as the pre-law advisor for 10 years. Currently, she is the Pre-Law Advisor consultant to Princeton University’s Career Center counseling students and alumni and training career counselors. She has contributed to the profession as the former president of the Northeast Association of Pre-Law Advisors (NAPLA) and 2014 Conference Chair. Karen is a frequent presenter on professional development, professionalism, and leadership for pre-law students, undergraduates, and professionals.
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