Good Topics, Poorly Written

Often the aplicant has a really great idea for an essay, but communicates it very poorly. So, here. is a Letterman-like list of the Top Ten bad personal statement styles:  

10.  Non-Responsive

The non-responsive answer either never actually answers the question, or does so in such a rambling and detail-laden manner that the reader has given up and moved on to another file.  

Here's a sample question:  

Please reflect on your reasons for considering a transfer. Why are you transferring? Why was your most recent college not a good fit? What do you know now that you didn't know during your first college search process?

and here's the answer.  

"An education can take you places in this country" I told the Hispanic bell-boy at the 4-star hotel in Texas while campaigning to become national vice-president of the two-year college honor society. Our encounter was casual, but I meant those words-with him, I had no agenda. It had been only a matter of months since I was the one wearing the service uniform. Now, however, I was in a position to address an audience, to influence people, to promote change. By attending a community college as a dual-enrollment (Running Start) student and excelling in academics and leadership activities I had gained the privilege of addressing 4,000 American honor students. Furthermore, I had gained privilege to carry a message, to deposit a seed. At that point in my life, an education had indeed taken me places; I had found truth-value in such cliché phrase-it was empowering. However, my time at the community college is over. I have maximized the use of the resources available to me there, now it's time to move on.

9.  Helplessness and Frustration

This essay addresses a problem the applicant faced, accusing existing social systems of inadequacy and proposing to change the system by becoming a lawyer. The danger in writing such an essay is that it needs to draw a very fine line between fighting for a cause and starting a vendetta.

For the past seven years in two different states as a clinical social worker, I have practiced in a variety of venues including schools, private outpatient, hospital, residential, and mental health settings. One of the most important, yet at times difficult, roles I am bound to fulfill is that of mandated reporter. This role requires me to report allegations of abuse and neglect of children and vulnerable adults to the Child and/or Adult Protective Services (CPS or APS) divisions of Social Services within 48 hours of obtaining such allegations. While I am required to fulfill this obligation to protect the clients I serve, at times my reports have gone uninvestigated or even dismissed at the initial reporting stage. On one particular occasion, an intake worker informed me that one "has the right to beat their child as long as they don't leave marks." In another instance I was required to make several reports on behalf of one child before the workers recorded the child's identifying data or the information being reported. Further, there was already an open protective services case for a child I was working with. However, the CPS worker informed me that despite what was being reported, there was not enough evidence to follow up on the latest allegations. As a result, he was choosing not to investigate this matter further.

As stated previously, initial reports of suspected abuse and neglect must be made within 48 hours to CPS. In early October 2005, I attempted to make a report of suspected child abuse. I left a voice mail message for a CPS worker to call me back. Despite several follow up calls and again having to leave voice mail messages, this report was taken not within 48 hours but five days after the initial telephone call.

There are several ways to interpret this essay:  one is, "I was ignored, it wasn't fair, I'm gonna get even."  Another is "I'm so idealistic that I can't imagine the law ever being abused or ignored by the people within the system."  Of course, there are kinder interpretations, but why run the risk of the negative ones, and why present yourself as an issue instead of a person?  

Social injustices can and should be addressed, but the word "I" should play a very minor role in the report of injustices. The analysis of the problem should be more academic than emotional, and the key theme should be why you feel drawn to fix this among the thousands of social problems that need fixing,

8.  Polysyllablic Extremity

Often a person explaining a weakness in the application will use more polysyllabic language than is appropriate for a conversational tone — or in plain English, too many big words for plain English.  

An area that might concern the admissions committee is the apparent inconsistency of the grades in my transcript, especially during my sophomore year. The Achilles heels throughout my academic career have been my difficulty with succeeding in quantitative subjects and my unwillingness to ask for help. Despite my chronic struggles with numbers, during my first two years of college, I was too stubborn to let people help me with quantitative classes. It showed as I took on multiple economics and accounting classes simultaneously during my sophomore year and saw my two worst semesters in college.

People who use big words to explain weaknesses in their file are usually afraid that someone will think they're stupid, and are trying to prove they're not.  When a four syllable word is the most appropriate, use it; when a single syllable works, show that you're secure enough to use that.  

7. Why I want to be a lawyer.  

Any explanation of why you want to study law is a bad topic, unless you have a very specific goal already connected to your experience. Unfortunately, more schools are requiring an answer to this question, trying to sort the people who are waiting out the recession from those who have some idea of what "lawyering" means to them. Here are two examples of poor reasons:

I was reading a book which focuses on how depression fueled Lincoln’s greatness, and was struck by one line in particular: “I’m not afraid to die, but I have this desire to do something….” I’ve always admired Lincoln, most probably because he too suffers from a learning disability, and realized that I also wanted to make a difference in the world, to leave a mark so to speak. 

Why this is bad: Wanting to make a mark on the world is admirable. However, hardly anyone who has done so is a lawyer. Mother Theresa, Bill Gates, Donald Trump, Beyoncé Knowles, have all left their mark without lifting a gavel or filing papers in court. To paraphrase my law school mentor, law is a tool that can be used to change society, but so are writing, engaging in social work, or standing on a soap box on a street corner. Don't confuse law with justice or social change.

A goal that is too specific can be as bad as one that it too vague. Consider the following:

I find intoxicated driving extremely heinous and want to specialize in prosecuting individuals who commit either of the previous two crimes.  My cousin was killed by a driver under the influence when he was 20…it completely destroyed our family…his parents were too upset to pursue the accident and so the truck driver is still on road, driving.  Although I understand their reasons for doing what they did, it infuriates me that he is still able to live a normal life…I can’t bring my cousin back, but I feel that I can at least prevent another family from going through what his parents have.

Why this is bad: No one can get a job that consists entirely of prosecuting drunk drivers. Will you feel just as zealous about prosecuting teenagers breaking curfew, or shoplifters? Can you summon up the enthusiasm to nail the S.O.B who didn't pay his parking tickets? There's no market for a one-trick pony.

6.  Obnoxious  

Numbers. What an impersonal way to evaluate candidates for a study and eventual profession that in most respects relies more heavily on a person's ability to communicate effectively. The law is much more than numbers; it is about developing and presenting an argument. The penchant for persuasion is not a characteristic that can be measured by numbers; it is intangible. This intangible is the difference between being good and being great. This intangible is passion. This passion will make me the next great lawyer to graduate from [name] School of Law. Over the course of the next few paragraphs I will illustrate why I have the skill set to flourish in law school and why it would be a huge mistake to let me slip through your fingertips.

This essay showed up in my mailbox last month.  It begins by telling the admissions officer that her way of deciding who gets in is wrong, and then goes on to say why he should be admitted even though his numbers are bad.  The statement "it would be a huge mistake to let me slip through your fingertips" should be enough to get him rejected with great numbers; with weak numbers it's a sure killer.  

5.  Let Me Tell You About...

Some people discuss a problem by telling you what a big problem it was, and how it's not there any more, and how it won't ever be there again — but they never name the problem, or how it went away, or why it won't return.  Here's an example:  

Who would have thought that I, a person who handled conflict poorly in the past, would be teaching our youth how to handle conflict the right way? But, sure enough, I am educating students throughout Philadelphia on how to resolve their differences in ways that will avoid violence, reduce their chances of suspension, and enhance their ability to communicate their feelings effectively to others. By doing this I hope I will also eliminate for them the need to explain past mistakes made in ignorance when they become adults, just as I have to do in applying to the xxx College of Law.

If this essay doesn't turn the admissions committee off through sheer boredom, it doesn't give them enough information to assess the risks, and will be a wasted effort.

4.  So Inaccurate as to Lose All Credibility

My ancestry consists of a mixture of Native American, English, and African descendants. As my grandma used to tell me, my Native American ancestors came to this country in the mid 1700's. They were apart of the Shawnee tribe. The English part of my ancestry also came to this country in the 1700's to settle and start a new life. And the African side many of us know came to this country back in the 1600's or earlier as slaves, as trade from the Africans.

I trust that everyone born here knows enough American history to know what's wrong in the paragraph above; but for those of you who grew up in another country, let me point out that our Native American ancestors did not arrive in the 1700s; they were here for thousands of years.  The English arrived in the 1600s (although this person may be referring to specific ancestors).   The African slaves could not have been brought here 100 years earlier than the people who brought them!  

Alright, I know that there is some reading of history that will make something true here — she could be referring to slaves brought by the Spaniards to Florida or the Caribbean Islands.  But, even discounting grammatical errors, once she wrote "my Native American ancestors came to this country in the mid 1700's," she had lost the benefit of the doubt.  

3. As I was going to St. Ives...

Do you know that old riddle? You had to guess how many people were going to St. Ives.  That's how I felt when I read this paragraph from an essay:

My family is from Barbados. In 1978 my dad moved to New York and my Mom soon followed. My sister, Michelle and I stayed behind and lived with my Aunty Hedy and my maternal grandmother. My dad worked as a construction worker and in a warehouse and my mother was a domestic worker. During the week she lived with the family, took care of the kids, cooked, cleaned and came home on weekends. I am not sure what their original plan was. But during one visit home my headmistress told my mother that I was not the same child and that she should send for us.

Sometimes even though your grammar is adequate, your sentences have too many pronouns with vague referents; for instance, which family did her mother live with? Another problem is words used with multiple meanings (like "home"). Too many such mistakes in a single essay can make the reader feel like she's solving the famous riddle.

2.  Blood and Gore

Telling people about the obstacles you've overcome is important.  Telling them in graphic detail is utterly unnecessary in a law school application.

When I got into the car, he said nothing. Finally, he opened his mouth to tell me that I was so dumb, would do poorly on the GRE, would never get into graduate school, and would never get a good job. “We” were going to be poor because of me. This sparked an argument. We got to my apartment, and the argument had heated up so much that I was crying and screaming out a list of all the things he had done to me over the years. To shut me up, he pushed me onto my bed and smothered my face between a pillow and the mattress. Did he not know I could not breathe? He let up. I screamed. He shoved the pillow onto my face again. By the end of the night I was helpless in my bedroom where he had unplugged my telephone; he kept watch in the living room. Two days later, I sat on my bedroom floor, facing a window, still crying. He picked me up like a rag doll, wiped my tears and asked me where I wanted to eat dinner. I looked up between sobs and replied, “Red Lobster.” The cycle had begun once more.

Fortunately for society, the realities of domestic violence, racism, homophobia, child abuse, drug and alcohol addictions etc., have received the attention they deserve in recent years.  As a result, there is no need to inform the reader of the exact level of distress you suffered.  "My father is a cocaine addict.  When we're lucky, he's run off or in jail" says everything you need to say.  Details may make a person cringe; even worse, they may remind the reader of a trauma in his own past.  Rather than be forced to remember his own horror story, he may happily put your file down — on the reject stack — and move on to another.  

1.  The Zealot

Law schools like people who are committed to a cause, but not to the extreme of doubtful sanity:

I have prayed to Jesus Christ my Lord and my Savior, and Now is the Time!  I have been told in answer to my prayers that I must attend law school if I am to help drive immorality and perversion out of our country.  Our Christian forefathers did not come to a new land to create a Sodom and Gomorrah.  Homosexuality, abortion, and feminism all threaten the moral fabric on which America was founded.  I hope to become a legislator helping to lead the return to our Christian heritage, and I believe that a law degree from Georgetown will help me achieve that goal.

This person may have a calling to become a legislator, but writing about it in this extreme style is the surest way to keep himself out of law school.  Save the campaign speeches and other extreme expressions of your politics for after you're admitted.


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