P.S. Boot Camp: Don't Argue
July 29, 2010
OK, it's time to kick off my promised Personal Statement Boot Camp, which is designed to help you avoid some of the major mistakes I see in law school applications, and hopefully give you some ideas of how to make your P.S. better. I'm going to start with the theme I most dread reading every year, which I mentioned in one of my panel answers in a previous post: the "I Love to Argue" theme.
I can only guess that there is some book, or some group of misguided counselors, that has the mistaken impression that "I Love to Argue" is 1) an original theme for a personal statement and 2) something that is actually going to help your candidacy. If so, nothing can be more wrong on both fronts. I'd say roughly 300-500 people a year write some form of the "I Love to Argue" personal statement, which makes them 1) totally cliche and 2) seemingly clueless about why they are going to law school and/or too lazy to think about it deeply. (If you want to rat out the sources/people who are telling you to go this route, feel free to do so in the comments.)
In case you're one of the fortunate applicants who isn't familiar with this theme, the "I Love to Argue" personal statement goes something like this: first, the applicant starts off with some anecdote, usually from preschool, which amounts to having a temper tantrum over something really dumb. The adult in said anecdote (usually, but not always, the mother), instead of giving the applicant a good spank, is totally impressed by the temper tantrum and says, "You are going to be a great lawyer!" This forms the basis for the applicant's desire to apply to law school sixteen years later.
Sometimes, the applicant manages to redeem him- or herself by immediately leaping from this very bad opening into substantive reasons why s/he is interested in law school. More often, however, the applicant proceeds to follow up with more anecdotes illustrating how s/he loved to argue with various other people in different stages and ages of life apparently in the hope that, two pages later, I am going to proclaim, "This applicant is going to be a great lawyer!" That never happens.
Why is this theme so wrong? Let's first start with your mom. I'm sure she is a very nice person, but when it comes to law school admissions, please note that she has zero credibility. Don't mention any assessment she makes about your potential lawyerly ability in your P.S. Ever.
Moving on . . . on a conceptual level, the "I Love to Argue" P.S. seems to be based on the mistaken notion that it's actually good, or relevant, that you love to argue. It's not. Going on and on about how you love being confrontational and argumentative with each and every person in your life is a major red flag for the reader of your file. It's a character flaw. If you love to argue, and even admit that you do so over petty, irrelevant things, you suggest to the reader that you are reactive, a poor listener, unable to relate to different perspectives, and that you are generally an unpleasant person to be around (and to have in a class). The fact that you think it's an asset suggests that you lack self-awareness and are going to have problems getting along with others. In other words, you are going to be a social and administrative (if not academic) nightmare. Not so good.
More importantly, ILTA shows a shallow understanding of what being a lawyer is about. You see, arguing is not the hallmark of a good lawyer. It's true that many lawyers are skilled orators, but that doesn't mean that they argue. In fact, the best way to find yourself with a losing case streak and a dwindling client list is to constantly argue with other lawyers or worse, the judge hearing your case. Legal communities are insular and well-connected; most lawyers, even those who litigate, have good relationships with the lawyers they oppose in court every day. This means that they can pick up the phone to resolve an issue, rather than having heated arguments in court. And if you've ever watched an appellate case, you know that the only people who should be arguing (if you're doing your job right) are the hearing judges, who are going to pick apart your case and ask you pointed and potentially snarky questions. You politely answer them.
In fact, I'd er-, argue, that one of the most important jobs of a lawyer is not to argue at all. Take, for instance, the most important lawyer (and oralist) in the country, the Solicitor General of the United States. The S.G. represents the U.S. government before the Supreme Court in all cases where the United States is a party to the case. Uniquely, however, the S.G.'s role is more of an advisor to the Court (for example, the S.G. is always allowed to present an argument even when the government is an amicus curiae, rather than a party, to the case)—hence she is known also as the "Tenth Justice." To this end, the S.G. has a mandate that most lawyers don't have, which is to "confess error" when the government's position is unjust and to advise the Court to overturn the lower court's decision. Clearly, this means that the S.G. is required to do more than just blindly crank out a zealous argument in favor of the government's original position; she has to think carefully about the position,its implications on the parties in the case and on policy generally, and sometimes, if warranted, concede that the other side has it right.
Which brings me to the big picture. Good lawyers don't argue, they construct good arguments. There's a difference. So, for you to show me that you'll be a good lawyer, you have to make a good argument for yourself through your personal statement. This is done not by asserting that you possess certain (unverifiable) skills, but by illustrating through experiences, influences, and ideas that you have the qualities that we want to see in future lawyers from Yale—critical thinking, intellectual curiosity, substantive interests, the ability to see different points of view, to name a few. In fact, it doesn't matter if you hate public speaking, or even if you're bad at it. Making a legal oral argument, like any skill, is one you can learn . . . and in any event most lawyers never see the inside of a courtroom (or the light of day, for that matter). By contrast, we can't teach aspects of character, so getting those to shine through in your personal statement is much more important from an admissions perspective.
So, to sum up: avoid writing about how you love to argue, quoting your mom, or mentioning anything from preschool, and you'll be ahead of 10% of your peers from the get-go. That's it for this Boot Camp. More to come!
Love your candid repartee. You mentioned that the applicant may redeem him/herself with stating why they want to go to law school. Do you recommend this in a personal statement, then? Or does it seem superficial or sucking-up-to-admissions-like to have an applicant lay out why he/she wants to go to law school, when they may have no direct experience in this academic field?
June 29, 2010 5:30 PM
Thanks for this Asha—I have started my PS with an anecdote that quotes my mom telling me when I was 17 to use my talents to make a difference instead of jumping on the bandwagon of doing this or that. Classic mom advice. Is the "don't quite your mom" advice universal, or just don't quote your mom speculating about things she doesn't know about?
July 2, 2010 1:15 PM
Courtenay: I don't think it's superficial or suck-uppy to explain why you want to go to law school—I actually thinks that's the point of the P.S. (I may be one of the few admissions people who believes this, but I'd like to know that this is well thought out, not something you're doing because you can't find a job.) You don't have to use legal jargon or talk about things you don't know about, but presumably there are certain academic, professional, or personal experiences that have led you in this direction. Tell me what they are!
July 2, 2010 3:03 PM
Sue: Hmm. I wouldn't say quoting your mom is per se a bad idea if it ties in directly with a decision or experience you had that made you want to become a lawyer, but I would think about whether that was *really* a significant turning point for you (or are you just trying to figure out a way to open your P.S.?). Anecdotes with mom advice always strike me as a little contrived, so if there's another way to jump right into the substance of your P.S., I'd do that.
July 2, 2010 3:09 PM
I come from an educationally disadvantaged background(first to graduate college and from 3 consecutive generations of teenage mothers) and would like to theme my P.S. on what education in general has meant, and does mean, to me. Is it necessary for me to write it specifically about law school or is it ok for me to keep it general?
July 4, 2010 11:49 AM
I was wondering how one ought to go about picking between a number of extra-curricular activities to elaborate on in the PS? (I know that you've cautioned us against copy-pasting the resume). So should one pick the most unusual or impressive ones? It seems like a lot of YLS admits were outstanding in some way, so is being involved in a student club less impressive than presenting at a conference? Also, is one's undergraduate career used as an indicator of the kind of trajectory one will have in law school? (So an undergrad editor might do something similar as a law student etc.) Thank you!
July 10, 2010 4:48 PM
@Terrance: It's hard for me to answer your question, because you really need to write about what matters to you. But I'll just echo what I said to Courtenay, above: we are interested not only in getting great, diverse students, but also ones who we are confident have thought about why law school is the right next step. It doesn't help us, or any student, to admit someone who changes her mind midway through law school or worse, graduates with a lot a debt and no heart in practicing law. Many students write very compelling essays about what has led them to law school specifically, even if they are based on purely personal or familial experiences. All things being equal, such an applicant would have a leg up over someone who writes a very general essay about why education is important.
July 19, 2010 5:00 PM
Thanks for your post,
I am writing the personal statement for 2011. I described my experience of visiting the Yale campus, and its surrounding area- especially the café near the campus, being full of the students who were discussing something, and I was impressive to see that. I intended to show that Yale’s environment was very impressive. However, is it possibly categorized as ‘I love to argue’ thing?
August 15, 2010 12:07 PM
@Ashley: I don't think this falls in the "I Love to Argue" category. But, if you intend to show that you are interested in Yale/law school because of the intellectual culture here, be sure to bring it back to you and your own specific intellectual interests, so we can see why you would be a good fit for this environment, and it for you.
September 8, 2010 11:41 AM
I am having a bit of difficulty differentiating between the 250 word on a subject of choice vs the personal statement(apart from length requirements). Can you please offer some insight?
October 24, 2010 4:06 PM
@Jennifer: Generally, the personal statement is a narrative that explains what led a person to apply to law school—it might be an intellectual journey, or related to your background and professional experiences, but it is going to be "personal," i.e., about you.
Sometimes people write personal 250-word essays also, about a hobby or interest, for example, or relating a personal anecdote. But some people will go in a completely different direction, writing an op-ed style piece about an issue, making a policy argument, excerpting a piece of analytical writing (like a literary analysis), or writing a descriptive essay about some concept that interests them, with their take on that idea. There is really no right or wrong way to go in a 250-word essay—I have literally read every kind of essay, including ones that made me laugh, ones that made me cry (for good and bad reasons), ones that made me think of an issue in a different way, and ones that taught me something I didn't know. I think with the 250 you can really think broadly and have fun with it.
December 4, 2010 9:23 AM
Reactive, not reactionary (para. 6, l. 6).
January 26, 2011 6:12 PM
@ anon.: Correct. Thank you.
January 27, 2011 9:29 AM
Fab post :) Makes me desire to change my comment boycott
June 1, 2012 12:43 PM
The essay told an epic tale about a student who struggled to achieve passing grades – moving on and off of academic probation, and through a myriad of stops, shifts, and re-starts, from one college to another – for the better part of a decade following his graduation from high school. For a time, it appeared that he was destined to be a college drop-out. To make matters worse, as the student floundered academically, he bounced around from one retail job to another. Then, one day, he took a position as a grassroots worker on a local political campaign. He quickly realized that he had found something that he loved to do, but just as importantly, he was very good at it. His life soon changed in dramatic ways. He almost immediately became a star local operative for a major political party, and in a very short time period worked his way up and into state-wide and national campaigns. His confidence ultimately inspired his academic career. He transferred any grades that he could (i.e., not the bad ones) to a new university, changed his major to political science, and revamped his study habits. For his final two years of college credit (which were required to attain a degree from the institution to which he had transferred), he aced nearly every course that he took and set his sights on a career in law.
As compelling as the above storyline is, it is important to always keep in mind that an outstanding story counts for little without an effective organizational structure and proper literary execution. Toward that end, the applicant in this case sought to engage the reader by presenting a scene in the opening paragraph which depicted one of the happiest moments of his life – his triumphant college graduation. It was as he moved toward the end of the first paragraph and into the second that he added the engaging twist which showed that his academic success story was far from the norm: it had been ten years (and many failures) in the making. Most importantly, the applicant did not harp on the lengthy, negative period in his life that I described above. Rather, he took a straightforward and succinct approach in recounting the great challenges that had stymied him for so many years. From there, it was off to the heart of the essay – how the applicant overcame his struggle and succeeded, ultimately setting a clear and direct course for law school along the way.
Finally, in the concluding paragraph of the essay, the applicant brought the reader full circle – back to the opening story. There he was, still standing at graduation, but instead of thinking simply about his past and how he had made it to this point, he was now looking toward the future and thinking about how he was fully prepared to conquer the challenges that lay ahead in law school and beyond.
I will never forget the excitement that this applicant felt when he received three acceptance letters from top law schools over three consecutive days. One of these letters came with a handwritten note from a law school dean who praised him for doing such an outstanding job on the personal statement. I should mention that this applicant ultimately ended up declining each of those three offers in favor of an offer from one of the most renowned and oldest law schools in the United States. While these successful results certainly help to keep this applicant’s memory in my mind, it is the personal statement that he wrote which most stirs my recollection.
Like many of my colleagues, I’ve advised on thousands of application essays over the years and been a part of success stories that are far too numerous to mention, but this was one of my most special cases because it showed not only how an applicant can overcome years of struggle, but also how in two double-spaced pages, he can demonstrate his success in a powerful way.
Every once in a while, somewhere out there, a law school applicant does something in the application process that can be described as a real game changer. The personal statement that this particular applicant wrote would probably best be described as a life changer.