P.S. Boot Camp; Make Sure You Have More Than One Trick
OK, this week we're going to talk about another one of my least favorite law school personal statements: the One-Trick Pony Essay. Simply put, the OTPE usually involves an applicant who is extremely accomplished in or committed to a particular activity or sport, such as debate, chess, or baseball. This, inherently, is not the problem. The problem is that they then devote every component of their application to illustrate their single-minded focus on their passion, I am guessing because they want to show qualities like devotion, perserverence, and achievement. Unfortunately, these good qualities end up being overshadowed by the readers' sense that the appliant is kind of boring and one-dimensional.
To see why the OTPE can take a good thing and turn it into a bad thing, let's use a hypothetical (as in, not real/just an example/don't sue me). Let's imagine that Michael Phelps (of whom I am a big fan) decides to apply to law school. I open his file, excited to appropriate his electronic signature into my personal autograph collection, and to learn something about the "real" Michael Phelps. This first thing I see are his Honors and Awards, which lists every swim meet he has ever won and all of the world swimming records he has broken. Next, under Extracurricular Activities, he lists swimming as his main activity, with occasional volunteer work for the local high school swim teams. His thesis in college was about new wetsuit technology and whether it should be banned from international competition. His personal statement is a description of what it was like to grow up with four hour morning swim practices starting at 4am and four hour practices after school. His 250-word essays is a descriptive piece about what it's like to take the first lap of the day. Finally, his recommendations include one from the U.S. Olympic committee and one from his swimming coach, Bob.
Dude -- the guy was on the front of a friggin' Wheaties box. I KNOW that he has spent pretty much every waking moment of his life in a swimming pool. I also know that he is a CRAZY AWESOME swimmer -- I watched every sappy Olympic story about him, including the one that talked about how much he ate every day (I think he consumed like 12,000 calories a day while training). While all of this is impressive, the problem with this (did I mention fictional?) application is that it a) doesn't really tell me anything new or surprising and b) isn't particularly linked with why he is applying to law school. Even if his numbers were spectacular, my main thought would be: the Law School doesn't have a swimming pool -- what is this poor guy going to do here?
Now imagine a different kind of application from Michael. Let's say that he mixes it up a bit, with a brief mention of being a sixteen-time Olympic medalist but also listing his non-athletic activities, such as writing a food column for the local newspaper. And maybe his personal statement doesn't discuss swimming at all, but talks about, say, a summer job he had once that gave him a window into some of the issues he's interested in exploring in law school. His recommendations, only from faculty members, talk about his writing and intellectual curiosity. And, maybe he subtly includes a 250-word essay about what it was like to hear the American anthemn played the first time he won a gold medal, which might make the reader (me) a little misty-eyed. Admitted.
The point here is that contrary to popular belief, admission to YLS isn't based upon proving superhuman feats and accomplishments. On the contrary, it's about showing that you are human, in the literal sense of the world. You want to reveal as many facets as you can about what makes you who you are. And let me be clear: I don't mean that you should show that you are superficially "well-rounded" by listing a bunch of activities that you aren't really involved in. You can be completely immersed in one particular idea or activity -- you just don't want that one thing to define you as a person. Presumably, you do spend some time in your day thinking of or doing other things, and you need to let those come through in your application as well. Otherwise, you take the risk that the admissions committee will conclude that you will be unable to relate or meaningfully contribute to the class in any area outside your stated interests.
If you are a person who is really focused on one thing, and you're having trouble thinking of other things in your life that matter to you and that you can incorporate into your application, then this is a major red flag that should cause you to consider a couple of things. First, are you sure you want to go to law school? I mean, if playing the cello has been your life goal for the past twenty years and it's what you live, breathe and eat each day, then maybe you ought to, I don't know...play the cello for a living. You may not make much, but I promise you it will be the life you dream about as you sit locked in a basement as a first year associate, going through boxes of documents for fifteen hours a day so you can pay your debts.
Second, maybe you should get out more. Remember, all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy (and you know how that ended).