P.S. Boot Camp: Overcoming Obstacles...But Not Really (Part I)
Sorry I've been away from the blog...we admissions deans take vacations too, and I was in the Great State of Texas for the past week. Love Texas -- I have to be honest, if you like Mexican food, Connecticut is definitely not where it's at.
Anyway, this week we'll look at the ever-popular Overcoming Obstacles essay. In Part I of this topic, I am going to focus on what constitutes an "obstacle." But before I go there, let me just give the profile of the OO essay, which is pretty straightforward: the OO personal statement starts out with a problem that the applicant confronted and then details (ostensibly...more in Part II) the steps the applicant took to get past the problem. The intended effect of the OO essay is to have the reader say, "Holy cow! That's amazing! There are very few people who could have done that!" This reaction, in turns, provides a compelling reason to admit the applicant if the other parts of the application are extremely strong, or at the very least to overlook parts of the application that may be somewhat weak.
Let me start by saying that I have nothing against the OO essay per se. I have admitted people who have written very compelling OO essays. However, this is a very delicate essay to write, and you should think of your sitution very carefully before moving in this direction. To wit, you should first recognize whether the problem you intend to write about is, in fact, an obstacle.
By way of illustration, one of the personal statements I read last season involved a student who had some very interesting experiences -- including a legal internship at a major nonprofit in New York City. However, she focused her entire personal statement on her attempt to take an advance math course without taking the prerequisites, and her subsequent failure in the course. The applicant was upset, because to that point she had always done well in her classes. After a period of intial anger at her professor, then herself, she took all of the prerequisites for the math class, then the same class she originally failed again, and aced all of them.
Folks, here is the deal. There is a difference between an obstacle and a disappointment. Obstacles are major hurdles in your life -- things that many people, if they are fortunate, will not have to deal with. These are things like serious illness, divorce, abuse, war, poverty, fleeing from persecution,etc. Remember that I am reading close to 4,000 applications a year, and they include people who have dealt with these and other issues. Having gone through something like this doesn't automatically give an applicant a leg up in admissions (more on that in Part II of this topic), but it does provide some perspective with which to look at the entire pool of applications.
Disappointments are things you wanted, but you didn't get. Disappointments are good things: they encourage us to reflect on what's important to us, and give us opportunities for personal growth. But, because they are based on things you wanted -- and may have expected (which is why you are disappointed when you didn't get it) -- what comes across when you write about them is not your aplomb or resilience in the face of adversity (which is usually unexpected), but self-absorption and immaturity. Things like failing a class, losing an election for class president, or getting rejected from a dream school, while they were probably a big deal at the time, aren't that important in the grand scheme of things...and your self-awareness and understanding of where you are going in the grand scheme of things is what I want to read about.
Focusing on disappointments can also give a mistaken impression of your priorities. For example, the student who chose to write about her grades rather than, say, her experiences at her legal internship (which I would think would be more relevant to a law school personal statement), suggested to me that she was extremely concerned about external validation. This would make her a poor fit at Yale, which has no grades or class rank. What you choose to write about (and not write about) says a lot about what you think is important, so make sure to choose your topics wisely.
What if, though, your disappointment is something that has affected your application, like in the case of the failed class above? Well, this would be the perfect opportunity to use an addendum. If this applicant had simply added a short addendum which said, "In the fall of my freshman year, I attempted to take a very difficult math class, which I failed. I subsequently took the prerequisites for that class, and retook the same class again, and received A's in all of them. I hope the Admissions Committee will take this into account when reviewing my transcript," she would have covered all the points she needed to about her grades, while freeing up her personal statement for other, more important topics. In fact, she probably would have gotten the reaction she originally desired, which is for me to admire her tenacity and perserverence in mastering a subject. You don't need two pages for that.
There's a mistaken impression generally that you have to have suffered in some way in order to be a compelling applicant. That's not true. If you're fortunate to have encountered only minor bumps in the road on your path to greatness, consider yourself lucky and think about how being in that position has affected your choices and values. You'll have a clearer picture of why you're at the point of applying to law school, and have a better personal statement as a result.