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P.S. Boot Camp: Overcoming Obstacles...But Not Really (Part II)

OK, back on the wagon here with writing on the blog (sorry, things get hectic with the start of the school year).  So, where were we?  Oh yes, I think in our last Boot Camp we discussed obstacles versus disappointments, and why it's important to know the difference before deciding to incorporate either into your essay.

This week I'm going to talk about actual obstacles, like major factors outside your control that impacted how you grew up, an illness you have battled (or may still be battling), discrimination or persecution, etc.  These are real.  The question is whether you should mention these obstacles in your personal statement and if so, how.

I think that as a general matter, only you can decide whether to incorporate a very personal or traumatic obstacle into your statement.  If it has had a significant impact on your development as a person, then you may want to.  But please remember that you never need to be defined by these things, and if you would rather choose to omit any mention of obstacles you have encountered and focus on other aspects of your life or things that are important to you, you should do so -- there's nothing about an obstacle that is inherently more compelling than a neutral personal experience, or an intellectual idea, or a professional experience (to name a few other potential essay topics).

What is compelling about an obstacle is how you dealt with it, or how it changed you.  Generally, this is referred to as illustrating that you've "overcome" the obstacle, though that term is both too broad and too narrow in terms of what you need to write about.

The reason that "overcoming" is too broad to describe this type of essay is that it implies that you need to give a play by play of exactly what you did at each step of your life or ordeal to deal with your obstacle.  This isn't necessarily the case -- you can actually write very little, if there is evidence in the other parts of your application that very clearly speak to the "overcoming" part.  For example, I remember an application from a woman who noted in her essay that she came to the U.S. when she was seventeen, speaking no English.  Having lived abroad, I know that's not an easy adjustment.  She didn't belabor that point, though, and went on to discuss the new opportunities she found in the U.S., how she developed an interest in a particular area of law, etc.  Not too much about her obstacle.  She did, however, score a 174 or something insane on her LSATs.  Frankly, her application, with the combination of her coming to America at an older age, accomplishing what she did, and scoring better than the majority of native English speakers made her, for me, an example of someone who had overcome a major obstacle (even though that wasn't her intended point).

A really elaborate play by play can also backfire, sending a mixed message.  My colleague, Dean Zearfoss from the University of Michigan, writing about confusing personal statements, wrote (presumably about an applicant who had tried an OO essay),

I recently wrote this note on a comment sheet: "Tenacious good, or tenacious crazy?"  I.e., is the applicant tenacious in the way of overcoming obstacles, pushing onward in the face of adversity, demonstrating resilience, or tenacious in the way of not perceiving when an endeavor is wholly futile, perhaps repeatedly failing to accurately assess situations?  The personal statement made me think the candidate was one or the other, I couldn't decide which.

Yee-ah.  You don't want to go overboard on the "overcoming" part, especially if you could tell the story through your entire application in a much more subtle way.

The reason "overcoming" is too narrow is that depending on the obstacle, you could overcome it in the sense that you dealt with the situation effectively, but it may not add to your application.  For example, I can recall another application from a student who went to an underperforming school and who did not come from a family that had members who had gone to college.  The essay focused on the educational conditions of the schools he attended, and the lack of mentorship from family members when it came time for college.  Now, the fact that this person went to college at all was certainly a major accomplishment, and I'm sure the applicant intended that coda to be the "overcoming" part.  The problem was that the applicant's performance in college was less than stellar, and while I had a context for understanding why (I was confident it wasn't from lack of motivation or interest, but lack of preparedness), the whole overcoming obstacles aspect did not make the overall application more compelling.  The student would have been better off using the essay to really talk about his academic interests and ideas as a counterpoint to the questions I would have about the transcript, and to perhaps add a short addendum explaining that he had a difficult transition to college based on his educational and familiar background.

If you're thoroughly scared about the OO essay at this point, you shouldn't be: as I said, you, as the experiencer of the obstacle, are the best judge of how much that makes you who you are today, and you should use that as your guide.  As I mentioned in my last post, though, this is a delicate essay to write-- and if it's not well-crafted, the impact it has on the reader may be other than what you intended. 


Andrea said:

Would talking about overcoming an obstacle in an addendum raise questions about the ability to deal with the pressures of law school?

For example, if someone overcame an eating disorder or addiction or something like that in college and was now recovered, but felt it had affected their grades in college, would the admissions committee view that person as a risk because they had struggled with something before?

# September 4, 2010 7:31 PM

Abyssinia_05 said:

Thanks for the settling information.  I had my personal statement reviewed by a counselor because I am a bit insecure about my writing (but not my intellect or potential).  This counselor helped a ton with the technical writing aspect, and for that I am grateful but then he asked a bunch of leading questions regarding O.O.  He and others advised me to identify if not fabricate, but definitely play up socio-economic disadvantages that I share with a lot folks all while down-playing things that I'm really proud of like being an accomplished member of a tiny, in-demand, rarely understood professional niche about which I can make a genuine, logical and compelling argument for leaving to attend law school.  At any rate, before the deadline, can applicants send in an updated LSAT score once they've sent in a full app.?  For example, if I take the test in Oct. submit the app in Nov. retake the test w/ a higher score in Dec. and want to send this higher score in), would that be possible? Advisable?

# September 14, 2010 2:42 AM

Lisa said:

Hi Asha,

Thank you so much for taking your time to write this blog - it is very helpful.  I'm not sure if this is the place to ask this, but I wonder what you think about having a personal statement that involves two related but distinct topics.  For example, an obstacle or experience and how this influenced something later in life (like choosing a major or a career).  Is it too much to focus on two things in one personal statement?

Thank you again,


# September 14, 2010 5:48 PM

Dr. Oz said:

I definitely feel that as a member of broken home, that obstacle helped define my performance in school and my drive to complete school.  It shaped my decision making in multiple ways, the most important being my drive to succeed and not have to face these same obstacles again.

# September 17, 2010 9:59 AM

asha said:

@Andrea: It's hard for me to answer this question because as you know, we have 60 faculty members reading files and I can't speak to how each of them would interpret a past experience like this that affected your grades.  It does seem that in this case, you would be wise to provide an explanation for your grades, but to also explain very clearly why you think you've overcome this battle and why you believe it won't affect your performance in the future.  Ideally, you would have some record -- like your last semester or two -- to show that this conclusion is, in fact true, so that the reader is not just taking your word that you can do well academically.  

I wish that I had more guidance for you on this, but I think how this plays out will really depend on how you present it and the data you have to back it up.

# September 30, 2010 9:57 AM

asha said:

@Abyssinia_05: Thanks for sharing this.  There's nothing that frustrates me more than admissions counselors/consultants who pressure students into "packaging" themlseves in ways that are not authentic to that student.  It sounds like the angle you originally hit upon will definitely make you more unique in our applicant pool than if you follow the storyline set out by your advisors.  Basically: go with your gut.

About updated LSATs: please do not submit your application until you have everything on file you want to be included in your review, including all your LSAT scores.  Once your application is complete, it will be reviewed, and after that I will not re-review it if you send in an updated LSAT, recommendation, etc.  You are not disadvantaged in our process by waiting to apply, so make sure your application is exactly how you want it before you submit it.

Good luck!

# September 30, 2010 10:01 AM

asha said:

@Lisa:  The kind of connection between two seemingly distinct things that you describe is exactly the kind of narrative you should be aiming for in your personal statement.  That is, I want to see you connect the dots among the various experiences and interests in your life, so that I understand your story.  So the answer is no, that is not too much to include in your personal statement (though you should try to keep the entire sttatement concise, ideally no more than two pages).

# September 30, 2010 10:03 AM

Me said:


I am by no means the expert on this topic. But after much deliberation, I decided to write my PS about overcoming addiction during my undergrad years. My GPA the three semesters after I got clean was a 3.7. Which to Asha's point, did provide some evidence that I had overcome the obstacle. I then went on to work with some success as a reporter. Not national success, but even after taking six years to graduate college, I was in a job ahead of people my age. More evidence of overcoming.

I also briefly mentioned that I was first in my family to attend college and I mentioned the specific region where I was raised, which is known as economically disadvantaged with poor schools.

I applied to law school when I was 29. This was a few years ago during a year with a record-high national applicant pool. I had a 97th percentile LSAT score and an LSAC calculated 2.73 GPA (I'd failed a number of classes that I later retook, but LSAC counts both the F and the A).

I applied to 14 schools, mostly top 25ish or very well thought of in the region I live in. I didn't hit for the best average, but got in to a Top 10 private school. (While I don't endorse US News or think law students should rely on marginal ranking differences in making a decision, I use their rankings because of the wide-spread familiarity.)

I was waitlisted at a top 40 public school in my region, a top 25 private school on the other side of the country, and the top 10 school. I was accepted almost immediately at a well-respected second-tier private school in my region.

I was rejected by three top 10 private schools, two top 10 public schools, a top 40 public school, a top 20 public school, and a top 25 private school.

I sent in additional LORs and a letter of continuing interest to the Top 10 school. I was admitted from the waitlist that May.

Sorry for the long post, but since my situation seems similar to the one you are asking about, I thought it may be helpful.

Even with my poor GPA, I thought my decent LSAT score would make me a lock for the two public schools ranked in the 30s. I considered the second tier school a safety. I really assumed the two public schools would accept me, so I thought I'd play the lottery and see if I had any chance at one of the very top schools.

I almost completely struck out. I can't say whether it was the subject of my PS or my poor grades. I got to know the admissions staff well at the school I attended and they shared with me that my PS was well written and compelling. I also shared it with my former editor prior to submitting and she said the same.

Hope some of this anecdotal experience is useful. I could only attend one school and loved my law school experience, so you could say my PS was a homerun. But the poor batting average may be a red flag to others considering that route.

# October 8, 2010 2:16 PM

Susan said:


This blog is amazing. So thanks for it.

I have a question about the 250-word essay/addendum.  I have recently been diagnosed with ADHD - I have now consulted 4 experts and am coming up with a treatment plan although I have not 100% accepted the diagnosis.  I went to a stellar undergraduate school and masters program although my GPA and LSAT are below my actual abilities.  For example, I had such great insomnia before the LSAT I did not sleep between Tues night and the test on Sat and still scored in the 160s.  

I am inclined not to mention the insomnia or ADHD as it sounds like excuses and I still performed decently, although not necessarily a show-in for admission.  I did realize, though, as I reviewed my application - it reads like a potential ADHD case study - so I wonder if I am signalling the condition even if I do not address it directly in my application.  Is it better to just put my best foot forward or to acknowledge that I'm aware of the contest of my potential pitfalls in school and am working with professionals to deal with it?

# December 19, 2010 6:02 PM

asha said:

@ Susan:  Thanks for your question.  I have personal experience with a family member with ADD (no H) so I am very familiar with this cognitive difference (I hate labeling it a "disorder").  Based on what you've described, I would explain your diagnosis and treatment in an addendum (not your 250) so that your application can be viewed in context.  I hope that your recommendations, as well as your essays and accomplishmentscan, can speak to your intellectual/academic potential and those can provide a counterpoint to your performance in school and on the LSAT.  

I know that this diagnosis can be bittersweet -- I highly recomment "Driven to Distraction" and "Delivered from Distraction" by Dr. Ned Hallowell, if you have not read them already.

# December 19, 2010 9:48 PM

Nathan said:

Hi Asha!

First, let me say your blog has been highly influential and formative as I grind out many personal statement attempts.

I will be writing a form of an O.O. personal statement, I was born legally Deaf. It is somewhat unavoidable. It has been 5 years since I graduated college and I now work at a deaf school/group home. I am having a difficult time writing both my personal statement and my "what have I been up to since graduating" essay. There is some overlap between the two essays. I am having a challenging time separating the two topics and I was wondering if you had any suggestions?

Thank you,


# December 26, 2013 9:02 PM

Sue said:

@Nathan: One thing that might help is to think of the "what have you been up to since graduating" question as requiring less of an essay-like response and more of just a brief, to-the-point description of your activities and involvements since college.  So, rather than providing us with a lot of background information on why you are doing the work that you're doing, what it means to you, what you are taking away from it, etc., just explain what it is that you've been spending your time on since college.  If you want, you can then use your personal statement to delve more deeply into things like your personal history, your experiences being legally deaf, the impact it's had on your life, etc.  

# January 8, 2014 10:21 AM
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