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.