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P.S. Boot Camp II: Outsmart, Outwrite, Outlast (a.k.a. The TFA Essay)

OK, so I'm a year late with the promised second round of my P.S. Boot Camp, and frankly, much later into the summer than I had hoped to be in writing this.  But I was gone to San Diego for a much-needed vacation, and San Diego isn't a place where one feels inclined to do work.  In fact, as an aside, I just want to say this: I finally get the California thing. For many years, I've been exasperated with all of you West Coasters who whine and complain about the prospect of coming out East but at least now I see where you're coming from.  I still wouldn't advise anyone to choose a law school based on the weather, but I will step up my New Haven sales pitch a bit.  I'm thinking that "Well, we get earthquakes here, too" isn't quite going to cut it, so suggestions from die-hard East Coasters are welcome.

Anyway, my goal in the first P.S. Boot Camp was to give applicants a heads up on the most common mistakes and cliches I see in law school personal statements.  It was really to help students make it out of the gate, so to speak.  This summer I wanted to concentrate on some things I see in the more competitive applications: I wouldn't call them "mistakes," really -- these are essays that are generally well written and substantive, but fail to exploit their competitive edge, usually because the applicants writing them (understandably) lack knowledge and perspective about the rest of the applicant pool.  So I'm going to give you guys a few insider tips.

In this post I am going to address the TFA Essay, meaning essays written by students who are applying to law school from Teach for America.  The TFA Essay follows a fairly predictable model, to wit: bright, ambitious, public service-minded college graduate decides to do TFA to make a difference in the world.  S/he spends hours and hours preparing the perfect lesson for the first day of school, only to find that the first day doesn't go anything as planned.  Things go downhill from there.  The problems are epitomized, usually, by one very troubled student, [insert name of student here (we'll refer to her as Tanya)], who is bearing the brunt of one or more inner city/rural social ills (surrounded by drugs/violence/gangs, single-parent family, poverty, etc.), is pratically illiterate/cannot do math, and a troublemaker in class, to boot.  After a period of disillusionment and struggling to control the class, TFA applicant tosses original lesson plan out the window, works around the clock to connect with the students in new and original ways, and even makes a breakthrough with Tanya.  The applicant's efforts are rewarded when the class, including Tanya, passes the state testing requirements, advancing three grade levels in reading/math.  The students may or may not stand on their desks and recite "O Captain! My Captain!"  The whole experience, while rewarding, makes the applicant realize that real change can only be effected at the policy level, and so s/he is applying to law school in order to enter the field of education policy.

I want to make clear, before going further, that I heart teachers (who doesn't?).  In fact, I am a total sucker for good teacher stories, particularly ones that have me crying by the end -- favorite tear-jerkers include To Sir With Love (1967), Stand and Deliver (1988), and Lean on Me (1989) -- all of which, incidentally, follow the same TFA Essay narrative arc.  (I realize as I write this that most of you were likely not alive when any of those films were made.)  I confess that many of the TFA Essays I read leave me misty-eyed as well.  This is not only because I feel terrible for Tanya, but because the TFA Essay usually has a lot to commend it.  For one thing, it is, invariably, well written, which is not surprising since most of the students who go on to TFA are obviously academically accomplished.  It is also -- and this is super important -- authentic.  I never feel that the person who's writing the TFA Essay is anything but earnest and sincere, or is trying to pull one over on me.  Which is partly why I get frustrated with these essays...I actually like these applicants.

The problem is that even though I like them, I don't get to know them.  Let's call it an indictment of our failing public school system, but the fact is, everyone applying to law school from Teach for America pretty much has exactly the same experience and wants to go to law school for exactly the same reasons.  What does this mean for you?  Well, to put this into cold perspective, let's assume that about 300 applicants every year, or about 10% of our applicant pool, apply from TFA.  And let's further assume that most of these applicants fall within the most competitive band of our pool in terms of writing, undergrad grades, good LSATs, leadership, and general overall Yaleability.  If we're conservative and assume that at least 60% make the initial cut on these grounds (it's probably higher), the odds are that when you end up in the batch of 50 or so files being read by an individual faculty member whose job it is to rate and rank you, you're in there with an average of 9 other TFA applicants.  Who all have the same essay as you.

This is Hunger Games time, people.  I can coach you, train you, and give you all the insider tips I can, but once you're in the faculty arena, you're on your own.  And if your essay is the same as 20% of the files you're competing with, the good-hearted but slightly overwhelmed and possibly confused faculty member may feel that s/he needs to triage the TFA applicants -- who could appear, to some extent, to be interchangeable in terms of interests and experience -- based on really relevant factors like the fact that you hiked the Appalachian Trail.  Or didn't.  Cue cannonball fire.

Now, you don't want to go insane and write an essay that "stands out" for all the wrong reasons, in violation of the Sandra Lee Rule.   But you also don't want to inadvertently sabotage yourself by not bringing everything you have to the table.  If I were an admissions consultant -- which, if I were less ethically-minded, would help me on the path to early retirement -- I might suggest the following strategies:

1.  Start With Your Conclusion.  Almost all the TFA Essays I read end up wrapping up the description of their experiences with a global statement about their interest in studying education policy, or how much they learned about education policy, or that they want to make education policy, etc. etc.  If your essay does this, take a red pen, slash through everything you have written to that point, and make that the beginning of your essay.  Think about it: as a TFA corps member, you've gotten a firsthand glimpse of how local, state, and national policies play out in practice.  What did you see working?  How do current policymakers overlook realities on the ground?  Was there any course or theory you encountered in school that shaped how you approach these topics?  How are your views on education shaped by your own educational experiences?  Any one of these questions could be the basis for an essay that gives the reader a sense of how you think, and what you think about.  And even if every single TFA applicant took this approach, they would still all be different.

2.  Take It Outside the Classroom.  It's highly likely that, in addition to the experiences you had teaching, you had some personal growth/reflections/self-teaching moments during your time as well.  For example, one recent and memorable TFA essay (from an applicant who was admitted) involved an applicant who was assigned to TFA in a region of the country where he was minority.  The essay described the applicant's process of having to confront and question many of the assumptions he previously held about this region, the interesting ways the applicant found of connecting with the community he was in, and how it shaped his perspective on a variety of personal issues.  Before I get flooded with 300 essays on The Intersection of Personal Identity and Geography During TFA, let me emphasize that it wasn't the particular topic that made this essay compelling.  Rather, it's an example of the Great Personal Statement, in which I was able to see the applicant's ability to reflect on his experiences, think critically about them, and come to some conclusions -- or additional questions -- about his place in the world.  Once again, unique.

3.  Give Yourself a Time Out on TFA.  So at the risk of Wendy Kopp (go Tigers!) and a posse of TFA corp members showing up at my door wielding torches and pitchforks, I'm going to get really radical and suggest that you -- gasp! -- don't write about TFA at all.  Remember that the Yale Law School application has a question (#6) which asks what you've been doing with yourself if you've been out of school for more than three months.  Voila!  You can take this opportunity to mention your experience with TFA, and then have a tabula rasa for your Personal Statement.  What do you write about?  Well, remember before TFA, when you had a life?  Yeah, that.  (NOTE: If you go this route, please do not insert your TFA Essay for Question 6.  Keep it short, mention any pertinent facts about what you were teaching and where you were, just like on a job application.  If you want to get a little more essay-y, you could try to take a nugget from your TFA experience and use it for your 250-word essay.)

So there you have it.  Sorry if this post has you tearing up your personal statement and cursing at your computer screen (me).  I'm just trying to help.  In closing, I'll fast forward to the 90s and leave you with yet another teacher classic (bonus points if you know the name of the movie). 

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YFK6H_CcuX8

Enjoy.  And may the odds be ever in your favor.

Comments

Bryan said:

Asha-

Just wanted to drop by and say that I am loving (and truly appreciate) these blogs.  I was originally on the fence about applying to YLS, as admission would require a tad more than the usual bit of luck, but you've converted me.  I realize that a fondness of the Dean of Admission's online personality is perhaps not the best reason to initiate a more thorough investigation into a school, but I hope it makes you a little happy to know you're having an impact beyond people who are already interested in attending.

# August 13, 2012 11:21 PM

Anonymous said:

Hi Asha,

Thank you so much for reviving your P.S. Boot Camp posts. I'm grateful that you're so honest about discussing cliches in personal statements. Could you discuss - in either a response to this comment or a future blog post - cliches you find common in applications submitted by paralegals and other people who have worked in the legal field? Thanks!

# August 26, 2012 11:17 PM

Jane said:

Asha,

I enjoy your blogs. I hope that we have more to read this admission cycle! I would like to know what your opinion is on "nontraditional" students. These are students who took 5+ years to graduate, worked while attending college, took a sabbatical, enlisted in the peace corp or military, or attended a junior/community college at some point. Are these unique situations considered fairly, or do you prefer the student who completed a degree within four years of graduating high school and is applying now at the beginning of his/her senior year of college?

# August 27, 2012 1:37 AM

Richard Davey said:

Asha

I also enjoy reading your Boot Camp posts........it brings back fond memories of my days at Yale which I miss so much......

# September 2, 2012 10:40 AM

Miles said:

Do you ever look up potential candidates on Facebook?

# September 27, 2012 10:32 PM

Sue said:

@Sara: We definitely have admitted and do admit people who have numbers similar to yours. In fact, if you take a look at the online profile for the Class of 2015, you'll see that we admitted applicants last year with GPAs under 3.5 and LSAT scores of 157 (and they were not all Olympic medalists or Nobel prize winners). Rest assured that your application will not be diverted into some kind of "auto reject" pile. Asha really does read every single application that comes in (this is partly why our process takes as long as it does); we don't have any kind of minimum GPA or LSAT that we use to sort the applications from the outset. So if you decide to apply to YLS, don't worry - your application will certainly be reviewed and considered!

# October 25, 2012 2:45 PM

Sue said:

@Jane: The short answer is that we welcome "non-traditional" applicants who have spent a significant amount of time after college pursuing other interests/employment. If you take a look at the online profile for the Class of 2015 (found on our admissions homepage), you'll see that about 40% of our current 1Ls matriculated more than 2 years after graduating from college. While we don't have an actual preference for any particular kind of applicant (i.e., straight out of undergrad or with several years of post-undergrad experience), we have noticed that often non-traditional applicants have a more mature perspective and/or a much richer set of experiences that make them appealing candidates.

# October 25, 2012 2:58 PM

Sue said:

@Miles: Some reviewers may look online to see what has been written about the applicants they are reviewing, but it's not a normal part of our review process. In any event, it's always a good idea to be mindful of your online presence, not just for your law school applications but also for future employers (who may actually have a policy/practice of looking up applicants online). Best of luck to you!

# October 25, 2012 3:23 PM

Sue said:

@Anonymous: Thanks for the suggestion as we contemplate future P.S. Boot Camp Posts!

# October 25, 2012 4:08 PM

Mike Edgar said:

Hi Asha,

This blog is fantastic.  Thank you for sharing your thoughts.  We'll be sure to share with students applying to Yale Law from our programs.  Much appreciated!

Best,

Mike

The Top Test Prep team

http://toptestprep.com

# March 19, 2013 9:51 PM
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