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