Push your theme to its potential

Push your theme to its potential

As promised, David got me up at eight-thirty in the morning, though I was probably already awake when he came to rouse me. It was during a sum­mer break from college, and I had slept on his couch after a gig ran too late (or me to catch the bus back to New Jersey. We’d had a late night and it was a small couch; eight-thirty felt plenty early to get up for an English soccer match. Not expecting to spend the night in the city, I hadn’t even brought a change of clothes, so I was still uncomfortably clad in my now-rumpled suit as we walked over to Ali’s apartment.

Ali, who grew up in Ramallah, was David’s classmate at one of the grad schools at my university. We had never met, but I knew him as the frequent author of opinion pieces about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the campus newspaper, pieces I found quite radical in their criticism of the Israeli govern­ment. Ali held the principle of a Jewish state to be fundamentally racist and morally indefensible. As the child of an Israeli immigrant and an American Jew who felt differently, to say the least, I was offended by what seemed to be attacks on the morality of my family. I imagined Ali to be a nasty guy, or at least someone hopelessly biased and embittered by his Palestinian background. That is, someone I wouldn’t necessarily choose to hang out with on a Saturday morning. It didn’t ease my apprehension when David, spotting my Israeli souvenir keychain as we gathered our things to set out, said, “Better not let Ali see that, mate.”

Yet the grinning, boyish figure in a too-large Liverpool jersey that greeted us when we arrived scarcely resembled the snarling antagonist of my mind’s eye. Once he had got us comfortably seated in front of the television, he slipped into the kitchen and reemerged just in time for the match’s opening whistle with an enormous tray of food. The spread was astonishing: fresh scrambled eggs and bacon (“Good Muslim,” he said with a sheepish smile; “Good Jew,” I agreed), bowls of potato chips and pretzels, even a platter of miniature ham­burgers. There was hot coffee and cold beer. It was nine in the morning; how early had he risen to prepare all that? It was far more than the three of us could possibly finish.

So we gorged ourselves on greasy food as we watched the game, swapping stories and jokes and arguing congenially about soccer. I can’t recall whether the game was a good one, or even who was playing (though probably Liverpool was involved), but my mind returns often to Ali’s hospitality that morning. I arrived at his apartment with not only a stranger’s typical discomfort but also a specific set of negative and condescending prejudgments. The warm welcome I received made me realize what now seems obvious: that my attitude had been immature; that Ali’s opinions, right or wrong, were worth engaging with sin­cerely on the level of rational argument, rather than dismissing as the product of spite or dishonesty; that my upbringing made me every bit as vulnerable to bias on these issues as his made him, In fact, I had formed assumptions about him that I had never held about people whose views offended me from the opposite (i.e., “pro-Israel”) extreme, but whose familial or cultural background more closely resembled my own.

Ali treated me with unconditional kindness and respect merely because I was a guest in his home, while in my private reaction to his articles I had not been as charitable. Not only was I guilty of the intellectually compromising impulse to dismiss the character of someone with whom I disagreed; I also felt that I had wronged Ali personally by conflating his political stance with his humanity. It was fortunate that his overwhelming hospitality and affability disabused me of my preconceptions. But I can’t always count on a smiling Pal­estinian with a tray of hamburgers to make me aware of the need to maintain an open mind. I have to try to channel Ali’s graciousness into all my dealings with others, particularly those whose beliefs grate against mine. Of course I sometimes fail to live up to this ideal-who knows, maybe Ali does, too-but it is a worthy aspiration.

Overall Lesson

Go beyond yourself where you can.

First impression

The first paragraph is simply the beginning of a story-it includes no topic sentence at all. This is a bit unusual in personal statements, but the writing is good, and I am curious to know where he will go from here.


The description of the spread in the third paragraph serves the story perfectly. Going into such detail about the food conveys the level of preparation neces­sary to provide such a feast, and we pick up on where the applicant is going: he is going to feel like a jerk. When he does, it is earned.

The ultimate lesson-that we should not conflate humanity with politics–is smart and portrays the candidate as an empathetic person capable of high-level thought.


The first paragraph sets the scene well-we want to know what happens next­ but it includes details that turn out to be irrelevant. Why do we need to know that he is rumpled and tired? Perhaps his dishevelment renders his propensity to make assumptions a bit more understandable. After all, he is exhausted. So he may have included these details for just that reason, but I am dubious that fatigue and assumption-making are linked. People who get plenty of sleep can carry terrible biases, and people who do not may be the most open-minded folks on the planet. The connection is a weak one at best. Better to set a scene with details that pertain directly to the lesson: the keychain is a great example.

He is also walking a fine line with respect to what constitutes an assumption. In the story, this particular person (Ali) has written opinions that the candidate felt were “attacks on the morality of [his] family.” We do not know the tone of this person’s op-eds, but if it was angry, then assuming that he is an angry man by nature seems fairly reasonable. A stronger way to address this may be to make the “assumption” not about Ali as a person but about how the two of them would relate “I assumed that we were not going to get along.” This way, the applicant makes an assumption about a dynamic based on both parties’ po­litical views rather than on one person’s suspected personality. Otherwise, the writer’s assumption could come across as either ignorant (if it is ill-founded) or not a very big deal (if it is not actually that crazy). We all make assump­tions-some are just dumber than others. He does not want to make himself seem too biased or stupid; “old selves” that are that way tend to come across as exaggerated.

Finally, although this personal statement has a great take-away, the applicant could do more with it. The take-away statement appears in the middle of the last paragraph: “I had wronged Ali personally by conflating his political stance with his humanity.” With this sentence, the applicant expresses a profound and important idea, and he does so in a way that feels sincere based on everything we have read to this point. However, he stops himself too early. What he is describing-the tendency to make assumptions-is remarkably common. It could therefore lead him to think even bigger: how does a society deal with this phenomenon? How might law?

Final Assessment

The essay’s theme seems to be that even though doing so is inevitable, we should strive to not make assumptions and to keep an open mind. It is a feel-good take-away, and he writes convincingly about the incident that led him to it, but he could go further. As a law school applicant, he could let us know why this matters to him–when many people in a community or culture think a certain way, what does that mean for society? How do we design and apply laws around it? These questions would have taken this essay from strong to even better.

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