Reflect rather than just reciting
I have always been really interested in the rhythm of words, the musicality of communication. Immediate, impassioned speech—usually short and sweet—gets the point across better than Chaucer or Joyce. I studied dance from a young age and, for a short while, to my mother’s chagrin, played the drums.
When I was living in Brooklyn just after graduation from undergrad with a lovely-if-useless poetry degree, I attended a meeting with a friend that introduced me to the idea of eminent domain. A new stadium, along with a commercial and residential complex, was being erected in what seemed like the middle of the street, in a sunken railway line where old, underused subway trains landed when they had no where else to go. I later learned the site was called the “Pacific Yards,” as if out of an episode of Sherlock Holmes Goes to California.
After that first meeting where I was introduced to the faces of countless people now being forced to fight for the very homes they had fairly purchased from banks, I was struck by the complexity of the message at hand. My friend had grown up in that house. Her parents still lived there. It was an important message, but eminent domain is a complicated idea. I understood, however, that the message needed to be simplified. These people needed to save their homes, and the clarity and simplicity of that idea needed to find a better presentation.
The next month a rally was held. A battle cry rose up, “Hell no, we won’t go!” as masses of people crowded downtown to hear the staid voices of an alarmed group of homeowners and politicians. No one was ready to panic, but their voices had to be heard.
“Hell no, we won’t go!” came the reverent amen from those gathered. Three months later, a march was held, again with signs and resolute chanting: “Hell no, we won’t go!”
The message was correct. The rhythmic center attached itself to the heart of the matter at hand. But the truth was that it wasn’t the message. It was an old message. It was a beleaguered message that wasn’t actually saying anything at all, because it had become clichéd in its overuse; it had become muddled by years of overlapping applications.
At a later meeting at a bar I attended, I learned about an upcoming concert that would feature an illustrious group of celebrities who would amass and turn this small-but-growing gathering into a movement. I understood one thing no one else seemed to see: It needed a mantra; it needed a name, and that name had to be chant-able, bite-sized and arresting in its power.
I went home that day on a personal mission: I pounded out the sound of the words I wanted to hear. Hell no, we won’t go. The truth was, we would go if they made us. So I altered the words:
“We will go for the right reasons.”
“You should do this ,” I tried, putting the onus on them instead of us.
“Build thoughtfully,” I considered.
“Build us up,” I added, making them responsible to the people.
“Don’t ruin our city!” I accused.
“Don’t tear us down,” I admonished.
I stopped. “Build us up.” I said it out loud. “Don’t tear us down.”
I pounded the rhythm out on the table. “Build. Us. Up. Don’t. Tear. Us. Down.”
That was it. But it wasn’t a title. It was a mantra. “Build Thoughtfully.” That felt more like a title. But it didn’t feel as much like a mantra. What this corporation planned to do felt to those of us gathered at meetings like a destruction of the city. I continued to hammer it out until finally. I felt like I had it: Progress, Not Conquest.
When I arrived that day at the event, I had made tank tops and tee-shirts with my title/mantra in bold print. I planned to charge face value, which was $7.45 or $8.00 for simplicity’s sake. After an hour, all three hundred had been sold and were being worn by many in the crowd. I received two hundred additional orders including several from neighborhood boutiques. I had succeeded.
I spent the next year building a small business with “Progress, Not Conquest.” While eventually eminent domain won out and my phrase came to exist as a part of the history of my neighborhood, it taught me a lot about business and value of words.
For me, law school is the logical next step in my life. “Progress, Not Conquest” is something I continue to believe in and hope to live my life fighting for, I promise to do so with language that is concise, rhythmic and powerful.
The candidate loses me a little when she disparages Chaucer and James Joyce in her second sentence because, well, they are Chaucer and Joyce. I know they are brilliant writers, whereas I do not know her at all—yet.
The story she tells is great. It lends itself well to a personal statement in that it demonstrates the candidate’s interest in law and the reasons she got involved in the situation she describes. Also, she does not seem to imply that she already knows everything she needs to about how the law works—a mistake many law school applicants tend to make in their personal statement when they bring up a legal concept like eminent domain. Instead, she describes her involvement in a legal issue in a way that is cerebral without trying too hard to sound like a lawyer. The essay is well done, in that sense.
I also really like her phrasing in certain places, such as, “it had become muddled by years of overlapping applications.” That kind of wording reveal a writer’s sensibility that will carry her far both in law school and in a legal career. Although using specific sequences of words may seem trivial, doing so can reveal a great deal about one’s prosperity to excel as a lawyer because—as you may have heard before—lawyers write almost as much as they read.
When the candidate states, “But it taught me a lot about business and the value of words” at the conclusion of her story, I do not understand what she means. I imagine she was disappointed with the outcome of the eminent domain challenge. I imagine she wanted to do more than she reasonably could have. But these are my assumptions—I do not know the truth about how she felt or what her real, nuanced take—aways from the situation were. This is an area that applicants neglects all too often in their personal statements, especially in their early drafts. They tell a story and share whether they succeeded or failed, but they do not then reflect on and discuss what it all meant, either then or now, as they are applying to law school.
I understand why— reflection of that kind is hard. It can often be deeply personal, and people do not generally want to tap into certain intense emotions if they do not have to. The inclination is to think that this level of introspection is not necessary for a personal statement. In other words, candidates think, “What does the admissions committee care about how I felt after my mom’s death/that pivotal baseball games/the legal case that changed everything?”
However, this is not an anecdote you are simply sharing with family or friends around the dinner table or in a bar. The admissions officers reading your essay really do care, because they are interested in understanding how you think, and catering to that interest does not make you narcissistic or boring. The trick is to write down all your heartfelt, sincere reactions to the event you are describing in your essay—and then enlist someone’s help in editing it.
I would encourage the applicant to bolster the part of the essay in which she reacts to the results of the campaign, disappointing as they were. This is the crux of her decision to go to law school, after all. It is therefore a huge part of her story. We need to know more about why she took the campaign and its outcome so much to heart. She also needs to explain how she wants to use the experience to inform her future as a law student and as a lawyer.