Howdy! Welcome to the second installment in a ten-part series on writing your law school application personal statement. Last week we started off by talking about the importance of giving yourself as much as time as possible when writing your essay.
Today, we’ll discuss the second most important thing you should do: Planning out your writing.
Don’t underestimate the importance of brainstorming and outlining–particularly outlining. Brainstoming is easy enough: you start off with a broad idea of what you’d like to write about, and then perform what I call a “brain dump,” letting every single idea about that particular topic flow right from your head and down into your pen-grasping or keyboard-tapping fingers.
Once you’ve brainstormed, outlining comes next. I typically recommend that you outline multiple personal statement ideas, since it will quickly let you determine which ones are viable and which ones are not without having spent a ton of time writing the essay itself.
Although it may seem like a superfluous step, taking the time to outline your writing before you really get into the nuts and bolts of your essay will do four very important things:
- Make the writing process easier. Think back to your college days. Did you ever sit down in front of the computer (or typewriter, or legal pad, as the case may be) and try to start a paper that was due in less than a day, and found that you had absolutely nothing to say? Or, even worse, you had a vague idea of what to say but didn’t know where to start? Outlining takes care of all that. By writing down the “skeleton” of your essay before you start writing, you ensure yourself that you will always have something to say–and you will always know what comes next. And, even better, you don’t have to start at the beginning. If you want, you can start outlining the middle of your essay–the rest will come once you start putting ideas down on paper.
- Let you revise in your head without having to rewrite anything. Have you ever started writing a paper and realized halfway through that you were writing simply–for want of a better expression–sucked? The problem at that point was that you’d already spent hours writing the thing, and you felt that you couldn’t just let all that work go to waste…so you made it work, or tried to make it work. Remember what happened with papers like that? More often than not, you didn’t get an A, or even a B. It wasn’t your best work, and your professor thought so, too. By outlining your statement before you start, you’ll be able to weed out less-than-stellar ideas before you spend two hours writing them out. And if you have an impossible time outlining your idea, then you know it’s time to throw it out and try a new one.
- Ensure your writing doesn’t take on a life of its own. This used to happen to me all the time, particularly in creative writing classes. I would start with a hazy plot line and a few characters in mind; suddenly, these characters would completely take over the story, and I would be writing to accommodate them, instead of my own story. You hear about this kind of thing happening to authors all the time. Unfortunately, it’s not only relegated to fiction writers; I’ve seen many a law school application essay where the applicant started off with what could have been a strong topic, and suddenly veered off on a 400-word tangent that not only lost me entirely, but also confused me and/or bored me to tears. It happens more often than not. By outlining, you ensure that you stick to the interesting, engaging bits of your story, and keep your readers entertained.
- Keep you within the word limit. I know how you feel. When you’re telling a story with you as the protagonist, you want to explain every detail and every circumstance, making sure that your readers know exactly what was happening at the time. The problem with this, though, is that you just can’t do that in the 800-1,000 word limits typically imposed on personal statements. However, when you start writing without an outline, it’s easy to get carried away with these details, end up with a 2,500- or 3,000-word essay, and then be completely at a loss as to what to cut (“But it’s all important!” seems to the be the battle cry at this point). Taking the time to outline makes sure you stick to the point.
Outlining isn’t hard; as a matter of fact, it’s pretty easy. It’s nothing you haven’t done before (have you written a bullet-point list at any point in your life? Yes? Then you can outline). Think of your essay topic, come up with a few key points you want to convey (these will be your topic sentences–remember those from elementary composition?), turn each of these points into paragraphs, add supporting anecdotal information for each of these, and your outline is pretty much complete. Of course, the more exhaustive and complex it is, the easier a time you’ll have writing your essay, but even a rudimentary outline is better than no outline at all.
The ten parts of this series are:
- Part 1: Take Your Time
- Part 2: Plan It Out (this post)
- Part 3: Get Personal
- Part 4: Get Specific
- Part 5: Embrace Variety
- Part 6: Step Away
- Part 7: Edit
- Part 8: Involve Others
- Part 9: Proof
- Part 10: Don’t Be Afraid