I’ve been working with college and law school applicants for years (in the case of college applicants, well over a decade). Every year I see some absolutely unique essays…and I see essays that I swear I’ve seen before (sometimes many, many times). Some of them are strikingly good, while others are jarringly bad. In an effort to shed some light on essay topics that could quickly go from mundane to radioactive, I’ve compiled a list of a few of the topics that I wish would go away–or, at least, get done by fewer applicants.
I guarantee, at least once during your law school application process, you will be tempted to pen one of these essays. If you find yourself saying, “Well, it’s not that bad an idea…” I beesech you to shut down your computer, get in your car, and drive as far away from any writing utensil as possible until the urge has passed. Personal statements should be original and come from the heart; unfortunately, the types listed below are neither.
These are listed to give you an idea of what essays admissions boards do not want to see in an application. There are, of course, more types than just the ones listed here, and it is possible to write great essays on some of these topics; however, for the most part, you will have to search outside of these topics to find a truly moving personal statement topic that can be executed effectively.
The Glorified Résumé
Because the typical application already includes a résumé, why would the Committee want to read a longer (and probably more boring) version of the same? Each piece of the application should add something new to the picture, and a Glorified Résumé Essay does not achieve that aim. Solution: Read your résumé. Then read your essay. Does your essay sound like your résumé, only with longer sentences? Discard.
The Town Crier
If done correctly, an essay about personal suffering can be quite successful. However, most applicants tend to make essays of this type into personal pity parties, and that is very negative. If you have a personal history that lends itself to sympathetic treatment (you overcame a serious illness, you overcame addiction, you’ve fought intense personal battles and come out stronger on the other side), it is essential that you turn the essay into a story of personal triumph instead of a story where you complain about the problems in your life. Remember, you’re a survivor, not a victim. Show the Admissions Committee your strengths, not the tears you shed to get them.
The Perry Mason Wannabe
Just because Matlock/LA Law/The Practice/Boston Legal made someone want to be a lawyer does not mean anyone wants to read about it.
Generalissimo Personal Statement
Remember this phrase when dealing with generalities anywhere in an essay: “Put the person in the personal statement.” Applicants often think general statements sound dramatic (“The law has the power to change lives!”), but to a trained reader they sound empty and reveal a writer who has very little to say. If you truly believe these statements, then back them up with specific, personal details.
The Revenge Essay — “I want to get in to show everyone up”
This is the essay that turns any applicant into an automatic reject. Think about it: Would you want a vengeful psycho as an applicant or classmate?
The Travelogue — “I learned so much on my big trip to Europe!”
Yes, travel is fun and builds character, but when an Admissions Committee member has to read 100 different travel stories, the topic loses its luster. Unless you can pinpoint specific life-changing moments (and they’reactually life-changing, and not just demonstrative of how much you liked the Venice Canal), don’t go there.
No Committee is swayed by the appeal to take a chance on an applicant. They are already doing that with every applicant, but in each case they feel there is a valid reason to do so.
Like I said, some of these can be turned into effective personal statements. It just doesn’t happen often. If you read your personal statement and find any of these topics resonating, stop and have someone else read it. Ifthey see it, start over. Sure, if you write any of these essays, you may end up being remembered by the Admissions Committee…in the worst possible way. Your essay needs to be positively memorable and impactful; let it be the jewel atop a golden crown of an application, and not the flaw in the diamond.