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P.S. Boot Camp: Make Sure You Have More Than One Trick
OK, this week we're going to talk about another one of my least favorite law school personal statements: the One-Trick Pony Essay. Simply put, the OTPE usually involves an applicant who is extremely accomplished in or committed to a particular activity or sport, such as debate, chess, or baseball. This, inherently, is not the problem. The problem is that they then devote every component of their application to illustrate their single-minded focus on their passion, I am guessing because they want to show qualities like devotion, perserverence, and achievement. Unfortunately, these good qualities end up being overshadowed by the readers' sense that the appliant is kind of boring and one-dimensional.
To see why the OTPE can take a good thing and turn it into a bad thing, let's use a hypothetical (as in, not real/just an example/don't sue me). Let's imagine that Michael Phelps (of whom I am a big fan) decides to apply to law school. I open his file, excited to appropriate his electronic signature into my personal autograph collection, and to learn something about the "real" Michael Phelps. This first thing I see are his Honors and Awards, which lists every swim meet he has ever won and all of the world swimming records he has broken. Next, under Extracurricular Activities, he lists swimming as his main activity, with occasional volunteer work for the local high school swim teams. His thesis in college was about new wetsuit technology and whether it should be banned from international competition. His personal statement is a description of what it was like to grow up with four hour morning swim practices starting at 4 a.m. and four hour practices after school. His 250-word essays is a descriptive piece about what it's like to take the first lap of the day. Finally, his recommendations include one from the U.S. Olympic committee and one from his swimming coach, Bob.
Dude—the guy was on the front of a friggin' Wheaties box. I KNOW that he has spent pretty much every waking moment of his life in a swimming pool. I also know that he is a CRAZY AWESOME swimmer—I watched every sappy Olympic story about him, including the one that talked about how much he ate every day (I think he consumed like 12,000 calories a day while training). While all of this is impressive, the problem with this (did I mention fictional?) application is that it a) doesn't really tell me anything new or surprising and b) isn't particularly linked with why he is applying to law school. Even if his numbers were spectacular, my main thought would be: the Law School doesn't have a swimming pool—what is this poor guy going to do here?
Now imagine a different kind of application from Michael. Let's say that he mixes it up a bit, with a brief mention of being a sixteen-time Olympic medalist but also listing his non-athletic activities, such as writing a food column for the local newspaper. And maybe his personal statement doesn't discuss swimming at all, but talks about, say, a summer job he had once that gave him a window into some of the issues he's interested in exploring in law school. His recommendations, only from faculty members, talk about his writing and intellectual curiosity. And, maybe he subtly includes a 250-word essay about what it was like to hear the American anthem played the first time he won a gold medal, which might make the reader (me) a little misty-eyed. Admitted.
The point here is that contrary to popular belief, admission to YLS isn't based upon proving superhuman feats and accomplishments. On the contrary, it's about showing that you are human, in the literal sense of the world. You want to reveal as many facets as you can about what makes you who you are. And let me be clear: I don't mean that you should show that you are superficially "well-rounded" by listing a bunch of activities that you aren't really involved in. You can be completely immersed in one particular idea or activity—you just don't want that one thing to define you as a person. Presumably, you do spend some time in your day thinking of or doing other things, and you need to let those come through in your application as well. Otherwise, you take the risk that the admissions committee will conclude that you will be unable to relate or meaningfully contribute to the class in any area outside your stated interests.
If you are a person who is really focused on one thing, and you're having trouble thinking of other things in your life that matter to you and that you can incorporate into your application, then this is a major red flag that should cause you to consider a couple of things. First, are you sure you want to go to law school? I mean, if playing the cello has been your life goal for the past twenty years and it's what you live, breathe and eat each day, then maybe you ought to, I don't know...play the cello for a living. You may not make much, but I promise you it will be the life you dream about as you sit locked in a basement as a first year associate, going through boxes of documents for fifteen hours a day so you can pay your debts.
Second, maybe you should get out more. Remember, all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy (and you know how that ended).
Which do you read first: The 250 word essay or the Personal Statement?
July 14, 2010 3:26 PM
Thanks so much for your posts. I wanted to know which essay you read first: the 250 word or the P.S.
July 18, 2010 7:36 PM
Occupational Therapy said:
Keep up the good work, I like your writing.
July 18, 2010 8:20 PM
@the_leif_guy: It depends -- usually I go through the file in order, and most people put the 250 first because it is earlier in the application instructions than the personal statement.
July 19, 2010 4:52 PM
Let me get this straight. The personal statement should not be all about one thing but at the same time it should not be about a bunch of different things? I am confused.
July 26, 2010 10:54 AM
ETQ Generator said:
I feel like you are missing the fact that someone could be great at something but not want to do it the rest of their lives. Take Mr. Phelps what if his parents pushed him into swimming and he realized he was great so he kept going. He did not want to do this his entire life and while not swimming read a lot about law. Even though he is all about swimming, he may desire to be great at something else like law. Would you honestly believe someone who has succeeded like this wouldn't also succeed as a lawyer. That they would devote every waking hour to be great in another field? Sometimes one trick ponies are only one trick at that moment and can be great at another trick in the next moment. Their devotion, passion, and belief in themselves allows them this success, while other more rounded people are searching for that drive.
July 28, 2010 9:37 PM
@so: I think you are reading the post too literally. The question is not the number of "things" you talk about -- it's the amount of depth you provide about yourself in your application. Another way to think about it is to look at the application like it is an in-person interview, and all of the different components are different questions. If you were at an interview, you probably would not answer every single question with the same example that illustrates the same qualities about yourself over and over. If you did, the interviewers would not have that much to work with in evaluating you. On the other hand, if you took the different questions as opportunities to showcase different aspects of yourself, you will provide the people evaluating you with a much fuller picture of who you are, thereby making you a more compelling candidate.
Hope this is helpful.
August 3, 2010 1:24 PM
@ Curious George: We do not specify a length for the personal statement. Generally most students submit two double-spaced pages. I think this is a good rule of thumb, considering that we also offer an extra open-topic essay and allow you to provide addenda.
August 3, 2010 1:25 PM
@ETQ Generator: I don't rule out the possibility that you mentioned. However, the flaw I pointed out in my example is that in scenario #1, Mr. Phelps does not indicate anywhere on his application where his interest in law comes from. I really try to not make assumptions about people when reading their applications -- so I probably wouldn't make up a narrative about why someone is applying to law school if there isn't something stated in the application to lead me in that direction.
On that same note, I also don't believe it's true that just because someone is great at one thing, they can be great at another. I believe that greatness in anything really depends on passion, which requires a true interest and love for what you are doing. I think there are many accomplished people who, if they were doing something in which they were not completely interested, would not be as successful, not matter how hard they tried. I've seen enough very, very talented people end up doing poorly as lawyers, because they ended up hating what they were doing. That's why it's important not only to tout your accompishments, but also to really have a narrative that explains how your experiences have brought you to the decision of going to law school.
August 3, 2010 1:33 PM
Oh my. My application last year was a one-trick pony application. As an older applicant, I have a very definite rationale for attending law school, relating to my professional experiences in healthcare, and thought that I would need to repeatedly talk about this experience in order to prove to the school that I was serious about law school/ had a definite rationale for wanting to pursue a vocation in law.
Guess I went overboard. :-) By no means am I crazy enough to think this was the only factor, but do you think it would be worth applying again? Appreciate your response!
September 7, 2010 4:50 PM
@Sean: I think if you a) still want to go to law school and b) feel like you have identified concrete ways that you can improve your application the second time around, go for it.
As far as Yale goes, you are not disadvantaged by reapplying, since you apply again from scracth (i.e., no one knows you applied before and didn't get in, unless you choose to mention it in your application).
It's great that you have a solid rationale for wanting to go to law school and great experiences to back this up -- as an older applicant, both of these are important. But don't be afraid to showcase other interests and aspects of yourself, so that we can see all of the things that you would potentially bring to the table.
September 8, 2010 11:39 AM
I know Yale is very concerned that it has the quality of students necessary to academically thrive and that this emphasis probably comes from your unique system of having professors decide on the admissions of most applicants. Keeping this in mind, concerning the PS and 250 and not wanting to be a one-trick pony, would applicants perhaps serve themselves well to show their analytical skills in the 250, even if the PS addressed the student's academic qualifications -- perhaps if the 250 academic subject was somewhat different from the PS -- or should the Yale250 in that case take a different spin on a non-academic aspect?
September 19, 2010 9:38 PM
@Alicia: I've seen successful applicants do both. I don't think you should think too hard about distinguishing the general subject your 250 from your P.S. Obviously, your 250 should not be a recap of your P.S., but if your P.S. is academically focused and you want to do an analytical piece for your 250, that's totally fine. If you want to go more non-academic or personal or informal, that's fine, too. Basically, I would not consider an academic "angle" in both pieces of writing to be the same as being a one-trick pony (which is about having the same specific interest/experience surface over and over again in your application).
September 30, 2010 10:08 AM
I'm curious if you would also apply the one-trick pony critique to experience more directly relevant to a applicant's reasons for attending law school. For example, if someone -- we'll say it's a friend of mine -- has spent 5-6 years out of college working entirely in advocacy and government, and now wants to get a law degree to do public interest work -- do you still find it overwhelming if the primary focus of that indvidual's application is his/her public service experience?
October 2, 2010 8:07 PM
Johanna C. said:
I just discovered this blog and it is delightful. Thank you.
October 5, 2010 1:57 PM
@B.C.: I don't think it would be a OTP for someone to explore how their experience in advocacy and government is connected to their desire to get a law degree. Generally, the OTP problem is less of an issue the longer people are out of school, since their real-world experiences start to have more relevance to what they would be interested in law school. It's more of an issue for people still in school, who tend to over-emphasize extracurriculars, such as being on the debate team or on the school paper, etc.
I would say that if you -- I mean, your friend -- really go in depth about your work experiences in your P.S., you may want to explore a different topic or interest in your 250-word essay, just to round out the application.
October 6, 2010 3:17 PM
M. Ali said:
Asha, thank you for such a delightful blog! I throughly enjoyed reading it. It is very informative
August 4, 2011 1:15 PM
Thanks for this great and really informative post. I may be a little late for this particular topic on your blog but it hit the core of my outlook as a prospective applicant. I currently play professional baseball (6 years) and what has turn me to pursue looking into law school was my involvement with the MLB players union on our bargaining agreement and arbitration hearings. Since this was my man motivation behind pursuing law should I be weary of going into to much detail about this in my essays because it is "baseball oriented?"
-Thanks for the time and blog!
February 5, 2014 8:47 PM
@Chris: If your baseball experience is/was an integral part of your decision to pursue the study of law (and it sounds like it is/was), you should feel free to write about it in as much detail as you need.
February 6, 2014 12:24 PM
You mentioned that it was possible for us to apply Yale again. But what if we have already enrolled in another school? Could we withdraw it and go for Yale if we just really want to.
June 5, 2014 3:40 AM
@Jack: If you've already enrolled in another school and have not spent more than a year there, you can apply to transfer to Yale Law School. Check out this page for more information.
June 5, 2014 9:46 AM