P.S. Boot Camp: Overcoming Obstacles...But Not Really (Part I)

August 20, 2010

Sorry I've been away from the blog . . . we admissions deans take vacations too, and I was in the Great State of Texas for the past week. Love Texas—I have to be honest, if you like Mexican food, Connecticut is definitely not where it's at.

Anyway, this week we'll look at the ever-popular Overcoming Obstacles essay. In Part I of this topic, I am going to focus on what constitutes an "obstacle." But before I go there, let me just give the profile of the OO essay, which is pretty straightforward: the OO personal statement starts out with a problem that the applicant confronted and then details (ostensibly . . . more in Part II) the steps the applicant took to get past the problem. The intended effect of the OO essay is to have the reader say, "Holy cow! That's amazing! There are very few people who could have done that!" This reaction, in turns, provides a compelling reason to admit the applicant if the other parts of the application are extremely strong, or at the very least to overlook parts of the application that may be somewhat weak.

Let me start by saying that I have nothing against the OO essay per se. I have admitted people who have written very compelling OO essays. However, this is a very delicate essay to write, and you should think of your situation very carefully before moving in this direction. To wit, you should first recognize whether the problem you intend to write about is, in fact, an obstacle.

By way of illustration, one of the personal statements I read last season involved a student who had some very interesting experiences—including a legal internship at a major nonprofit in New York City. However, she focused her entire personal statement on her attempt to take an advance math course without taking the prerequisites, and her subsequent failure in the course. The applicant was upset, because to that point she had always done well in her classes. After a period of intial anger at her professor, then herself, she took all of the prerequisites for the math class, then the same class she originally failed again, and aced all of them.

Folks, here is the deal. There is a difference between an obstacle and a disappointment. Obstacles are major hurdles in your life—things that many people, if they are fortunate, will not have to deal with. These are things like serious illness, divorce, abuse, war, poverty, fleeing from persecution,etc. Remember that I am reading close to 4,000 applications a year, and they include people who have dealt with these and other issues. Having gone through something like this doesn't automatically give an applicant a leg up in admissions (more on that in Part II of this topic), but it does provide some perspective with which to look at the entire pool of applications.

Disappointments are things you wanted, but you didn't get. Disappointments are good things: they encourage us to reflect on what's important to us, and give us opportunities for personal growth. But, because they are based on things you wanted—and may have expected (which is why you are disappointed when you didn't get it)—what comes across when you write about them is not your aplomb or resilience in the face of adversity (which is usually unexpected), but self-absorption and immaturity. Things like failing a class, losing an election for class president, or getting rejected from a dream school, while they were probably a big deal at the time, aren't that important in the grand scheme of things . . . and your self-awareness and understanding of where you are going in the grand scheme of things is what I want to read about.

Focusing on disappointments can also give a mistaken impression of your priorities. For example, the student who chose to write about her grades rather than, say, her experiences at her legal internship (which I would think would be more relevant to a law school personal statement), suggested to me that she was extremely concerned about external validation. This would make her a poor fit at Yale, which has no grades or class rank. What you choose to write about (and not write about) says a lot about what you think is important, so make sure to choose your topics wisely.

What if, though, your disappointment is something that has affected your application, like in the case of the failed class above? Well, this would be the perfect opportunity to use an addendum. If this applicant had simply added a short addendum which said, "In the fall of my freshman year, I attempted to take a very difficult math class, which I failed. I subsequently took the prerequisites for that class, and retook the same class again, and received A's in all of them. I hope the Admissions Committee will take this into account when reviewing my transcript," she would have covered all the points she needed to about her grades, while freeing up her personal statement for other, more important topics. In fact, she probably would have gotten the reaction she originally desired, which is for me to admire her tenacity and perserverence in mastering a subject. You don't need two pages for that.

There's a mistaken impression generally that you have to have suffered in some way in order to be a compelling applicant. That's not true. If you're fortunate to have encountered only minor bumps in the road on your path to greatness, consider yourself lucky and think about how being in that position has affected your choices and values. You'll have a clearer picture of why you're at the point of applying to law school, and have a better personal statement as a result.


the_leif_guy said:

off topic, but if we are dinged as first year applicants, how would it affect our chances applying as a transfer student a year later. Would you look at the first file at all? And also, which law schools did you accept your transfer applicants from for this cycle?

August 6, 2010 3:22 PM

Indian Dude said:

I am delighted to see you are blogging during the summer. Is it okay to end sentences with a preposition in our law school personal statement. Please refer to the model example below.

"Love Texas—I have to be honest, if you like Mexican food, Connecticut is definitely not where it's at."

August 8, 2010 1:00 AM

Steve said:

I just recently discovered this wonderful treasure trove of information. I would like to thank you for your candid advice.

I would love to attend Yale Law School, but unfortunately part of my overcoming an obstacle will preclude me from being considered. Three years ago I developed muscular dystrophy. During my recovery process I decided to finally finish my undergraduate degree so I could then pursue my goal of attending law school. Unfortunately I just could not physically attend campus classes so I did my research and enrolled in a regionally accredited non-profit school that allowed 100% online attendance. When I contacted Yale Law School admissions about the impact of my online degree, I was informed that while there was no policy in place to deny applicants that received their degrees online, Yale had never admitted anyone that fell within that category and there was no reason to believe that would change anytime soon.

So even though your advice is for Yale Law School, I believe it will be useful in general for applying to any law school and I would again like to thank you for your efforts.

August 8, 2010 2:20 PM

Vassar 2013 said:

@Asha: An entertaining read! My question is: What if the disappointment (not obstacle) was the very reason behind your application? Suppose the example applicant failed a biology or chemistry class and realized that med school really wasn't her thing. In that case, the disappointment of failing the class led to her rethinking her goals and ultimately, changed the direction she would choose in life, something that she chose to focus on in the personal statement. In such a case, I would think, an addendum wouldn't do. Now if she chose to focus on her failing grade, would she still come across as immature or would she come across as someone who can critically analyze the path that took her to being a law school applicant? (I understand that just eliminating one option isn't obviously reason enough for picking another, but let's assume that she has other strong reasons as to why, with the med school option eliminated, she picked the legal route).

@Indian Dude

Great! While we're doing that, perhaps Asha could also address whether it's okay to end interrogative clauses with periods instead of question marks in personal statements. Please refer to the model example below.

"Is it okay to end sentences with a preposition in our law school personal statement."

August 9, 2010 12:39 PM

asha said:

@the_leif_guy: Your rejection as a 1L has no bearing on your chances as a transfer, which is heavily based on your first-year grades and law school recommendations. We do not review your first-year file in our normal transfer process.

This year we accepted transfer students from Pepperdine, Berkeley, George Mason, UPenn, Columbia, NYU, Michigan, UVA, Hastings, Vanderbilt, and Georgetown.

August 9, 2010 1:12 PM

asha said:

@Indian Dude: I would counsel against ending sentences with a preposition in your personal statement. The sentence you quoted has two features which make it a poor model for your statement. First, it's written on a blog, which is considerably more informal than a graduate school application. Second, the phrase "where it's at" is a colloquialism (see, e.g., http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EPfmNxKLDG4), which makes sense in the context of a blog that is meant to be entertaining and engaging to a younger, hipper audience. By contrast, your law school application will be read by older professors, who probably won't know or understand colloquial or slang terms, and it ought to take a more serious tone overall.

Hope this is helpful!

August 9, 2010 1:21 PM

asha said:

@Vassar 2013: I think the incorporation of a disappointment in the way you mentioned is fine. What I hear you saying is that you actually wouldn't be focusing on the failing grade as much as illustrating how that provided the impetus for you to reexamine your substantive interests. In such a case, you're really not explaining how you "overcame" your disappointment/failure, but rather explaining how you ended up being interested in law school, which is what you should be doing. You're on the right track!

August 9, 2010 1:29 PM

asha said:

@Steve: Thank you for the feedback! It sounds like you are a true example of "overcoming obstacles." As for admission to Yale, it is true that it becomes very hard for us to evaluate applications from academic programs with which we aren't familiar. The other things is that we rely heavily on recommendations by professors, and it does seem like you would be disadvantaged in that respect if your attendance was entirely online, since it would not give your professors an opportunity to really get to know you personally and see your interaction with the rest of the class.

Keep in mind that we do accept students as transfers, so if you go to another law school and do extremely well, that can be a basis for admission.

Glad you are reading the blog and good luck!

August 9, 2010 1:35 PM

Lewis Farris said:

@Asha: This is off topic for the thread but relates to applying in general. Would you consider being elected to Phi Beta Kappa as an accomplishment? Are a large percentage of applicants members of Phi Beta Kappa? And does such a distinction have any bearing on admissions?

August 12, 2010 9:30 AM

asha said:

@Lewis: Phi Beta Kappa is definitely an honor, and should be listed in the "Honors and Awards" section of our application (and a similar place in your resume, if not near your educational degree). I'm not sure what percentage of our applicants are PBK—I would say many, but not all, of the people we admit are in the society. The weight it carries really depends on who is reviewing your file and what the rest of your application looks like; it probably wouldn't be determinative, but it certainly can't hurt.

August 13, 2010 9:26 AM

gold bullion dude said:

Thanks for the great article about perspective. There are several valuable points to take from this that apply to many areas of life.

August 16, 2010 8:55 AM

JaneAustenFan said:

@Asha: Thanks for your posts - they are very helpful while undergoing the admissions process.

I have a question about an OO personal statement: while in my 2nd year of college, I developed an eating disorder, an experience that led me to change majors from pre-med to history and decide that I wanted to pursue law instead of academia. Would this be an acceptable topic for my PS? I am using an extended "hunger" metaphor to compare my intellectual curiosity, which has led me to explore such diverse fields, with my resilience in overcoming a disease that made me fight my physical hunger.


August 17, 2010 7:52 PM

Debrah Prada said:

Thanks for sharing!!

September 2, 2010 9:46 AM

John Chastain said:

Your observations about Obstacles v. Disappointments are spot-on... but it's appalling that a law school could consider such things relevant to an applicant's qualifications, except possibly to demonstrate his or her writing skills. (... though I suppose if the applicant handled his/her own divorce....) My law school never knew about my childhood Obstacle (one of those you list), but they admitted me based on what they knew, and I did just fine. And given your well-taken distinction between Obstacles and Disappointments, it's disingenuous to say that an OO essay about, e.g., illness, divorce, abuse, war or poverty is no more "compelling" than one including nothing of that magnitude—nothing that "compelling."

October 8, 2010 10:56 AM

asha said:

@John Chastain: Thanks for your comment. I don't think my post is advocating that applicants write about obstacles. Personal statements are open-topic: the choice of what is relevant to that student's qualifications is left to the applicant. The purpose of my post is to encourage applicants who choose to focus on such things (and many of them do) to think carefully and critically about their experiences and how they present them.

If you read Part II of this post, you'll see that I am equally circumspect of essays that deal with "real" obstacles, and illustrate why they may be no more or less compelling than a neutral, "non-obstacle" essay.

October 8, 2010 12:15 PM

John Chastain said:

I read both parts, and I commented because you seemed to be saying that some experiences (e.g., losing class election) aren't worthy of mention, even if they loomed larger than all the applicant's other experiences at the time. The thought of applicants expounding on the heavier Obstacles listed in Part I reminded me of an ancient, tawdry TV show, "Queen For A Day," where three sobbing women would tell their hard-luck stories, and afterwards whichever contestant received the loudest applause (as shown by an on-screen meter) would win the washing machine, sofa or fridge du jour. I hope few of your applicants are tempted to tout their bad experiences as credentials. There's something demeaning about that, especially in a context as irrelevant as an application to law school... and especially in writing. BTW, I meant to mention in the first msg that the ABA Journal Weekly mentioned this blog in a piece on "Law Zombies." And speaking of toilsome pasts, I'm Virginia Law '77.

October 8, 2010 1:10 PM

Sudha said:

Impressive post Asha.

October 4, 2011 12:45 AM