A Fraternity Treasurer's Personal Statement (Ep. 306)

Ben Olson's headshot.

Conclusions that are stated without sufficient evidence invite skepticism. To succeed on the LSAT, you need to be able to spot unwarranted conclusions and poke holes in weak arguments. On your personal statement, you’re the one making the argument. You want to demonstrate to the reader that you’re an ideal candidate for their law school. The best way to prove your case is to present indisputable evidence. State the facts, and allow the reader to draw their own conclusions about how great you are. On this week’s episode, Ben and Nathan review a fraternity treasurer’s personal statement that weighs a bit too heavily on conclusions. They offer constructive criticism that anyone writing a personal statement can learn from. The guys also break down an LSAT Conclusion question from PrepTest 73, and Nathan stumps Ben with a brainteaser.

2:44 – Logical Reasoning Question 11 from PrepTest 73

The guys jump right in with an LR question that Nathan says is excellent for teaching purposes. A municipal legislator states the argument: “The mayor proposes that the city accept a lighting company’s gift of several high-tech streetlights.” Right away, Nathan is skeptical. What strings are attached? The next sentence rubs him the wrong way, starting with the first word—surely. Such editorialization is often used to try to disguise a B.S. conclusion. “Surely there would be no problem in accepting these despite some people’s fear that the company wants to influence the city’s decision regarding park lighting contracts.” Oh, really? Why would there be no problem?

Heading into the third sentence, Nathan wonders whether the legislator is going to present any evidence that accepting the gift would be “no problem.” The legislator says that the only ulterior motive he can find is the company’s desire to have its products seen by mayors who will visit the city for an upcoming convention. And apparently that’s not a problem because “favoritism in city contracts is prevented by our competitive-bidding procedure.” It’s great that the legislator rules out one potential problem, but Nathan suggests a few more possible ulterior motives off the top of his head.

It turns out to be a simple question: What’s the conclusion of the argument? Nathan doesn’t hesitate to say it’s the second sentence. That’s what the legislator was ultimately trying to prove. He and Ben explain why understanding the argument and making objections allow you to naturally pick up on the conclusion. The conclusion is the part of the argument that’s debatable.

People who are slow on logical reasoning tend to spend most of their time analyzing the answer choices. They spend too much time with the answer choices because they don’t take enough time to read the passage carefully. When you understand the argument and make a strong prediction, you can blaze through the answer choices. You know what you’re looking for and won’t be easily swayed by wrong answers. Nathan demonstrates how he can eliminate some answer choices without even needing to finish reading them. The correct answer is just another way of stating his prediction.

Try this question here.

28:05 – Brainteaser for Ben

Listener Jon emailed the show with a brainteaser. It took Nathan a while to solve—he woke up in the middle of the night with the answer. Nathan held off on sharing it with Ben until now, so our listeners can hear him try to work it out in real time. Here goes:

You’re in a room with three light switches. These switches connect to three individual light bulbs in another room, down a long hallway (you can’t see them).

You need to determine, with certainty, which light switch corresponds to which light bulb. You must take the following steps:

  1. Arrange the light switches in your current room.
  2. Walk down the hallway into the other room.
  3. Check out the lights and determine which light bulb goes with each light switch.

Note that you can only take these three steps once and then it’s game over.

Ben considers the options: all three switches on, all three switches off, one on and two off, or two on and one off. He doesn’t think of a solution on the spot, so we’ll have to wait until next time. Nathan reassures him and our listeners that it is possible to figure out with certainty.

34:54 – Walker’s Personal Statement

Another listener braves the personal-statement woodchipper. Walker claims to have written his statement in the “I am, I did, I do” template discussed in episode 298. Now he’s ready for some constructive criticism. Nathan reminds listeners that his and Ben’s constructive criticism frequently begins with tearing down 95% of what you’ve written—but they do it only to help you. If they don’t tear something down, you know it’s good.

First, Walker definitely doesn’t need to waste space with “My name is…” His name should be in the header of the document. His “I am” sentence is short and clear. But it’s a little dull. He introduces himself as a college senior majoring in business and economics. Nathan and Ben think they can probably find a more interesting detail to lead with. They give Walker’s introduction paragraph a B.

The next paragraph lists Walker’s “two priorities” as his grades and his position on the golf team. He talks about having to organize his time between school and golf. The guys would prefer a more direct statement, such as, “I am an intercollegiate golfer.” It should be implied that he needs to balance a lot of things as a college athlete. They also don’t like the awkward construction of the first sentence and recommend rewording it. As a general rule, people need to make themselves the subject of more sentences and use more active verbs. For example, instead of saying, “This choice led me to joining one of the fraternities on campus,” say, “I joined a fraternity.” Cut unnecessary verbiage.

The guys aren’t too excited that Walker has decided to make his fraternity the focus of his statement. His overselling it makes them even more resistant. Fraternities aren’t all bad, but introducing his role in a fraternity as a responsibility invites skepticism. When Walker says that he “decided to take on more responsibility,” they were expecting to hear about something like volunteer work.

Then Walker buries three accomplishments in one 52-word-long sentence. They each should be a single short sentence. Nathan reminds him not to skip around in the timeline too much. And Ben explains the importance of making lists parallel.

The next paragraph needs to get to the point more quickly. The guys would like Walker to stop wasting time labeling everything before he talks about it. Cut the first two sentences about vague “challenges,” and just say what happened. Storywise, it’s not bad. He talks about his responsibilities as treasurer. But he overemphasizes the struggle of working out payment plans. Describing to the reader how dramatic these decisions were for him makes him sound naive. He should also leave out the minutiae of the various parties he planned—that doesn’t come off as putting his best foot forward.

At the end of the essay, the guys are left wondering: Where’s the discussion about being a student athlete? Walker began by mentioning that grades and golf were his priorities. They thought they were going to hear about a student athlete on the dean’s list who also had a leadership position in a fraternity. Instead, the whole thing turned out to be about the fraternity.

In general, Walker’s statement oversells. It contains too many conclusory statements and not enough facts. Just like on the LSAT, conclusions that are asserted without sufficient evidence invite the reader to object. It’s much more prudent to state facts about your accomplishments and allow the reader to draw their own conclusions.