Personal Statement Torture Chamber (Ep. 314)

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The personal statement queue continues to grow. This week, the pod received a special request for a good personal statement example. Unfortunately, most statements submitted to the show are not so good—some might even be described as torturous.

Today, the guys review six more personal statements. One is great but could be better. The others are confusing, irritating, or worse. (Hint: Don’t use blood metaphors in a law school personal statement.) But first, it’s back to some classic Thinking LSAT content, including an Excuse of the Week, Pearls vs. Turds, and a Logical Reasoning question.

As always, if you like the show and you want to get more from the Thinking LSAT community, check out the links below. You can connect with other folks studying for the LSAT, and get more useful resources from Nathan and Ben.

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Important Dates

7:07 – Excuse of the Week: “LSAT Definitions”

This week’s excuse comes from LSAT Demon’s Ask Button inbox. A student claimed to have gotten a question wrong because they didn't know the “LSAT definition” of the word “sample.” If you’re ever unsure of a word’s “LSAT definition,” you can figure it out using this one weird trick: Ask yourself what that word means in English! Some people seem to forget that this test is in English and not some made-up LSAT language.

To be fair, Ben explains, the way we use words in everyday speech is sometimes sloppy and not technically correct. The LSAT’s use of language is always technically accurate. Studying for the LSAT is a great way to develop proficiency in English. If you want to be a lawyer, you’re going to need to be able to communicate clearly and accurately. So start using words the way they are intended to be used.

14:24 – Trigger Words

Another Demon student, D, submitted an Ask-button question about identifying the conclusion of an argument. They assumed that a phrase beginning with “thus” was the argument’s main conclusion. But the correct answer turned out to be another sentence in the passage—one with the word “probably.” D asks whether they can rely on the word “probably” as a conclusion indicator.

Ben clarifies that, while the word “thus” does introduce a conclusion, it doesn’t have to be the main conclusion of the argument. It could be an intermediate conclusion. The word “probably” is not a conclusion indicator. All that word does is soften a claim—whether the claim is a premise, a conclusion, or something else. The way to identify a conclusion is to understand the argument and what the author is trying to prove. Don’t just robotically look for keywords.

26:38 – Pearls vs. Turds

Demon student Crystal submits a list of personal statement tips that she received from Princeton Review. As usual, Nathan and Ben share their irreverent assessment of each point.

The first tip says to “find a unique angle” and to talk about “what has shaped you” and how you’ve “grown.” So far, this is dud. Nathan comments that your story is “unique” only in the most trivial sense of the word, which is to say that everyone is unique. Admissions officers read thousands of statements—yours probably isn’t going to stand out as special. Ben agrees and also thinks the advice to write about personal growth may invite people to write origin stories rather than to focus on what they do presently.

Next, Princeton Review says to write clearly. Sure, but that’s super vague and can hardly be considered guidance. The final tip sends the list to the turd pile. They say to get plenty of feedback but to “stay true to your tone, style, and personal story.” In other words, they’re encouraging you to ask for advice and then ignore it. And then they suggest having your friends proofread your essay. A better idea would be to ask someone who actually knows what they’re talking about and to take their advice.

43:08 – Logical Reasoning Question 14 from PrepTest 73

After analyzing two speakers’ arguments about funding for space exploration, Nathan and Ben discuss their general approach to answering a Reasoning question. The correct answer must accurately describe something that the argument does. Wrong answers will misdescribe the argument. They may say something different—something that isn’t even part of the argument. Or they may add something extra—take something from the argument and “turn the volume up a little too high.”

Answer choices A through C are all out for the same reason: Winona’s argument isn’t an attack on Inez’s evidence. Answer D is wrong because Winona doesn’t present any evidence for great expense. The correct answer is E because it perfectly describes what Winona does—she points out that technology can be funded without going to space.

Try this question here.

1:09:43 – Wendy’s Personal Statement

Wendy writes a good first paragraph. She uses short “I” sentences to tell the reader what she does as a paralegal. It’s boring, but that’s okay because lawyers are boring. As long as Wendy has a good GPA and LSAT score, Ben and Nathan both could see an admissions officer stamping their approval on her application without reading any further. It’s clear that she’s a professional who knows what she’s getting into.

The second paragraph weirdly shifts into second person. Nathan says there’s no reason not to make “I” the subject of these sentences, too. Wendy then talks about her “wants” a little too much in this paragraph. Ben thinks she can cut it down to one or two sentences. The next paragraph is lengthy with a bunch of facts about Wendy’s research and cases that she has worked on. The guys both get bored of reading it, but they are convinced that Wendy has the aptitude to succeed in law school and in legal practice.

Ben notes that, after reading her statement halfway through, we know that Wendy is an adult who works in a law firm. We know that she’s already successful in helping attorneys with asbestos litigation. She doesn’t waste any space talking about her childhood or overcoming personal struggles. There are a few style issues that should be cleaned up, but overall, this statement presents an applicant who is ready for law school.

1:20:43 – Kirsten’s Personal Statement

Kirsten introduces herself as the only female arborist at Tamke Tree Experts. She then abruptly starts talking about her three years teaching English in Rwanda for the Peace Corps. Nathan and Ben find the transition jarring. They recommend cutting the first sentence and starting with the Peace Corps stuff.

The guys suggest a few edits to strengthen the next paragraph. For example, instead of “I held meetings,” say “I met.” Instead of “My headmaster and I discussed allocating,” say “My headmaster and I allocated.” But her project with the Peace Corps sounds interesting.

Kirsten then jumps back to talking about her arborist job. She focuses too much on her goals and overcoming physical challenges. It’s cool that she learned to climb 80-foot trees with a chainsaw strapped to her side. But this job doesn’t have a clear connection to law school. Ben and Nathan recommend leaving the tree story out of her essay and discussing her Peace Corps project in more depth.

1:33:17 – Bianca’s Personal Statement

Bianca’s first sentence causes the reader to picture her in a mailroom. She works for a law office—surely, she does something more important than “sift through mail.” We don’t need the cinematic description of opening a piece of mail, Nathan says. Get to the winning part. Ben points out that Bianca uses some awkward sentence construction and switches tenses. The timeline doesn’t make sense to either of them.

Next, Bianca talks about her interest in immigration law developing over her childhood. Bringing up stories from childhood flouts the advice Nathan and Ben constantly give. She uses too much editorialization, too many descriptions of mental states, and an unnecessary blood metaphor. This essay isn’t putting her best foot forward. Bianca should talk more about the actual work that she does. Leave family drama out of it.

1:47:03 – Michael’s Personal Statement

Michael’s first sentence can be edited down significantly. The second sentence isn’t even a sentence. If the reader were on the fence about admitting him, such a sloppy mistake at the top of his essay could send him to the reject pile. The guys don’t give this statement a full ten minutes because it’s so hard to read. They skim through and find some good content. But Michael’s writing needs a lot of work.

1:55:20 – Gary’s Personal Statement

Gary’s first paragraph almost sounds like a grievance. He’s a patent agent. He doesn’t need to mention that his billable hour costs half that of an attorney’s or that he handled mostly low-budget, flat-fee work. The next paragraph has too much legalese. Ben and Nathan suggest making the tone more conversational and direct. They also find several typos and broken sentences throughout the essay. The content is good, but the writing is poor.

2:07:57 – Rebecca’s Personal Statement

Rebecca leads with “I raised my six children and started two businesses.” Nathan responds that starting two businesses is great, but having six children isn’t in any way a positive indicator of success in law school. Ben would like to see her as a successful business owner rather than as a mom. The rest of the first paragraph is all about family stuff. The next paragraph reads like a play-by-play of her life story. It’s not a compelling, clear argument for why she should go to law school.