Creating an Outline
Compare and Contrast
Now that you know what you want your personal statement to say, it is time to start writing. First, set a time limit of no more than a couple of days. The longer your time frame, the more difficult it will be to write your first draft. The point is to not allow yourself to sit around waiting for inspiration to strike. As one admissions officer put it, "Some of the worst writing ever crafted has been done under the guise of inspiration."
Relieve some of the pressure of writing by reminding yourself that this is just a draft. Rid yourself of the notion that your essay can be perfect on the first try. Dont agonize over a particular word choice, or the phrasing of an idea - you will have plenty of time to perfect the essay later. For now, the most important thing is to get some words on the paper.
Creating an Outline
You are probably familiar by now with the structure of the traditional outline that you were probably taught in grade-school:
Paragraph #1 (Introduction which contains the central idea)
Paragraph #5 (Conclusion which reiterates the central idea and takes it one step further)
This tried and true method is still your best bet. The problem is that is that it may not allow for the complexities created by the multiple themes that need to be incorporated into a personal statement. Your outline will probably end up looking more complicated than this one, but that is no excuse for not having one. In fact, the more complex the essay, the more in need of outline it will be. Without it, your essay will lack structure. Without structure, your essay will be rambling and ineffective.
Take some time to play with the material you have, putting it into different structures, always with the goal of offering the best support for your main points. To get ideas for some different outlines that could be applied to your statement, look at some of the examples below:
The standard structure is the most common and is recommended for use in almost any circumstance. It is as close as you will get to the simple structure outlined above. The general application of the standard structure is to introduce your themes and main points in the introduction, use the body of the text to supply a single supporting point per paragraph, and then reiterate your main points or draw a new conclusion in the last. The following is an example of a standard structure used by one of the essayists in our database who writes of her experience as a political activist:
Paragraph #1: (Introduction)
Leading sentence: "I am an activist with a commitment to fighting for progressive causes through legislation, policy, and grassroots organizing."
Introduces theme: She has been active in many political projects, but her main focus has been as an advocate for sexuality education and health care.
States intent: "In this statement I will explain how I gained expertise in this field through both academic and professional work from 1988 to the present."
Transition/Topic Sentence: "At (Ivy League University) I began my commitment to reproductive health."
Point and Evidence: She was committed to reproductive health issues academically, as evidenced by her major in womens studies and legal issues, her study on the impact of the abortion pill on the National Health Service, and her thesis on the legal treatment of pregnant substance abusers.
Transition/Topic Sentence: "While I was a student, I gained professional experience as a birth control counselor at the University health clinic."
Point and Evidence: She was committed to reproductive health issues in her extracurriculars as well, both as a counselor and as a Planned Parenthood educator.
Transition/Topic Sentence: "When I moved to a small desert town in the Western United States, I volunteered for a democratic congressional campaign, where I briefed the candidate on abortion rights and sexuality issues in health care reform."
Point and Evidence: Her first job experience involved health care activism, as the Director of Public Affairs at Planned Parenthood.
Transition/Topic Sentence: "I quickly learned that this small town was far more conservative than my universitys eastern college community."
Point and Evidence: She dealt with opposition to her efforts by publishing articles and op-ed pieces based on her research of local right wing activists.
Transition/Topic Sentence: "When my State Senator asked me to manage his reelection campaign, I eagerly accepted since I knew he had worked hard in support of health care and civil rights."
Point and Evidence: She learned valuable lessons by creating effective political messages, managing volunteers, etc.
Transition/Topic Sentence: "I had hoped to work in the state capitol after the campaign, and I am now working for a state level health care advocacy organization which employs a lobbyist and coordinates grassroots strategy."
Point and Evidence: She continues her dedication to health care and politics in her current position by researching legislation, helping the director, etc.
Paragraph #8: (conclusion)
Transition/Topic Sentence: "While I believe that I have developed both academic and professional expertise in reproductive health policy, health care reform, and political organizing, I would like to acquire the skills and power to make a bigger difference."
Concluding Summary: Reiteration of main points and tie in with her motivation to attend Law School and her goals for after graduation.
Not everyone chooses the traditional standard structure for their personal statement. Some writers choose to focus their essays on the analysis of an issue or argument and structure theirs as the writer the example, below, did. She writes about the effects of development in Latin America, or, more specifically, on women factory workers. Notice how her structure highlights the most crucial aspects of what she must accomplish: 1) she makes the issue personal, 2) she states her argument clearly using specific evidence to back it up, 3) she discusses both sides of the issue, 4) she shows how she has been active in promoting the issue in the real world, and most importantly 5) she relates her analysis of the issue to her motivation to attend law school.
Paragraph #1 (Introduction)
Leading sentence: "After college I served for two and a half years in Honduras with the U.S. Peace Corps."
Introduces theme: She introduces the theme of development in Latin America and makes it personal by relating it to her experience in Honduras.
States focus: "I found potential for changing some of the larger problems of development in a surprising arena, maquilardoras, or textile factories."
Transition/Topic Sentence: "While in Honduras I talked to many women who worked in maquilardoras."
Point and Evidence: She introduces her point of view that the factories are not as negative as is portrayed in academic teaching. She supports this with evidence taken from her first-hand experience in Honduras.
Transition/Topic Sentence: "The factory jobs had other positive side effects."
Point and Evidence: She provides more solid evidence for her argument by citing the workers higher salaries and better education, etc.
Transition/Topic Sentence: "How to balance these positive factors with the often exploitative and abusive methods of the factory managers, or how to control the problems of rural-urban migration are questions I am still investigating."
Point and Evidence: She steps back to examine the other sides of the argument, but ends by restating her position.
Transition/Topic Sentence: "With the new U.S. policy focus on trade with Latin America and with more and more businesses using labor abroad, labor conditions in maquiladoras will be a growing human rights issue."
Point and Evidence: She addresses the relevancy of the issue to the future, and gives evidence of actions she has taken to promote national discussion and exposure of the issue.
Paragraph #6 (conclusion)
Transition/Topic Sentence: "A law degree would give me a tool to continue to work effectively and realistically on this and other issues that contribute to the well-being of people affected by U.S. policies and investments in Latin America."
Point: She relates her involvement and discussion of this issue to her motivation to attend law school.
Compare and Contrast
Some applicants in lieu of having direct law experience will instead draw parallels between the experience they do have and the skills required of law students. In this case they might choose the Compare and Contrast structure. One essayist, for example, focused on the comparison between law school and the study of the Talmud. This structure can be used to illustrate a change in your life by contrasting yourself before the change as compared to now. Another does this when talking about the influence that a book had on his approach to learning, and yet another when talking about himself before and after his first semester of college.
Another way to create an outline for your essay is to structure your points chronologically. You could, for instance, follow your life through the various stages of growth, beginning with yourself in childhood, moving to high school, then to college, and so on and so forth. The advantage of this approach is that it is inherently personal and helps the committee to know you painting pictures of yourself as you matured. The drawback is that it can be hard to maintain focus and keep the essay short, and the points you are trying to make can get lost in the narration of your life.
The writer of the following example uses a chronological structure after a standard introduction:
Paragraph #1 (Introduction)
Leading sentence: "My background as an engineer and a Hispanic affords me a unique point of reference from which a constructive engagement in the intellectual, political, and social spheres at ___ will be enhanced."
Begins at birth: "I was born in Brazil and lived in Mexico City starting at the age of two."
Jumps to college: "I pursued an education in engineering taking my Bachelor of Science in Aeronautics and Astronautics from MIT in 1990 "
Shifts to graduate school: "At Michigan, my outside interests gravitated toward politics."
Continues with first job: "After graduating from Michigan I worked as an engineer for General Electric Aircraft Engines for two and a half years."
Continues to current job: "I left GE because I was dissatisfied with the opportunity for career growth "
Brings us to present day: "I was immediately given the duties normally associated with a first or second year associate at a large firm."
Paragraph #8 (Conclusion)
Concluding sentence: "I firmly believe my experiences in law, engineering, civic activity, and political activism will allow me to be a creative and contributing member of the intellectual life at..."
Incorporating a story into your essay is a common and effective method for catching and keeping the readers interest. It is also a good approach if you want to focus your essay around a single event in your life.
The most common way to incorporate narrative into the personal statement is to begin with the story then step out into the role of narrator to and make points and draw conclusions.
The following are some examples of writers that have incorporated narrative into their essays. Notice how each writer steps out of the narrative at some point to discuss how the story relates to their motivations, goals, or qualifications for attending law school:
Essay 1: Tells the story of attending a Republican Convention as a (self described) moderately liberal black man.
Essay 2: Tells the story of overcoming a fear of heights by joining a ships crew one summer.
Essay 3: Begins with the story of having to dole out punishments to two soldiers in his battery.
Essay 4: Begins with two separate stories, one of teaching English to refugees in Central America, another of trying to recruit a worker into the Steelworkers Union.
Notice the variety of structures this type of essay can have and the number of situations that can be used. A narrative can span a lifetime or a moment. It does not have to be filled with Hollywood style action to hold interest. The briefest and simplest of events can take on meaning when told effectively. What makes all of these essays effective is their use of detail, description, and momentum.
In its purest form a narrative essay does nothing but tell the story it begins and ends with the action. Although not generally recommended for a personal statement, because at some point the connection needs to be drawn from the story to your motivation and qualifications for attending law school, there are some who pull it off well. One of the writer's in our collection, for example, tells the story of being treated for an illness in Kenya. She begins with action:
"I was released from the Lamu hospital on a Monday morning."
And ends with action:
"With those words, she left me with a bill for twenty dollars, some salty greens to chew on twice a day, and a prescription for life."
It is good to note, though, that the ones who can pull of this type of risky approach best are those whose records (grades, scores, and experience) speak for themselves. If you are confident in the rest of your application and you are an accomplished writer, writing a story for your essay will certainly catch the committees eye and make you a more memorable candidate.
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