Tuesday, October 26, 2010

My Law School Application "PERSONAL STATEMENT" -- requesting your input once again

A "personal statement" is required by all law schools and is intended to indicate who the applicant is--revelatory of personality, interests, writing ability, etcetera.  Basically, law schools need to find out if you're a fit for their program beyond what the numbers of test scores and GPAs can reveal.  Here's my third and most recent (and I think, best) attempt:

Joseph Center
LSAC#: **********
Personal Statement

My name is Joseph Center, and I was born to be a teacher.  Call it self-awareness; call it revelation from God; call it dumb, indecisive, undergraduate luck—whatever; it worked:  I am a teacher, and I am a good one.  At home in a classroom, before a body of students, teaching, managing, learning; the grade book a well-lit place, and lesson prep a natural extension of my regular thoughts, preoccupations, and academic appetites; I am a teacher.  Despite this there have been times when the working professional’s oldest devil, most effectually labeled “doubt,” has come after me, armed to the teeth with all my insecurities—future, money, education, fake-it-‘til-you-make-it, authority, maturity, etcetera—and all that stacked up against the true weight of a teacher’s responsibility.  He is a nasty beast, Doubt, but I was always able to shake him, at least until the great bureaucracy of public education, wittingly or no, came powerfully to his aid against me—a grim encounter, the result of which taught me more about myself and my abilities than any of the previous seven years’ experience.
At the time I was enjoying what I can comfortably call success in a smallish school for smart and artistic kids in the crook of Michigan’s thumb.  I had a full course load up and running, trips and guest speakers planned, fundraisers underway, and, best of all, a motley of talented students, willing and un-, already deep in the year’s most challenging material.  I loved my job, my students, and so they seemed to love me, too.  My third year had started peacefully.  Better yet, I felt the stride of the backstretch opening up now that I had two good years behind me.  I was comfortable.  All was well.  Little did I expect an over-large foot was about to stamp my breaks from the passenger seat.
It happened one Friday morning in October.  As always, I arrived at school shortly after six and checked my box.  I’d received a letter from the State Office of Education.  I opened it as I walked to my room.  I unlocked the door and sat at my desk.  I read the letter, which informed me that I had failed to take one of the two required certification tests needed to transfer my teaching license from Utah to Michigan and, until I took it, would be removed from the public classroom.
“Holy crap,” I said aloud and to absolutely no one.
My eyes bugged out, I slumped over a pile of ungraded poetry, and hardly moved until classes started.  I took Monday off to drive to Lansing, because no one at the state office would return the dozens of phone calls between classes, during lunch, and whenever I could manage it throughout the day Friday.  I arrived shortly after opening, slogged through the mire of red tape, got planted in a conference room and told to wait.  Nearly an hour passed before a little mustachioed man finally entered.  He had five pieces of information, four of which he checked off a list on his clipboard.  None were helpful:
One: The next proctoring of the required test would be held in three months.  (This, while frustrating, rankled less than learning that the most recent test had been given only two days earlier, which was the Saturday after I received the letter, which, of course, I would have been able to take, had I known about it, which information I could have gained if, and only if, someone—anyone—at the State Office had bothered to answer their phone on Friday.)
Two: My valid Utah teacher’s license (not to mention my previous seven years’ experience and my recently acquired and accepted-by-the-state master’s degree in education, much less the recommendation from faculty, students, parents, and community—I even had a Crystal Apple, after all) made no difference in the matter, nor did the fact that the piece of paper I received from the State upon my hire made no reference to the test I missed, but only the one test which I took, nor that I was told repeatedly upon my redundant inquiries during that first year that there was nothing left for me to do after taking that first and purportedly only test.
Three: The matter was black and white, and the State was not responsible for my lack of information, even though they were the source of the very misinformation that brought about the entire problem.
Four (not on his checklist): Even if I had recorded the names of those individuals who had so incorrectly confirmed my completion of all application measures and steps, it would make no difference, and those mistaken individuals would yet hold their employ at the State.
Five: The case was closed until I completed the test, and the gavel sounded: bang; its noise falling dead in the ill-lit, padded room, like a giant period.
The man left.  I remained a moment, stunned.  I got lost attempting to exit the building.
I drove straight back to school and sat with my principal.  Thankfully, she was kind and helpful, as well as a seasoned veteran of the bureaucratic battlefront.  She wielded her telephone like a shotgun.  Her targets, quite unlike mine, actually listened to her, and, lo and behold, were even helpful.  She didn’t call the State Office of Education.
I returned to my classroom to relieve my substitute teacher.

Any understanding gained from this moment through the weeks that followed came from two primary sources: my supporters and myself, the former of which, as it transpired, was a font whose depth I could never have guessed. 
Supporters first:
Thankfully, I wasn’t out of the classroom yet.  There was a grace period, as it turned out, so the school could find a suitable replacement for their endangered teacher.  Word spread quickly that the potential end of my position was imminent, and the support flooded in.  From students, parents, and community came personal notes and cards, copies of letters to State representatives, reports of circulating petitions vouching for my quality, and even dedicatory poetry; from fellow faculty members came listening ears, wisdom, and regret.  A day or two passed, and I was suddenly whisked from my classroom for an emergency school board meeting at the district office.  The entire board was there.  My principal sat next to me, my union rep, too, and there, directly across from me, was the assistant superintendent over students and faculty.  Their support was total.  “We’re not going to lose you,” said the super.
A plan was put in place against the powers of the State in order to, first, keep me in the classroom without disruption; two, place hold my position so it couldn’t be filled by some other full-time teacher seeking in-district transfer; three, provide me with at least some measured income against my loss.  As bolster to and evidence of her support, my principal actually offered to make up the balance of my lost salary just to prevent me from having to go elsewhere for employment.  (I humbly declined her staggering generosity, my parents having already agreed to help take care of my family.)
It is amazing and ironic that something that can make a body feel so crappy can simultaneously make him feel so good, and yet be nothing but utterly humbling. 
My learning that I was loved and appreciated, that people of authority recognized me as an excellent teacher, however, were not the biggest of the revelations.
The biggest revelation came from me.
I came to teaching an idealist.  I could no longer afford to maintain that kind of extravagance.  The whole reason we moved to Michigan from Utah in the first place (better teacher pay, cheaper cost of living) was a determination to keep my wife at home with our children, where we felt she was most needed and effectual.  We would make the necessary accommodations of lifestyle, and our kids would have their mother (and forever will—a decision as black and white as the gavel-pounding conclusion of the little man at the State Office); this foundation of family was now in jeopardy.  Its maintenance had been one of my greatest sources of personal pride. 
My biggest realization, hands down, was that I was entirely less worried and freaked out about not teaching than I was about my newly arrived inability to support my family.  Idealism, in the form of being a happy, make-a-difference teacher, had become fallacious frivolity; idealism, in the form of keeping my family emotionally, spiritually, and financially secure, rose to the exospheric top.
But I don’t want to be a lawyer just for the money.  The object of my decision to change careers came a lot like that of becoming a teacher.  First—and here comes my implacable idealism again—it just felt—and yet feels—right; and while such impressions are important to me, there has to be a level of pragmatism to them.  Once upon a time I said that money wasn’t important, that making a difference was.  While money is more important than it ever has been, so still is the need to make a difference, but less so for those around me than for my family.  I need to do something I enjoy and that I’m good at.  I need to work in a challenging atmosphere.  I need to contribute to something—a person, a school, a firm, a community, the world; something!  My greatest gifts are in the realms of words, public speaking, and performing.  All three, I believe, apply directly to a study and pursuit of law.  This is what I need to do.


  1. Hmm... I don't know. It's great writing, it's authentic, and it's honest. But I worry that one of your faults (and what's coming is more a remark on society than yourself) is that you can be a little too honest when writing these applications. Law schools, like most other institutions in society, are founded upon one great principle...

    ...Bull crap. When you say that you were born to be a teacher, I worry that they will go for someone who claims to be, "born to be the greatest lawyer ever, and is destined to change the world forever based upon his/her unique expertise and intrinsic greatness." And what they NEVER want to hear is the honesty that says someone would like to do something partially because they want to put bread on the table for their family. There's no bull crap in that.

    It doesn't mean that the story and motivation can't work. I think they will like the part about your challenges in dealing with bureaucracy and legal (wait for it) bull crap. However, I might change the opening statement and perhaps the way that you frame the story.

    Also, just one spelling/typographical error straight from the headquarters of the grammar Nazi in Berlin. It should be, "lo and behold."

    I am really worried that you might take this too harshly. Criticism generally isn't what I am best at. Personally I love what you wrote, and I find it fascinating, but I am worried that it doesn't meet the bull crap objective inherent in all these processes. Anyway, I'm willing to stand down if you, or other people, strongly disagree.

  2. James, I think I take criticism pretty well. No worries (and thanks for the style point-- and lo, it will be corrected. As far as the honesty versus bull-crap, I thought that would be the case, too. You should read the first two personal statements I wrote. However, during my LSAT prep class, BYU brought in a PERSONAL STATEMENT SPECIALIST, who makes a living (and a very healthy one) teaching future law students how to write them. I was very surprised to hear that they DON'T WANT BULL CRAP. The LAST thing they want to hear is why you'll make the best lawyer ever. They assume that if you're applying for law school and put all the work into taking the LSAT and filling out and paying for the applications, then you're interested. They want the individual to be the dominant property of the statement. What you say is exactly what I thought it should be, like I said, until I had this particular class.

  3. Alright, I will defer to this person's judgment. I still think it might be a bit better to take the bluntness off, "born to be a teacher." On the other hand, I generally favor honesty in writing, but I wonder if you could convey the message without sending the implicit converse message that you were, "not born to be a lawyer." Anyway, like I said, I really like the letter on its own merits, and, if they don't want bull crap, then I think it should be fine.

  4. You know, I was thinking about a few other things the guy said, and which apart from him also make pretty good sense. Law schools receive thousands of applications every year. The vast majority of them all say the same thing: I will make the very best law school candidate because.... I want my statement to be different and get their attention. I want it to memorable. I want it to be extremely readable and engaging. And all this while getting to the primary point of "this is who I am." I do see validity to your point, and thinking about that I will defend my opening, but wonder what you might think about a different alteration. To me, teacher to lawyer is actually a pretty natural transition, but I don't express this anywhere. I've done a couple drafts of this thing, and I could never come up with a satisfactory (and I'm still not satisfied) with the last paragraph. The opening paragraph, I think, especially in context, is an effective attention-grabber. But the last is a throw-away. What about something that describes my opinion that a teacher, when it comes right down to it, already is a lawyer, and I'm not really throwing away my "calling" by shifting profession?

    James -- Thanks as always for your candid and direct thoughts and critiques.

  5. I think that would be an awesome idea. It's about effectively communicating a message with both.

  6. great writing. great story. i was enthralled.

    i noticed a word missing:

    One: The next proctoring of the required test would [be] held in three months.

    i think you're too honest, sometimes, as well, but in my head you have to go with your heart and put it all out there.

    great job bro.

  7. Awesome. Thanks for noticing the mistake. I'm correcting it right now.

    And I think I am going to go with my heart and put it all out there. This is kind of the all-or-nothing shot right now; I've tried personal statements two other ways, neither of which worked.