Could either of these be decent personal statement topics? Or are they just generic sob stories?

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Pickles312

Could either of these be decent personal statement topics? Or are they just generic sob stories?

Post by Pickles312 » Wed Sep 02, 2020 4:59 pm

Long post incoming - tl;dr's are at the bottom of each topic.

I've been trying for weeks to think of a good topic for a personal statement, and I've been at a loss. Frankly, there's just not much that's unique about me, and I haven't done anything remarkable. I'm a straight, white guy from a middle class northeastern suburb - so I'm pretty much the most generic applicant around. I don't have any diagnosed mental illnesses or disabilities either (I have terrible eyesight and had a lazy eye as a kid, but there's not much to say there).

Basically, there are only two things that have happened in my life that have affected me in any way that might be different than the average applicant - and they still aren't much. In any case, I figured I'd go over them and see what you guys think.

1.) I had a hostile family situation growing up. My mother was abusive to me and my sister - mostly emotionally/verbally, but also sometimes physically. It wasn't to the extent I've heard from others, so I don't want to make it seem that bad, but it wasn't great. When I was 9, my parents had a somewhat unorthodox divorce. Basically, my dad asked me if I wanted to go to a "sleepover" at my grandmother's summer house (not as luxurious as it sounds - it was two rooms and no one had lived there for many years). I said yes, we left for what I assumed was one night, and I stayed there alone with my dad for two years while custody was fought over. My sister stayed behind (I later found out she declined to leave).

For part or all of that period we had no heat, no air conditioning, no washing machines, no internet, etc. My dad often slept on the couch so I could have the bed. We weren't living in poverty, and I certainly don't want to pretend I was suffering or anything. Rather, it was a time where I changed dramatically in my personality and perceptions of the world. I learned to become independent in ways I hadn't. My mother is the kind of person who will try to control you and do everything for you so she can say you owe her for it later. Living with my dad allowed me to be my own person and not deal with that, while also having a role model who was changing with me. We learned to cook together because he didn't know how. I helped him fix up and update the house so my grandmother could sell it when we moved out. I learned how to look out for myself and appreciate the basics I had taken for granted a lot more. I also learned that there were ways to live without screaming, cursing and fighting - I had acted out a lot at home as a kid, mirroring what I saw.

At the same time, there was a lot of uncertainty because I had very little idea what was going on behind the scenes, or when I'd see the rest of my family again. I have no idea when my parents actually legally divorced because I wasn't privy to it. The summer before 7th grade my parents both got partial custody of us, and I began a half/half schedule that became the new normal in my life.

Tl;dr: My dad and I left my house when I was 9 and lived alone together for a couple of years after having been in a somewhat abusive situation with my mom growing up. My perspective of family and independence shifted a lot during this time, details above.

- I'm hesitant to go this route. Certainly having a bad home life or having your parents get divorced is not a unique or special experience, so I'm afraid it would seem like I'm being dramatic. In fact, reading my paragraphs above back, I already feel that way. Plus, this all happened when I was 9-10 years old. I've read in other places that your PS should be about something more recent and relevant to who you are now. While I've kept the lessons and experiences of that time with me, I'm certainly not the person I was on either side of that period anymore. And finally, it doesn't have anything to do with law or why I want to pursue it.

2.) The second thing happened when I was 17 and just entered college. I went through the opening week like everyone else: meeting people, joining clubs, getting acclimated. Then, the first Friday I was in school, I got a call from my dad that my grandmother had had a stroke. I was close to my grandmother growing up, although we weren't inseparable or anything. She would visit my dad and I a bunch when we were alone after my parent's divorce, and we grew a bond. Later, as I got older, we saw each other less frequently. She lived in the city, which was a bit of a drive, and she was getting less mobile to visit us. Still, we remained close. She was my confirmation sponsor and probably the only extended family member I have who I stayed in contact with as a teenager.

During that initial call, my dad told me she had been hospitalized and was alright, and I was able to talk to her quickly (which would end up being our final goodbyes). However, she soon began to deteriorate until she passed away two weeks later. All the while, I was kind of locked in my own head. She was all I could think about during that September. But at the same time, I had literally just started college. I was falling behind socially and struggling to keep my head in my academics. Yet I couldn't actually see her in her final days, because I was stranded 4 hours away from her at college. It also meant I couldn't be their for my dad as he saw his mother slip away before him. I felt horrible.

After she passed, my dad was finally able to pick me up at school, and I went home for the funeral. It was the first funeral I had ever been to that I could remember, and it took a lot out of me. Then, when I went home that night, I found out that one of my best friends from high school had been in a terrible car accident and was in a coma. The next few weeks were spent once again taking phone calls from a hospital and scrambling to find a way to visit him. Ultimately he ended up recovering, but his accident definitely was a shock during a grieving process I already wasn't prepared for, and it exacerbated the problems I was having adjusting to school.

I guess the result part of this story is that my grandmother's death made me reflect on who I wanted to be, as corny as that sounded. My grandmother thought the world of me and gave me way too much credit for a lot of things. She thought I was brilliant, even more so than normal grandparents who brag about their grand-kids. She was an immigrant who built everything she had from pretty much nothing, and my grandfather had grown up in even worse conditions as an orphan with no education at all. Seeing her grandchild taking AP classes and get into honor societies was something she could barely comprehend. I always felt a little guilty that she thought so highly of me, almost naively, while in reality I spent plenty of time in high school procrastinating and playing video games. Sometimes, I was doing that when I could have been visiting her.

Ultimately, I decided that instead of feeling guilty, I should become the person she thought I was. I should make the most of all the privileges and opportunities I have that my grandparents didn't. That feeling of wanting to live up to her image of me allowed me to end that first semester strong, and stay dedicated throughout college.

Tl;dr: My grandmother had a stroke and died right after I moved into college. Having to adjust to college and stay caught up academically and socially was a major challenge, compounded by my best friend getting in a life threatening accident the day of her funeral. I made it through and decided to become the person she had thought I was going forward.

- I'm hesitant to do this one too. Again, what is unique about this? Almost everyone has had a loss in their family by the time they enter law school. I don't want to just write a sob story about how hard it was to deal with something that everyone has to deal with at some point. Like the prior topic, it hasn't nothing to do with me going to law school, and the part about it making me a better student is very corny. A part of me also feels like its unethical or just immoral in some ways. I feel like I'd be using my grandmother's memory as a tool for my own goals, and that seems wrong to do to her on some level. Similarly, mentioning my friend's accident in the same story definitely feels like I'd be using him to create a sob story.

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So, do you guys think there's any potential in either of these topics? Are either of them even suitable for a personal statement? Or should I go back to the drawing board? Maybe I could write about starting a badminton club in high school, since that's my greatest non-academic accomplishment.

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pancakes3
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Re: Could either of these be decent personal statement topics? Or are they just generic sob stories?

Post by pancakes3 » Wed Sep 02, 2020 5:17 pm

i think you sketched out the bones of two pretty great PS's, and also you shouldn't diminish your life experiences because they're vanilla (mostly because they aren't).

i think the second one makes for a better PS for the reason you mentioned: hard to tie in a life lesson learned when you were 9 years old to you now. you certainly can, but it's easier with the second one. "doing it for grandma" is a solid PS. i do think the first one is more compelling though - that's a pretty wild divorce story, and pretty cool that you were able to bond with your dad and make lemonade. those two years (!) probably does meet "poverty" definitions.

idk, i'll let other peope chime in. tl;dr, both are fine, second is easier, first one is more interesting.

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Nony
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Re: Could either of these be decent personal statement topics? Or are they just generic sob stories?

Post by Nony » Wed Sep 02, 2020 7:09 pm

I totally agree. OP, you don't have to find something completely unique about yourself, or talk about some kind of suffering that no one else has experience - that's going to be hard for almost everyone. If you write about something meaningful to you, and tell adcomms something they won't know from your resume, you'll be golden. Of course there are some topics that are best to avoid b/c they've become so cliche, but they're usually along the lines of study abroad or mentoring disadvantaged kids or the like - experiences where one claims some kind of great epiphany from observing other people's lives and realizing that oh! not everyone lives middle class (white) US lives! You're nowhere near that. (Also, I think you are way underselling the seriousness of your divorce story - it's to your credit that you don't want to be dramatic or claim some unique martyrdom, but that's a fairly dramatic story.)

Pickles312
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Re: Could either of these be decent personal statement topics? Or are they just generic sob stories?

Post by Pickles312 » Thu Sep 03, 2020 1:05 pm

pancakes3 wrote:
Wed Sep 02, 2020 5:17 pm
i think you sketched out the bones of two pretty great PS's, and also you shouldn't diminish your life experiences because they're vanilla (mostly because they aren't).

i think the second one makes for a better PS for the reason you mentioned: hard to tie in a life lesson learned when you were 9 years old to you now. you certainly can, but it's easier with the second one. "doing it for grandma" is a solid PS. i do think the first one is more compelling though - that's a pretty wild divorce story, and pretty cool that you were able to bond with your dad and make lemonade. those two years (!) probably does meet "poverty" definitions.

idk, i'll let other peope chime in. tl;dr, both are fine, second is easier, first one is more interesting.
Thank you for the advice. I might draft both of them and then try to decide which one's better after the fact. Maybe I'd post here with the drafts. I'm glad that they don't come off as generic sob stories though. That was my biggest fear, along with neither being related to law.

I really don't want to make it seem like I was living in poverty those years though, so I'll probably phrase it differently in the essay itself. I was still living in a middle class town, going to the same school, and never had to worry about having clothes or enough food. I had a TV and even my Nintendo Wii. The most major problems such as not having heat were just due to the house being very old and run down after years of disuse (and only having been used in the summer primarily before that), not because my dad (school teacher) couldn't afford it. Plus, everything had happened so quickly that there had been no time to prepare really. We had the heat fixed and internet installed during the time I was living there and we were restoring the house. My dad also eventually sectioned off part of the bigger main room so we'd both have bedrooms and beds.

So it was less that I was missing out on necessities while I was there, and more that I had to appreciate the basics more because I no longer had the luxuries I had taken for granted (AC, internet, etc). I think I'll want to make that very clear if I use this topic so as not to pretend I suffered when I didn't.

Nony wrote:
Wed Sep 02, 2020 7:09 pm
I totally agree. OP, you don't have to find something completely unique about yourself, or talk about some kind of suffering that no one else has experience - that's going to be hard for almost everyone. If you write about something meaningful to you, and tell adcomms something they won't know from your resume, you'll be golden. Of course there are some topics that are best to avoid b/c they've become so cliche, but they're usually along the lines of study abroad or mentoring disadvantaged kids or the like - experiences where one claims some kind of great epiphany from observing other people's lives and realizing that oh! not everyone lives middle class (white) US lives! You're nowhere near that. (Also, I think you are way underselling the seriousness of your divorce story - it's to your credit that you don't want to be dramatic or claim some unique martyrdom, but that's a fairly dramatic story.)
Thank you for the advice! I honestly can't even tell at this point if I subconsciously embellished my descriptions because in my head it wasn't that dramatic. It does seem a little crazier reading it back after I put it all down in writing. I guess at the time I was so young and only looked at my life from a very narrow, short term perspective. Despite the sudden nature of everything, I certainly didn't feel like I was withstanding some sort of great obstacle during those two years. A lot of it really did feel like an extended "sleepover" with my dad. In fact, my lasting memories of it are almost all positive.

In your perspective, do you think that story would make a better personal statement than my other potential topic?

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LaLaLaw
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Re: Could either of these be decent personal statement topics? Or are they just generic sob stories?

Post by LaLaLaw » Fri Sep 04, 2020 11:09 am

Why not combine both? Start with the first story and tie it into the second. I know you have only 2 pages, but I there are enough narrative similarities that I think it could work. Something like —> when I was 9/10 I found my voice through this experience and it shaped my values —> then those values were reinforced in college with this other experience which helped me affirm the person I want to be (which includes law).

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LaLaLaw
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Re: Could either of these be decent personal statement topics? Or are they just generic sob stories?

Post by LaLaLaw » Fri Sep 04, 2020 11:10 am

Also, I think as long as your honest, you don’t have to worry so much about whether you had it better/worse than someone else. Just speak your truth.

Pickles312
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Re: Could either of these be decent personal statement topics? Or are they just generic sob stories?

Post by Pickles312 » Fri Sep 04, 2020 1:42 pm

LaLaLaw wrote:
Fri Sep 04, 2020 11:09 am
Why not combine both? Start with the first story and tie it into the second. I know you have only 2 pages, but I there are enough narrative similarities that I think it could work. Something like —> when I was 9/10 I found my voice through this experience and it shaped my values —> then those values were reinforced in college with this other experience which helped me affirm the person I want to be (which includes law).
Thank you for the advice! This is definitely something I've thought about, especially for schools that allow more than 2 pages. I feel there are ways to connect the two, though I'd need to adjust how I frame the narratives to make sure it fits together. I don't want to just throw both on the page as if to say, "look at these things I've had to go through."

I think my plan is actually to draft 3 this weekend. One on each and one combined, and then go from there.

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pancakes3
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Re: Could either of these be decent personal statement topics? Or are they just generic sob stories?

Post by pancakes3 » Fri Sep 04, 2020 5:33 pm

fwiw i also thought this was a possibility bc your grandmother features in both, but unclear on how prominent a role she played in the 9 year old story, sounds more like a you+dad thing.

however, it's a personal statement, not autobiography and i think you have enough to make a single solid, cohesive PS out of either story and you run the risk of sounding rambling if you tried combining the two.

as always, the trick is in the execution, so our speculation of what works and doesn't based off premise alone isn't worth much.

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