Good People Can Give Bad Advice

Good people can give you bad advice about your applications? Really? Says who?

The dean of admissions at Stanford's business school, for one. "Good People Can Give Bad Advice" is a headline in a post by Dean Derrick Bolton on Stanford GSB's admissions website, and I'm sharing his advice here because (1) it's great advice and (2) it applies just as well to law school and even college admissions. (Did you read that recent NYT article about the race to line up fancy and expensive summer experiences in service of college applications? If so, read on.)

Last week, I wrote about the pressure you'll experience as a law school applicant as well-meaning people tell you that you have to write about this or that topic for your personal statement. I explained why trying to anticipate what topic an admissions officer "wants" you to write about is a fool's errand, and I suggested approaching the personal statement challenge from a completely different angle. (Read that post here.)

And if you're not being told what specific topic you have to write about, you're probably being told that you have to show how unique you are. Uniqueness is nice, but also a commonly misunderstood concept in the application process. Here's what Dean Bolton has to say on his site about a very common myth about "uniqueness":

Myth #1: Tell the Committee on Admissions what makes you unique in your essays. This often leads applicants to believe that you need to have accomplishments or feats that are unusual or different from your peers (e.g., traveling to an exotic place or talking about a tragic situation in your life).

But how are you to know which of your experiences are unique when you know neither the backgrounds of the other applicants nor the topics they have chosen? What makes you unique is not that you have had these experiences, but rather how and why your perspective has changed or been reinforced as a result of those and other everyday experiences.

That is a story that only you can tell. If you concentrate your efforts on telling us who you are, differentiation will occur naturally; if your goal is to appear unique, you actually may achieve the opposite effect.

Truly, the most impressive essays that we read each year are those that do not begin with the goal of impressing us.

That's great advice, whether you're applying to law school or business school or college. Everyday experiences are fine. Your experiences do not have to be extraordinary in order to support a stand-out application essay. What counts is what you've made out of your experiences, how you've reflected on them, and how and why they mattered to you in the grander scheme of things. And if you did in fact have an extraordinary experience, then you can certainly write about that, but don't assume great essays will write themselves merely as a result of having had an extraordinary experience.

From the archives:

Do you have examples of bad advice from good people? How about good advice from good people? Thoughts on extraordinary experiences and uniqueness? Please share!

Former Dean of Admissions at the University of Chicago Law School and a recovering lawyer, Anna Ivey founded Ivey Consulting to help college, law school, and MBA applicants navigate the admissions process. You can read more admissions tips in The Ivey Guide to Law School Admissions, recently updated and available as an e-book. Join the conversation here in the blog comments and on Twitter and Facebook.