How Much Can I Help My Friend With His Personal Statement?

At a recent LSAC forum, I met a guy who is a refugee and is currently in the middle of the law school admissions process, as am I. He is studying for the LSAT, but having much trouble due to English being his second language. I offered to assist him in preparation for the LSAT. I have been working with him on this, but he has recently asked me to review his personal statement, and I am unsure of the ethical constraints in such work. I read your book and I can tell that you approach such issues with considerable tact and ethical consideration. Do you believe that it would be acceptable to help him with grammatical issues? He is highly intelligent but struggles with verb tenses in the English language. His oral speech is for the most part easily proficient, but his writing needs considerable work. I am concerned about assisting him on this because I know that a law school may be upset if they find that his writing is considerably less grammatically sound than his admissions materials led them to believe. I would appreciate any advice you may be able to give.

This is such a great question, and big points to you for caring about where that line gets drawn. It's one I'm mindful of every day in my work with applicants, and sometimes the line can get fuzzy, so it bears thinking about. There are both ethical and practical considerations, and I'll tackle both in this post. I'm thrilled you're giving me an excuse to think out loud about this topic, so thank you.

When I think back to when I was an admissions officer, my expectation was that for something really important like a grad school application, it makes a lot of sense to have a second (and picky) pair of eyes stare at your documents to make sure that things are squared away. There's nothing wrong with that, and that includes fixing a verb tense here or there. 

We've all been there — you've stared at the same document a gazillion times, you're trying to get it perfect and just so. That's precisely when your eyes and your brain betray you, and you stop seeing little problems and mistakes that can sneak in and stay put.

As a writer, you can miss macro problems, too, because you're too close to your own material. Maybe you think you're being really clear in a particular sentence or paragraph. Or you assume the essay has a coherent arc but in fact it takes a bunch of detours that seemed terribly important to you but really don't move the essay forward. Pity the poor admissions officer trying to make sense of some of that stuff.

For those reasons, the best help someone can give you as an applicant is to tell you when things are making sense, when they're easy to follow, when they are true to what you are trying to say, and when they have your voice. Or, more importantly, when that's not the case. Just make sure you ask the right people. It's amazing what kind of damage others can do when they have nice intentions but have half-baked notions about what a law school personal statement is supposed to accomplish. The worst essays, bar none, are the ones that have obviously been written by committee: here's a bit you included to make your dad happy, there's a bit that a 1L friend threw in, here's something you added based on something you saw on a discussion board. And next thing you know, you end up with a dog's breakfast instead of a good personal statement. Crowdsourced essays are almost always awful.

So getting some kind of outside feedback on a personal statement can be helpful in the right circumstances. That's true for both the superficial stuff and the substance, and it's true for both native and non-native English speakers.

At our firm we regularly help people with grammar, but we try to make sure they understand that something like a verb tense isn't discretionary, that there are actual rules that govern. Maybe nobody in high school or college taught them about the past perfect tense, for example. (Very few schools in the United States seem to teach things like verb tenses anymore. Ditto for proper punctuation and parts of speech.) If you're applying to law school, there's no time like the present to beef up your grammar and writing skills, and not everyone comes into the process with the level of skills they want or need. Whether you get help from a friend, or the writing center at your school, or someone else, those skills matter not just for your application, but also for your success in law school and your success as a lawyer.

Because guess what? Law school professors and law firm partners are notoriously picky about what the rest of the world would consider minutiae. So are judges. Some of them are picky because they're pedantic (I'm guilty, too, sometimes), but they are also picky because in the law, these details matter. Putting a comma in the wrong place in a contract can cost your client a million dollars and result in a malpractice suit. If commas can get you into that much trouble as a lawyer, imagine what can happen if a lawyer hasn't yet mastered other parts of written English. Here's a page from a brief where the judge actually marked up the writing mistakes and kicked it back to the lawyer who had filed it. Embarrassing. 

But there's a big difference between teaching someone good grammar and trying to make a non-native writer sound native. Let me state for the record that I'm not dissing non-native writers. My two favorite authors in all of English-language literature were not native speakers (Nabokov and Conrad), so don't mistake this for a xenophobic screed.

More specifically, if you can stick to teaching correct grammar and making sure your friend actually improves his own writing skills, then that can be a helpful exercise, not just for his personal statement but for his LSAT writing sample as well. But if you try to make a non-native speaker sound native, or try to make his written English substantially better than he'll be able to perpetuate on his own, you're turning him into something he's not. I hear from applicants from abroad (and from certain countries in particular) who ask for that kind of help all the time, and at our firm, we decline to go that far. Sometimes we get yelled at because we haven't made an applicant's English "perfect." We try to persuade those applicants that if their essay sounds as if it's been written by a native English speaker, and it's clear from their background that they are not, no admissions officer will find that essay credible, and they'll begin questioning the authenticity of the application more generally. Most people aren't Nabokov, it's true.

Moreover, admissions officers will compare the essay to the writing sample on the LSAT (the only helpful purpose of the writing sample, in my opinion), and if that gap is too large, it will be obvious that the essay has been "scrubbed." That is never a benefit for the applicant; it actually amounts to self-sabotage.

For those reasons, a non-native English speaker is better off staying closer to her true level of written expression, however far she can push that between now and then. It's impossible to fool admissions officers about actual writing skills when they have that LSAT writing sample in front of them. (That's true for native speakers as well.) They don't expect the LSAT writing sample to be perfect — test takers are given stupid topics to write about, and those writing samples are drafted under time pressure without the opportunity to belabor 20 revisions. But it is a great baseline against which to compare the application essay when its authenticity is in question for any reason.

What does that mean for an applicant whose written English skills need "considerable work," as you describe the situation? Remember that one of the things an admissions officer is measuring in the application is whether the person has sufficient command over written English. If an applicant's writing skills are too deficient, then I'd say that person isn't ready yet to apply to law school, or at least to a competitive one. (I concede that there are plenty of junk law schools that do not select for good writing skills, but they aren't worth attending anyway; good luck finding a decent legal job afterwards.) Applicants with poor writing skills won't be able to keep up at a law school whose grades revolve around long, high-stakes, written exams at the end of each semester, and those schools don't want to set people up for failure if they admit them. Will you be around to fix your friend's writing when he's muscling through his law school exams, submitting a legal brief to his summer employer, drafting cover letters, or taking the bar? You won't, nor should you be. But I give you a big, gold star and a bunch of karma points for mentoring him. And sometimes mentoring means *not* doing something for someone, but helping him help himself.

That doesn't mean that a top law school is out of the picture for your friend full stop. Maybe his current level is good enough that you can help him improve it between now and the LSAT/submission of the application essay. But if that gap is too wide, he would probably benefit from an additional year to participate in an intensive writing program and get his written English skills up to par. There is no shame in that, and in the long run it will make him a better law student and a more effective lawyer, too. It will also make him more likely to land a good legal job afterwards, which is ultimately the whole point. All of that is true whether a person grew up speaking English or not. 

In the meantime, here are some of my favorite books that help people get their written English from good to great. To master the rules, the Chicago Manual of Style is still the gold standard. For pro tips on merging grammar with style, check out Sin and Syntax: How to Craft Wickedly Effective Prose.

I'm all in favor of paying things forward, and some day, when his writing skills are much stronger, I'm sure your friend will turn around and help others with their writing. When done right, that's a great thing. Good luck to you both on our LSAT and your applications.