On Crowdsourcing Your Personal Statement

You probably already know that your application essay will be read by a committee. Is it a good idea to write an essay by committee?

To ask is to answer: No. 

No, no, no, no, no, no.

I'm inspired to say a few words on this subject because of the number of essays that hit my inbox with Track Changes and Comments from the applicant's mom, dad, 3L brother, aunt Jane, dentist, and fairy godmother. Oh, and sometimes comments from multiple admissions consultants for good measure.

I've got nothing against editorial feedback. I give it all the time, and when done right, it's an effective way for people to learn how to improve their own writing. One way or another, it's through good editorial feedback and correction that anyone ever learns how to write. (That, plus immersion. You have to read well in order to write well. More on that here.) 

But consider your sources. When you're shopping around your essay to everyone under the sun for their input, are all of their opinions equally valid? Do they know what a law school personal statement is supposed to accomplish? When they suggest that you expand on this section or that, do they understand the length restrictions you're working under? When they insert a comment that you "have to explain why you want to attend Harvard Law School," do they know what they're talking about? When they tell you to list your extracurricual activites in your essay (generally a bad idea!), do they know how your essay fits together with the rest of your application, and what pieces of information you're sharing where (and why)? Do they know the precise essay questions of the schools you're sending it to? All those things matter in assessing your essay.

When you become a law student and a lawyer, a big part of your job will be to weigh different sources of authority, and to understand their hierarchy. It's a skill you'll need to start implementing when you're writing your essay, too. 

Here’s an axiomatic truth: If you solicit feedback from X number of people, you're going to get X different opinions, and you'll be the one who has to evaluate and weigh them. Is that range of opinions going to help you, or is it going to stress you out even further? There's one thing I can guarantee: If you try to please everyone in your essay, it's not going to be a very good one. 

And that's another problem with essays-by-committee: your voice eventually gets beaten down into a bland mush, which is exactly the result when you try to accommodate lots of different (and sometimes unknowledgeable) opinions in your writing. You might think you’re helping your essay, but you might in fact be turning it into a dog’s breakfast.

Ask yourself what you're trying to accomplish whenever you're adding another person to your editorial board. Are you soliciting as many opinions as possible because it makes you feel safer? Don't. I can appreciate that law school attracts risk-averse people, but sometimes you have to get comfortable with picking one thing over another. Your essay will almost certainly be the worse for your shopping it around willy-nilly.

A special note about well-meaning parents: Parental edits often do not improve a personal statement, because many parents have odd or outdated or flat-out wrong ideas about what your essay is supposed to achieve, and how you're supposed to "sound." I’ve rarely seen parental edits that I thought made an essay better.

Or maybe you want to run your essay by another expert, say your cousin's MBA consultant. OK, but keep in mind that MBA essays serve a completely different purpose than law school personal statements, and that often determines what should stay and what should go. And given the very different lengths involved with those two kinds of essays, they have to be structured very differently, with different trade-offs. Application essays really are different genres, and designed to elicit different kinds of information about you. MBA essays are different from law school essays, which are in turn different from college essays. Don't conflate them, or let other people conflate them.

Or maybe you put your essay up on an applicant discussion board for feedback. Is that a case of the blind leading the blind? Perhaps.

Instead of crowdsourcing your essay, take ownership of your essay. Be judicious about what input you solicit. And don't make your life more difficult than it needs to be. In this case, there is no safety in large numbers.

Former Dean of Admissions at the University of Chicago Law School and and a former 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, and join the conversation on Twitter and Facebook.