Many applicants are recent immigrants or have parents who are recent immigrants and plan to write about this aspect of their life in a personal statement or diversity statement. Certainly, having this life experience makes you distinctive and can add to your appeal at any school. But, often these essays fall flat.
Here are 5 tips to help you improve:
1. Show Don’t Tell. Just telling someone that you have had difficulty assimilating or learning English isn’t always enough. You need to show the admissions committee – paint a scene. Give a specific example. You need an arresting image to get their attention.
2. Avoid clichés. “Fish out of water.” “Cultural differences.” “Breaking down barriers.” “Pulled up by their bootstraps.” These are phrases that I see repeated constantly. That repetition has made them boring. You are better off explaining your situation with specificity than trying to resort to this type of language.
3. Show grit. In your essays, always focus on how you solved the problem rather than the problem itself. For example, if you moved to the U.S. and didn’t speak any English, what did you do? How did you learn the language? Make friends? This will show the qualities admissions committees want in a candidate.
4. Don’t butter up Mom. Often, applicants write about people they admire – usually a parent. It’s great to love your folks, but don’t make that the focus of your essay. You need to show the admissions committee that you are a good fit, not your father.
5. Make a point. Going through a difficult or challenging experience means nothing if you haven’t gained any insight into yourself. Law schools want people who can think critically and examine the world around them. Your essay needs to show what you learned and how you can apply that knowledge to your studies and work. How have you grown from this experience? How does your experience help other people?
Remember that most basic failures of imagination in essay writing occur because applicants don’t want to spend time brainstorming, thinking, and writing. All that preparation is an important part of the process for producing a finished product that you can be proud of.
Jessica Pishko graduated with a J.D. from Harvard Law School and received an M.F.A. from Columbia University. She spent two years guiding students through the medical school application process at Columbia’s PostBacc Program and teaches writing at all levels.