Empty Calories and Your Law School Personal Statement and Résumé

A fun (I’m easily entertained) post on the LinkedIn blog identified the 10 most overused profile buzz words for 2010.  Anyone who spends significant time looking at résumés can attest that many résumés feature these and other empty calorie words.  There are two things that held these descriptions in common.  First, they don’t really tell the reader anything dynamic about the applicant that a reader can’t tell from (or is likely to believe absent) descriptions of activities on the résumé itself  (yes, “dynamic” was one of the words, along with “innovative,” “motivated,” and other blah-blahs).  Second, in an effort to make the applicant stand out, they make the applicant look like everyone else without a good thesaurus.

Law school applicants can learn a lot from general advice about finding jobs, even a year or so before they’ll be applying for summer jobs.  (One of the reasons second-career applicants have a bit of an advantage, all else being equal, over other law school applicants is that they’ve had an opportunity to learn some of this previously.)  For law school applicants, these lessons aren’t relevant just for your résumé but also in writing your personal statement and any supplemental essays for law schools.  And by the way, any advisor that advises you to “punch up” your materials by using these or other empty adjectives or adverbs isn’t worth what you’re paying them (even if the amount is zero).

Here’s a basic rule:  your accomplishments should stand on their own.  Yes, there are ways to present them more effectively, and I work with my clients to ensure that they’ve organized their résumé and written their personal statement (within the rules) to maximum effect.  But those are more matters of strategic selection, organization, arrangement, focus (not trying to do too much), clarity and narrative cogency than adding verbal confections.

Indeed, the crisper your law school application documents, the better, for several reasons.  First, the documents read better and more professionally (and remember that law schools want those who are already acting like professionals).  I know that the current cultural motif is superlative-driven (everything is “amazing,” “spectacular,” etc.).  But after a very short time, like a couple of bites of an oversweet dessert (or the hundreds or thousands of applications that law school admission committees read each year), they don’t have an effect any greater than hearing that something is a “can’t-miss hit” has on you when you’ve heard it for the twentieth time.  Superlatives especially don’t have much effect when they’re self-descriptions; it’s fine if your law school recommenders want to say those things about you.

Second, you have limited real estate to tell law schools why they want you rather than others with similar LSAT scores and GPAs, and each empty calorie word means you can’t say something substantive.

Third, meaningless self-descriptions are distracting and leveling.  Exactly because other applicants are using the same words, they distract readers from focusing on your actual accomplishments, personality and character, and they make you sound like each of those other applicants.  Fourth, they sound a little arrogant, not a quality most law schools feel is in short supply.

I don’t want to make this into a religious principle—it’s not that you can’t ever use empty calorie words in your application materials—a little sugar is ok.  You should be judicious in your use of them, however, and understand that the more you use them, the less effect they’ll have.  And be a little original in your choice of which adjectives and adverbs you use.  A good place to start is to avoid all the words mentioned on the LinkedIn post, as well as “intelligent,” “committed” and “keen/sharp analytical…”.

~ by Kyle Pasewark at Advise-in Solutions on December 18, 2010.

2 Responses to “Empty Calories and Your Law School Personal Statement and Résumé”

  1. […] to edit every word of one’s résumé and destroy every one of those words you indicated in ‘Empty Calories‘ and then some (anyone who uses the word ‘proactive’ should be pilloried […]

  2. […] more you (and thousands of other applicants) use a word, the less effect it’ll have. They become empty calories in a lean, mean […]

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