Monthly Archives: October 2011

How to get unstuck while writing your personal statement: Part 2.

Sometimes, you get stuck. (From photosteve101 on Flickr.)

Last week, I posted part one of the series “How to get unstuck while writing your personal statement,” where I covered how to unstick yourself when stuck choosing a statement topic. For Part 2, I’m covering what to do when you’re at the draft-writing stage.

If you’re stuck… and you have a topic, but can’t start your first draft.

Before beginning your draft, you want to ensure that:

  1. You have a solid argument.
  2. This argument is supported by relevant evidence– whether it’s anecdotal or describing relevant work or school experience.
  3. Your topic is explained thematically– meaning, it is a theme that runs through your statement/argument, connecting all your points.
  4. It ends solidly, tying off all ends, so that it is impossible to poke holes in your argument.

It’s a lot, I know. But, there is hope.

In a previous post, I covered how to organize your topic around a basic argument structure. Those basic principles can be used during the outlining process, which would then get you into a prime position to start writing your first draft.

The answers to all the points I’ve raised above can be seen during the outlining process. Laying out all your material at hand in bulleted points and organizing them in a structure will allow you to get a birds-eye view of your statement as a whole. Doing so will make assessing your statement that much easier, and will allow you to make the appropriate edits.

You’ll also be able to ascertain the weak points of your argument and fix them– whether it’s a certain point needs further explanation or to integrated better into your statement, or if you’re providing too much information and getting too far away from your argument.

Of course, the most brilliant thing about outlining is that it can help you get out of a creative rut. When outlining, you’re forced to think or even reconsider aspects of your topic in new ways, which can allow for new material. This is, in a sense, a more advanced method of brainstorming that can help get your juices flowing to start your first draft. Before you know it, you’ll understand your topic and your aim that much more clearly and will be able to start working on a successful first draft.

Next week, in the final part of this series, I’ll cover how to get unstuck when you’ve already written your first/second/fifteenth draft.

Stefanie Arr

Common grammar mistakes: Dangling participles.

Common Grammar Mistakes: Dangling Participles. (From OptimumCareer on Flickr.)

As an editor, I have a number of literary and textual pet peeves. Surprisingly (or, perhaps not?), lolspeak is not one of them. But, in any case, some things just drive me and every other like-minded nerd insane. One of things includes dangling participles. To review, a participle is a verb pretending to be an adjective. Usually, this is a verb in its -ing form. For example, the word run is normally a verb, but add an -ing ending and it can become an adjective. So, when you say “I run every morning,” it’s a verb. But, it can also be an adjective: “I forgot my running shoes this morning.” The word run went from verb to adjective, which also forms your present participle.

So, now you understand participles. Good. Now, we move on to participial phrases.

Participial phrases are phrases that include, you guessed it, participles. These phrases are meant to modify the subject of the sentence. For example: “Drinking my coffee, I thought of an example of participial phrases.” Drinking my coffee” modifies the subject, “I,” with “drinking” as the participle.

Another example would be: “Stifling a yawn, I shuffled off to make more coffee.” “Stifling a yawn” is the participial phrase, modifying the subject, “I” (yet again). “Stifling,” of course, serves as the participle.

Okay, with all that said, dangling participles are participial phrases that are left with nothing to modify. Meaning, they are supposedly there to modify the subject, except the subject doesn’t agree with its modifier.

You might ask how this is possible. Well, here’s an example: “Drinking my coffee, the coffee-maker had shut off.” As you can imagine, this does not make sense. “Drinking my coffee” should modify… the coffee-maker? No. The coffee-maker is not drinking my coffee, I am. So, where am I? Hence, the reason these errors are called dangling participles– so sad and alone, without a subject to modify.

There are ways to fix this, of course. Instead of “Drinking my coffee, I noticed the coffee-maker had shut off.” Now, “drinking my coffee” is modifying the correct subject and–there I am!– the coffee is being drunk by me this time, not the coffee-maker.

One handy way to make sure you don’t make this mistake is to put a silent “while” before any participial phrases. So, “Drinking my coffee, I noticed the coffee-maker had shut off” becomes “While drinking my coffee, I noticed the coffee-maker had shut off.” Using the word “while” will emphasize what the modifying participle is doing, which will then remind you that the subject should agree with this action. If it’s more helpful for you to actually begin the phrase with “While…” rather than just with the participle, that’s fine, too. Just be mindful of who is doing what and what should be modifying whom.

So, to be clear:

“Drinking my coffee, I noticed the coffee-maker had shut off.” This is good.

“While drinking my coffee, I noticed the coffee-maker had shut off.” This is also good.

“Drinking my coffee, the coffee-maker had shut itself off.” This is bad.

“While drinking my coffee, the coffee-maker was gone.” Even worse.





How to get unstuck while writing your personal statement: Part 1.

Hit a wall? (From hryck on Flickr.)

So, you’ve been working on your personal statement. You’ve brainstormed, you’ve outlined, You might even be done with your first draft. But… you’re not getting anywhere.

It’s okay if you feel a little stuck– it happens to everyone. And, people get stuck at all different points of their statement-writing process. So, I’ve written this helpful guide-series that will show you how to get unstuck, whether you haven’t chosen a topic, are hammering out your first draft, or trying to nail down your final draft. Over the next couple of weeks I’ll be covering different points of typical “stickiness” and how to get unstuck from them.

If you’re stuck…. and you don’t have a topic yet:

If you’re in the very beginning stages of just formulating your topic, it’s best if you start with some brainstorming or outlining before beginning your draft. Even if you do have a topic, it’s often helpful to still brainstorm to help tweak your topic and refresh your writing muscles (and your mind).

Start thinking about how your experiences have molded and shaped you. How did your experiences during undergrad shape your maturity and understanding? If you’ve been out of school for a while, how did your later positions shape you? What sort of trajectory has your life taken thus far? What has brought you to this point? Consider your answers– how will these affect you in the future, as a law student? As a working attorney?

I’ve posed these questions to coax out a potential argument about,the wealth of material you have scattered in your resume and in your mind. The problem may well be that you have so much to choose from, it’s overwhelming. I know the temptation exists to start to work on a draft right away and, if you really feel comfortable doing this, try. However, think about what I’ve just asked here while you brainstorm– just start writing down what comes to mind in a brief, bulleted list, without the pressure of putting it into a formal draft. Think a bit and see if you can come up. Write down everything you come up with; your material, somehow, has to directly relate to you and your experience.

Then, read over and evaluate what you came up with. See how you can make this all work, and how this relates to you. Do you feel comfortable with it? Can you take it further? You may end up going through many cycles of the above process- twice, three times, you name it. Regardless of how many times you brainstorm, it’s important that you do it. By brainstorming and even brainstorming repeatedly, you will inevitably come up with something good, something you can work with, and something you can write about well.

Next week, I’ll be covering how to get unstuck when writing your first draft, part 2.

Stefanie Arr

Common grammar mistakes– Lay versus lie.

In many of my grammar posts, I often discuss common but misused words like it’s versus its or I.e versus E.g.. So, for this week’s installment, I’ll be covering the differences between lie and lay, probably the most misconstrued of all.

The most barebones difference between lie and ‘lay’ is that ‘lay’ requires a direct object. Going back to third grade, direct objects follow transitive verbs or action words. They are the “what?” and “who?” of the “subject+verb” equation. As in:

Jenny(subject) + played(verb)+WHAT?” Answer, soccer (direct object).

So, lay needs something or someone to do the laying– for instance, “Lay your book on the table.” Of course, as a command, the subject is the invisible ‘you’ and the sentence can be diagrammed as follows:

(You, subject) + Lay(action verb) + your book (direct object) +on the table (prepositional phrase, but more on this later)

Lie, on the other hand, does not require a direct object. So, if you want to lie down on the couch, you’re free to do so. Please note: “on the couch” is NOT a direct object (yet another prepositional phrase, more on that later) as the couch is not doing the lying down, you are the one doing it. Okay, get up now.

Sounds easy, right?

Here’s an easy way to remember:

Fans of older music will be shocked to know that both Bob Dylan and Eric Clapton are wrong: “Lay, lady, lay” should be “Lie, lady, lie“, and “Lay down, Sally” should be “Lie down, Sally”. Yet, Kelly Rowland, in all her pop-princess glory, is totally right with “Lay it on me“. Well, that’s music for you.

The present participles of these verbs aren’t so bad, either. As a reminder, participles are part of the perfect tenses– they are the latter half of verb phrases with am, has/has been, and have/have been in them.

The present tense of lie is lying— as in, “I’m lying down on the couch right now; it’s pretty awesome”. Or, “He’s been lying on the couch for a while, he must be lazy.”

The present tense of lay is laying, which is pretty straight forward. One example is: “She has been laying her coat on my chair every day since she’s moved in.” Or, for special occasions, you can say: “The Golden Goose has been laying golden eggs again!” This works because the golden eggs serve as the direct object in this sentence; it’s a different definition, but the same rule applies.

Okay, here comes the really tricky part.

The past tense of lay is laid. The past participle of lay is also laid. Too easy.

But, the past tense of lie is lay. Not so easy. And, a little ridiculous, if you ask me. To make it a little more difficult, the past participle of lie is lain. Ugh.

(To refresh your memory: the past participle is used to form the perfect tenses–I.e, the verb phrases that have has, have, and had in them.)

Laws of language aside, it is what it is. Your job though is to remember it. I don’t have any funny or stupid-yet-oddly-helpful ways to remember it, so just memorize it. Sorry, guys.

Here’s how to conjugate both lie and lay in the past tense, with examples::


  • Present tense: Lie

I lie in bed at night, thinking about dinosaurs.

  • Past tense: Lay

Yesterday, I lay there thinking about them, too.

  • Past Participle: Lain

And, the night before last, I also had lain in bed thinking about them. I may have a problem.



  • Present Tense: Lay

I lay my coat on this chair, usually.

  • Past Tense: Laid

Earlier, I laid my coat on this chair  But, it’s not there.

  • Past Participle: Laid

Oh, I forgot I had laid my coat on the bed instead. Fail.

Easy? It can be when working with present tense, but it can get confusing when using the past tense. Unfortunately, the only way to learn how to do this properly is by memorizing these rules. But, it gets easier with practice, don’t worry. Soon enough, you’ll be laying and lying all over the place.

How to write a resume.

Pens and ink. (From Keith Williamson on Flickr.)

With application season gearing up, all sorts of questions are coming up– not surprisingly, they don’t all involve personal statements. Application packets can be lengthy with lots and lots of written, edited material to keep track of– your statement, of course, as well as letters of recommendation, supplemental essays (like addenda, for instance), and your resume.

In all this hubbub, the resume is often left for last, as it is supposedly the easiest of them all. To some extent, that is true. But don’t ignore it and certainly don’t forget about it– it is representative of you by containing a wealth of information about you, making a vital document in your application.

Whether you’ve chosen to write about volunteering for an NGO or coaching the local little league team, you are free to talk about these experiences in your statement. But, you don’t want to waste valuable space (and time!) listing your entire job description. Of course, your personal statement might not even be about about your time at school or in the work force– and that makes your resume even more important.

Your personal statement is meant to highlight your personality and drive. In it, you’re encouraged to describe how your school, work, and life experiences have demonstrated your qualities or have honed and developed them. Your resume, in turn, provides the background knowledge of these experiences. While your personal statement is meant to persuade the admission counselor with a creative yet compelling argument,  your resume provides the factual evidence to back this up. It serves as a gallery of your school and work experiences, awards, and accomplishments. Your resume is where you can more explicitly state what these work and job responsibilities were / are and how they fit with these qualities emphasized in your personal statement.

A helpful way to start working on your resume is to brainstorm. Think about what each and every  role you’ve had in school, work, or elsewhere. Think carefully– what were you responsible for? What were you counted on to bring to the table? Chances are, somehow and somewhere, you were responsible for something– in some way or another, a responsibility rested totally with you. Admissions councelors want to see that you have been held responsible and accountable for a job well done in some way and that a person or team has counted on you.

Then, use action words and phrases to move your resume. Be demonstrative with your job titles, descriptions, and work history. You want to highlight these responsibilities in a way that’s dynamic, allowing you ownership of your duties. Think beyond what you’ve done but what you’ve accomplished. The following are good examples of action phrases:

  • “Performed…”
  • “Created…”
  • “Worked directly with…”
  • “Managed…”
  • “Increased…”
  • “Produced…”
  • “Handled all…”
  • “Improved…”
  • “Enhanced…”
  • “Worked alongside with [lead supervisor/director/head coordinator/etc]
  • “Expanded…”
  • “Responsible for…”
  • “Achieved…”
  • “Succeeded in…”
  • “Completed…”
  • “Secured…”

…and so on.

When writing your job descriptions, you need to highlight where and how you were directly involved in each  role– whether it was by being director or coordinator yourself, or being shift manager at Starbucks. You will need to showcase all of your responsibilities held as these will be further testament to your exceptional abilities next to your statement. By brainstorming effectively and using action phrases like the ones I’ve listed above, you’ll be well on your way.


Common grammar mistakes– E.g versus I.e.

Common Grammar Mistakes: E.g. versus I.e.

In the world of Internet slang, abbreviations have become the norm. While it’s hard to argue what FWIW or IAWTC mean, E.g and I.e are confused for one another all the time. Of course, these two abbreviations are infinitely older than netspeak as they both have Latin origins. But, despite this and their importance in academic writing, their usage is often misconstrued.Too often are they used interchangeably when they really shouldn’t be.

“So, what do they mean?”

I.e is an abbreviation for the Latin phrase id est, which can be roughly translated to “it is” or “that is”. E.g. is an abbreviation for exempli gratia, or “for example”. You can see where I’m going now.

I.e.  is used to specify or to further clarify a particular. For instance, you would use I.e. to say “I like editors who from New York– I.e., Stefanie Arr” to mean you like only me out of all the editors from New York. (Right?) If that wasn’t so obvious, here’s a better example: “Stefanie Arr is from the big city– I.e., New York.” This is correct because I am from only one big city– New York– and I.e. introduces this clarification.

E.g. is used to give an example or an instance. So, if you say “I like bloggers who write useful advice– E.g., Steve from LSAT Blog“, then you’re saying that you like bloggers who write about useful things, such as Steve, but aren’t limiting your list to just Steve (because I should be included, too.)

A helpful way to remember what each of these abbreviations mean is to use thise easy, if not cheesy, tip: E.g. can be remembered by thinking of it as “egg zample”– like “example” but with a strange, foreign accent. Or, you can take the more mature route and remember that  “E” stands for example.

The way to remember I.e. isn’t so weird a memory trick, but it’s just as useful: just imagine I.e. stands for “in essence”. Or, take the “I” to stand for “in other words”.

“Okay, so what now? How do you use them?”

Well, you can these abbreviations in a number of ways. They are usually used in parenthetical statements, but you can also use them as separate clauses, preceded by a dash (–) or a semicolon (;). You can also use them to introduce either an entirely new sentence. Given what these abbreviations mean, you can use them however you would normally use “in essence”/”in other words” or “for example”.

Easy, right?

Now, here are two last things to note:

  1. Always follow these abbreviations with a comma. So, whether you use them in the middle of a sentence or to start off a new one, always use a comma afterwards, like this “E.g., …”
  2. Don’t italicize them. I italicized them above because I was defining them but, in normal usage, they don’t have to be. This is according to a number of grammatical authorities, including The Chicago Manual of Style.


Statement Personal: or, how to organize your essay.

Brainmap. (From sidewalk flying on Flickr.)

Many students come to me when they are at a loss. They have worked on draft after draft, corrected every misplaced comma and spelling mistake, and chose each word meticulously. They have great topics and great experiences to choose from. So, “why isn’t this working?”

The most common mistake I’ve encountered, even including grammar and syntax, is disorganization. There are too many things to say, not enough words to say them in, and they’re in a rush to say them all.

I’ve discussed in a previous post the idea of the personal statement being a form of branding. Now, I’m taking it one step further. With a personal statement, you are asked, essentially, to devise an argument: you are asked to argue why you are an ideal candidate for the admitting class. Regardless of what you end up writing your personal statement about, or how you decide to go about the statement itself, your end-goal is to make this argument, effectively. That is, your goal is to convince the admissions counselor of your side of the argument– which is, of course, admittance.

So, how does one make this argument, effectively?

One of the principles of rhetoric, according to our ancient Greek friends, is disposito, or arrangement– the organization of the argument itself. A large part of the compelling, persuasive strength of an effective argument lies in this organization– the clarity of not only what you’re arguing but also of how you’re arguing it.

With that said, the best way to organize your essay (and your entire thought process, too) is to make an outline.

I know, I know– outlines are usually stressed when talking about writing papers or much longer essays, but they are just as applicable to personal statements.

When you write an outline, all sorts of magical things happen. You will not only be able to organize your essay, but you’ll also be able to fully flesh out what your topic is, in a clear and succinct way.

Many students write about their work/school/life experiences, leading to some sort of conclusion as to why this has brought them to a particular point. Sometimes, this may be about an obstacle or problem of some sort– whether it be professional, academic, or personal– that had lead to a life change or achievement or development of a particular skill set.  Others may forgo this model and choose to write about an anecdote that highlights their personal qualities or work ethic.

Regardless of what your topic is, you have to expand upon it enough to create a framework, a structure around which you will build your statement. It, in other words, has to form your main argument.

Experiences —> Problems/Issues Raised —> Solution

This is a quick mock up of a diagram I had drafted up for one of my students. To create this, I took her topic (how working as a case worker in foster care has led her to pursue legislation) and boiled it down to its most basic elements– through her experience, significant issues and obstacles were raised, leading her to propose a solution. The purpose of this diagram is to visualize an argument structure. Seeing how your argument is formed, even in the most rudimentary way, makes writing your statement remarkably easier. Creating a visual can be all the difference between setting up the foundations to your statement and staring at a blank page in a panic.

Once you create a diagram of your argument, you’ll start to see a theme, or even a number of themes, present in your statement. Whether it’s your love for community-building or your own sharp aptitude and drive, these themes will build upon the framework you’ve just created.

These thematic elements are the pieces you will use to build upon your framework– they form the muscular system on top of the skeleton. Together, they are the solid core of your argument. The rest of your statement– the specific examples, quotes, or other creative elements– will be organized around this core. This is when your outline comes in.

How you outline your statement is up to you– you can use a (albeit more advanced) linear diagram like what I had just shown you or simply a bulleted list. For those looking for a more spatial outline, I advise not to use a brainmap as it will be too confusing and unstructured (but I definitely recommend using one during topic formulation). Either way, you want to use an outline to further visualize how your argument will unfold. With everything– your argument and its structure and the specific examples used to develop your story– laid out in front of you, you will be able to organize your ideas and your thoughts better. (Whew!) From there, you can begin to piece your statement together, with a clearer sense of direction and a much-clearer head.

Stefanie Arr