In the last issue of De Minimis, we reported on an interview between two editors of this publication and the Associate Dean, Alison Duxbury. The interview pertained to the removal of the personal statement as part of the application process for the Juris Doctor. The article provoked extended discussion on the Facebook pages to which the article was posted. One first-year student was motivated to write an open letter to the Dean protesting the change. In acknowledgement of the strong feelings of some members of the student body about this matter, De Minimis has agreed to publish his letter in full (Ed.)
Dear Dean Carolyn Evans,
I recently learnt that the Law School now no longer requires a personal statement as part of its application process. In an interview with De Minimis (2/5/15), the Assistant Dean explained the reasons for the decision. Unfortunately, I did not find them satisfactory.
The personal statement gives candidates an opportunity to demonstrate an aspect of their skill, ability and sophistication that is otherwise unexamined. It has the potential to encourage a mutually stimulating and diverse student body. Its consideration, as part of the admissions process, reflects a qualitative, holistic approach, whereas its absence creates a faceless, mechanical process. Finally, the act of writing a personal statement can be of great personal benefit, as candidates are required to reflect on their motivations and aspirations.
The students are the Law School and the Law School is its students. For this reason, I feel not only entitled but obliged to write this open letter. We each have a stake in the quality of the Law School, the students it attracts, and those whom it admits. Below, I elaborate on the reasons why the personal statement plays an important part in creating a culture that I am proud to be part of, while removing it from the application process will undermine that culture.
Quality of writing
It is said 'that the personal statement had been used to see how prospective students articulated their motivation, rather than what the motivation itself might be. The personal statement was therefore unnecessary because this could be gleaned from the written aspect of the LSAT.’ (This, and all of the following quotations, come from the interview reported in De Minimis).
I reject that the written aspect of the LSAT may serve as an adequate substitute for the personal statement. It is self-evident that the quality and type of articulation that may be demonstrated in an essay, hand-written in 35 minutes, at the end of what is, for most people, a particularly gruelling two hours of examination (the LSAT essay is always the fifth of the five 35-minute sections), is completely different from that which may be demonstrated in a considered, reflective, drafted and re-written personal statement.
I do not, by this point, mean that the ability to write a response to an essay question under time pressure is not important. However, the ability to produced ‘polished’ writing is at least equally so. Furthermore, in most disciplines, the writing of responses to essay questions comprises a large portion of students’ examinations, so that this ability is already reflected in students' examination transcripts. By contrast, the personal statement provides a vehicle for the demonstration of powers of articulation and self-exegesis that are rarely — if ever — exhibited in the normal course of tertiary studies.
Students have expressed a concern 'that removing the personal statement from the [selection] criteria might have the effect of homogenising the student population.’ The Assistant Dean has responded that that diversity will be ‘ensured by the Graduate Access Melbourne Scheme (GAMS), a program which is committed to providing educational opportunities for students from a range of backgrounds.’
GAMS provides funding to students who fall into one of the following six categories that are relevant to the JD (the seventh, final category pertains only to engineering):
· Recognition as an Indigenous Australian
· Previous status as a refugee or current holder of a Humanitarian Visa
· Rural or isolated background
· Disadvantaged socio-economic circumstances
· Disability or chronic medical condition
· Personal difficulties
These are categories of social disadvantage, and it is imperative that such disadvantage is not a barrier to entry to the Melbourne JD. But diversity in the student population requires more than this. A diverse student cohort will include not only students on the tram tracks to a city firm, but those whose passion is for the legal reform of animal welfare, those called to a career in civil litigation by their parents’ fence dispute, those whose interest lies in the intersection of law and popular culture. GAMS is blind to this.
It becomes apparent, from these examples, that it is important not only that the student body be socially diverse, but also that individual students be interesting. And yet it is quite possible that individuals with idiosyncratic interests and values — those we must endeavour to encourage and celebrate — will be disadvantaged by a mechanical selection process.
I believe that we all want to work and study in an interesting and stimulating environment, but a place like this is no more or less than the sum of its individual faces, the majority of whom are, of course, JD students. Without the personal statement, the entire culture of the law school is at risk of being compromised in the long-term.
Predictor of success
It has been said 'that studies had found that the best predictor of success in the JD was the LSAT combined with tertiary results. As such, it has been deemed unnecessary to consider a prospective student’s personal statement as well.'
If it is accepted that the personal statement plays an important role in fostering a stimulating environment in the Law School, the argument that the personal statement provides a relatively weak indicator of success in the JD is at best irrelevant: interesting students make interesting classrooms, and what does it matter if the most interesting students are evenly spread across the bell curve of exam results?
However, the logic of the argument may be more insidious. One is forced to presume, as I have, that ‘success in the JD’ is measured in terms of exam results, the primary quantitative measure. The concomitant marginalisation of qualitative factors — collegiality, positivity, friendliness — is a worrying step towards conveyor belt pedagogy.
To respond to the assertion that personal statements offered little insight into candidate’s potentials, one must also ask how the personal statements of applicants were evaluated. I have already noted ‘that the personal statement had been used to see how prospective students articulated their motivation, rather than what the motivation itself might be.’ If this is truly the case, the contended correlation (or lack thereof) between the quality of personal statements and performance in exams appears even less compelling.
A final argument in support of the personal statement is that it promotes self-reflection. At the beginning of the semester, President Chris Maxwell implored first-year JD students to remember what they’d written in their personal statements, to re-read their personal statements in three years’ time, and to ensure that they wouldn’t be disappointed when they did so.
In the same vein, Justice Michelle Gordon has recently urged law students to stay true to themselves. Meanwhile, posters around the Law School extol the benefits of ‘mindfulness’, a central aspect of which is a certain kind of self-awareness. The process of writing a personal statement can be uniquely edifying.
This is not to say that in the absence of a personal statement candidates will give no thought as to why they want to study law: this surely is not the case. But to produce a balanced, concise exposition on who you are, why you want to study law, and why Melbourne Law School should want you to study law at Melbourne is to dwell on fundamental questions that, in spite of their importance, may not be so deliberately probed when a personal statement is no longer required. It is a lamentable fact, but no criticism of the individual, that the effort expended when work needs to be presented tends to be greater than when there is no obligation or external pressure.
It is surely true that the inclusion of personal statements in the application process creates a lot of work for those involved in that process; the appeal of admission-by-algorithm is self-evident. But the benefits of the personal statement justify this expenditure and more. For this reason, I encourage you to reconsider your decision to remove the personal statement from the applications process, and to reinstate it for applications for courses commencing in 2017.
Marcus Roberts, first-year JD student.