Personal Statement: You Control the Narrative

I’m sure a lot of you are starting to think about your personal statements. I know it can be pretty overwhelming to decide on the right approach. My advice? Don’t forget that you decide your own story.

I was not a perfect applicant. I had strong grades and a strong LSAT, but my background was…complicated. When it came time to write my personal statement, I was stuck. Do I talk about my past? I had overcome a lot. But it wasn’t something I wanted to share. And it wasn’t how I wanted to define myself to an admissions committee.

Finally, after dozens of drafts and anxious meetings with my pre-law advisor, I decided to focus my statement on food policy. I hoped that, in talking about a complex area of law, I could demonstrate to a likely wary admissions committee that I would do well in law school, and that I would be a thoughtful and engaged student.

Looking back, maybe I should’ve offered a more personal account of my story. I know parts of my statement read like a book report. But at the end of the day, it reflects who I am and what I care about. My point is, personal hardships can make for a powerful essay. But they’re not the only approach. When you don’t want to talk about difficult things that have happened to you, you don’t have to–at least, not in your personal statement. Save it for an addendum. Your personal statement is an opportunity to choose your own story and show an admission committee that your past does not define you: you do.

For those who are interested, I’ve included my statement below.

My Personal Statement

For my first assignment at the New York City Food Policy Center, the assistant director asked me broadly, “See what you can find on food waste.” Up to then, the focus of my research had been on GMO technology and nutrition. I had not studied the relationship between food production and sustainability, so I was curious to know what I might find. Unfortunately, it didn’t take long for my curiosity to turn into total disbelief. “Acres of deforested land, thousands of gallons of water, tons of methane gas emissions to produce how much beef?” I was stunned by the statistics in front of me, showing the immense amount of energy and natural resources required at every step of the food supply chain.

Sitting hunched over my computer scanning pages of an environmental study by the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations, I realized how industrialized the food system had become. Food was no longer produced by a network of small, local farms. It had transformed into a vast, multi-trillion-dollar industry, with large-scale commercial farms dominating the food market. The way we grow and consume food had changed, and it was creating major, if unintended, environmental consequences.

While working on the food waste assignment for the New York City Food Policy Center, I couldn’t help but think of my grandfather. A native of the Adirondacks, my grandpa caught and cooked most of his food. He could name every edible plant in the park, and every plant you should keep away from. A born naturalist, my grandfather had an intimate connection to the food he ate and to his environment. And he raised me with the same mentality: to always be conscious of where my food comes from. Yet, “hunting” for me had become lugging a few bags of groceries home to 96th street. No longer did I have any idea, really, where my food comes from.

So, the following semester, when we got the chance to choose a project for an honors seminar on complex systems, I proposed to my group that we look at corn. Corn is a major industry in the United States with ties to almost every sphere of American life: the economy, politics, public health, and the environment. To me, it was the perfect opportunity to get a better look at how the American food system had changed. My group agreed. And so for the next few weeks, we dedicated hours of research to examining environmental studies measuring water and pesticide usage on farms that grow corn; what effect mono-cropping has on biodiversity; how subsidization and the selective tariffing of competing crops influence the price of corn; and we analyzed the correlation between the increased production and consumption of corn and the emergent American obesity crisis.

What stood out to me as we worked on our project, was how policy impacts what food is produced and ultimately consumed. For example, though corn is a cheap, versatile crop that grows remarkably well in the United States, the market dominance of corn is largely the result of decades of federal policy favorable to the industry. Government subsidy programs create a huge incentive for farmers to produce more corn. The Renewable Fuel Standard mandates the use of corn-based ethanol for transportation fuel. And tariffs of foreign sugarcane encourage the food industry’s use of the cheaper, processed sweetener, high fructose corn syrup. What I also realized over the course of our research is that even if policy incentivizing the production of commodity crops like corn has created an abundance of food, an alternative energy source, and a cheap, efficient way for Americans to feed themselves, our country, as a result, is now facing some serious consequences. Multi-generational family farms are closing to make way for big commercial grain operations; mono-cropping is threatening biodiversity and the quality of our soil; and millions of Americans, including children as young as two years old, are suffering from obesity, diabetes, and other nutrition related diseases.

So what do we do now? I know my grandfather’s answer, “Learn to fish,” is not a practical solution. Yes, we need a food system that connects us to where our food comes from. But at the same time, we need a food system that can meet the demands of modern life, and feed a growing population with fewer resources. Public awareness campaigns and non-profits encouraging people to limit food waste, to “know your farmer,” and to think of food as medicine, are a step in the right direction. However, the change our food system requires must take place at the policy level. That is why I would like to go to law school.


Madelon Bird is a second-year student at BC Law. Get in touch with her at birdmc@bc.edu.

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