How I Chose What Stories to Use and What to Leave Out for My Personal Statement for Harvard

Daria Levina

I’ve talked about my ideation process and how I found ideas for my Harvard personal statement previously here, here, and here.

In this blog post, I’d like to share more of my decision-making process and how I ended up using some stories and not the others. I will also discuss what sources, besides my immediate professional and personal background, influenced my application essay writing, such as the use of quotes and metaphors.

Throughout the blog post, I'll be making references to the personal statement I submitted to Harvard - you can read the full text here.

The use of quotes

I like using quotes. That's something that I do a lot in my writing, both academic and personal. I use them to support the statements I make.

For instance, I started my personal statement for Harvard with a quote by Professor Heineman from the Harvard Center on the Legal Profession. The quote read:

‘A way to live a such life of values is to provide leadership, not advice’.

I used it not only because it reflected the way I saw my role as a lawyer but, more importantly, because it introduced my main argument. The main argument of the essay was that all too often, lawyers were acting as mere advisors to decision-makers rather than decision-makers themselves, and I had a strategy to change that in my own life by using my LLM degree. Hence, my application to Harvard.

I also used a second quote (in the middle of the essay) from Felix Frankfurter, a former US Supreme Court judge, to support this message:

‘Law is what the lawyers are. And the law and lawyers are what the law schools make them’ (Letter to Mr. Rosenwald – May 13, 1927).

The second quote highlighted the origin of my goal to transition to academia and the rationale behind it.

In hindsight, I think the second quote was not necessary, and I could have done without it. My rule of thumb for personal statements is that one quote per essay is enough. Otherwise it becomes too crowded.

I see a lot of people use quotes differently. Often, it's thrown as an epigraph to the essay without further effort to connect it to the core message. Don't do that.

If you decide to use a quote, be careful. It has to be integrated into your essay. Use it as a shorthand for your core message, to reinforce your own thoughts. Otherwise it looks like you are hiding behind someone else's words and don't have anything of your own to say.

Reference to transactional analysis and the Pollyanna metaphor

At the time of writing the master’s applications, I was doing a book club. One of the books we read was Eric Berne’s Games People Play. We talked a lot about the scripts and scenarios that people internalize, including due to trauma.

We also discussed the fairy tales and children’s books that influenced us and possibly gave an unconscious script to follow later in life. When I analyzed my influences, I saw that one of mine was Pollyanna.

When I brought it up during a book club meeting, our moderator suggested that maybe, when I was little, the Pollyanna script was necessary for survival. As an adult, however, I didn’t have to follow it anymore.

Her words stayed with me. I found them liberating and started thinking of how I could devise my own scripts and, more importantly, identify the ways in which I have already done that. That's how I came to this development arc that I discuss in the essay – from playing a glad game to obtaining agency in this world, realizing that it has played out in my life both in and outside of the law. I decided to make it the main theme of the essay.

On a side note, I asked an American to give feedback on the essay, and he suggested removing the reference to Pollyanna because, he said, it'd be a cliché. I felt so offended. It’d be a cliché if I were an American. But I’m not. I have a completely different cultural background, and I didn't grow up with American references. I learned them as a sign of appreciation of another culture. Using the Pollyanna reference was describing one of the most formative experiences in my life through a metaphor that an American reader would understand and relate to. I left it in, and it worked out.

the theme of Leadership

The whole reason I started thinking about the relationship between the law and leadership at all was that references to leadership in the examples of personal statements I read were ubiquitous. On this basis, I concluded that if I were applying to the US, it was essential to address my leadership potential.

I can honestly say that I was terrified and felt stuck. I spent most of my life struggling for resources and keeping myself afloat, and I simply could not understand why I had to be a leader, and most importantly – how.

I had zero positive examples of leadership growing up. I also was under heavy, heavy weight of the cultural narrative that you should keep yourself small and focus on doing good small things that you can attend to. This narrative is really widespread in the Russian culture. I believe the reason for it is that for centuries, people were severely punished for standing out. Since leadership is, by definition, about standing out, people who tried to be leaders in the western sense of the word simply did not survive. They were forced out or eliminated. So the association with leadership that I internalized the most growing up was that it's a survival risk for you and it doesn't help anyone else anyway.

To be able to write an essay that not only spoke to the American mindset of leadership but also felt authentic to me, I had to reinstall and upgrade a huge part of my mental operating system.

One of the ways I did that was to look through various speeches, especially commencement speeches and speeches by deans of American law schools. I paid attention to what resonated with me, and made notes (I kept a swipe file for that). That’s how Prof. Heineman came up and his 2006 speech at Yale.

I hindsight, I think I took it too seriously. I don't think that you absolutely have to talk address the leadership component when applying to the US law schools. However, if you find a way to speak to it - while focusing on your background - it can strengthen your application.

If you are struggling with leadership, here is a definition that helped me tremendously.

Leadership is about 'occasions when you have directed the outcome of a project or part of a project or have been responsible for coordinating or motivating others.

This is from a book by A.V. Gordon, MBA Admissions Strategy, and it really changed the way I thought about leadership and my ability to become a leader. I used to think that it had to be about grandiose things, and this definition made leadership so much more accessible.

Stories I didn't use

One of the most damaging things you can do for your application is to include everything that happened in your life. It may sound quite impossible but I've seen people try.

It’s not going to get you admitted. It'll dilute your message and weaken your essay. It’ll also show that you are incapable of choosing what's important and what is not.

Choosing to leave some of the stories out of your essay does not mean they are not valuable. It means they are not driving your argument forward.

The good news is, after all the brainstorming you’ve done (if you used the technique I suggest) you'll have plenty of material to use later. You’ll probably have to write more cover letters and applications for various things you’ll want to do in your life – and now you have the material to do so.

This is one of the reasons I insist on doing thorough brainstorming and ideation for your essays. Nothing is ever wasted (I means, unless you waste it)

As I talk about the stories I didn’t use in my Harvard essay, I highlight the reasons for not including them and point out how I used them in my later applications.

participating in the banking law reform

I talked about this experience in detail here. As a research fellow at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow, I was involved in advising the Russian Central Bank on the reform of pledge and the transfer of title regimes.

I initially included this experience in my Harvard essay because it fit with the overall theme of transition from an advisory role to a decision-making one. However, it made the essay look cluttered. It split the focus into two parts: becoming a decision-maker in a law-making role and another in a teaching role. For a 750-word essay, it was just too much, and I decided to exclude it. I did feature it in my CV and the application form.

This is how it looks in my CV:

Higher School of Economics – National Research University, Moscow, Russia

Junior ResearchFellow at the Skolkovo Institute for Law and Development, April 2015 – February 2016

  • Conducted research on the central counterparty and marginal requirements for non-centrally cleared derivatives in Germany to develop recommendations for the Russian financial markets law; in collaboration with a team of researchers produced a law reform proposal later implemented by the Russian Central Bank.

the all-Russian olympiads

I participated in five national olympiads, three of them in high school and two at the university. However, when talking about them in an essay I omitted most details. I also only mentioned the high olympiads because I wanted to show the origin of my beliefs about life and law and my reasons for becoming a lawyer. Simultaneously, since it happened 7 years prior to my LLM application, I had to keep it short to move the story forward.

This is how it looked in the final version:

For years, the glad game and Pollyanna’s irrepressible optimism were my philosophy of life, and changing the attitude toward a problem was primary solution. This continued until the high-school: I entered All-Russian competition in law. As I prepared, I learnt: adjustment was not the only option. I may try changing the situation first. Law offers tools designed for this. Understood this way, law was for me about taking actions and making decisions, while leadership was an inherent part of the legal profession. That’s what appealed to me, and I chose law school. As I went through law school, this perception of law remained undistorted.

the Philip C. Jessup competition

I talked so much about the transformative effect the moot courts had on my life that not using this experience in my essay may seem surprising. However, I had to be very strategic about which experiences to include. To translate the evolution of my thinking, I needed to focus on the experience that illustrated my view of leadership in law the most, and it was coaching a team for Concours Charles-Rousseau.

So I ended up not using the story of participating in the Jessup competition. However, digging it up during the ideation process and reflecting on it inspired the way I framed my reasoning for applying to Harvard.

The unofficial Jessup motto is:

In the future, world leaders will look upon each other differently, because they met here first, as friends.

It may just be a sign of how idealistic I am but this motto really spoke to me. I wanted to translate it in my essay. So in the final version it became:

Harvard is the place where the Jessup competition was born. Like Jessup, Harvard connects people – outstanding individuals and future leaders – with the ultimate goal of giving them opportunities for change. Having first met at Harvard as friends, in the future they will look at each other differently; they will help each other to be different.

participation in Concours Charles-Rousseau

I didn't use the experience of participating in Concours Charles-Rousseau for the same reasons I didn't use Jessup, although initially, I felt like I had to start with the experience of participating in it to explain why I later became a coach. As I edited the essay, I realized I didn't need all the background. I could just talk about coaching.

Here is how it looked in the final version of the personal statement:

I started asking myself: Where does this perception of lawyers/law start? Can I change it? At the time, I was coaching a team for the Concours Charles-Rousseau. I guided the work of my students, as they studied writings of prominent scholars and crafted their memorials. My goal was not only to help them master lawyering skills, but also learn about fundamental values of the law, professional integrity and teamwork, commitment and passion. I watched them becoming better persons and thus better lawyers. I came to understand F. Frankfurter’s words: “Law is what the lawyers are. And the law and lawyers are what the law schools make them” (Letter to Mr. Rosenwald – May 13, 1927).

It also provided a segue for the experience I discussed next: teaching at the Moscow State University.

As for the participation in Concours Charles-Rousseau, I did use it in my application to the Master’s of International Dispute Settlement in Geneva (MIDS) which was successful, and in multiple applications for an arbitration internship. This helped me explain how I got interested in dispute resolution, and I further strengthened it by reference to Jessup.

Here is how it looked:

My interest in joining the [firm's name] is determined by the following reasons. First, it is the focus of the firm’s arbitration group on the projects concerning the issues of international investment and public law. As a third-year student, I became involved in Concours Charles-Rousseau, a French-speaking moot-court competition. The moot problem contemplated a dispute between a state and an investor, which was to be resolved by the ICSID tribunal. Accordingly, my task as a team member was to develop the arguments on the alleged violations of the fair and equitable treatment standard and then plead the case on the respondent's. Having once immersed into the world of investor-State dispute resolution, I could not let it go: it became my passion. In fact, I have never felt so dedicated and committed before; as a consequence, I was working more efficiently than ever. During my fourth year, I took part in the Philip C. Jessup competition where I dealt with the issues of sovereign debt and climate change. At this point I realized that dispute resolution is what I would like to do as a legal professional.

You can find the full letter under this link.

A note on the use of moot court experiences in applications: I think it works best if you are a recent law school graduate. If you've been working for some time and/or are a seasoned professional, I'd suggest opting for other experiences to avoid looking immature or too nostalgic about the student years.

establishing a pro bono practice at Noerr

This experience could also be an illustration of how a lawyer can take a leadership stance but again for a 750-word essay I thought it'd divert the attention I needed to clarify my plans for academic work.

I did use this experience a year later when applying for a public interest position with an NGO. You can find that letter here, as I published it in the set of my application letters.

Just be aware that using pro bono examples, unfortunately, can be considered a cliché and an inauthentic move – so make sure you have experiences in your life that support your argument and strengthen your application.

working on regulatory matters at Noerr

Since my essay focused on experiences of realizing the power of effecting change through teaching, I didn’t use examples from my life as a practicing attorney.

In a hindsight, I think if I planned to continue working as an attorney, it could be an excellent example of taking a leadership approach while remaining in a role that’s essentially advisory.

doing a PhD

In my Harvard essay, I didn’t talk about the experience of doing a PhD. Technically, it’d be supportive of my academic endeavors and would therefore fit with the overall theme of my essay. Academia comes in a package of research and teaching, and doing a PhD would show sufficient commitment on my side to pursue the academic path.

However, it’d significantly clutter my essay. I already had in on my CV and the application form, and one of my recommenders (my PhD supervisor) talked about it at length in his letter. I thought it sufficiently supported my application.

doing the Hague Academy of International Law and Paris Arbitration Academy

I've done the Hague Academy and the Paris Academy, both on scholarships. (You can find my motivation letters here). The reason was the same - to avoid saying too much and losing the reader's attention.

As with other experiences, I featured them on my CV and the application form. Their additional value was that a professor of the University of Queen Mary who taught there gave me a letter recommendation for my LLM applications.

If I’d intended to build a career in arbitration, I'd have definitely used them to highlight my prior interest and commitment.


You can see that I didn't use most of the experiences I analyzed as potential candidates for my Harvard essay. This is absolutely normal. You use only a percentage of what you find. To make informed choices and create a strong, successful personal statement, you need to have a wealth of ideas and stories to choose from.