Law school applications: Personal statements
After your LSAT and GPA, your personal statement is the most important part of your law school applications. You should plan to spend a significant amount of time on it. While every personal statement is, by its nature, different, there are a few basic points to keep in mind as you write.
The overarching principle is simple: Consider your audience. Admissions officials read every single personal statement they receive. At some schools, this literally means that one person is reading hundreds or thousands of essays; at others, the committees split up the stack. Either way, your statement is one of a very large number the reader will be reviewing, perhaps late into the night.
Here’s another important thing to know about admissions officials: they are the idealists in the process. Admissions officials really do want to create an interesting and diverse incoming class. They know how much students learn from one another during the three years of law school, and deeply appreciate the value of having a range of different experiences, backgrounds and perspectives in the law school mix. They also want people who will succeed in law school and beyond, thereby reflecting well on the law school.
Your grades and LSAT score have told them about one facet of you. They are eager to round out their view of you with something more meaningful and three-dimensional.
And, like most people, they appreciate a well-told story.
Keep this picture of the admissions official in mind as you consider the following tips.
Develop a cohesive narrative for your statement
You don’t have to tell a story, but the essay should cohere—it should make sense, such that when the reader reaches the end, they feel that they understand a little of who you are and why you are heading to law school. Ask yourself a couple of key questions: What are the insights, perspectives, qualities, or background experiences that you are trying to convey to the admissions committee? What are the core life lessons that have shaped who you are today, and how do they connect you to your future legal career? And then answer those questions.
Do not waste space trying to convince the committee that you really want to go to law school – the presence of your application in their stack is ample evidence of that desire. Do, however make the explicit connection between your theme and your reason(s) for applying.
Show, don’t tell
This basic principle of good writing is the most important one to follow in drafting your personal statement. Do not make conclusory statements about yourself like, “I’ve always been very hardworking” or “I have the ambition to excel” or “I really want to help people.” Rather, show the reader an example of your hardworking nature – tell the story of how you single-handedly reorganized the stock room into an efficient operation at your otherwise boring summer job. Relate your experiences tutoring underprivileged junior high students. Describe what it was like training for the big game, meet, or event. Don’t write, “I became committed to working in health care law when my grandmother was in the hospital.” Instead, describe your family’s experiences during that time. Let the reader see not just what you went through, but the insights or transformations the experience inspired in you.
Get feedback on early drafts
Don’t wait until your personal statement is polished and almost ready to submit before you show it to anyone else. Ask friends, family members, professors, or the Pre-Law Advisor to review an early draft to make sure you’re on the right track.
Prepare to write several drafts
Your personal statement is a crucial element of your law school application. It is worth spending a lot of time drafting, honing, and polishing.
Answer the question(s) asked
Each school asks a slightly different question or series of questions for their personal statement. Make sure you are answering the question asked. This may mean making some fairly serious edits to your basic statement for each school.
Pay attention to grammar and spelling
One purpose of the personal statement is to gauge your writing skills. Bad grammar or misspellings will leap out at the attentive reader and merit an immediate, disdainful circle with the virtual red pen. This is another good reason to prepare multiple drafts and to have others review your work.
Make it legible
Do not get clever with your margins, font or line-spacing. Use a basic, readable font in a normal size (12 is usually best, but many schools explicitly allow for 11). Even though most personal statements are read on screens these days, your readers will nonetheless expect one-inch margins and double-spaced lines. If you are going over the two-page limit, then you need to edit your work, not make your font smaller. Small fonts irritate people over 40 (again, even though we can easily increase the size on our screens).
Look not just for the typos and spelling errors, but also for that bane of personal statements everywhere: the forgotten mention of School A in the statement for School B. This particular error can occur very easily if you are using and editing a boilerplate statement, and it very definitely irks admissions officers. Don’t forget that spell check will not catch everything: trial and trail are both spelled correctly, but mean very different things.
Common errors to avoid
Do not read other personal statements. This personal statement is about you, not about somebody else. Inevitably, reading other people’s personal statements makes you feel bad about what you’re not rather than good about what you are. It’s also a good way to lose track of your own voice. There is no single ideal personal statement, and the genuineness of your own story is one of the most important things you need to convey in this statement. Get those other people’s stories out of your head, or, better, don’t let them come into your head in the first place.
Do not use your personal statement to explain a negative GPA or other “bad” information unless it is your central theme (e.g., “flunking out of college was a turning point for me”). Use an addendum for explanations of this sort.
Do not write about how fascinating the law is or how you find it intellectually stimulating. Of course it is – the law school admissions committees already know that.
Avoid cliché phrases and sentences like “Growing up, I….” or “I have always wanted to be a lawyer” or “My mom always said I’d make a great lawyer because I argue so much.”
Do not write a point-by-point essay on why you’d be a stellar law student or lawyer. That is really not what the admissions committee is looking for. Let your resume and the rest of your application speak to your accomplishments, making the case for your capacity to be a good student. The personal statement is for helping them understand what you’ll bring to the legal community apart from your potential for academic excellence.
Do not include meaningful quotations from famous philosophers (or anybody else). Not only is this a very tired ploy, it says nothing about you. And it uses up valuable real estate that could be filled with your own words about you.
Do not get too clever – good writing speaks for itself. You do not need to develop some quirky approach to get your statement read.
How can the Pre-Law Advising Office help?
Reviewing personal statements is the first priority for the Pre-Law Advising Office in the Fall. Feel free to make an appointment to brainstorm about your theme. Email or drop off a draft for comments. Seek out assistance early in the process—you don’t want to drop off what you think is a finished product only to hear that it’s way off base.
In addition to one-on-one assistance, the Pre-Law Advising Office offers workshops in the Fall on personal statements. Check out our blog for news about upcoming events.