In my time as a Pre-Law advisor and admissions coach, I’ve had the pleasure of working with some truly outstanding candidates. These are the folks who, before finishing college, have written extensively, published journal articles, or have completed post graduate fellowships like the Fulbright or Marshall Scholars programs. Others have gone off to have great careers in industry, or the military, before heading off to get their J.D. Regardless of who they were, or what they’d achieved, the process of writing a meaningful law school personal statement always proves to be a tricky and demanding task.
The good news is that you don’t need to be a Rhodes Scholar to write a compelling personal statement; nor do you need to talk about that time you cured cancer, or saved a boatload of kittens. That being said, it does mean that with adequate time, persistence, and planning, anyone is capable of writing the kind of personal statement that makes a difference. Before we jump into some helpful tips and tricks, let’s first understand what a personal statement is, and isn’t...
A lot of you, if you haven’t already, will be tempted to look at the examples of ‘winning’ statements that are out there. There are numerous books on how to write a personal statement (PS), many of which promise to guide the reader through samples of the ‘best of the best.’ If you’ve already looked at any of those books, do your best to forget them. If you haven’t read them yet, don’t.
It’s not that the essays in those books aren’t great, they are, but therein lies the problem. For someone who is embarking on writing their PS, it is easy to be overwhelmed with the 50 odd examples in a ‘How to’ book. Firstly, remember that these essays don’t all come from a single admissions cycle. Instead, they were carefully curated from several application cycles, often from a variety of top tier schools. Secondly, it is easy to read just one of those books and feel like your life has been so unremarkable, that you could never write a meaningful personal statement.
While such a conclusion is understandable, the words of well-known paper salesman, martial artist and beet farmer, Dwight Schrute, provide a more accurate assessment of it:
The beauty of the PS is not that it requires you to write the most incredible narrative ever conceived, nor do you need a world changing achievement. Instead, it needs to do what it says on the bottle - it needs to be personal. Remember, most schools do not interview candidates, and those that do, tend to do so only after an application has been submitted. The PS is intended to give the admissions committee an insight into who you are, what makes you tick, and to understand why law school makes sense for you. Now, this isn’t to be interpreted as a formula, but rather to drive home the point that you can engagingly convey who you are, without the need to rely on ‘I want to save the world’ or ‘study abroad’ tropes. It also means that an authentic personal story is all that’s needed, and you don’t need to worry about having some epic tale of achievement. Now, you might have a story that is, in fact, pretty incredible. Good for you, but for many applicants, they fear their self-perceived mediocrity. Fear not my friends, help is at hand!
Reflect, before you write
Before typing a single word, the most important thing to do is to unpack your own story. If you haven’t taken the time to really reflect on who you are, and what made you that way, you aren’t going to be able to write a truly personal, personal statement. This doesn’t mean you need to sit around meditating on the meaning of justice and your place in the world, but it does mean that you need to carefully reflect on your own journey. My suggestion is simple, but feel free to adjust it to suit yourself:
As you undertake this task, people, situations, stories etc. will spring to mind – write these all down and, over time, you will build a database of ideas for a PS. This is likely to take some time, so don’t rush, and start this process well in advance of your application cycle. It is normal for a good PS to take at least 8-10 drafts, so be patient and start early. This is not something that you can write in a single weekend.
Once you have got 2-3 solid concepts, start to consider which might best serve the goal of a PS. Sketch out each concept so that it has some meat to it. Which one best conveys your story? Which allows the reader to get the truest sense of who you are? What details are important? Can this story be told in way the engages the reader? Does it leave the reader with a 1-2 sentence take away that moves you closer to being someone they want to admit? Careful planning will make the process of writing much easier in the long term, so resist the urge to write a draft until those concepts have been fleshed out, at least a little.
It is worth mentioning the importance of PS prompts. Many schools will offer a vague prompt as to what to address, others will give very specific guidance e.g. “Why do you want to attend this law school?” Where there is a prompt, address it clearly, but whatever the case, schools really do want your PS to tell them about you. Remember, it will serve, in most cases, as a replacement for an initial interview and the classic interview question, ‘Tell us a little about yourself.’ It will also be viewed as an example of your skill as a writer, much more than say, the essay you wrote as part of the LSAT.
Of course, writing a personal statement is something that needs to be crafted to suit the individual and what works for one person, might not work as well for another. But, if you spend the necessary time at the front end, conceptualizing what your PS will address, the actual writing will be not only be easier, but it will take a lot less time.
In addition to careful and thoughtful planning, the PS requires applicants to follow a few simple, but clear rules.
Quotes and metaphors
Believe me when I say, I love a good metaphor. I also love a good quote, so much so that I have two especially meaningful ones hanging on the walls of my office, but that’s where they belong. When writing your PS, always remember the goal of the essay. Throw off any pretense of trying to show off your vocabulary, and focus on writing in a way that really conveys who you are, and your ‘why?’ Write with sincerity and from your own, personal perspective.
The problem with using quotes is that you are using the genius or wisdom of someone other than yourself, which isn’t helpful in an essay with very limited space and a clear purpose. It can also make you sound like you’re trying a little too hard, even a little melodramatic – which is to be avoided: clichés kill a PS. The bottom line is that you need every line of your PS to have a purpose. Quotes and forced metaphors take up valuable space and achieve very little, so give them a wide berth.
Tell your story, not someone else’s
Your grandma might have been the most intelligent, badass woman of the 20th century. Maybe your uncle has some epic tale of overcoming adversity?
These people were probably as awesome as you say. Maybe you even undersold them, but how does telling their story, help your application?
Their stories may be amazing and inspiring, but as a law school, I don’t want to know about them; they aren’t applying to law school - you are. The admissions team wants to get a glimpse of the person applying, and telling the story of another person, no matter how interesting, fails to address the personal nature of a personal statement. If you are going to be referring to something that happened to somebody else, (which is risky) be sure to tell it from your perspective.
Humor and informality
Who doesn’t love a good laugh? I know I do, but the thing about humor is that for every person who loves Adam Sandler or Kevin Hart, there will be a group of people who either don’t find them that funny, or who straight up do not like them at all. Remember, even Dave Chappelle has tried out new material in a comedy club that just didn’t land. You are not Dave Chappelle, so don’t try to be – especially in your PS.
Humor can work in a personal statement, but it is a higher risk play and if it doesn’t land, it can come across as offensive, or immature. If that happens, you’ve made the admissions committee’s job a lot easier (and not in a good way!). If in doubt, always err on the side of authenticity over laughs and avoid the risk of an ill-conceived joke.
Don’t write an opinion piece
Opinion pieces have a place, just not in your PS. The simple reason being that with so little space, writing an opinion essay doesn’t help the reader really get to know you – which is the ultimate goal of the PS. It can also backfire horribly. Perhaps you wrote an essay on a particularly controversial issue? Worse still, perhaps you wrote the ‘I want to be a lawyer so I can change the world, and I know I can’ essay? This is actually much more common than you might think, and it needs to be avoided for two main reasons. Firstly, with so little space, you can’t write that essay and still achieve all that a PS is supposed to. Secondly, writing this essay can make you look incredibly naïve about the practice of law, which also suggests immaturity. That combination may not be fatal to your application, but it will give a school pause, regardless of your LSAT or GPA.
Put your best foot forward
While we all have endured different things, some of us have especially hard tales to tell. Can you use those stories in a personal statement? Yes, but it is all about the narrative you choose to tell. Is it a tale of woe, or of overcoming adversity? With that in mind, always look to tell a positive story. If you do decide to use a narrative that touches on something difficult, avoid going into unnecessary detail. You want to make sure that if you do choose to write about something difficult, focus on how you’ve overcome it, learned from it, and have a renewed sense of purpose as a result.
Proof-read and have others read it
This one is obvious, but if it isn’t, it should be. Taking just a few seconds to do a basic spell check can save you time, embarrassment and potentially, disappointment. You can also download extensions like Grammarly which make life even easier. Remember, while the law schools will read your LSAT essay, they appreciate that it is a quick essay, written under test pressure. The PS, on the other hand, is seen as something that is supposed to represent your very best writing, so missing something as simple as a spelling error, that could have been caught with a click of a button, isn’t a good look.
Finally, you need to have some of your friends or family give it a read, especially the ones who know you well, and can be honest with you. Does it make sense to them? Does it sound like you? What are their honest thoughts and feedback? Don’t get emotionally attached to the PS, if you get feedback, take it on board and adjust where needed.
Show, don’t tell
Finally, it is important that you don’t fall into the trap of ‘hard selling’ yourself. ‘I’ statements carry very little weight and can even come across as desperate – never a good look. For example, rather than saying ‘I am a good leader, I am responsible, I have the respect of my peers and I can overcome challenges,’ use a narrative that allows you to show those qualities. Remember, admissions committees review thousands of apps every year and your ‘hard sell’ is just you making claims about yourself. Instead, focus on telling a story that really leaves the reader with a clear sense of who you are, what makes you tick, and why you’d be a great fit at their school.
When I think of the personal statements I’ve read over the years, there are a few that really stand out. In each of those memorable essays, the story was allowed to speak for the author. Remember, while there are schools that will allow 3-4 double spaced pages for a PS (e.g. Baylor, UC Berkeley), most will state a limit of two, or will anticipate 2 pages if it isn’t stated. That isn’t a lot of real estate to work with, so you can’t tell three shallow stories in a single PS. Instead, choose one, and do a deep dive.
Economy of word usage is also key, just as it is in law, but allowing the story to speak for you will be not only more engaging for the reader (who is a decision maker) but it really allows you to make a meaningful impact. Never lose sight of the fact that a strong PS can move you from being waitlisted, or rejected, to being admitted.
One of my favorite essays was from an applicant who ultimately ended up at a top 10 law school. Instead of going on about their love of learning, strategy, humility, or desire to something difficult, this essay chose a narrative that left the reader with no doubt as to the fact that they had those qualities.
Without spelling out their essay, they took a pretty vanilla interaction they had, after trying a new hobby for the first time, and allowed that story to speak for them. It was powerful, without having to be dramatic, and resulted in them being admitted to their dream school.
Make no mistake, reflection, planning, and cold, clinical reviews can take an average PS and turn it into something that makes an admissions committee look for reasons to admit you.
The bottom line is this, the PS is a tricky bit of writing that asks you do to a lot, in an incredibly short essay. However, despite its difficulty, it is your chance to introduce yourself in a way that really allows you to make it clear what you bring to the table, and your ability as a written communicator. If done well, it can make all the difference when it comes to admission!