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How Do I Write a Personal Statement?

The personal statement is generally regarded as the third most important aspect of your law school application (after your LSAT score and GPA). In a sense, it serves as your personal interview with the law school. Treat it as you would an interview: be polished, sincere, straightforward, and sell your strengths. Given its importance, you should devote considerable time to your personal statement. But make sure your time is well spent, and make sure you adhere to a few basic principles, as noted below:  

Time Well Spent

The most common mistake a student makes is sweating for days and days over a draft of a personal statement instead of showing it to someone right away, at the idea stage. I have reviewed many personal statements that students labored on for hours that I considered unsalvageable. The problem is that, after the expenditure of so much time and emotional energy, a student is extremely disappointed to learn that his/her personal statement missed the mark, and he/she is too tired or reluctant to change it.

The lesson is: do not hold on to your personal statement as you labor over it. You need to share it, the sooner the better, so that you can find out whether your approach is interesting and convincing. Show it to someone who will give you a frank and honest opinion. You also need to have a bit of emotional distance from it; do not leave it until the last minute. You need to put it on a shelf for a few days so that you can look at it in a more detached manner when it's time to revise it.

Number of Drafts

Expect to do at least three drafts. You need to craft this thing, and that requires at least three edits.

Length

Adhere to the length requirements stated on each application. If none are stated, stick to 2 to 2 � pages, double-spaced. Virtually all pre-law advisors agree on this limit. If you exceed two pages, you had better have a good reason. Don't try to "cheat" by reducing the size of your font. Remember, your personal statement, in addition to being interesting, also has to be "user friendly." Don't make it hard to read by making the font or the margins too small.

Topics/Themes

The purpose of the personal statement is to make the readers on the admissions committee want you to join their next law school class. You have to find some way to show them that you would be a good addition to the class. Sometimes a law school will request that you write on a specific topic. If not, you will have to come up with your own topic. There are many possibilities, and I can't tell you the best one for you (that's why they call it a personal statement). However, here are some ideas that might make you attractive to the admissions committee and/or help you to craft a compelling personal statement:

    1. Diversity: Not just racial/ethnic. A whole host of things can count as "diverse." Are you a resident of Michigan applying to a southern law school? Are you from a small Michigan town without lawyers? Many law schools want a class that represents as much of the state/nation as possible. Do you have a special talent or skill (a sport, a musical instrument, etc.)? What can you offer the school that will be unusual or uncommon among those admitted to the incoming class?
    2. Overcoming Adversity: If you have struggled and achieved despite a tough situation, you have a story to tell. Examples would include overcoming a personal illness; a personal tragedy or setback, such as the death of a parent or sibling; living on welfare; being arrested or fired, etc. The key here is to explain how the adversity shaped your development and made you a better person. If it also prepared you for law school, that's even better. Warning: you need to choose this option carefully. Don't lie, or stretch the truth. Make sure your "adversity" really is an adversity. If the adversity had no positive affect on you, don't use it as the basis of your personal statement. Don't whine or complain. Blaming others probably isn't wise, either. You need to be even-handed and thoughtful as you discuss your life struggles.
    3. Stories from Your Past. This is one of my favorite approaches to personal statements. It is helpful for those who are worried that they don't look distinctive or don't offer much to distinguish themselves from others in the applicant pool. The truth is, you ARE different and you DO have much to offer. The trick is to identify what your unique contribution is.

      Exercise: Think of stories from your life that were formative. Think of people in your life who influenced you in a significant way. Think about things you have seen and done that struck you as profound. List them. Now look at your list. Can you see any connections among these events? What are they? What do the connections tell you about yourself? What trait do they reveal? Is this a trait that makes you an attractive candidate for law school? Use the trait you identify as the theme for your personal statement, and use the events as examples.

      Alternative Approach: Pick a trait that defines you or, better yet, ask your friends to describe you. You might be outgoing, ambitious, caring, reflective, etc. Now prove it! What examples from your life would you offer to prove that you possess this particular trait or skill?

      Consider this Example: I had a Berkeley football player do the first version of the above exercise, and this is the list of events he came up with, along with his response to each event: (1) In grade school, he was not selected for the advanced reading group. His elementary school rival was, and she teased him about it. In response, he resolved to join the reading group by the next semester, studied hard, and did. (2) In high school, he didn't make the varsity football squad as expected. In response, he worked like a madman in the gym, lifted weights, etc. and made the team the next year. (3) In college, he played for Cal but blew out his knee his sophomore year. His football career was over, and he had a transcript full of Cs, Ds, and Fs. In response, he resolved to get an education and became an A/B student by graduation. He did.

      He wrote up these events in his personal statement. The theme was "determination." He showed how, when faced with a personal challenge, he could not only meet it, but excel. His drive and work ethic enable him to accomplish the goals he set for himself. The next goal he set for himself was law school. After reading his essay, one had no doubt that he would succeed in achieving that goal, too. He went to Georgetown.

      Skeptical? Now you may feel that "determined" folks are a dime a dozen. And maybe they are, at least among law school applicants. But although you share the gifts of intelligence and drive and ambition with other folks, each one of you came about them in unique ways. Moreover, you will use your law school education to apply your gifts in unique ways. So don't think of yourselves as typical, because you aren't. Your personal statements will reflect your differences.

Things to Avoid

One topic to avoid in writing a personal statement is: "I have always wanted to go to law school, as proven by the fact of my efforts on student government and my political science degree." Keep in mind that there are lots of people like this applying to law school. That's not a problem—law school is self-selecting for these types of folks. The trick is to find something else to say about yourself, too. Use these traits as examples, not as the theme of your essay. Also, you probably would be wise to avoid citing legal television shows as the reason you became interested in law school.

Another topic to avoid is the "Too Clever by Half Essays": Some people get overly creative. They write their essay from the perspective of their cat, or as a poem, or something along those lines. These essays can be very good, but you have to be very good to write an essay like this. Such an approach can easily backfire. If you think you can pull it off, go ahead, but I wouldn't recommend it. Also, do not submit it until you have run it by me or some other seasoned person who will give you an honest opinion about it.

In 2003, Janet Hein, Assistant Dean of Admissions at the University of Dayton School of Law, surveyed her admissions colleagues to find out, among other things, some of their pet peeves regarding personal statements. These included:

    1. Do not base your personal statement on a quote from Emerson, Shakespeare, Thomas Jefferson, or anyone else for that matter. It's an over-used device.
    2. Be sure to respond to the specific questions asked by the school. Generic personal statements are less effective and less competitive.
    3. Be sure the personal statement is well thought-out and executed. It should be an example of the applicant's best work.
    4. Applicants who apply on-line should take the time to send in a hard copy of their personal statements. Many on-line statements arrive with garbled text and formatting problems that make them very difficult to read.

Writing Style

Whatever topic you pick, you should avoid telling the reader about yourself in a direct, conclusory manner. ("I am ambitious," "I am interested in helping the poor," "I have prepared all my life for law school," "I worked very hard at my internship," etc.) The problem with this approach is not so much that you are tooting your own horn—that's what personal statements are about, after all. Instead, the problem is that such essays are BORING. Moreover, lots of students write this way, so you won't distinguish yourself very much if you do, too.

A much better approach is to tell your story and let your reader draw his/her own conclusions. In the example above, my Berkeley football player never once said that he was "driven" or "determined." But if you read his essay, it screamed it in his examples. The reader was left with the clear impression that he was driven and determined, and that he would succeed. In short, you are better off letting your reader come to the conclusion—and the conclusion should be obvious by the time he/she reaches the end of your personal statement.

Hint: It is hard to avoid saying "I am" or "I plan" or "I did X, Y, Z," particularly when you get to the end of your essay and have to explain in conclusion why you want to go to law school. You can use constructions like these, but don't overuse them.

Since your essay is only about two pages long, you would be wise to limit it to one overriding theme. Do not try to say too much, or to cover too many aspects of your life. One theme, or two perhaps, is plenty. Do not try to overwhelm your reader by mentioning all of the significant things you've done in your life. Often, less is more. Remember, it is the quality, not the quantity, that counts.

Do not rehash your resume in your personal statement. The personal statement is a reflection of your personality and accomplishments, not a list of your qualities and activities. You can and should include a resume in your application listing the details of your honors, employment history, and the like.

Structure, Grammar, Other Issues

Your essay should adhere to all standard rules regarding good essays: it should have an introduction and conclusion; it should be easy to follow; it should not contain grammatical or spelling errors, etc. You would be wise to avoid complex sentence constructions and highly stylized writing unless you can do these things well. Proofread your statement several times, and then give it to someone else to proofread, too.

Do not use your personal statement to explain problems with your application. If you have things that you feel you need to explain (a low GPA at your first college, an arrest, a bad LSAT score because you had the flu, etc.), do this by typing up a separate statement. (Usually a short paragraph will do.) The exception would be if you chose this particular problem as the subject of your personal statement. (This is rare, but sometimes necessary. For example, I had another Berkeley student who was arrested for possessing a handgun on campus. He agreed to a plea bargain. Obviously he had some explaining to do, and he did so in his personal statement. He was admitted to a fine law school and now practices admiralty law.)

Final Thoughts on Personal Statements

At many schools, the representatives on the admissions committee read every single personal statement. Sometimes the pile of applications is split up among committee members; sometimes a single person reads every file. Regardless of how it is done, you can bet that the admissions committee members are staying up late at night, for many, many nights, reading hundreds of personal statements. Knowing this, you should be kind to your reader: like I said above, use standard fonts and margins, keep it clean and short, and above all make it interesting! You want to be the file in the big pile that wakes up a committee member at 2:00 a.m. because your personal statement is so touching, fascinating, well-written, convincing, or whatever other positive adjective you can use to describe it.

 


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