Law School Personal Statements: WTH?

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I know you’re sitting down right now, trying to write the most brilliant, persuasive, powerful personal statement ever written but your fingers are paralyzed on the keys. “I hate to write about myself,” some tell me. Others say, “my life has been pretty boring/sheltered/standard/privileged.” Still others say, “I went through hard times but I don’t want to write a sob story.” How do you hit the perfect compromise and create a personal statement you can be proud of?

I dedicate a lot of space to this in my book, but here are a few ideas to get you started on brainstorming topics to address:

1. It’s very hard to go back to the drawing board after writing an intro and conclusion, so just start writing your ideas down and sharing your stories and experiences. Start writing like you would a journal or blog, using a conversational tone. Write how you speak. You can fix the grammar and spelling later. Fine-tune conclusions and themes later. Right now, get your stories on paper and see what themes naturally emerge.

2. Yes, your final personal statement will be between 500 words and 4 pages for each law school. Most law schools want 2-3 pages. And yes, this is double-spaced. But don’t think about that. When you first get started you should write at least four pages so you have room to cut.

3. Don’t try to weave together everything you’ve ever done. Find things that are similar, either in subject matter or in exhibiting a trait you’re trying to demonstrate, and only weave them together if it really works.

4. Don’t reiterate everything from your resume. Leave job descriptions to the resume, and if you discuss resume items in your personal statement be sure to take a more anecdotal and lessons-learned approach rather than describing your duties and accomplishments.

5. Going in chronological order can be a trap. There is no reason to start with the day you were born, no matter how dramatic the birth might have been. Start with the most interesting thing about you – get the reader’s interest by sharing information about you that will beĀ likableĀ and interesting and as captivating as possible. Don’t try to “warm up” to your story with childhood memories, no matter how cute. You can always reflect back on those memories later in the essay if they were essential in formulating your goals and ideals and if they provide real context for your later achievements.

6. The goal is not to be “unique.” That’s a very high bar to set. Don’t apologize for being privileged if you were fortunate enough to fall into this category. Just tell your story, whatever it might be, and tell it in an authentic and sincere voice.

7. If you did face a lot of obstacles in your life (family issues, poverty, discrimination, immigration, etc.) you face an entirely different set of problems because you may have to pick and choose among them. Sharing all of your trauma (parents’ divorce, food stamps, education not stressed, poor grades, working through school, dealing with depression and ADD) can be overwhelming and cause concern that you don’t really have your life together. But sharing a few of these things can make for a powerful essay. The key is sharing information that shows you’ve prepared yourself for the challenges ahead and you’ve demonstrated that you truly overcame these issues – not just that you’ve survived them but that you overcame them.

My best law school personal statement advice and tips are here.

Here are some tips for how to write well.

How to conclude your personal statement.

8 thoughts on “Law School Personal Statements: WTH?

  1. Ann,
    Do you have any advice regarding the problem-solution structure of a personal statement? I have an idea for this that I can write passionately about that demonstrates my analytical reasoning ability and writing skills, but I have seen very few examples of this, even though I have seen it suggested as a topic several times. Any reason for this? Hard to do? Less effective?

    Note: The problem I would be solving is not politically controversial or any sort of hot-button issue. Just a problem that I have an idea to solve.

    • Alec, you’ve asked an impossible question since I don’t know what you’d be writing about or how you’d be presenting it, but if you’d like this kind of detailed advice, please check out the personal statement package on my website.

  2. Rebecca on said:

    Hi Ann,
    This is a great blog! I have a question about the feasibility of a topic. I was an English major in undergrad and never really considered law school until my fourth year. I want to talk about this in my PS, explaining my previous commitment to literary academia and how setting my sights on this course in undergrad ultimately led me to discover its limits, ones I couldn’t accept. I know we’re not supposed to talk about “the law” yet as we know very little, but certain aspects of law, like the way it is literally the practice of bridging theory and practice, and mediating between a text and a text’s effects in people’s lives, is a large part of why I’m drawn to law. Is this to abstract and general for a PS? I’m theoretical by nature. I’m also worried that my topic seems like a “why I want to go to law school” essay, which is to be avoided. There’s nothing else I want to talk about as much, but what do you think of this topic? And finally, I need to spend a fair amount of time talking about lit since it dominated my life for a long time and also illustrates much of my worldview and passions; is this ok? Will adcomms wonder why I’m spending the first half of my essay talking about lit and just toss it? Thanks!!

    • HI Rebecca,
      I’m so glad the blog is helpful! I think your topic can work. It’s all in the execution. If this is what you really feel and you present it in a personal and meaningful and authentic way, then it has potential.

  3. Olivia on said:

    Hi Ann,

    I read your book (actually the audio book) this fall and found it to be extremely helpful!! I started perusing your blog recently and have also found many useful tidbits. Thank you so much.

    I am confused though…I have received conflicting advice on the topic for my personal statement. I wrote my first several drafts that focused on my struggles with depression during college and my sister’s struggle with similar issues this year which has been extremely challenging for me and family. I wrote mostly about how I’ve overcome these issues and performed really well in school and in my career (of 7 years), with my goal to let the reader have a glimpse into my dedication. However, my pre-law advisor has reviewed the last several drafts and has told me that she doesn’t know why I want to go to law school from my personal statement. Yet, prior to seeking her advice I was under the impression that you shouldn’t write a “why I want to attend law school” statement. So, which is it? I pride myself on being a good writer, so I really don’t want to shoot myself in the foot by submitting a well written statement that doesn’t really address what the readers want to know.

    I appreciate any help!

    Thank you!
    Olivia

    • Hi Olivia,
      I’m so glad you liked the audio book and three hours of my voice didn’t drive you away ; )
      I think the answer is a combination of the two – you need to relate your personal experiences and obstacles overcome to your future goals. It doesn’t have to be specific (as in, “I want to be a family law attorney”) but it does have to show the kind of person you are and how that translates to what you hope to do in the future. This is also a recent trend given the economy: law schools want to know that you have seriously thought about why law school and the legal profession are right for you so you don’t become one of the loud, angry, disgruntled graduates.
      Good luck!

  4. Hi Ann!
    Thank you so much for your blog! It’s been incredibly helpful in the studying/application process, and I really appreciate all your advice!

    I have a quick question for you…I completed college classes in 2007, but due to an issue specifically related to the college I went to (a private Christian school which requires chapel attendance, in which I was delinquent), I did not receive my actual diploma until May of 2010, when I completed the necessary requirements. Do I need to address this gap in my personal statement or create an addendum? I don’t know whether to raise this issue if the question won’t be asked, or if I do actually need to explain this complex topic? Any help is much appreciated!

    Thanks again for the blog! You’ve been a great help!
    Meg

    • Hi Meg. I’m so glad the blog has helped you!
      I think you should address the gap briefly, citing an administrative issue but letting them know it was not because you didn’t pay the school ; )
      Good luck!

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