Why I Hate Personal Statement Examples… and Why You Should Too!

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Creative Commons Photo by aliennation.

Creative Commons Photo by aliennation.

Stuck on personal statement ideas and looking for samples?

Yeah, a lot of people come to my website in search of a personal statement example when they are struggling with what to write in their law school applications. After all, it sounds so appealing to get answers to concerns like these:

“Let me just see what someone else did that got them into X Law School,”
“It will just show me the quality my essay needs to be,”
“I just need to know what style to use – should it be formal or conversational? Descriptive or professional? Passionate or straightforward?”
“It will show me how to get the reader’s attention with a catchy opening line,”
“I just need to know how to conclude the essay – does it have to be about why I want to go to law school? Should I mention the law school by name?”

Personal Statement Examples Hurt More Than They Help

I don’t post examples of personal statements because I believe they hurt applicants more than they help. Why? Because the best personal statements are not formulaic, they speak from the heart, they are sincere, they let me really get to know the writer and his or her motivations and perspective. An outstanding law school personal statement can be either professional in tone or story-telling. It can show deep emotion and passion, or straightforwardly state well-considered professional goals. The right answer depends on you.

In The Law School Admission Game, I use case studies to show why I encouraged different clients to take different tones and use different approaches to their personal statements, and I show some sample introductions. However, I don’t share entire essays, because I can spot – instantly – a personal statement that was written based on a sample essay. And so can law school admission decision-makers. Especially if you’re reading a book that was initially published in the 1990s. These are the personal statements that either:

  1. Start out by graphically describing blood, starving children in India, or some other tragic event in great detail; and/or
  2. Tell a story about how the child you helped or the homeless woman you met changed your career directions and inspired you to study law.

The Best Statement Will Be Sincere

The best personal statement has no secret recipe – it is sincere to you. Therefore, here are my answers to the concerns that most people express when looking for samples:

“Let me just see what someone else did that got them into X Law School.”

Don’t worry about what anyone else did. Focus on you. If you write well, share something meaningful about yourself that shows what you’re all about, that you can sort the relevant from the irrelevant facts, and that you belong in law school (without trying too hard to prove it), you’ll be in good shape.

“It will just show me the quality my essay needs to be.”

The essay needs to be your best writing. It needs to be error-free. It needs to be persuasive without trying to be persuasive in that you need to convince the reader that you’ve got something to offer without screaming, “I’ve got something to offer!”. You need to follow the directions in terms of length (and font size and margins) and the question being asked. If you hit all of these, you’ll hit the “quality” mark.

“I just need to know what style to use – should it be formal or conversational? Descriptive or professional? Passionate or straightforward?”

Great personal statements come in all styles and tones. Except maybe poetic and comedic. Charming is fine, without being ingratiating. Straightforward is fine so long as it’s credible and relying on facts and not simply conclusions like “I’m a hard worker.” It should reflect your voice and not be artificially formal.

“It will show me how to get the reader’s attention with a catchy opening line.”

As long as the first line tells the reader where you are going with the essay, either directly or indirectly, it’s a good opening line. It should be specific to you and not a general statement about how a person’s journey dictates the destination or some such nonsense. Read the opening sentence aloud. If it could apply to pretty much anyone and be equally true, don’t use it. For example, instead of “My life experiences have made me who I am today,” try something along the lines of “I grew up quickly after my parents divorce; with my college fund gone, I needed to pay my own way.”

“I just need to know how to conclude the essay – does it have to be about why I want to go to law school? Should I mention the law school by name?”

If the topic discussed in your personal statement is inherently related to law and it makes sense that you would be applying to law school based on your resume, you don’t have to directly answer why you want to go to law school unless a school asks you to address this. If your background (as a musician, for example) makes law school seem like an unscheduled departure or desperate or unreasonable career jump, then your personal statement should address your logic for attending law school.

There is no reason to mention a school’s name unless you’re asked to do so, or unless you have a very particular reason for your strong interest that wouldn’t be otherwise apparent to the law school. For example, if you’re applying to law school in a region where you have no apparent ties, but you really do have ties there (a fiance’ lives there, for example.)

6 thoughts on “Why I Hate Personal Statement Examples… and Why You Should Too!

  1. Hi Ann,
    Thank you so much for these posts. They are super helpful. One of the major things I want to communicate in my personal statement is my resilience and work ethic. I have struggled with a pretty limiting physical disability while maintaining a 3.9 GPA at Boston College. I want to authentically and originally convey my experiences while not falling trap to the typical “overcoming adversity” cliche. Would you advise devoting my entire personal statement to this topic or writing an addendum describing my disability instead?

    • Hi Alex, glad they are helpful. I think this would make a great PS or addendum – if you don’t use cheesy language, and instead give insights about your perspective, it would be a very compelling personal statement. But it could be a diversity statement too, and you could open up for your personal statement for something else. So many possibilities!

  2. Summer on said:

    I have another question related to disability. I had a slow start, academically, and that had everything to do with undiagnosed Asperger’s. (After I got appropriate help, I took off like a shot, even while working full-time and supporting a family.) I know I’ll have to explain the struggle I had in my first terms, but am I going to shoot myself in the foot by revealing my autism?

    • Summer, I had an autistic client last year do REALLY well getting into reach schools and was even interviewed by a Top 5 school…. I’ll be honest, I don’t think the interview went so well, but he was seriously considered!

  3. Hi Ann,

    I am having a similar problem with deciding how to convey my personal experiences into my statement. I am graduating in December with my undergrad in Mechanical Engineering. That being said, I don’t feel there is much on my resume and in my transcript that would point me toward studying law at face value. I plan to go into IP law.

    How important is it to explain my motives in my statement as someone who otherwise would appear to not have a “typical” pre-law background? I have tailored my statements toward telling a story about my background and how that has shaped my character. Would I be leaving anything out by telling that story?

    • Robert, you seem like someone who should be addressing “Why Law” in some capacity but without seeing your essay and knowing more about you, I can’t say you shouldn’t tell a certain story that you plan on sharing….

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