One of my law school admission consulting clients sent me an email this morning with 5 key questions about law school personal statements. The questions were so good (and so common) that I wanted to share my responses with all of my pre-law readers. In addition to the points below, please read these posts about personal statements.
1. What does a personal statement do? What does it add to the application? What is its function?
If someone with your numbers has a possibility of being admitted to a particular school, but not everyone with your numbers is admitted to that school, then the major deciding factor is the personal statement. It’s your chance to become more than a list of your accomplishments, more than your transcripts, more than your LSAT score. This is your chance to be personable, likable, impressive (without being arrogant) and to generally give the impression that you’d be a great asset to their school and alumni base. (Addition on 8/30/2012: It’s also a chance to demonstrate that you’ve thought about why you want to go to law school, and that it’s not a default decision.)
2. What to you makes a statement stand out? What are the components of a great personal statement?
There are certain things a law school wants to be assured of – maturity despite youth, commitment to the study of law despite lacking a specific career aspiration, ability to succeed in a rigorous environment, independent thinking skills, feeling a duty greater than simple self-interest. A good personal statement uses none of these phrases, but tells a story that convinces the reader to come to the conclusion(s) on his/her own.
A good personal statement is interesting to read, without needing to rely on shock value. It has a conversational rather than academic tone. It’s not there to show how many big words you know. Lawyers need to write like real people – clear sentences. Start now.
3. What made you groan when working in admissions? What were common mistakes people made?
I would groan, roll my eyes, and write sarcastic comments on personal statements hinting of the following:
- “A voice for the voiceless” – The purported drive to serve others and to heal the world and be a public interest lawyer when there’s little community service in the person’s background to back it up.
- Repeating a resume by listing every internship and position ever held. If you’re going to discuss something that is on your resume, do it to show a problem you solved, a learning experience you had, how it helped you determine your future career (good or bad).
- Providing lots of conclusions with few facts to back them up. (For example, “My strong work ethic……” and then not really showing anything remarkable about your work ethic).
- Not being specific enough – talking around issues (“I had a rough time but overcame obstacles” without giving details about the obstacles so that the reader can evaluate for him/herself whether the feat was impressive).
4. What, if any, subjects or themes should be avoided because they are cliche/common/inappropriate?
Some topics that have become trite and overused include the injured athlete story, the study abroad story, and a personal statement based on a current event from the headlines that did not personally impact you.
I think there is a misconception that personal statements must be about overcoming paralysis or poverty. You don’t have to apologize for having a privileged life – just show what experiences have led to your growth and to the decisions you have made.
I also think a lot of people remember their clever undergraduate essay about contemplating the lumps of peanut butter as they spread across the bread and think they should repeat that (please don’t – remember, we’re going for maturity here). Another test is that if everything you’ve written could’ve been something you wrote for your college applications (stories from childhood, etc.) then it’s not the right personal statement for law school.
Generally, I urge people to stay away from high school unless there’s a really good reason to talk about it. (Again, maturity).
I also urge people to stay away from anything that will make them appear to be high maintenance or complainers in general. Law school faculty and staff won’t want to touch you with a ten foot pole.
5. Is it better to think of the personal statement as telling a short story that has broader implications/ says things about me as a person, or should I think of it as a theme through which I can incorporate many components/stories etc.
Tell the right story for you and the theme will be apparent. You’re marketing yourself, not a theme.
By the way, I’d like to note that the client who sent me this e-mail does not have to worry about any of these common mistakes and is not in danger of annoying any law school admission committee member. It just goes to show that the wrong people are always asking these questions, and the people who should be worried about making these grave errors usually fail to recognize these traits in themselves.