Six Secrets to a Successful Personal Statement for Law School Applications

Law School Expert Blog

 

  1. Use Your Own Voice

This is about the tone of your essay. The point of the personal statement is for the reader to like you and want to pass you in the halls every day for the next three years, so keep that in mind as you write that very first draft. It’s important to be likeable (as opposed to arrogant) and to create the impression that you will be an alumnus who will reflect well on the law school. 

Don’t try to sound how you think a personal statement should sound, and certainly (please!) don’t try to write one of those cheesy personal statements you saw in some book of sample law school personal statements. I always advise my clients to attempt the first draft as though they are speaking the words instead of writing them to keep their voice authentic throughout the essay. This is not an academic paper, and if you try to write how you expect lawyers write (using lots of big words) you’ll just make a fool of yourself. A good personal statement allows the reader to get to know you and to like you, and this means taking a conversational (but not too informal) tone. A successful personal statement lets the reader get to know the writer. 

  1. Surprise the Reader

By the time someone reads your personal statement, they will already know your GPA, LSAT, work history, honors, awards, activities, etc. What might that person assume about you from this information? Really think critically about yourself (just not to the point where you make yourself paranoid). Will your transcripts make you look lazy? If so, tell a story that shows how hard-working and focused you are. Likewise, if your transcripts show you’re a near-perfect student, and you have the LORs and resume to back it up, then share something surprising in the personal statement by getting personal. Show them you’re more than what they think you are. If you graduated college in 3 years and you’re 21, demonstrate maturity. If you went to fancy private schools, recount tales of how you competed for scholarships and worked as a bartender to pay your bills. If you appear to be the typical fraternity guy or jock, share your love of reading or museums. However, this approach only works if the story you’re telling is true, because admission committees who have read tens of thousands of personal statements can spot the B.S. pretty quickly.  Authenticity is required for a successful personal statement.

  1. Avoid Conclusions

A good personal statement never says “I am a hard worker,” or “I overcame obstacles,” or “I never quit.” Rather, it tells a story that convinces the reader to come to the conclusion(s) on his/her own. How do you do this? By providing facts and telling a true story that shows the conclusion you’re trying to prove. This is how you succeed on law school exams as well, and the best way for a lawyer to make an effective argument is to use the facts of the case; start with your law school personal statement. 

One of my pet peeves when I was reviewing law school applications as director of admissions was reading statements like “My strong work ethic…” and then not really learning anything remarkable about that person’s work ethic. This is the time to share that you held two jobs in college and went to a professor’s office hours weekly to catch up with the grad students enrolled in the 500-level course and how you worked like crazy to earn that B- and it was one of your best accomplishments. If you provide persuasive facts, the reader will make the right conclusion naturally.

  1. Consider Your Content

Some topics that have become trite and overused include: 

  1. The injured athlete story – “It was difficult to leave the team after I worked so hard for so many years…”;
  2. The typical study abroad story – “I learned to drive on the wrong side and to use chopsticks…”;
  3. Current historical events that you weren’t personally involved in – “Watching the insurrection take place over livestream on January 6th…”
  4. High school events – “In high school, I was a championship softball player and earned 6 AP credits.” (High school can be appropriate to mention if there’s a specific episode that provides a point you’re trying to make such as “My parents divorced during my junior year of high school, and suddenly I learned I would have to bear the cost of college myself…as a result I worked 30 hours a week during my freshman year…”)

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 makes you interesting/different/remarkable. Some of my clients have distinguished themselves in non-traditional ways by doing things they never even considered mentioning in their law school personal statements. One has a huge readership on her crafts blog. Another ran an online gaming community. Don’t underestimate what you have going for you. Do not reuse your college personal statement. Stay away from anything that will make you appear to be high maintenance, such as recounting the time you fought the dean of students about the professor who had a grudge against you because you were late to her class once. 

  1. Use Your Words Wisely

Spell correctly.

Punctuate correctly.

Don’t use ten words when three will do. (I’m quoting “Ocean’s 11” here.)

Think about what you’re writing – there is no reason to start with “My name is…” when your name is at the top of the paper. Refrain from repeating things that the reader will already know about you (job descriptions, awards won, etc.). Likewise, avoid thanking the reader for their consideration in the conclusion.

There is no reason to use certain words. For example, “personally” – it is a personal statement; it had better be personal (again, sorry for the “When Harry Met Sally” reference). Same goes for “unique” and “In conclusion.” Also, don’t mention a law school’s name unless you’re going to say something specific about that school that is different from any other school; avoid fill-in-the-blank clinic names and professor names.

  1. Trust Your Judgment

Of course, it’s a good idea to have another set of eyes on your personal statement before you submit it; after you look at something a hundred times, it’s hard to spot the errors yourself. However, be careful about passing your essay around to lawyers and English professors and parents and friends. A personal statement is such a different type of writing and its purpose is so specific that unless someone has had experience making law school admission decisions, they probably have only read one personal statement – their own. 

Your informal advisors will probably expect that you should spend your essay talking about how your parents told you at age four that your negotiating skills were evident and that you are a top public speaker and your friends always seek your advice. Be strong enough to decide against taking certain advice. And, if you decide to seek professional assistance with your law school personal statement, find someone who has actually made law school admission decisions and can give you an honest assessment of your content, presentations, writing, and overall application. 

 

For more, check out my 45-minute recorded webinar: How to Write a Stellar Personal Statement

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