Year after year, as applicants begin work on their law school applications, they struggle to try to make themselves stand out among thousands of other qualified applicants.
What can prospective students do to illustrate that they are special and smarter than the competition? What will convince admissions committees that they are the ones who should be offered the coveted seats in the entering class?
In addition to putting together a tight, concise, and attractive résumé, and paying careful attention to each application question so that your answers are responsive and complete, you have the opportunity to show what makes you unique — or “special” — in your personal statement.
This essay is the vehicle through which you may shed light upon yourself as a person, over and above what is reflected in your résumé and academic record, both of which probably look very similar to many others.
What You Should Do (Generally)
Your statement should have a theme, tell a story, and leave your readers feeling that you are an interesting, intelligent, and insightful person. It should tell admissions officers that you know where you have been and where you are heading; that you have the ability, intellect, and maturity to succeed in the study of law; and that you will add something positive to their law school communities and to the legal profession.
You want to grab the attention of committee members in your first sentence; you want to keep their attention, both with the content of your story and clear, skillful writing. And when they finish reading your statement, you want them to want to have a conversation with you.
The best personal statement shares insights about you, based upon your experiences and self-reflection. It builds from and enhances the rest of your application package.
Essays That Worked
One personal statement I particularly enjoyed was a story about how the applicant loved to bake. She had developed and mastered certain cake recipes through trial and error — and persistence. She had started her own bakery and grown it into a successful business.
She used this story as a case study, a way of exemplifying the precision with which she approaches her work. The essay showed that she is attentive to detail and always strives for perfection while accepting that some failures along the way are inevitable. She concluded the piece by explaining how her experiences with the baking business — and the skills and strengths she had developed through it — would help her excel in legal studies. Her story was well-written, interesting, provided some nice imagery, and was different from many others.
Another very strong statement I read was from a young man discussing his service during a faith-based mission in South America. He recounted the trials and tribulations that accompanied living in a foreign country where he felt unwelcome. He went on to describe how — eventually — he was able to win over people in the community.
This applicant used specific examples of interactions in which both he and others opened their minds and hearts to learn more about each other. He explained how his notions of tolerance and acceptance had changed, how his spirituality and character grew during his mission, and how, during his time in South America, he had come to realize that he wanted to devote his professional life to serving others through a career in the law. His commitment was genuine, and that came across immediately.
What You Shouldn’t Do (Generally)
What you should not do is grab attention in a negative way. Some of the most memorable statements I read during my many years as an admissions dean did just that, and demonstrated extremely poor judgment on the part of applicants in the process. These essays were game changers for applicants who otherwise would have been admitted.
Stories That Didn’t Work
The Track Runner
One example came from a young woman who discussed traveling with her college track team and going to a male strip club. In excruciatingly graphic detail, she described the behavior of her friends and the anatomies of the male dancers. The whole admissions committee wondered the same thing: What was she thinking?
The Arrogant Applicant
Another example came from a young man who discussed how unique he was because he had excelled in his college studies and was much more intelligent than any other person who was applying to law school. He used complex sentences and multisyllabic words very excessively. He concluded his statement by letting the admissions committee know that he fully expected to be offered admission to all of the top-tier law schools, and that he would only consider attending this particular institution if he were offered a full-tuition scholarship — a housing stipend would be nice as well. Arrogance has no place in personal statements.
The Divorce Diarist
And do not be “too personal.” Discussing details of your parents’ ugly divorce is, in most cases, inappropriate for an audience of strangers. Admissions committees do not need to know about your family members’ extramarital affairs or their ugly battles over money.
A better approach for someone in this situation would have been to discuss the lack of attention she received from her parents while they were going through their divorce. This applicant might then have discussed the ways that this challenging family situation affected her growth and development, and her eventual maturation into an independent adult.
The Obit Author, and Other Odds and Ends
Other approaches to avoid are writing your own obituary — “Applicant X died on January 1, 2076, after serving as Attorney General, as well as Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court and President of the United States, over the course of his career.” Another bad idea is to present your personal statement as a legal pleading: “Here comes before the court applicant X and moves her admission to law school Y and, in support hereof, states the following….”
Further suggestions: Do not write a poem for your personal statement, and do not write your essay in the third person. Trying to show you are different because you are outrageous or ridiculous is not a convincing approach if you want to be taken seriously as an applicant.
What does work best when it comes to writing your personal statement is being yourself, exposing your good qualities, strengths, character, and passions. Law schools want to build classes of talented, interesting, and likable individuals. Show admissions committees you are one of these people in a well-written and thoughtful essay; and communicate to them that you are a serious candidate who has the maturity, ability, and drive to excel in law school and in the practice of law.
Find more advice about law school admissions from Noodle Experts like Anne Richard, who has also written about why you shouldn't let magazine rankings choose your law school.
Exploring your law school options? Then try out the free and customizable law school search tool on Noodle.
(Photo Source: ayelienne)
Write about yourself. Do it now. Thanks!
The abrupt nature of this demand combined with a lack of practice will usually result in bad writing. From miniature autobiographies to abstract musings on current events, such topics typically obliterate a personal statement’s relevance, cohesiveness, and flow.
Whether for academic or professional purposes, we rarely discuss our personal narratives. The unfortunate reality is that most people have not had practice writing about themselves in years if ever—resulting in ineffective and inappropriate personal statement topics. To put it simply, you’re not alone! And that’s why we’re here to help.
In the following article, we will discuss tendencies to avoid when writing your law school personal statement. We will also provide critical guidelines for effective writing that you can use in all of your application documents.
1) Have One Theme and Discuss One to Three Experiences That Support It
As previously mentioned, avoid writing your life story in your personal statement. Firstly, there is just not enough room to do so. The typical law school personal statement has a two-page limit double-spaced (See Law School Personal Statement Formatting: What You Need To Know for specifics on format). Trying to cram all the interesting tales from your life into these two pages is impossible. Conform your writing to the limited space provided by the format.
Choose relevant experiences you have had that can fit together cohesively and convey the value you will bring to a law school’s student body. Be concise and get straight to the point. Sometimes, this means cutting out certain parts of your story that do not fit or do not support your underlying theme.
Whether overcoming adversity, pursuing your passion, or the next logical step in your career, you should have a single solid theme. It should encompass all the experiences you describe in your personal statement’s story. This is not an exhaustive list of theme types, but you can click here for more help with personal statement ideas.
Your theme will usually develop as you begin to discuss your experiences. One to three exemplary and/or touching experiences are really all that are needed to provide the body content of your personal statement. More than this can start to sound like a rehashing of your resume, a list of accomplishments, or just a description of how bad you’ve had it up to this point in your life. None of which will sound appealing to the admissions committee members reading your essay. To catch their attention, maintain it, and hopefully garner some respect from the people deciding your law school fate, keep it simple. Use one theme and up to three experiences as examples to support it.
2) Stay Professional; Don’t Take It Personally
Certain topics you may discuss in your application documents, especially for personal statements, diversity statements, and addendums, can evoke powerful emotions. It is vital that you are able to discuss these issues in a professional manner. Taking something personally, demonizing a specific person or group of people, or just having an overly negative tone can turn off the reader(s) to your writing whether they agree with you or not.
For this reason, avoid the following things that can make you sound informal:
- Writing as if you are making a journal entry
- Coming off as desperate, facetious, or sarcastic
- Being overly emotional
- Discussing intimate details of your personal life
- Being overly negative
- Harping on feuds between you and another person or group
- Describing situations and events with generalizations rather than facts
- Making assumptions, especially about the law or the legal field
- Expressing your unsupported opinions on controversial topics
- Being self-aggrandizing
- Boasting about your achievements or expressing arrogant behavior
Be realistic with your experiences. The sentiment among popular culture to constantly promote one’s self at the expense of others is not appropriate for an application document. Being humble sounds more realistic, and sounding more realistic will make you more believable as a candidate anyway.
Gaining the trust of admission committee members is key. The personal statement is usually the most prominent and sometimes the only document in your application that can create that trust. Cut out anything that may sound conceited whether you meant it to sound that way or not. We can help you with this.
3) Keep It Simple—Sentence Structure, Punctuation, and Grammar
While I write this blog article with impunity to formal criticism for my use of contractions, colloquialisms, informal use of prepositions, liberal use of commas and subordinating conjunctions, lengthy introductory clauses, sentences exceeding three full lines, and series and lists that never seem to end, you don’t have the same discretion if your application documents are being evaluated by admissions committees, which they will be.
As with other Gradvocates editors, I would very much like to split that previous sentence into more concise, easier-to-read phrases. I know that it would be more digestible for the reader. Alas, it is a perfect example of the informality we see in many applicants’ writing—both in what it describes and how it’s written. To lessen confusion, we strive to prevent unnecessary complexity in sentence structure at Gradvocates. You may feel the urge to squeeze every idea you have into one big, ugly, compound, run-on mess, but brevity is almost always preferred.
Here are some simple guidelines you can use to evaluate the structure of your sentences:
- Try to keep your sentences under two full lines max.
- Avoid colloquialisms, clichés, slang, and popular sayings as they are not professional or original.
- Don’t over-complicate your punctuation. This is law school—not a graduate English program.
- Avoid common wording errors that experienced writers notice .
- Use a comma before and if you are going to list out things in a series—American English prefers it, and legal writing requires it 99% of the time to avoid confusion.
- Don’t use contractions. We can because this blog is not an application document!
- Keep your introductory phrases short and under control, or it could get confusing.
- Don’t end a sentence with a preposition. Use the preposition and which instead.
- Don’t use words with which you are not familiar. Admission Committee Members can tell. This is especially true for legal terminology. You are not a lawyer yet, so be particularly careful when trying to utilize legal terms in your personal statement. We suggest against it unless you have had firsthand experience in a legal position or with that area of the law in your current profession. Otherwise, you can sound foolish at best or mistakenly admit to the unauthorized practice of law at worst.
- Keep your verb tense consistent. Only change it when necessary.
- Use active voice rather than passive where possible. This shows that you are confident about your decision-making.
Quality formal writing relies on using simple, straight-forward sentences. Succinct phrases that demonstrate your experiences and how they make you a great candidate are all it takes structurally. Your content is a different story and a different blog article.
4) Cohesiveness: The Importance of Transitions
Your personal statement needs to read as if it is one cohesive story. This means your theme should be consistent throughout your paper. The experiences you detail should support your theme and bolster your argument for why you are an exceptional candidate.
The introductory phrases and prepositions between paragraphs and sentences should help demonstrate how your experiences are connected. They should allow the reader to understand how all these ideas are related and set forth a logical flow to your story. If a transition from one part of your essay to the next seems disjointed, you can lose the reader’s attention.
Good transitions help strengthen the plausibility of your theme, which helps build trust with your reader. This is why you need to be sure that your experiences fit together under the theme you’ve chosen. If you are unable to effectively transition from one part of your essay to the next, you may want to consider revising or eliminating the experience that does not currently fit with your overall theme. You can always substitute it with another experience or go more in depth into current topics in your essay.
Read over your personal statement several times. Have others read it to get more than one opinion. Be sure to ask whether they think the story is strong and cohesive or if any idea or aspect should be altered or left out. It’s good to get this out of the way early on in the writing process—on your first or second draft, as having to rewrite a large portion of a disjointed personal statement is no fun, especially when you believe you’re almost finished.
5) Remember Your Audience and Tailor Your Document to Them
Again, you are writing to get into law school. The law is all about wording and language. The absence or addition of a single comma can change the entire meaning of a clause in a contract—leading to major legal battles. Therefore, punctuation and grammar are very important in this document. It’s the reader’s preview of how you think and write. Be aware of this, and review your personal statement several times before submitting it along with your application.
The rule with legal writing is that less is more. Lawyers write for meaning and understanding. They do not try to embellish their words. Be direct and succinct. Make your point in as few words as necessary to convey the meaning you intend to communicate—no more and no less.
Obviously, your writing should meet professional standards grammatically, as we talked about previously in this article. But be mindful that even though you are applying to law school, you are not expected to know the law. Don’t feel compelled to try to explain it to professors and senior faculty that obviously know it better than you do at this point. Your personal statement is not only a story, but it is a list of qualities conveyed through a narrative that you have actually lived. These tangible qualities portrayed through your experiences are what admissions committee members are looking to see, not your legal acumen.
Finally, remember to change your institution-specific information in each version of your personal statement if you are applying to multiple law schools. You do not need to rewrite your entire personal statement from scratch unless a school has a very specific prompt that you’re required to address. However, be sure to change the school and program names at the very least.
If a law school has a specific program that you are interested in, be sure to mention it in that version of your personal statement. If there are certain extra-curricular activities or organizations at a school that spark your interest, include them where relevant. The point is to try to customize your personal statement to make it more relevant for each school without rewriting it entirely.
6) Use Concrete Examples. Limit Abstractions.
A major problem for law school applicants is the use of abstractions in their personal statements. You should not be discussing legal theory or other complex topics in depth in your personal statement. The reasons are twofold. You can get into trouble by misinterpreting legal concepts, let alone complex terminology in other fields of study. More importantly, any room used to discuss theoretical circumstances is not room being used to discuss you and your experiences. It is your personal statement after all; it should focus on you and what you have done—less so on things you plan to do in the future or that may never occur.
Applicants tend to fall into this trap because they feel like their current experiences aren’t good enough for a law school personal statement. This usually isn’t true. Although there are limitations on what law school admissions want to see content-wise in your personal statement, such as unexceptional activities from high school and before, pretty much anything else can be used as a valid experience. You just have to convey how it made you a better person. As long as you demonstrate your efforts using tangible examples of your experiences, you’re set. Debating the merits of topics with which you have no real-world experience should be avoided.
Talk about your passions, profession, extra-curricular activities, leadership roles, civic and volunteer involvement, your work and internship experience, how you became interested in law, how you are unique, your perspective and what led to it, your skillsets and technical knowledge, etc. There are plenty of topics you can weave together to form your story. Just be sure to do it in an engaging manner that puts the reader on your side and shows your value as a potential law school student.
Some Final Thoughts:
Writing about yourself in a professionally appropriate manner can be difficult at first. This important document needs to discuss personal details of your life concisely and thoughtfully to an admissions committee looking for reasons to deny people. It is not always clear what can be seen as informal. This makes getting a second opinion on your work a must.
Read over your personal statement several times. If you ever get stuck, sleep on it and come back to it later. Sometimes, taking a break for a day or two can help you see your writing from a new angle. This can help you generate new ideas on how to develop it further.
Finally, always have your writing reviewed. More opinions are always better than just your own. As with any formal application document, get your personal statement reviewed and edited by a professional. This is where Gradvocates can help. Let our experienced personal statement editors help you perfect your law school personal statement.
For even more helpful tips, see: How to Write a Great Personal Statement.
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