8 Tips for Writing a Personal Statement
by Ann Levine
If 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, you’re not alone. “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?
Here are a few ideas to get you started on brainstorming topics:
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 post, 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 depending on each law school’s specifications. 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 things 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 be likable 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. Remember that the key is to present the best version of yourself, rather than to be the most interesting person on the entire planet.
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 traumatic events (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.
8. Most of my law school admission consulting clients struggle to state the reasons why they are applying to a certain law school. I want to offer some hints and tricks in this regard:
A. Do I have to say why I want to go to Law School X?
No. You don’t. Unless X Law School asks you to, and then – yes – you do. If you will be writing an optional essay on Why Law and/or Why School X, then you do not need to address it in the personal statement.
B. Is there some advantage to saying why I want to go to Law School X?
Yes. If you can convince them, they’ll be more likely to admit you rather than waitlist you and make you prove you deserve a coveted admission letter that they’ll then have to report for rankings purposes.
C. So, what can I possibly say?
It’s true – sometimes law schools just don’t seem to be that different from one another, especially when they are ranked similarly.
Here are some tips:
• Don’t say you love their Environmental Law program if nothing in your application supports your interest in Environmental Law.
• Don’t pick a study abroad program as your reason; you can do any ABA school’s study abroad summer program and transfer the credits (generally).
• Don’t list reasons that could be applied to any law school equally like ‘esteemed faculty’ or ‘national reputation’ or ‘bar passage rate.’ Be specific.
• If you’re applying part-time, tell them why. Otherwise they’ll think you’re just using the part-time program to be admitted through the “back door.”
Good luck, and I hope I’ve inspired you to do a little more research and critical thinking about why you’re choosing each law school on your list.
Your grades and LSAT score are the most important part of your application to law school. But you shouldn't neglect the personal statement. Your essay is a valuable opportunity to distinguish yourself from other applicants, especially those with similar scores.
You want to present yourself as intelligent, professional, mature and persuasive. These are the qualities that make a good lawyer, so they're the qualities that law schools seek in applicants. Talking about your unique background and experiences will help you stand out from the crowd. But don't get too creative. The personal statement is not the time to discuss what your trip to Europe meant to you, describe your affinity for anime, or try your hand at verse.
Best practices for your personal statement
1. Be specific to each school
You'll probably need to write only one basic personal statement, but you should tweak it for each law school to which you apply. There are usually some subtle differences in what each school asks for in a personal statement.
2. Good writing is writing that is easily understood
Good law students—and good lawyers—use clear, direct prose. Remove extraneous words and make sure that your points are clear. Don't make admissions officers struggle to figure out what you are trying to say.
3. Get plenty of feedback
The more time you've spent writing your statement, the less likely you are to spot any errors. You should ask for feedback from professors, friends, parents and anyone else whose judgment and writing skills you trust. This will help ensure that your statement is clear, concise, candid, structurally sound and grammatically accurate.
4. Find your unique angle
Who are you? What makes you unique? Sometimes, applicants answer this question in a superficial way. It's not enough to tell the admissions committee that you're an Asian–American from Missouri. You need to give them a deeper sense of yourself. And there's usually no need to mention awards or honors you've won. That's what the law school application or your resume is for.
Use your essay to explain how your upbringing, your education, and your personal and professional experiences have influenced you and led you to apply to law school. Give the admissions officers genuine insight into who you are. Don't use cliches or platitudes. The more personal and specific your personal statement is, the better received it will be.
Applying to law school? Use our law school search to find the right program for you or browse our law school ranking lists.
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