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.
Law school admissions officers read hundreds of personal statements every year; one of the most important things you can do to improve your chances of getting into your dream school is to make sure that your essay makes a great first impression.
Most law schools will provide you with a general question and a page or word limit; exact requirements will vary from one school to the next, so it’s important that you take the time to confirm exactly what your limits are for the essay. The application itself or the program’s website should tell you what to do, but it’s never a bad idea to confirm with the admissions office via phone or email.
There are four steps to the process of creating a great personal statement.
Take some time to think about what makes you special. Law schools look for diversity, and that doesn’t just mean ethnic or gender diversity; they want to find an interesting blend of people with unique backgrounds and experiences. If you’re diverse in one of the traditional ways—usually, this means that you’re from a race or ethnicity that is underrepresented in the student body—then you can absolutely discuss that in your application. But you can look for other ways that you would increase the diversity of the student body as well. Are you an athlete, a musician, or an entrepreneur? Have you participated in meaningful volunteer work, overcome a significant challenge like a serious chronic illness, climbed a mountain, or written a novel? None of these things are necessary to the law school admissions process, but they definitely help make an application essay more interesting.
There are many things that you can and should use in your personal statement to present yourself as an interesting, well-rounded person who will not only benefit from a legal education but who will also make the law school a better place in some way. This is your chance to think about what those things might be, and jot them down. Don’t be afraid to think outside the box here, and don’t dismiss any ideas at this stage; just get them down on paper, and deal with them in more detail in Step 2.
Look at the ideas you’ve brainstormed, and pick a few to feature in your essay. You ideally want to create a “brand” that can be summarized in a few words and will be memorable to the admissions committee. Don’t make the mistake of devoting most of your essay to explaining what kind of law you want to practice; frankly, so many people end up practicing in an entirely different area than the one that originally draws them to law school that admissions officers don’t take this too seriously unless it’s backed up by some kind of supporting evidence. Writing about how you want to be a prosecutor because you love Law & Order won’t win you any points; writing about how you want to be a prosecutor because of your experiences interning at a rape crisis hotline and a battered women’s shelter probably will, because that reveals something interesting about you as an individual.
You want to introduce the admissions committee to what makes you unique, then weave your “brand” throughout the rest of the essay as you explain what has drawn you to law school and how you imagine using your law degree someday. At this stage, you should pick a few of your key attributes and experiences, and try to relate them to the legal education you’re seeking. If there’s something specific about the law school that directly relates to your background, that’s even better; for example, if you want to be a legal advocate for children and the school has a great family law clinical program, talk about why that interests you, backing it up with specific details about yourself. Remember that legal professionals place a high value on organization—a good brief is one that is clearly organized and easy to follow—and since at least some of the people reading and evaluating your essay are legally trained, creating a good outline is crucial; you’ll rely on it in Step 3.
Even though organization is key to the final product, it can be stifling when you first start to write. So if there’s one idea that seems less daunting to write about than another, start there. The trick to writing is getting that first word, sentence, or paragraph on the page; after that, everything seems to follow more easily. The beauty of the digital age is that computers allow us to rearrange and edit as much as we want, so take advantage of that; starting with the body of your essay, for example, and then creating the introduction and conclusion later, is much easier for some people.
Remember how you spent time thinking about your “brand”? Now is when you need to make that work for you. In each section of your essay, bring in references to who you are and how you will enhance the law school’s student body. Instead of just saying that you are diligent and compassionate, say that your experience training to run a marathon taught you the value of consistent hard work, and the time you spent volunteering with Habitat for Humanity showed you how important it is to empathize and help the less fortunate members of society. Find ways to make the things that you’ve done support your contention that you’ll bring something great to the law school. And remember, it doesn’t have to be perfect yet; you’ll probably be coming back to Step 3 at least once after you’ve worked through Step 4.
Do NOT underestimate how crucial this step is; editing is about far more than correcting your spelling and punctuation. The first issue here is making sure that your writing is well organized. Return to the outline that you wrote in Step 2, and shift things around if necessary. Make sure that each paragraph begins with a strong topic sentence that adequately introduces the ideas that you explore in the following sentences. Check to see if your “brand” is touched on throughout the essay. Only then should you be concerned with copyediting.
Run the spell-check, of course, but also read through on your own, VERY carefully. If your typo is a correctly-spelled but inappropriately used word, it won’t set off the spell-check. For example, if you say “statue” instead of “statute,” your computer isn’t going to tell you that you made a mistake. Look for correctly used commas, semi-colons, and other punctuation marks; consult a resource on English language mechanics if you have any doubts about usage.
And for heaven’s sake, make sure that you mention the correct law school in the essay. Countless applicants have torpedoed their own chances by sending the essay for School A to School B, and vice-versa. An admissions committee will probably assume that if you didn’t take the time to look for errors in your copy, you won’t be a very conscientious law student; since law school admissions can be incredibly competitive, a sloppily-edited personal statement could very well be the thing that makes the difference between “Congratulations!” and “We regret to inform you…”.
Once you’ve fully completed editing, ask several people whose writing skills you trust to look over your essay and offer suggestions. Ask them how they perceive your “brand,” and whether they came away with a clear and cohesive sense of you as an individual. Of course, have them keep an eye out for errors as well. When you’ve gotten their feedback, return to Step 3 and incorporate the suggestions that you find valuable into your re-writes. Repeat this as necessary until you get an essay that you’ve proud of… or until your application is due, whichever comes first.
Just remember, even though the personal statement can be tough, it’s a great chance for you to show the law school that you have something of value to add to their community. Seize that opportunity and build an essay that maximizes your chances for law school admissions success!
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