Learn How to Write a Stellar Personal Statement
Learn How to Write a Stellar Personal Statement
Your personal statement is perhaps your first opportunity in life to flex some of your latent lawyering skills.
In writing your personal statement, you are both the lawyer (advocate) and the client (subject matter). Your job is to advocate in the most effective way possible on behalf of your own law school candidacy. To “win” this case, you have to convince the judge and jury (the admissions committee) that your candidacy is compelling enough to gain admission.
By the time you fill out your law school applications, you can no longer change some aspects of your case, like your grades or your LSAT. Yet it is the way in which you advocate on your own behalf that can make the difference in persuading the admissions committee that your candidacy is compelling.
Selecting a personal statement topic is the first step and, sometimes, the hardest. Taking a look at your own personal experiences will be the key element to crafting the perfect personal statement. See the three recommended steps below.
Go back through your life and make a chronology that includes: (1) academic, personal, and extracurricular accomplishments; (2) tragedies and obstacles overcome; (3) books or other pieces of writing that stuck with you over the years; (4) important/inspirational courses and professors you’ve taken; (5) meaningful jobs and volunteer work you’ve done; (6) the most important/inspirational people in your life and (7) if you’re leaning heavily towards a type of law you’d like to practice someday or a cause you’d like to serve using your legal education, then list in your chronology the events that pushed you in those directions.
Ask your 3 closest family members and 3 closest friends to list the qualities they admire most about you, and the accomplishments, obstacles overcome in life, and life and academic experiences that most immediately come to mind when they think of you. Compile and condense those lists to see which qualities, accomplishments, obstacles overcome, life and academic experiences would make the best source material for a law school personal statement. Then add these to your chronology (and for the qualities, list any life experiences that exemplify those qualities). When canvassing your family and friends, you may want to show them your chronology as a way to help move along your conversations with them.
With all this information organized into a chronology, you should be able to easily generate compelling topics for personal statements.
You can write about almost anything when it comes to a personal statement for law school. In our experience, the majority of personal statements — and certainly many of the most successful ones — fit into one of the following three categories.
Sometimes, after an admissions dean has read through an applicant’s resume and list of activities, it’s obvious what a person should write about. If you’re a serious collegiate athlete, write about that. If you’ve had significant leadership positions in student government or non-profits, then write about how they’ve matured you or how you hope to carry those efforts forward with a legal education. If a serious obstacle in your life has affected how you’ve studied or spent your time in extracurriculars, then write about that experience. The point is, if your resume or extracurriculars have a predominant theme, then hammer home that theme in a compelling personal statement.
Sometimes a college or even high school course steers you towards a life in the law. It could be a hands-on government experience during a college independent research course, or a science class that covered the intersection of science, policy and the law, or a term paper that explored law, policy or politics. Whatever that memorable academic experience, write about it and its impact on your career goals.
Sometimes a book, a speech or even a quote can change the arc of your life. Or perhaps you were inspired by the example of a professor or teacher, and that inspiration has carried you forward to this day. If it has, then write about it, making sure to relate that writing or professor’s example to your life in tangible ways.
While there are probably 100 instructions we could offer about writing effective personal statements, these five are especially important.
Every law school application has directions about the substance and format of the personal statement you need to write. Whatever those directions are — follow them. You could write a terrific essay, but if it doesn’t address the topic requested, admissions committee members will wonder why you didn’t follow their directions.
Take a look at some of the sample personal statement questions below that we’ve collected from various law schools. And note: some law schools will tell you to write about pretty much anything and to choose the length. In such cases, it’s far better to craft a traditional essay and keep it to two pages or less, than to try something substantively risky that goes on for five or 10 pages. In all instances, you should double-space your personal statement and put your name and Social Security number at the top of every page.
The spelling and grammar of your personal statement must be flawless. Most personal statements are only two pages/500 words or so length. Find at least three people to proof your work before you submit it to any law school. And before you mail or hit the “Send” button on your applications, make sure you are sending the right personal statement to the right law school. This sounds like such obvious advice, but each year law schools receive the wrong personal statement from an applicant and that, alone, is enough to deny you admission.
The whole point of writing a strong personal statement is to convince an admissions committee that your written communication skills and some aspect of your life are more compelling than another applicant with a similar LSAT score. Put differently, if a law school admissions committee is looking to fill out its incoming class with an academic pedigree that’s similar to yours, then you need to explain why you’re more interesting or will contribute more to the incoming class than the next person with your same grades.
It almost always helps if your tone exudes confidence and positivity no matter the subject matter of your personal statement. Here’s what confidence and positivity mean in the context of a personal statement:
Confidence: Confidence, in a personal statement, means stating forcefully yet humbly what you expect to accomplish with your law degree, or stressing how you overcame something as opposed to dwelling on the obstacle, setback or tragedy in your life.
Positivity: Positivity, in a personal statement, means emphasizing the solutions to a problem or injustice rather than dramatizing for effect the problem or injustice or stressing what you learned or how you’ve matured by overcoming adversity in your life.
Your opening paragraph or sentence must captivate your readers, and it must successfully introduce the subject matter of your personal statement. Likewise, your conclusion must resolve the topic you’ve raised in a memorable way. Because the beginning and ending of your personal statement are so critical, you should try out three different openings and three different conclusions to see which ones work best.
Just as there are probably 100 “Dos” we could offer, there are 100 “Don’ts” we could list, too — but the five below are among the most important.
A personal statement is not a long-form resume. Your resume exists to organize and summarize your achievements and experiences into one page. Your personal statement exists to demonstrate to an admissions committee that your written communication skills are strong, that you are insightful and interesting, and that there exists a coherent story about why you’re applying to law school.
Your personal statement is a positive essay to convince an admissions committee to admit you to their school. It is not a forum for excuses, explanations, or justifications about why some aspect of your law school application is weaker than it should be.
Think of the admissions committee as the judge or the jury hearing your case. You would never submit a court brief written in an informal style, replete with contractions, sarcasm, and unconventional structure. Do not write your personal statement in an informal manner.
Sometimes, if you write about a book or quote or professor or some other person in your life, it is tempting to spend a significant amount of time during your personal statement writing about that person rather than yourself. Resist this temptation. You are not writing a personal statement in order to get that person admitted to law school. You are writing a personal statement to show how their wisdom affected you in a meaningful way and why you are a perfect candidate for admission.
A surprising number of admissions deans at top law schools have told us that their schools routinely reject applicants with super-high GPAs and LSATs when those applicants submit a personal statement that clearly reflects a lack of effort or attention to detail. Nothing — nothing — turns off an admissions committee more than an applicant turning in a rough draft personal statement.
Below are the personal statement writing instructions for seven top law schools. They should give you a good sense of the kinds of questions most law schools ask of applicants, as well as the instructions on the form for completing your personal statement.
“Candidates to Columbia Law School are required to submit a personal essay or statement supplementing required application materials. Such a statement may provide the Admissions Committee with information regarding such matters as: personal, family, or educational background; experiences and talents of special interest; reasons for applying to law school as they may relate to personal goals and professional expectations; or any other factors that you think should inform the Committee’s evaluation of your candidacy for admission. This statement should be printed on a supplementary sheet or two and should be returned to the Law School with other application materials.”
“An applicant may write a double-spaced personal statement on any subject of importance that he or she feels will assist the Admissions Committee in its decision. There is no minimum/maximum length.”
“The Personal Statement provides an opportunity for you to present yourself, your background, your ideas, and your qualifications to the Admissions Committee. Please limit your statement to two pages using a minimum of 11-point font, 1-inch margins, and double spacing. Please refer to the Statement Form for more information. Attach your statement to the Statement Form when submitting on paper.”
“There is no formula for a successful personal statement, and different individuals will find different topics to be well-suited to them. Applicants have, for example, elaborated on their significant life experiences; meaningful intellectual interests and extracurricular activities; factors inspiring them to obtain a legal education or to pursue particular career goals; significant obstacles met and overcome; special talents or skills; issues of sexual or gender identity; particular political, philosophical, or religious beliefs; socioeconomic challenges; atypical backgrounds, educational paths, employment histories, or prior careers; or experiences and perspectives relating to disadvantage, disability, or discrimination. Any of these subjects, and many more, could be an appropriate basis for communicating important information about yourself that will aid us in reaching a thoughtful decision. The length of your personal statement is up to you.”
“Include a typed, signed personal statement (recommended length: one to three pages, doublespaced). Please look upon this essay as an opportunity to introduce yourself to members of the Admissions Committee. In doing so, keep in mind that the committee evaluates applicants in many areas beyond test scores. We encourage you to discuss personal and professional goals that are important to you and to include information about your achievements. Feel free to comment further about your education, background, community involvement, and strengths and weaknesses in certain courses or activities. Please type your name and Social Security number on the top of each page.”
“Enclose a statement of about two pages describing important or unusual aspects of yourself not otherwise apparent in your application. The statement must be submitted electronically with your electronic application. While admission to Stanford Law School is based primarily upon superior academic achievement and potential to contribute to the legal profession, the Admissions Committee also regards the diversity of an entering class as important to the school’s educational mission. If you would like the committee to consider how factors such as your background, life and work experiences, advanced studies, extracurricular or community activities, culture, socioeconomic status, sex, race, ethnicity, religion, or sexual orientation would contribute to the diversity of the entering class and hence to your classmates’ law school experience, please describe these factors and their relevance.”
“Your personal statement should give the Admissions Committee insight into your character and experiences. Please review the Admissions Bulletin for a list of factors that the Admissions Committee considers in the admissions process. Your personal statement may not exceed two (2) typewritten, double-spaced pages with a font size no smaller than 11 points.”