Other than an applicant’s LSAT score and undergraduate GPA, the most important component of a law school application is the personal statement.
The personal statement is your opportunity to tell admissions committees about the person behind the numbers, achievements and other aspects of you that they will learn about in the other parts of your application. A great personal statement, therefore, leaves the reader with a sense of who you are as a person, what motivates you, and what experiences and skills make you ready to excel as a law student and as a lawyer.
Here are our top five dos and don’ts for writing a great law school personal statement.
DO brainstorm several topics before deciding what you are going to write about.
The first topic you come up with will likely not be the strongest one. By brainstorming many topics, you allow yourself both the time to dig deep into your academic, professional and personal experiences and explore areas of your background and accomplishments that might not at first glance seem to be applicable to a law school application essay. Many of the most powerful essays are those that come not from common experiences, but those that are from off the beaten path and highlight aspects of who you are that are not readily apparent from other parts of your application.
DO outline your essay before beginning to write it.
The major benefit of outlining your essay before turning it into prose (as opposed to simply sitting down and writing a first draft of the essay) is that you are separating two important steps in the writing process: structuring your thoughts and articulating them. Outlining your essay enables you to focus only on the structure and get that to where you want it to be. After you’ve settled on the structure, you can focus exclusively on clarity, word choice, and other verbal aspects of your essay.
DO go through several drafts of your personal statement.
Regardless of your writing ability and experience, your first draft will not be your best effort. Going through several drafts of your essay will enable you to look carefully at the clarity and word choice of your essay. In addition, giving yourself a couple of days off between drafts will allow you to look at the essay with fresh eyes. This often allows you to see aspects of the essay that you might not if you are trying to complete several drafts in a shorter amount of time.
DO create two versions to accommodate different length requirements.
Although one personal statement is appropriate to be used for all law school applications (occasionally some minor tweaks are appropriate to convey an interest in a specific school), length requirements for schools can vary significantly. Some schools limit personal statements to two or three pages, others to a word limit such as 600 or 1000 words. As most applicants apply to between 10 and 15 schools, you are likely to have to satisfy several different length requirements. The easiest way to do this is to prepare a three-page version and a two-page version, which are the two most common length requirements. You can then modify these versions to fit the exact length requirements of all the schools you are applying to.
To create these two separate versions, start by writing a three-page version and pare it down by removing one of the three (or so) experiences you describe in your essay, and then by searching for any words that can be removed and phrases that can be written more concisely without losing the meaning.
DO proofread your final version.
This might go without saying, but proofreading your essay to make sure that there are no typos or grammatical errors is particularly important when completing a law school application. Verbal precision is one of the most important aspects of both being a law school student and a lawyer, and your personal statement is the first significant piece of writing you will submit as you enter the law school community and the legal profession. Admissions committees will notice any careless errors and, although such errors alone will not determine whether or not you are offered admission, they are definitely in the “negative” column.
You will not be able to create your best effort without devoting at least a few weeks to the creation of your personal statement. From brainstorming, outlining, drafting, and proofreading, you should expect the process to take several weeks. Leaving this part of the application to the end will inevitably lead to a suboptimal product that won’t leave a good impression on the admissions committees that read it.
DON’T avoid negative experiences.
Speaking candidly about setbacks, disappointments, or situations you don’t feel you handled properly can often create very strong topics. Although sometimes difficult to discuss, addressing these topics gives you the opportunity to show admissions committees that you are both thoughtful about your past and that you can learn and grow from your mistakes. The key in addressing negative experiences is in focusing on what you have learned and how you have changed. Coupling a negative experience with a later positive experience is a great way to describe such a change.
DON’T talk about the experiences of others.
Many people feel compelled to mention or discuss the experiences of family members, ancestors, or close friends. While the experiences of others may help provide background to your own experiences, it is important to remember that this essay is about you, and admissions committees are considering you, not a friend or relative, for admission. Law schools want to hear about you, your own experiences, and what you bring to the table.
DON’T create a prose version of your resume.
Although it is very important, the personal statement is only one component of your application. Admissions committees will have lots more information about you from the other components of your application: your academic transcript, your resume, your letters of recommendation, etc. The personal statement is your opportunity to go beyond those other aspects and show admissions committees something about who you are as a person. Don’t miss out on that opportunity by simply narrating the academic and professional steps you have taken up to this point.
DON’T attempt to replicate examples of personal statements posted online or in published essay collections.
There are many examples of personal statements available on the web, in books, and in other places. Keep in mind that these essays are published and distributed because they are uncommon. These essays worked well for those who wrote them because they stood out and were personal. Instead of copying what you have read from other sources, create an essay that is personal to you just as those essays were personal to the people who wrote them.
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Your personal statement is an opportunity to present yourself as more than an LSAT score and GPA. The personal statement sets you apart from other candidates. It is also a sample of your ability to express thoughts clearly and cogently.
- Brainstorm any topics or themes you might want to consider for your statement.
- Select 1-2 topics/themes you believe will be the strongest.
- Write a rough draft. Don’t worry about length, style, or grammar.
- Put it away for a while. Time adds an interesting perspective on your writing.
- Redraft and edit as needed.
- Have several people read it- professors, a prelaw advisor, or the Writing Place.
- Consider the feedback you have been given and craft your final draft.
- Proofread, proofread, and proofread.
If the school does not specify a topic (and many don’t, but always check) here are a few ideas to help you brainstorm:
- Hobbies/work/other experiences that have shaped you
- How you became interested in the law
- Life events that have changed or motivated you
- Challenges & hurdles you have overcome
- An issue or subject that you feel strongly about and why (just make sure not to “preach”)
- The growth you’ve experienced in college
- A unique experience that you have had inside or outside the classroom
- Your goals and the events that have shaped those goals
Things to Watch for when Writing and Editing
- Ensure that you answered the essay questions they provided
- Remember to put the “personal” in the personal statement – use a personal stories/anecdotes
- Avoid just restating your resume or transcript: law schools are looking to get to know who you are outside of your achievements
- Most schools do not place restrictions on the personal statement but a general guideline is 2-3 pages double spaced (although check with each school for specific guidelines)
Formatting your Personal Statement
- Make it distinctive by telling a story
- State your topic
Detailed Body Paragraphs
- Focused, each with its own topic sentence
- Relevant, each contributing/supporting to your main idea
- Summarization of your points
- Brings essay full circle to the beginning
Top Mistakes Made in Personal Statements
- Spelling and grammatical errors.
- Sending the wrong letter to the wrong school.
- Staying too detached in your writing style and not letting your personality come through in your “personal” statement.
- Using too many big words, “legalese,” or research jargon.
- Spending just a few hours on your personal statement and submitting your first draft.
- Not following directions: exceeding the specified page limitations, not answering the questions.
- Using gimmicks such as writing in crayon, modeling your personal statement as a legal brief, or writing it as a poem.
Many law schools have sections on their admission pages/blogs that contain guidelines and/or samples of personal statements. Print resources for writing personal statements:
101 Law School Personal Statements That Made a Difference by Dr. Nancy L. Nolan
Law School Essays That Made a Difference, 6th Edition (Graduate School Admissions Guides) by the Princeton Review