How to Write a Law School Personal Statement
Admission to law school is competitive and many applicants will have similar grade and LSAT scores. The personal statement is a precious opportunity to make an impression and separate yourself from the rest. Given its importance to successful admission, a substantial amount of time should be committed to making it the best that you can.
There is a wealth of information on writing personal statements but some of it is contradictory. This is not necessarily because the information is misguided but because there is no correct way to write a personal statement. In fact, if a substantial number of personal statements are written in what is thought to be the correct way then it becomes incorrect because they sound familiar and impersonal. What follows are not strict rules to writing personal statements but some useful information that should be taken on board.
The personal statement is in lieu of an interview and is an opportunity for law schools to look beyond the objective aspects of the application and discover something about you as an individual. The subject of the essay can vary between schools but many leave the applicant with significant discretion. An example is the brief provided by Harvard Law School:
- “Applicants present themselves, their backgrounds, experiences, and ideas to the Admissions Committee in a Personal Statement. Because people and their experiences are diverse, you are the best person to determine the content of your own statement. It is for you to decide what information you would like to convey, and the best way for you to convey it. Whatever you write, readers will be seeking to get a sense of you as a person and as a potential student and graduate of Harvard Law School. In this context, it is generally more helpful to write what you think readers should know to have a better sense of who you are rather than writing what you think the readers want to read.”
Other schools may be more specific and ask that you write about a specific achievement or experience. Some may even provide a title question. If the school does set specific requirements then you may have to write more than one personal statement but you should be able to write just one, or in some cases, two statements.
The possible topics upon which a statement could be based are diverse. You could think about travel experiences, life changing events such as the death of someone close to you, significant people in your life and how they affected you, significant books you have read, sports, employment, internships, etc. Think about events that have been formative and encouraged you to grow emotionally or intellectually. They need not be dramatic and entail you triumphing over huge adversity. They need to be true events that have shaped you in a relevant way.
Bear in mind that writing on something you are passionate about will make your essay more engaging and effective. Above all, remember that you are selling yourself and choose content that is positive, interesting, and about you.
Law Schools do not simply want to read a statement that is interesting. They want a statement that is interesting and about you. The content you choose must therefore reveal something about your background, qualities or ideas. It might show that you are driven, demonstrate personal growth or reveal a quality that the law school would like to have in its class. You should then elaborate on the quality you have chosen.
Tell a Story
Telling the school that you are driven and intelligent may be a fair description, but describing attributes in such abstract terms is not persuasive. A more effective means is to demonstrate your qualities with an anecdotal story and make the reader draw his own conclusion that you have a certain quality. Stories are a great way of conveying meaning because they can be interesting and they remain in the reader’s memory. They can also provide the writer with a useful ‘way in’ to the essay.
The story that you choose does not necessarily have to have you at its center. It simply needs to be an interesting anecdote that can be used to tell the reader something about you and your character. It is by no means the only way of writing a personal statement but it is frequently used because it is effective.
You are probably aware of the need to present yourself as unique, but this must not be misunderstood. It does not mean that you have to distinguish yourself as exceptional compared to the other thousands of applicants; an attempt to do so can make writing the personal statement an impossible task. What law schools look for as ‘unique’ in a student are personal and individual qualities that can have a positive impact in their classrooms.
How Creative Should You Be?
This is a question on which it is difficult to give firm advice. Obviously, you cannot be too bland. However, neither should you be overly daring and creative and end up with an essay which is gimmicky. Joyce Curll, the Assistant Dean for Admission at Harvard Law School gives the following advice:
“To avoid mistakes you must walk the narrow line between being too cautious or too ‘creative’ in the personal statement. If you are too cautious and only provide us a shopping list of such standard things as what you’ve done, where you’ve been, and why you want to go to law school, you may come across as bland and uninteresting, or fail to convey what kind of mind you have. A shopping list is frequently just a recapitulation of materials found elsewhere in the application and adds nothing of what the person would contribute to the class. If you are too creative, the statement can be too cute-attention-getting but not impressing.” From How to Write a Winning Personal Statement for Graduate and Professional School, Richard Stelzer, Thomson Petersons, Third Edition, 2002.
Ultimately, finding the balance between being too dull and too creative is one of personal judgment.
Topics to Avoid
Why I want to go to law school
If you write entirely about why you want to go to law school, it will be very difficult to be original and interesting. Admissions staff will have heard it all several times before. The very fact that you have applied to law school and endured the rigor of the admissions process demonstrates that you want to go there. Law schools are more interested in your academic potential and why you will be a good law student. Of course, there are exceptions. If you have experienced a significant event that has made you want to go to law school for a specific reason or you have volunteered or worked in an area that is of great interest to you, then there is no reason why you should not talk about it.
On a similar note, avoid writing too much about your desired career. It is very difficult as a pre-law student to have a good understanding of the various areas of law and your ambitions will probably change as you go through law school. Your current ambitions are not therefore interesting to a law school professor.
Bringing freedom and justice to the world
This is also an overused topic but it has other problems as well. Very few lawyers actually work for protecting civil liberties and so writing about your desire to do so may display an ignorance about the work of a lawyer. Neither is it wise to write on the law or law’s role in society. Your ideas may be excellent for a pre-law student but to a law school professor they will probably seem naive.
Explaining a low GPA or LSAT score
Using the personal statement to explain away a poor semester or a low LSAT score is a waste of an opportunity to sell yourself and tell the law school something positive. It is not what the personal statement is for. If you feel that it is necessary then do so in the form of an addendum to your application.
Be careful with political views
Some advice on personal statements steers students away from stating political views. If a view is stated strongly then the writer can appear belligerent and intolerant of opposing views. These are not lawyerly attributes. However, this advice may not be sound. Law schools look for people with different ideas and strongly formed opinions in order to create an intellectually stimulating atmosphere. The best advice is probably to include political views if you wish but just be careful how it is worded. You should present your opinion with an air of humility rather than obnoxious confidence.
A note on quotes
Statements based on quotes now tend to be very unpopular. A quote suggests that the writer is relying on someone else’s ideas and is unable to present the theme of the statement effectively in their own words. Several admissions deans have actually expressed their dislike of the use of quotes. It is an overused and ineffective device.
Content is not the only important aspect of the personal statement. The way in which it is written is perhaps equally crucial. You must demonstrate that you can express yourself with clarity and that you have the ability to construct a strong argument. These skills are vital for any aspiring law student and vital for any personal statement.
Make a good impression as early as possible
A useful way to think about the writing in your essay is to put yourself in the position of the admissions deans. They will read hundreds of essays and you can imagine that not every essay will be read carefully. However, essays that make a good first impression will draw more attention. It is therefore vital that your essay has a great introduction that stimulates interest. You could start with a question that the reader will want to know the answer to, or a story, or even the end of a story which will make the reader want to read on. However you chose to write your introduction, it must make the reader want to take that extra bit of time to read it carefully.
Be clear and concise
The reader must not have to work hard to understand the essay. The basic theme, tone and subject of your essay must be clear from early on. It must be coherent, with a clear structure and a logical progression that is easy to follow.
Be sincere and genuine in your writing
Because the whole idea of a personal statement is to say something about you, its tone should be honest and sincere. It can also pay to reveal some personal emotion. A bit of excitement, sadness or even embarrassment can be an effective means of conveying a sense of who you are.
Give yourself time
A crucial part of writing a great essay is to give yourself enough time. If you start writing in the summer before you want to go to law school then you will have sufficient time to make several drafts or even to start again if necessary. A useful tool is to leave a statement and go back to it after a few weeks. A period of time can give a new perspective on the effectiveness of your essay. It is also wise to get several people, preferably including objective readers, to read your essay and offer advice.
Focus on detail
Whatever you do, pay attention to detail. The admission committee will face a difficult decision trying to separate a lot of applications. Do not provide them with an easy way to discard your application by a simple grammatical error or typo. It could undermine the value of a lot of hard work. Little errors in your statement reflect poorly on your writing abilities. They also reflect negatively on how important you consider admission to law school and what type of lawyer you would be.
Some law schools give guidelines on format and length. If this is the case then comply with those guidelines. If there are no guidelines then it is best to keep your essay to a maximum of around two pages. Any less than two pages and it will be difficult for the reader to get a sense of you as an individual. Any longer than two pages and you may appear long winded. In any case, if your essay is clear and concise then you should not require any more than two pages. Admissions professionals who have to read thousands of statements will appreciate brevity.
The Center for High Achievement an Scholarly Engagement (CHASE) has a library of resources with a wealth of information about law, law schools, the Law School Admission Test (LSAT) and more. All materials can be borrowed for a week and must be checked out in the blue folder in the CHASE office (Jordan Hall, Room 105).
In addition to the resources listed below, the Office has brochures for a large number of law schools.
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- A History of the World’s Great Trials. Aymar and Sagarin. New York Publishing, 1967.
- Asking the Right Questions – A Guide to Critical Thinking. Browne and Keeley. Pearson, Eight Edition, 2007.
- Civil Litigation. Kerly, Hames and Sukys. West Legal Studies, Third Edition 2001.
- Essentials of Alternative Dispute Resolution. Patterson and Seabolt. Pearson publications company, 1997.
- Federal Rules of Evidence with Objections. Anthony Bocchino, David Sonenshein. National Institute for Trial Advocacy. Sixth Edition 2005.
- Foundations of Business Organizations for Paralegals. Margaret Bartschi. West Legal Studies, 2000.
- Heirs of General Practice. John McPhee. The Noonday Press, 1995.
- Introduction to the American Legal System. Enika Shulz. Pearson Publications, 1996.
- International Business Law and its Environment. Schaffer, Earle and Agusti. West Educational Publishing, Fifth ed 2001.
- Learning Legal Reasoning – Briefing, Analysis and Theory. Professor John Delaney. John Delaney Publications, 1992.
- Life’s Dominion – An Argument about Abortion, Euthanasia, and Individual Freedom. Ronald Dworkin. New York, 1993.
- Money and Justice – Who Owns the Courts? Lois Forer. Norton Company 1984.
- Ould Fields, New Corne – The Personal Memoirs of a Twentieth Century Lawyer. Erwin Griswold. West Publishing, 1992.
- ONE L – The Turbulent True Story of a First Year at Harvard Law School. Scott Turow. Warner Books, 1988.
- Order and Law – Arguing the Reagon Revolution. Charles Fried. Simon and Schuster, 1991.
- Paralegal Ethics. Angela Schneeman. West Legal Studies, 2000.
- Personal Injury Litigation. William Statsky. West Legal Studies, Fourth Edition, 2001.
- Problem Solving and Comprehension. Whimbey and Lochhead. Lawrence Erlbaum Inc, Sixth Edition, 1999.
- STAND! Contending Ideas and Opinions. Thomas Hickey. Coursewise publishing, 1999.
- Stories of Scottsboro. James Goodman, 1994.
- The American Bar Association Family Legal Guide. Times Books, 1994.
- The Constitution and What it Means Today. Harold Chase and Craig Ducat. Princeton University Press, 1973.
- The Betrayed Profession – Lawyering at the End of the Twentieth Century. Linowitz and Mayer. McMillan Publishing, 1994.
- The Craft of Legal Reasoning. Brian Porto. Harcourt Brace College Publishers, 1998
- The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down. Anne Fadiman. The Noonday Press, 1997.
This document was written and prepared by Sam Jacobs LL.B.