After a certain point, some sections of your law school application are set in stone. Your grades. Your LSAT score. Your letters of recommendation. Your past jobs. But you do wield complete power over one aspect of the application: the personal statement. And that, my friend, is why it deserves some tender loving care. Writing is difficult enough; writing for an audience, maybe worse. But it doesn’t have to be this way. Yes, you too can learn to stop worrying and love the personal statement process. Here is some advice to get you started.
The first step is to understand the purpose of a personal statement and how it figures into your application.* Only then can you put yourself in the correct mindset to write an effective narrative. Contrary to popular belief, admissions officers are not swayed by freshly baked cider donuts or corgi puppies (but feel free to stop by my apartment and drop these off with me).
Admissions officers are impressed, however, when you demonstrate an ability to carefully cull facts from your life that show them your personality, your goals, and your relationships with others. Some want to know how you will make the most of your graduate school education, and let’s be real here: if you’re a “K-JD” like I am, it might be a good idea to explain how your work in school or in extracurricular activities is logically connected to your desire to obtain a J.D. Even if you’re not a straight-through student, writing about your aspirations for the future can provide focus when you are actually in school. When I’m wondering why I’m reading a five-page concurring opinion late at night or un-italicizing commas in a Bluebook citation, I pull out my personal statement and remember: Hey, there is a Reason why I’m here.
Your personal statement can round out your application. If your numbers look great and your academic references are solid, maybe consider writing about something less academic in your application so admissions officers can get an idea of who you are outside the classroom walls. Maybe there’s an extracurricular activity you’ve been engaged in for a substantial period of time, and that one line in the application just doesn’t do it justice. Write about that, then. The point is, you must think strategically about how your personal statement can move the ball forward and enhance, not just confirm or deny, an admissions officer’s initial impression of you from everything else in your application.
If I haven’t lost you yet, great! You get rewarded with some nuts-and-bolts advice. Here are some of the things I did to write a personal statement that I was proud of and that I thought conveyed the most about my personality and my professional goals:
- Find someone you can trust to show you where you’re being too vague, illogical, or wordy. I sought the help of my school’s writing center staff. I was lucky enough to work with someone who had a good track record of helping students explore potential topics, as well as showing them places for improving their sentence structure and word choice once they had something down. If you’re out of school, find the best writer you know in your life and ask him or her for help. Of course, your final work should be entirely your own, but having someone point out areas to improve certainly isn’t a problem.
- Take some time to think and reflect. I came up with the general outline for my personal statement as I was finishing up a long walk in my school’s bird sanctuary. Writing a personal statement takes an intense amount of focus. Find a quiet place where you can really think about what part of you that you want to share. Take some time each day to just sit with your thoughts and see where they take you.
- Come up with a theme, preferably before you write. Ask people that you completely trust what strengths and weaknesses they see in you. Then take some time to really think about what you see in yourself. Compare the stories and come up with a story that is the best reflection of you. Having a theme will give your personal statement a cohesive feel, instead of being a series of disjointed facts tossed into a box. Don’t force the reader to connect the dots–make the connections explicit, and have each sentence contribute to that theme.
- Spend time talking to attorneys. Yes, their experiences might be different, but having some information is better than nothing. I would especially take this step if you mention that you’re interested in a specific area of law or type of work. I wouldn’t come right out and hit admissions officers over the head with the research you’ve done, but it might help for you to write a more focused and informed statement, should you decide to use the information that you gather.
- Explore the school’s website. It is helpful not only to look at the prospective J.D. page, but also to poke around the current J.D. webpages. See what current students are doing, what events they are going to. And if you can make this information personally relevant to you in a meaningful way (beyond “it sounds cool”), all the better for you to give a tailored statement to the school.
- Be sincere, or beware! Unless Charles Xavier has taken a post lately in the admissions office, likely the admissions officers won’t be able to read your mind. What they will spot, however, are moments when you write something only because you think it will get you admitted. Don’t take this gamble! Be sincere.
Good luck on your applications, and happy writing.
I don’t work for the admissions office. But hey, I got admitted, so that has to count for something. My advice: take what you read here and analyze it under what we antitrust nerds call the “rule of reason”–that is, hold up these tips against your own circumstances. The only bright-line rule here: trust your own judgment.