The personal statement for law school is a document that law school Admissions Committees read with great interest. The more effective personal statements tend to be in the form of anecdotal, personal histories which lead the reader to believe the writer might be an interesting and valuable addition to the new class. Contrary to what you may have heard, law schools DO read the personal statement. It is an important piece of your application materials.
What is a personal statement?
It is the story of you. Before we get into content of the essay it is important to be aware of, or at least have some guidelines about, the purpose of the essay. The following are some components that the personal statement must fulfill:
- The essay represents you in lieu of an interview with an Admissions Officer. Law schools typically do not grant interviews (the exception is Northwestern). Even if you are willing to incur the expense of travel and lodging, law school Admissions Deans will not schedule interviews — law schools are simply not staffed to handle thousands of interviews. That said, your personal statement speaks to the Admissions Committee on your behalf.
- The essay is a writing sample. As such, it must be free of grammar and punctuation errors. What you write will reflect how well you express yourself in a clear and concise manner. In the competitive reading of literally thousands of personal statements, conciseness, interest and uniqueness are major virtues.
- The essay demonstrates your ability to craft an argument, an important skill in law school. Resist the impulse to tell the Admissions Committee everything about you. Or, to write your essay as a paragraph form of your resume. Convey your ideas creatively and back them up with evidence or accomplishments.
While it is important to respond to each law school’s application instructions on what is requested in the personal statement, the requirements are generally such that one essay may be used for most law schools. The usual required length is 500 words: two pages, double-spaced.
What should I write about?
In a word, you. The Admissions Committee will have your transcript, GPA and LSAT score (your “numbers”), resume and application. What they don’t have is a sense of who you are. Often, the personal statement is what makes one application be selected for admission over other candidates with equal, or better, “numbers.”
Try to think of your application as a whole and how an Admissions Committee would view it. Can you spot any issues or areas that should or could be further addressed? Address such issues clearly and make your argument convincing; summon facts and present them in a clear, organized and convincing manner. For example, if your interest is public sector law it makes perfect sense that your personal statement support this by writing about your experience(s) in the nonprofit arena. Personalize your essay by telling a story about yourself.
Despite what many law school applications will instruct regarding the personal statement, you do not have to write the entire essay about why you want to go to law school. (Admissions Deans know you want to go to law school — they have your application in front of them! What they don’t know is who you are as an applicant to law school.)
Sample Personal Statement Topics:
- Something about which you are passionate, such as a sport or volunteer activity
- An experience that resulted in intellectual or emotional growth
- A challenge that you not only met, but surpassed
- Your academic interests and research
- Work experience
DOs and DON’Ts
- DO be concise. Law School Admissions Committees read literally thousands of these statements, so an economy of phrase is appreciated. Can a sentence or two be cut without compromising your meaning?
- DO be relevant. Your statement should convey information which the reader doesn't have. That information should be about you. Writing about things you have no personal knowledge of or things which have happened to others tend to be non-personal, generally undercutting the purpose of a “personal” statement.
- DO be diligent in your attention to detail. Unfortunately, Admissions Committees look for easy things to reject personal statements like misspellings, typos and poor grammar.
- DON'T be theoretical. For example, an essay on “law is the fabric that holds society together” or “the value of law to a civilized society” is usually playing to an audience/committee of admissions deans and law professors, so your effort may come off as naïve (obviously not your intent). Writing about something the committee doesn't know (like yourself) is more likely to be impressive (obviously that is your intent!). Remember, this is not an academic exercise to demonstrate some newly acquired knowledge; it's a personalization of your application.
- DON'T use quotes and DON’T title your statement. Quotes are usually the ideas of others, and often presage a theoretical discussion, which, as stated above, is best to avoid. In fact, more than a few law school Admissions Deans have made specific mention on how quotes set their teeth on edge, especially when they occur in the first sentence. The “theme” of your statement should come through to the reader(s) without having to title it.
- DON’T use the personal statement to explain a low GPA or LSAT score. Include a separate “supplemental statement” to explain the reason for a semester of poor grades or the fact that you historically do not do well on standardized tests. This information is important for the Admissions Committees to receive, but not in your personal statement.