Schools place a premium on the personal statement because it’s the one thing in a candidate’s application that deals with the essence of the law profession: writing. Law school admissions committees want the opportunity to examine the applicant’s writing and determine the degree of efficacy with which the applicant can create and develop logical ideas while also reaching out and connecting with an audience. In addition, law schools are interested in knowing what the candidate values personally, professionally, morally, and intellectually–the personal statement is the place to see that. It presents a “human” aspect to the law school application that can be found nowhere else and, in certain situations, can be the deciding factor between a denial, waitlist, or acceptance.
There is no single way to tell someone how to write a great personal statement, since everyone has a different writing style and story to tell. However, there are a few rules essay editors and law school applicants can follow that will ensure that they are at least keeping within what makes the Admissions Committee happy:
It’s not what you write, but how you write it.
Virtually any topic can be exciting if written about in the right manner. Conversely, any topic can be dull if written about poorly. The way in which the story is framed is critical to a successful essay, and many of the tips below focus on this crucial element.
In this same vein, try to work out the general essay structure before working on details such as the exact words and phrasings. Have applicants get the general ideas on paper without initial regard for perfect diction, etc. It’s like building a house—which do you do first: pick out the wallpaper, or select the basic floor plan? The essay’s outline, its blueprint, is essential to a good writing foundation.
Show, don’t tell.
In personal statements we tend to use the short story format, which means that we try to engage the reader through a narrative featuring anecdotes, story tension, et cetera. If a writer simply states everything in a matter-of-fact manner, there is no mystery or excitement, and the essay will lack vibrancy. For example, applicants shouldn’t tell their readers that they are courageous; instead, they should show them that they are courageous by relating the story of how they saved someone from a burning building.
Hook ’em up front.
Almost all essays should feature an action opening—that is, one that immediately involves the reader in a story and engages their interest.
Wrong: As a marathon runner, I show perseverance and determination on a monthly basis. I am a fierce competitor, and I always fight to the end.
Right: As I passed the twenty five mile mark, I could feel my legs begin to give out and my vision begin to blur. I had run many marathons before, but this was the first one where I lead this far into the race. Yet, right behind me I could hear the steps of another runner slowly getting closer. I took a deep breath, clenched my fists, and prayed I could summon the will to complete the last mile and win the race.
Although the above are two very rough examples, ask yourself: which essay do you want to continue reading?
Also, steer clear of giving an overview of the whole essay in the first paragraph. Instead, use the flow of the story to draw the reader through the essay and then summarize at the end (and then only if needed).
Don’t generalize—be specific.
Details are the spice of life, and they are what draw us to other people (for example, which is more interesting: “She has a job” or “She is an aerospace engineer”?). General statements typically do not convey enough information to be interesting (for example, “I will work very hard in law school” is obvious and conveys no new or useful information).
Put the “person” in the personal statement.
It is called a Personal Statement (and not the Impersonal Statement) for a reason! Applicants should use the essay to talk about themselves. Make sure to include anecdotes, examples, and details that both convey what sets the applicant apart, and truly explore who they are.
Think about the wild popularity of tabloids. Tabloids sell because they include the juicy details about people. Essays that contain personal details are inherently more interesting. Just don’t make any of the details up!
Do not make the reader ask questions or pause while reading.
Anything that stops or slows down a reader is a problem. Make sure the narrative is linear, makes sense, and does not leave the reader waiting or asking for an integral piece of information.
Don’t try to cover every base.
Some writers try to use the personal statement to address every aspect of their application or person. This is both an impossible task and makes the essay seem unfocused and disorganized. Some things must be left out, so use the statement to focus on the most important and compelling aspects of the applicant and their story.
Don’t focus on negatives.
In most cases, the personal statement should focus on positives. Any negatives should be addressed in an addendum. If a negative must be addressed, it should speak to how the applicant overcame the problem or difficulty, how they have grown as a person because of it, and how they will apply the knowledge they gleaned from the experience to better themselves and their situation.
Bring elements in from off the page.
The essay is there to fill in the picture and connect the dots. Simply repeating the applicant’s résumé, recommendation(s), or address something already discussed in another part of the application is a waste of valuable application real estate.
You do not have to tell people why you are going to law school unless you have a good reason.
Not everyone has a compelling reasoning for going to law school, so don’t fake it if the candidate falls into that category. Instead, try to reveal the characteristics the applicant possesses that would make them a desirable applicant.
Build a bridge to the reader.
Can the reader picture what the applicant is doing and what they are thinking? If so, they are more likely to be swayed by the story presented in the personal statement. If not, how can they understand who the applicant is? This point is much easier to achieve if the writer uses anecdotes as a storytelling device.
Do not make statements that lack support early in the essay.
For example, do not say, “I love analyzing the constitution,” in the first paragraph because it does not sound believable (yes, one of our applicants actually said that exact thing). Wait until the middle or end to bring up the fact that the applicant worked for a congressman known as the “lover of the constitution.” Avoiding unsupportable statements early on in the essay will also allow the writer to hook their readers from the start.
It’s more about what they want to hear and less about what you want to say.
Never forget who the target audience is, and who will be reading the essay. Focus on telling them what they need to know, rather than what you are desperate to tell them. Let them see a part of you that can’t be found anywhere else in the essay; resist the urge to tout your achievements (particularly if they are already discussed elsewhere, like your résumé).
Treat your essay like the most important piece of writing in your application, and it will go a long way towards ensuring your acceptance.