By Phillip Mink
Director of the Patriot Prelaw Program (P3)
Schar School of Policy and Government
- Law School Descriptions of the Personal Statement
- University Descriptions of the Personal Statement
- Finding a Topic and General Advice
- Publicly Available Statements
- Concluding Thoughts
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During every admissions cycle, law schools form three pools of applicants: (1) clearly in, (2) clearly out, and (3) maybe. The personal statement won’t matter much for the first or second pools, but if you’re in the third, a great statement can distinguish you from your competition. That can mean the difference between acceptance and denial, and between funding and nothing.
The Concept. An admissions committee already knows your GPA and LSAT scores, so the statement should, according to the Princeton Review, communicate “who you really are and what has made you the person you are today.” To do that, you should tell a story that illuminates the unique personal characteristics you can bring to a school.
The Topic. The writing process begins by identifying a topic. This can be anything that will set you apart from others in the applicant pool. One student discussed her various hair colors, and she compared herself favorably to the main character in the movie Legally Blonde. Another student explained how his experiences as a Nordstrom salesperson gave him the people skills to succeed in professional life. A third wrote about the abuse she suffered from her favorite high-school teacher. A fourth talked about the medical malpractice that resulted in his grandfather’s death. The possibilities are limitless. Be sure to read each law school’s requirements, however, because some schools ask that you explain why you want to be a lawyer and why you want to attend their particular school.
The Writing Process. Once you settle on a topic, you must write with a storyteller’s techniques. That means creating a narrative that will pull the reader through your statement from the first sentence to the last. In the process you must avoid abstract and generic language. Instead you should fill every sentence with specific details. Finally, you should keep in mind that committee members at competitive schools read thousands of statements during every admissions cycle, so you have about 15 seconds to catch their attention. If your writing isn’t compelling from the start, your statement will be tossed aside.
Revision: Once you have written a first draft, you have to revise repeatedly, just as professional writers do. Your document will be complete only when a reader can journey through your narrative without pausing to consider an unclear phrase or a badly chosen word. It also has to be error-free. If you’re not confident in your proofing and grammar skills, ask for help.
Length: One single-spaced page is plenty of space to convince an admissions committee that you are an excellent candidate. Some schools allow more than that, but your statement has to be extraordinary to keep them reading past a single-spaced page.
This document will provide a multitude of resources that show what law schools want to see in personal statement, and it is organized into four sections: Law School Descriptions of the Personal Statement, University Descriptions of the Personal Statement, Finding a Topic and General Advice, and Publicly Available Personal Statements. As the information below indicates, the overwhelming majority of law schools don’t ask that you write about why you want to become a lawyer, and the same is true of undergraduate institutions’ recommendations. That said, you can certainly write about why you are attracted to the law. So long as the story is compelling and reveals the person behind the application, you may write about whatever you want. Just make it great. Before you write anything, however, read this document to gain a clear sense of what you should do.
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1. Law School Descriptions of the Personal Statement
George Mason University Antonin Scalia Law School
“Your personal statement can be on any topic. The personal statement gives you the opportunity to tell the Admissions Committee about yourself in addition to the academic and professional accomplishments listed in your application. Use the personal statement to help the Admissions Committee learn more about you. You may choose to write about a person who was a major influence in your life. You may write about a significant obstacle that you have had to overcome. You may choose to write about one significant experience you have had over the course of your life. You may even choose to write about why you wish to attend law school, what your ultimate goals are, and/or how you came to your decision to pursue a legal career. What you write about is entirely up to you. In addition to learning more about you, the Admissions Committee looks to the personal statement to evaluate your writing ability. Be sure you use proper grammar, good paragraph construction, and convey your message in a concise manner. Proofread your statement to be sure there are no typos. And, most importantly, be yourself in your personal statement. Do not try to use big words and complex sentences to impress. Write clearly and concisely to convey your message.”
American University Washington College of Law
“Our personal statement prompt is open-ended in order to give you the chance to discuss what you feel is important for the Committee on Admissions to know about you. Your personal statement should focus on who you are and why you want to attend law school, either in general or at AUWCL specifically.”
George Washington University Law School
“An applicant must submit a personal statement on any subject of importance that he or she feels will assist the Admissions Committee in its decision. It should be no more than two pages, double-spaced. Applicants may also submit an optional statement discussing characteristics and accomplishments they believe will contribute positively to the GW Law community and to the legal profession.”
Yale Law School
“A good personal statement provides a coherent narrative of what has brought you to this point (in your life, of applying to law school, or a combination of the two). What this narrative consists of will depend on the person writing it. For some, it may focus on their upbringing or cultural background. For others, it may be an intellectual journey, where certain ideas or courses influenced you. And for others it may be one or several experiences, personal or professional, that were meaningful. Whatever the narrative is, the reader gets an idea of the major events, turning points, influences, or experiences that make up who you are.”
Yale Law School 250-Word Essay
“The 250-word essay on any subject of the student’s choice, which the Yale Law Admissions Committee uses ‘to evaluate an applicant’s writing, reasoning, and editing skills.’ ”
Harvard Law School
“The personal statement should give the Admissions Committee a better sense of who you are as a person and as a potential student and graduate of Harvard Law School. In many instances, applicants have used the personal statement to provide more context on how their experiences and strengths could make them valuable contributors to the Harvard and legal communities, to illuminate their intellectual background and interests, or to clarify or elaborate on other information in their application. Because applicants and their experiences differ, you are the best person to determine the content of your statement.”
Temple Law School
“The personal statement is your opportunity to present yourself, your background, your experiences, and your ideas to the Admissions Committee. You may want to write about your intellectual interests, your career goals, your achievements, your family background, or your involvement in your community. It is up to you to decide what you want to write about and how you want to express your thoughts. Keep in mind that the readers of your personal statement will be trying to get a sense of you as a person and as a prospective Temple Law School student. … There is no specific length required for the personal statement, although on average, personal statements are two to three pages in length.”
Loyola Law School (Los Angeles)
“A personal statement assists the admissions committee in selecting a highly-qualified and diverse entering class. It is also used to assess each applicant’s written English skills. The personal statement provides each applicant with the opportunity to describe his or her interest in law school, the uniqueness of his or her character and experience, and his or her potential to contribute to Loyola’s community.”
“The topic of the personal statement is up to you. We suggest that you approach the personal statement as your opportunity to present personal information about yourself that you would discuss during an interview. Your statement will be evaluated for both content and construction, so write about something interesting and write about it well.”
University of Chicago
“Most importantly, a personal statement is supposed to be PERSONAL! We want to hear about you, what makes you tick, what motivates you, and what inspires you. We are trying to make up a class of interesting, dynamic people, and this is the place to show us that you will add something vital to our school.”
University of Maryland School of Law
“We recommend that you use the personal statement to present to the Admissions Committee information and perspectives regarding your background, experience, special circumstances and interests that you believe will help the Committee understand your unique story. In addition, the statement should address why you are interested in obtaining a law degree and, more specifically, in attending the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law.”
West Virginia University School of Law
“The only requirement for the personal statement is that it may only be a maximum of two pages, typed and double-spaced with one inch margins. The subject matter is completely up to you! We recommend that at some point in your statement that you include why you wish to pursue a legal education. Also, proofread, proofread, PROOFREAD! Writing is a large part of law school and the legal profession. This is your chance to prove that you have a strong writing ability.”
2. University Descriptions of the Personal Statement
“The personal statement, one of the most important parts of your law school application, is an opportunity to highlight your writing ability, your personality, and your experience. Think of it as a written interview during which you get to choose the question. What one thing do you wish the admissions evaluators knew about you?”
Ohio Wesleyan University
“Though many law school applicants write contemplative personal statements and focus on an abstract idea or a philosophical issue – the meaning of ‘liberty or justice, for example – admissions officers seldom pick these for at least three reasons: 1) the writer’s thought process becomes derailed or muddled; 2) the writer often neglects to link abstract ideas to something concrete and personal; and 3) they don’t reveal the person.”
The University of Virginia
“Your personal statement gives you the opportunity to set yourself apart from other applicants. To successfully utilize the personal statement, spotlight one or two particular experiences that demonstrate your drive and intention for applying to law school. Your personal statement should provide depth into why and how you are pursuing a law degree and why you would thrive as a law student.”
“This is an opportunity to distinguish yourself from other applicants and to explain your qualifications beyond what is revealed by your transcript and test scores.”
“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.”
“Law schools look for a concise, well-written personal essay that shows that you can write coherently.”
“After your LSAT and GPA, your personal statement is the most important part of your law school applications. You should plan to spend a significant amount of time on it.”
“This is your opportunity to distinguish yourself from other applicants, and explain why you would be a perfect an excellent addition to their student body. An essay that is powerful and vivid and focuses on you and your experiences and accomplishments is much more powerful and effective than an essay on your thoughts on, say, the American legal system. You might discuss 1) a turning point in your decision to attend law school, 2) a role model for yourself, 3) a personal struggle or accomplishment, or 4) a leadership, employment, or community service experience that is somehow related to your interest in law.”
“Since most law schools do not include an interview as part of the application process, your personal statement is the only chance you have to ‘speak’ directly to the admissions committee. It is best if you use this limited space to sell yourself, rather than as a place to ‘explain’ a low grade or any other less than perfect aspect of your application. Effective personal statements usually read more like a story and less like a narrative resume. Be sure to write several drafts, and have several readers before finalizing your statement.”
Wake Forest University
“A personal statement is just what its name implies – a statement that tells the admissions officers who are reviewing your application something personal about you. It’s your best opportunity to highlight information about yourself that might otherwise be ‘lost’ in the large file of information that comprises your law school application. On paper, you’re going to look a lot like many other applicants in terms of your GPA, LSAT, honors, awards, and extracurricular activities. Your personal statement allows you to let the admissions committee know that you are a unique individual who has particular gifts, ideas, and experiences to contribute to the class.”
3. Finding a Topic and General Advice
U.S. News’s “Brainstorm Unique Law School Personal Statement Topics”
“Two popular, generic topics that prospective students often choose are study abroad or their experience with the legal system…. Keep in mind, however, that a personal statement about one of these more common experiences may be a topic about which the admissions committee has already read many times. This may make you less noticeable among those in the applicant pool who share the same general characteristics.”
Huffington Post’s “How to Choose a Topic for Your Law School Personal Statement”
“Admissions committees review countless applications for each admissions cycle. Try to distinguish yourself by highlighting experiences that make you unique. Think about your friends’ experiences – if they can tell a story similar to yours, it may not be the best topic for your personal statement.”
From Accepted: “5 Law School Personal Statement Mistakes to Avoid”
“Your essay should be error-free and easy to read. Avoid too-long sentences and make sure you have someone else proofread it. Law is a writing profession and mistakes are generally inexcusable.”
Natural Jurist’s “Personal Statements: What to Write About”
“When you are thinking about what to write, think about something you are passionate about – it will come through in your essay. Don’t worry so much about what you think the admissions office wants to hear, or about trying to sound like a lawyer. Think about what they don’t already know about you from other parts of your application. What distinguishes you from the pack? If there were five other applicants with your same GPA and LSAT scores, they may be looking for what makes you unique.”
Princeton Review’s “Essential Tips for Your Law School Personal Statement”
“Who are you? What makes you unique? Sometimes, applicants answer these questions in a superficial way. It’s not enough to tell the admissions committee that you’re an Asian-American from Missouri. You need to give them a deeper sense of yourself.”
Law School Expert’s “Law School Personal Statement Tips”
“There are certain things a law school wants to be assured of – maturity despite youth, commitment to the study of law despite lacking a specific career aspiration, ability to succeed in a rigorous environment, independent thinking skills, feeling a duty greater than simple self-interest. A good personal statement uses none of these phrases, but tells a story that convinces the reader to come to the conclusion(s) on his/her own. A good personal statement is interesting to read, without needing to rely on shock value. It has a conversational rather than academic tone. It’s not there to show how many big words you know. Lawyers need to write like real people – clear sentences.”
Above the Law’s “8 Tips for Writing a Personal Statement”
“Don’t reiterate things from your resume. Leave job descriptions to the resume, and if you discuss resume items in the personal statement, be sure to take a more anecdotal and lessons-learned approach rather than describing your duties and accomplishments.”
4. Publicly Available Statements
- University of Chicago
- Boston University School of Law
- Ohio Wesleyan
- Top Law Schools
- LSAT Blog: 10 Real Law School Personal Statements
The links above tell you what kind of statements law schools want to see, and several links take you to real examples. However, none of those resources show you a first draft. Yet that is where all statements begin, and where the process of revision takes hold.
Discussing an excellent statement in the abstract may inform you what your final draft should look like, but it does not address the more challenging questions. What do we mean, for instance, when we say a student has 15 seconds to catch an admissions officer’s attention? And what do we mean when we say a statement must be flawlessly written? Not even professional writers can achieve those standards on a first draft. And that is why students must revise and revise and revise again.
In Part II we will show how one student did just that.