The essay told an epic tale about a student who struggled to achieve passing grades – moving on and off of academic probation, and through a myriad of stops, shifts, and re-starts, from one college to another – for the better part of a decade following his graduation from high school. For a time, it appeared that he was destined to be a college drop-out. To make matters worse, as the student floundered academically, he bounced around from one retail job to another. Then, one day, he took a position as a grassroots worker on a local political campaign. He quickly realized that he had found something that he loved to do, but just as importantly, he was very good at it. His life soon changed in dramatic ways. He almost immediately became a star local operative for a major political party, and in a very short time period worked his way up and into state-wide and national campaigns. His confidence ultimately inspired his academic career. He transferred any grades that he could (i.e., not the bad ones) to a new university, changed his major to political science, and revamped his study habits. For his final two years of college credit (which were required to attain a degree from the institution to which he had transferred), he aced nearly every course that he took and set his sights on a career in law.
As compelling as the above storyline is, it is important to always keep in mind that an outstanding story counts for little without an effective organizational structure and proper literary execution. Toward that end, the applicant in this case sought to engage the reader by presenting a scene in the opening paragraph which depicted one of the happiest moments of his life – his triumphant college graduation. It was as he moved toward the end of the first paragraph and into the second that he added the engaging twist which showed that his academic success story was far from the norm: it had been ten years (and many failures) in the making. Most importantly, the applicant did not harp on the lengthy, negative period in his life that I described above. Rather, he took a straightforward and succinct approach in recounting the great challenges that had stymied him for so many years. From there, it was off to the heart of the essay – how the applicant overcame his struggle and succeeded, ultimately setting a clear and direct course for law school along the way.
Finally, in the concluding paragraph of the essay, the applicant brought the reader full circle – back to the opening story. There he was, still standing at graduation, but instead of thinking simply about his past and how he had made it to this point, he was now looking toward the future and thinking about how he was fully prepared to conquer the challenges that lay ahead in law school and beyond.
I will never forget the excitement that this applicant felt when he received three acceptance letters from top law schools over three consecutive days. One of these letters came with a handwritten note from a law school dean who praised him for doing such an outstanding job on the personal statement. I should mention that this applicant ultimately ended up declining each of those three offers in favor of an offer from one of the most renowned and oldest law schools in the United States. While these successful results certainly help to keep this applicant’s memory in my mind, it is the personal statement that he wrote which most stirs my recollection.
Like many of my colleagues, I’ve advised on thousands of application essays over the years and been a part of success stories that are far too numerous to mention, but this was one of my most special cases because it showed not only how an applicant can overcome years of struggle, but also how in two double-spaced pages, he can demonstrate his success in a powerful way.
Every once in a while, somewhere out there, a law school applicant does something in the application process that can be described as a real game changer. The personal statement that this particular applicant wrote would probably best be described as a life changer.
Your personal statement is an opportunity to present yourself as more than an LSAT score and GPA. The personal statement sets you apart from other candidates. It is also a sample of your ability to express thoughts clearly and cogently.
- Brainstorm any topics or themes you might want to consider for your statement.
- Select 1-2 topics/themes you believe will be the strongest.
- Write a rough draft. Don’t worry about length, style, or grammar.
- Put it away for a while. Time adds an interesting perspective on your writing.
- Redraft and edit as needed.
- Have several people read it- professors, a prelaw advisor, or the Writing Place.
- Consider the feedback you have been given and craft your final draft.
- Proofread, proofread, and proofread.
If the school does not specify a topic (and many don’t, but always check) here are a few ideas to help you brainstorm:
- Hobbies/work/other experiences that have shaped you
- How you became interested in the law
- Life events that have changed or motivated you
- Challenges & hurdles you have overcome
- An issue or subject that you feel strongly about and why (just make sure not to “preach”)
- The growth you’ve experienced in college
- A unique experience that you have had inside or outside the classroom
- Your goals and the events that have shaped those goals
Things to Watch for when Writing and Editing
- Ensure that you answered the essay questions they provided
- Remember to put the “personal” in the personal statement – use a personal stories/anecdotes
- Avoid just restating your resume or transcript: law schools are looking to get to know who you are outside of your achievements
- Most schools do not place restrictions on the personal statement but a general guideline is 2-3 pages double spaced (although check with each school for specific guidelines)
Formatting your Personal Statement
- Make it distinctive by telling a story
- State your topic
Detailed Body Paragraphs
- Focused, each with its own topic sentence
- Relevant, each contributing/supporting to your main idea
- Summarization of your points
- Brings essay full circle to the beginning
Top Mistakes Made in Personal Statements
- Spelling and grammatical errors.
- Sending the wrong letter to the wrong school.
- Staying too detached in your writing style and not letting your personality come through in your “personal” statement.
- Using too many big words, “legalese,” or research jargon.
- Spending just a few hours on your personal statement and submitting your first draft.
- Not following directions: exceeding the specified page limitations, not answering the questions.
- Using gimmicks such as writing in crayon, modeling your personal statement as a legal brief, or writing it as a poem.
Many law schools have sections on their admission pages/blogs that contain guidelines and/or samples of personal statements. Print resources for writing personal statements:
101 Law School Personal Statements That Made a Difference by Dr. Nancy L. Nolan
Law School Essays That Made a Difference, 6th Edition (Graduate School Admissions Guides) by the Princeton Review