Five dos of personal statement writing
While there are probably hundreds of pointers we could offer when writing effective law school personal statements, these five are especially important:
1. Follow directions
Every law school application has directions about the substance and format of the personal statement you need to write. Whatever those directions are — follow them. You could write a terrific essay, but if it doesn’t answer the prompt or exceed the space allotted, admissions committee members will wonder why you didn’t follow their directions.
Instructions – especially procedural ones like word limits – exist for a reason. Some applicants erroneously think that an admissions officer will forgive even small rule infractions if the overall essay is particularly strong. I can assure you that this will not happen. To do so would unfairly penalize applicants who actually followed the directions, but as a result, were unable to write the most complete response to the prompt. In fairness to the entire applicant pool, many admissions officers first check to see if the applicant followed the directions at the outset and, if it becomes obvious that the applicant did not, will refuse to even begin reading the personal statement. A senseless mistake.
Some law schools may tell you to write about pretty much anything and to choose the length. In such cases, it’s far better to craft a traditional essay and keep it to two pages or less, than to try something substantively risky that goes on for five or 10 pages.
In all instances, you should double-space your personal statement and put your name and LSDAS applicant number at the top of every page.
2. Grammar, spelling and details
The spelling and grammar of your personal statement must be flawless. That is an absolute must. Most personal statements are only two pages/500 words or so in length. Find at least three people to proofread your work before you submit it to any law school. And before you mail or hit the “Send” button on your applications, make sure you are sending the right personal statement to the right law school. This sounds like such obvious advice, but each year law schools receive the personal statements listing the wrong law school, or with changes tracking the comments and additions from proofreaders and editors; either of those mistakes, standing alone, is enough to deny your admission.
3. Distinguish yourself
The whole point of writing a strong personal statement is to convince an admissions committee that your written communication skills and some aspect of your life are more compelling than another applicant with a similar LSAT score. Put differently, if a law school admissions committee is looking to fill out its incoming class with an academic pedigree that’s similar to yours, then you need to explain why you’re more interesting or will make a larger contribution to the incoming class than the other applicant with your same grades and credentials.
4. Be confident and positive
It almost always helps if your tone exudes confidence and positivity no matter the subject matter of your personal statement. What exactly does that mean? Well, here’s what confidence and positivity mean in the context of a personal statement:
Confidence: Confidence, in a law school personal statement, could mean stating forcefully (yet humbly) what you expect to accomplish with your law degree, or stressing how you overcame a life event that would have derailed other serious students, as opposed to dwelling on the obstacle, setback or tragedy.
Positivity: Positivity, in a personal statement, means emphasizing the solutions to a problem or injustice rather than dramatizing for effect the problem or injustice or stressing what you learned or how you’ve matured by overcoming adversity in your life.
5. Start strong and end strong
Your opening paragraph or sentence must captivate the admissions committee – compelling the readers to want to learn more – while introducing the subject matter of your personal statement. Likewise, your conclusion must resolve the topic you’ve raised in a memorable way. Because the beginning and ending of your personal statement are so critical, you should never settle on one draft of the same essay. Instead, try out three different openings and three different conclusions; show them all to family and friends in order to determine which one works best.
Five don’ts of personal statement writing
Just as there are probably 100 “Dos” we could offer, there are 100 “Don’ts” we could list, too — but the five below are among the most important.
1. Don’t distill your resume into essay form
A personal statement should never read as not a long form resumé. Your resumé exists to organize and summarize your achievements and experiences into one page. Your personal statement exists to demonstrate to an admissions committee that your written communication skills are strong, that you are insightful and interesting, and that there exists compelling reasons why you’ve decided to apply to law school.
2. Don’t focus on your weaknesses
Your personal statement is a positive essay to convince an admissions committee to admit you to their school. It is not a forum for excuses, explanations, or justifications about why some aspect of your law school application is weaker than it should be. The rest of your file, or perhaps an addendum addressing a shortcoming in your application, can address a misstep in your academic record. The personal statement is not a place to highlight the negative. Focus on an experience that makes you a strong(er) candidate for law school admission.
3. Don’t write colloquially
Think of the admissions committee as the judge or the jury hearing your case. You would never submit a court brief written in an informal style, replete with contractions, sarcasm, and unconventional structure. Do not write your personal statement in an informal manner.
4. Don’t focus on another person to the exclusion of yourself
Sometimes, if you write about a book or quote or professor or some other person in your life, it is tempting to spend a significant amount of time during your personal statement writing about that person rather than yourself. Resist this temptation. You are not writing a personal statement in order to get another person admitted to law school; instead, you are writing a personal statement that demonstrates how another person’s wisdom inspired you in a meaningful way, making you an even stronger candidate for law school admission.
5. Don’t submit a lightly edited draft
A surprising number of admissions deans at top law schools have told us that their schools routinely reject applicants with super-high GPAs and LSATs when those applicants submit a personal statement that clearly reflects a lack of effort or attention to detail. Nothing — nothing — turns off an admissions committee more than an applicant turning in a rough draft personal statement.