We regularly work with, and survey, law school admissions deans, so we know what makes them tick. While, according to law school admissions officers, a personal statement may not be the first thing they look at in an applicant’s file, it still represents the only opportunity a candidate has to engage in the lawyerly art of persuasion.
In writing your personal statement, you are both the lawyer (advocate) and the client (subject matter). Your job is to advocate in the most effective way possible on behalf of your own law school candidacy. To “win” this case, you have to convince the judge and jury (the admissions committee) that your candidacy is compelling enough to gain admission.
By the time you fill out your law school applications, you can no longer change some aspects of your case, like your undergraduate grades, your LSAT score, or who you can call as “character witnesses” in the form or letters of recommendation. So, your personal statement is really your last chance to “take the stand” and advocate on your own behalf – making a strong case for your admission.
What are law school admissions committees looking for?
If you’re looking to convince the admissions committee that you’re a good fit for their law school, first you should understand what they are looking for in a law student.
Law professors rarely rely on straight lecture when teaching legal rules and their application to real life. Instead, they rely on “classroom discussion” to examine legal rules through the lens of students’ life experiences. As a result, admissions committees seek to admit candidates who can contribute to (or stimulate) that classroom discussion. Sure, they want to know that the person is a hard-worker and has the natural ability to handle a strenuous academic workload, but those concerns are largely quelled by an applicant’s undergraduate GPA and LSAT score; consequently, smart applicants use the personal statement to show what they bring to the table.
So, when drafting a personal statement for law school, do so with an eye towards how the reader will interpret your ability to contribute to the learning environment. What point of view do you hold that will add to the debate? What life experiences – often things wholly unrelated to the law – are part of your story that others can learn from? Make sure you show the admissions committed how your life experience or perspective will ultimately make your professors’ job easier because of your ability to positively add to the classroom discussion.
How to select a law school personal statement topic?
Selecting a personal statement topic on which to write is the very first step and, if we’re being honest, the hardest. Taking a look at your own personal experiences will be the key element to crafting the perfect personal statement. See the three recommended steps below.
1. First, make a chronology of your life
Go back through your life and make a chronology that includes: (1) academic, personal, and extracurricular accomplishments; (2) tragedies and obstacles overcome; (3) books or other pieces of writing that stuck with you over the years; (4) important/inspirational courses and professors you’ve taken; (5) meaningful jobs and volunteer work you’ve done; (6) the most important/inspirational people in your life and (7) if you’re leaning heavily towards a type of law you’d like to practice someday or a cause you’d like to serve using your legal education, then list in your chronology the events that pushed you in those directions.
2. Canvass your family and friends for ideas
Ask a few of your closest family members and friends to list the qualities they admire most about you, the accomplishments/obstacles that make up your story, and life and academic achievements that most immediately come to mind when they think of you. Compile and condense those lists to see which would make the best source material for a law school personal statement. Then, add these to your chronology (and for the qualities, list any life experiences that exemplify those qualities). When canvassing your family and friends, you may want to show them your chronology as a way to help prompt your conversations with them.
3. Develop personal statement topics from your chronology
With all this information organized into a chronology, you should be able to easily generate compelling topics for personal statements.
Popular law school personal statement topics
You can write about almost anything when it comes to a personal statement for law school. In our experience, the majority of personal statements — and certainly many of the most successful ones — fit into one of the following three categories.
1. Answering a question that law school admissions committee would ask during an interview.
Sometimes, after an admissions dean has read through an applicant’s resume and list of activities, it’s obvious what a person should write about. If you’re a serious collegiate athlete, consider writing about how that experience challenged you to grow. If you’ve had significant leadership positions in student government or non-profits, then write about how they’ve matured you or how you hope to carry those efforts forward with a legal education.
If a serious obstacle in your life has affected how you’ve studied or spent your time in extracurriculars, then write about that experience. The point is, if your resume or extracurriculars have a predominant theme, then hammer home that theme in a compelling personal statement that doesn’t simply recite your resumé, but rather expands on it.
2. Write about a memorable academic experience
Sometimes college or high school courses (or even classroom discussions) steer people towards a legal career. It could be a hands-on government experience during a college independent research course, or even a science class that covered the intersection of science, policy and the law, or a term paper that explored the intersection of law, policy or politics. If you have a memorable academic experience – one that shifted your paradigm – you can certainly write that if it impacted your decision to become a lawyer.
3. Call attention to words of wisdom that led you to apply to law school
Sometimes a book, a speech, or even a quote can contain such meaning that it changes the arc of a student’s life. Or perhaps you were inspired by the example of a professor or teacher, and that inspiration has carried you forward to this day. If someone else’s words or ideas resonated so greatly with you that it nudged you toward a career in the law, then write about it, making sure to relate that writing or professor’s example to your life (or future life) in tangible ways.
Finally, engage in the art of “subtle persuasion”
The best personal statements engage in the art of “subtle persuasion.” This isn’t pipefitting and your essay doesn’t necessarily directly connect Reason A to Reason B, concluding “. . . and that’s why I want to go to law school.”
Instead, the best personal statements tell an engaging story that quickly grips the reader and then slowly, almost subconsciously, nudges the reader in the direction of rooting for the candidate.