Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Law School Personal Statement Tips

One of my law school admission consulting clients sent me an email this morning with 6 key questions about law school personal statements. The questions were so good (and so common) that I wanted to share my responses with all of my pre-law readers.

1. What does a personal statement do/ what does it add to the application/ what is its function?

If someone with your numbers has a possibility of being admitted to a particular school, but not everyone with your numbers is admitted to that school, then the major deciding factor is the personal statement. It's your chance to become more than a list of your accomplishments, more than your transcripts, more than your LSAT score. This is your chance to be personable, likable, impressive (without being arrogant) and to generally give the impression that you'd be a great asset to their school and alumni base.

2. What to you makes a statement stand out? What are the components of a great personal statement?

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. Start now.

4. What made you groan when working in admissions? What were common mistakes people made?

I would groan, roll my eyes, and write sarcastic comments on personal statements hinting of the following:

Arrogance/Elitism. A purported drive to serve others and to heal the world and be a public interest lawyer when there's little community service in the person's background to back it up. Repeating a resume. Listing every internship and position ever held. Providing lots of conclusions with few facts to back them up. (For example, "My strong work ethic......" and then not really showing anything remarkable about your work ethic). Not being specific enough - talking around issues ("I had a rough time but overcame obstacles" without giving details about the obstacles so that the reader can evaluate for him/herself whether the feat was impressive).

For common mistakes made by law school applicants in their personal statements, see this post I wrote about 6 Mistakes People Make in Law School Personal Statements.

5. What, if any, subjects or themes should be avoided, either because they are cliche/common/inappropriate?

Some topics that have become trite and overused include the injured athlete story, the study abroad story, and a personal statement based on a current historical event. See this post about Current Events as Law School Personal Statement Topic.

I think there is a misconception that personal statements must be about overcoming paralysis or poverty. You don't have to apologize for having a privileged life - just show what does make you remarkable. I also think a lot of people remember their clever undergraduate essay about contemplating the lumps of peanut butter as they spread across the bread and think they should repeat that (please don't - remember, we're going for maturity here).

Generally, I urge people to stay away from high school unless there's a really good reason to talk about it. (Again, maturity). I also urge people to stay away from anything that will make them appear to be high maintenance or complainers in general. Law school faculty and staff won't want to touch you with a ten foot pole.

6. Is it better to think of the personal statement as telling a short story that has broader implications/ says things about me as a person, or should I think of it as a theme through which I can incorporate many components/stories etc.

Tell the right story for you and the theme will be apparent. You're marketing yourself, not a theme.

For another great resource about law school personal statement tips, see Law School Personal Statement Tips.

[By the way, I'd like to note that the client who sent me this e-mail does not have to worry about any of these common mistakes and is not in danger of annoying any law school admission committee member. It just goes to show that the wrong people are always asking these questions, and the people who should be worried about making these grave errors usually fail to recognize these traits in themselves.]


  1. Should a personal statement be double or single spaced? I am writing mine and am doing them as double spaced documents, but would like to know if this is correct.

  2. I am writing my personal statement and repeat my resume, but I do so because:

    1. My first job is very unique and has given me experience traveling around the world.

    2. My second job is at a law office. I feel this shows I know what type of work attorneys do.

    Neither of these are past jobs (past employment is only on my resume).

    Do you still think it is a bad idea to include these?

    Thank you for this blog. I am a dedicated reader!

  3. Ok - whoops - my last comment was for anonymous.

    For R.N., I would say the answer is "it depends" and I don't know whether you've presented the material effectively without reading it. There are always exceptions to every rule! (And that's what you'll learn in law school - to say "It depends" and then decide what it depends upon!)

  4. Hi Mrs. Levine, I have a question that might sound silly. What is your recommendation as far as acronyms in one's personal statement? For example, should I write out the name of the university as opposed to just using the traditional acronym (ie. George Mason as opposed to GMU)?

    Thank you for your time and this wonderful blog.

  5. I am considering spending a portion of my personal writing about my DUI. It was life changing experience that shifted me from self interest, pretention and carelessness to a mindest where personal responsibilty=civic responsibility, accepting consequenses and learning from mistakes. The experience was truly shaping, but is it crazy/stupid to talk about myself committing a crime? Please advise...

  6. Elizabeth-the blog moved last year. Please re-post your comment here so others may benefit: