The Art of Law School Personal Statements, Part One: Framing the Personal Statement, and Why It’s Hard to Give General Advice

A lot of people have asked me why Advise-In hasn’t published a few blogs on law school personal statements.  I’ve talked about résumés, reference letters and law school applications as a whole (for these posts, search through the “Law School Admissions” category of the blog).  Why not personal statements?

When enough people start asking, I figure it’s time.  But the reasons I resisted are worth mentioning.  The biggest reason is that law school personal statements are, well, personal.  They are the principal means by which law school applicants tell law schools who they are in a less formulaic way than their résumé.  It’s easier to develop broadly-applicable rules for writing a résumé and soliciting good reference letters.  Those generalities will only get you so far without intense attention to your situation, strengths and weaknesses, but at least a few non-trivial general statements are possible.

Law school personal statements—not so much.  And that leads to my second reason for hesitation: of all the “soft data” pieces of your application package (everything other than the “hard data” of your GPA and LSAT score), the personal statement has become, for better or worse, usually the most important.  So sloppy general advice, or even careless formulations of pretty good general advice, has the potential to do real damage to an application.

I’ll do a few posts in the near future about writing a personal statement.  But there’s no single personal statement template, and the numerous examples flying around the internet are as likely—or more likely—to throw potential applicants off-track as they are to be helpful.  That’s because those are personal statements of somebody else and, to the extent they follow formulas, can cause readers to roll their eyes (more on that in a future post).  So, whatever advice your read (from others or from me), always take it with a grain of salt.  You and your trusted advisors should drive the content and form of your law school personal statement because you’re the ones who know you well.

The result is that the list of things I’ll recommend you do will be pretty short—because what you should really do is tell about yourself, and, unfortunately, I don’t know the vast majority of readers of this blog.  The “do’s” get a lot more precise with my clients, since we take the time to discuss their personal history, I’ve gotten to know them very well in our time working on their LSAT prep (for clients who came through the LSAT preparation program) and we can polish statements that work and discard ideas that just don’t seem to sing, all in the context of the application package as a whole.  In short, the statement becomes personal.  In a public blog, that’s simply not possible.

The list of “don’t’s” will be longer.  I feel funny about that, since I know it’ll make me sound like a bit of a scold, but that’s just the way it is—it’s more possible to talk about what not to do in a public forum than it is to say what you should do.

But here goes.  Well, not quite.  First, a little context.

The law school personal statement is a unique document in your application package.  Your résumé can (and should) be carefully crafted to emphasize the qualities you want to emphasize in the context of your application as a whole, but it will almost always be read as a “form” document.  If you can make it exciting in spite of that, that’s fantastic, but while law school admissions personnel will use it to find out what you are, they aren’t looking at it to find out who you are.  That’s the job of your personal statement.

Letters of reference are important, too.  Recent data make that clear.  And letters of reference can, in fact, help tell admissions committees who you are.  It’s not necessary that every letter do that but it’s certainly helpful if one or more does.  That said, letters of reference have all the advantages of coming from third parties, but all the shortcomings, too.  They will tell how others see you (important) but not how you see yourself (more important).  The personal statement does.

Finally, remember the function of your application package as a whole.  Your LSAT score and GPA will put you in an initial group of applicants, often hundreds or even thousands with similar scores and GPAs.  The function of your application package is to make you more desirable than others in that initial cohort (for both admissions and financial aid reasons) and—in the best case—to make you competitive with applicants whose hard data is better than yours.  Of all the soft data documents you’ll submit, the personal statement is more often than not the most important.

So, stay tuned for a few “do’s” and a few more “don’t’s.”

~ by Kyle Pasewark at Advise-in Solutions on November 11, 2010.

2 Responses to “The Art of Law School Personal Statements, Part One: Framing the Personal Statement, and Why It’s Hard to Give General Advice”

  1. […] week, I posted the first of a series on law school personal statements.  I described the function and importance of the […]

  2. […] law school.  In the second part of the series, there’s a list of a few “to do’s.”  The first part frames your law school personal statement in the context of your law school application as a […]

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