The Art of Law School Personal Statements, Part Two: A Few Things to Do

Last week, I posted the first of a series on law school personal statements.  I described the function and importance of the personal statement for law school admissions, and also allowed that it’s difficult to give general tips and techniques (note, I did not say “tricks”) for personal statements, mostly because they’re more personal and less form-driven than other parts of your law school application.  It’s also unfortunately the case that this means that the general things that are useful to say about law school personal statements are more negative (things not to do) than positive (things to do).

Still, there are a few “to do’s” to keep in mind as you’re building your law school personal statement (the more numerous things not to do will be in a future post).  Here are a few:

1.  Follow the rules (and don’t be cheesy about it).  As a lawyer (or for that matter, any professional), you’ll be given rules to follow in your written work.  Law schools want students in their entering classes whom they believe not only can function as a professional, but already are professional.  Each law school has its own rules (topics, word count, page length, etc.) for personal statements.  Follow them.  Period.  Well, ok, semicolon; don’t try to game the rules by adjusting margins, paragraph spacing, or anything else you can think of (and I’m sure you can think of a lot of games to play).  Law school admissions personnel have seen all the tricks you’ve thought of and many you haven’t.  They expect you to deal honestly and forthrightly with their guidelines, which are pretty easy to comply with.  Just do it.

It takes more editing and thought to get this right but there is a side benefit beyond just following the rules; you want a tight essay in which every turn of phrase matters and contributes to your point.  You’ll not only have a compliant personal statement for law school but a better one.

2.  Make your personal statement picture-perfect.  We’ll get beyond what seem like trivial points of professionalism in a moment.  It seems obvious that your personal statement should be carefully checked for typos, grammar, spelling, overuse of a few words, and so on.  Oddly, many people just don’t do this as well as they should.  It’s a problem especially if your personal statement has gone through (as it should) multiple drafts and revisions.  Sometimes, the eye just glosses over some things that have been in the statement for a long time, and some of those no longer work with the sentence or paragraph you just added.  But it’s more than that.  I have a current client who is a pretty careful reader, and I certainly think I am as well.  Nonetheless, in his third-to-last personal statement draft, there were still a couple of typos (a couple of mistakes in spacing of words and inconsistent use of commas).  Small things?  Maybe.  But get them right, as we did.  You want admissions personnel to focus on the subject matter; you do not want them diverted by even the smallest error or doubt.  Your personal statement isn’t an informal Facebook post, tweet or an e-mail to a friend—it’s a professional document.

3.  Write for your audience.  Every piece of your law school application, and especially your personal statement, should be written with your audience—a specific law school’s admissions personnel—in mind.  As you read what you’ve written, put yourself in their position as best you can.  If you were an admissions director, what would your reaction to your personal statement be?  Your application as a whole should convey that you’re a professional, intelligent, diligent person who will be a credit to his or her law school class and will reflect well on the law school after graduation.  Your personal statement doesn’t have to (and shouldn’t) do all of this work, but it needs to do some of it.  The following “do’s” are really just specifications of this.

4.  Make your point early (make your personal statement easy reading).  Admissions committees receive thousands of applications and, therefore, thousands of personal statements.  How long will anyone spend reading your carefully crafted essay?  Not long.  I’m sorry but it’s true.  All that careful crafting for a few minutes face time.  So make it count.  One of the common mistakes that law school applicants make is writing a personal statement as a mystery novel, with the point cleverly concealed until the revelation at the end.  Instead, be like Lt. Columbo (I know, I’m dating myself)—tell them “whodunit” early.

5.  Tell law schools who you are.  Your personal statement is personal.  Its core function is to tell admissions committees who you are.  We’ll talk more in “don’t’s” about the common tropes you’re better off avoiding.  As a way to think about your personal statement at the start, ask yourself what makes you an interesting person to you or your friends, what you end up talking about at gatherings with strangers who turn into friends, in other words, what about you people find interesting and makes them want to talk with you.  Everyone has one or two great personal statements they can construct.  It sometimes takes a long time to find the best one but it’s there.  And thinking about what makes you an interesting person is often a productive way to get at the topic that will be your best personal statement.  You are trying to help law schools answer the following question:  “Why do I want you in my class rather than other people with a similar (or better) GPA and LSAT score.

6.  Be sincere.  This, too, is related to a “don’t.”  But the “do” is pretty simple.  Tell law schools who you are and don’t make yourself into the clever supergenius humorous ironist that you think they might want to have instead of you.  They’ve seen all the tricks and can sniff out insincerity with very little effort.  Plus, it takes a truly talented writer to pull off a lot of things that not-so-talented law applicants try to accomplish in their personal statements.  You’re not going to law school because you think you’re great competition for David Foster Wallace.  Some people are naturally funny; that’s fine.  Some people are extra-earnest; that’s fine, too.  Not only should you tell law schools who you are, but in your personal statement, you should be who you are.

7.  Have a backup plan.  In effect, you should have two personal statements rather than one.  Some law schools require school-specific essays; others have “optional” essays.  In addition, some law schools’ entering class demographics are such that you can anticipate a lot of people writing about a topic similar to yours.  You should have a backup plan for those contingencies.  Here, the key is to think through your entire application package from the start to be clear about what message each piece of your law school application is conveying about you, and what you want it to convey.  I’ve talked about the importance of working through the whole application package conceptually before.  You want to create a portrait of yourself that truthfully communicates why a school should want you in its entering class.  The backup personal statement is another piece in that portrait and should complement rather than repeat the other components of your application.

~ by Kyle Pasewark at Advise-in Solutions on November 17, 2010.

One Response to “The Art of Law School Personal Statements, Part Two: A Few Things to Do”

  1. […] of weeks, I’ve been talking a little about writing a personal statement for 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 […]

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