Law school applicants who are serious about gaining admission to the nation’s top law schools know all about the LSAT, have worked hard to maintain a competitive GPA, and are now researching the best ways to attack the Personal Statement section of the law school application.
The point of the Personal Statement is simple. Your job is basically to convince admissions committees that you are going to succeed in law school and beyond. But putting this simple instruction into action is where you’re creativity, personality, organizational abilities, and command of the English language will actually shine.
Although oft overlooked, the Personal Statement is an integral part of your law school portfolio. Interestingly enough, the Personal Statement is actually the only major part of your application that you have complete and utter control over. Your LSAT is graded on a curve, your GPA largely depends on your undergraduate university and professors, your Letters of Recommendation are written based off of the thoughts and feelings of each author, and your Resume is contingent upon hiring practices. But the Personal Statement is under your complete control. In most cases, it is a two page long document without instructions, and therefore, without limitation. It’s a blank canvas begging to be painted and it’s your best chance to set yourself apart from the competition! It is an opportunity to be more than just Applicant #30,801. It is a representation of who you are and what you can become.
Even though law schools obviously want to fill their seats with the best and the brightest, they also truly care about immeasurable qualities such as leadership ability, passion, drive, responsibility, character, moral and ethical compass, etc. The Personal Statement just happens to be the perfect opportunity for you to paint a picture of yourself displaying these qualities and more, while leaving the reader with the undeniable notion that you will make a terrific lawyer.
In this article, we will detail the format of your average law school personal statement, the various types of papers you can write, how to write the personal statement, common do’s and don’ts, and will also offer you a few sample personal statements (just because we care).
Format of Typical Law School Personal Statements
The average, run of the mill, law school personal statement is a two-page, double-spaced essay with no prompt and very little instruction. Common Personal Statement prompts are usually variations of the same vague sentence.
1) Boston University School of Law Personal Statement Prompt: “Your personal statement should discuss the significant personal, social, or academic experiences that have contributed to your decision to study law.”
2) Emory University School of Law Personal Statement Prompt: “You should describe any skills or traits that you have had an opportunity to develop to an unusual level and discuss any significant activities or work experience that might enrich your study of law. You may choose to write about any topic(s) you believe would be most helpful to the Admission Committee as it reviews your application for admission.”
3) Duke University School of Law Personal Statement Prompt: “The personal statement is an open-ended opportunity for you to tell us more about your experiences and interests, so you should choose a topic that will help us understand where you are coming from and what role you might play in the Duke Law community.”
Although the majority of schools abide by this open-ended, two-page structure, there are many schools that don’t. The most important thing to do before you start writing your Personal Statement is read all of the instructions completely and carefully, tailoring your PS to the specific instructions that each school gives.
Types of Law School Personal Statements
There are four basic types of essays you can write.
1) Personal Narrative
The Personal Narrative, if done correctly, is considered one of the best, and most popular, ways to structure your PS. Because of the nature of storytelling, a proper Personal Narrative will capture the readers attention, tell a memorable story, and conclude with a satisfying ending that leaves the reader little doubt of your abilities to flourish in law school.
And there are four main types of Personal Narratives:
a. Coming of Age
A story that shows how you’ve grown as an individual because of certain events or circumstances. Although many Personal Statements encompass this overall theme, the Coming of Age Narrative focuses on how and why you changed for the better. Ultimately this change should relate to your abilities to handle the rigors of law school and thrive as a professional.
This type of personal narrative details something you’ve accomplished in the past that somehow reflects upon your ability to succeed in law school and beyond. Things like creating a club or organization, doing exceptional volunteer work, inventing a product, or creating a business are all great starting points for Personal Statements.
c. Problem Solver
A Problem Solver personal narrative will outline a story in which you were confronted with a problem that you (obviously) solved. Somehow the problem you solved and the methodology you used to remedy the situation should outline a desirable character trait, such as creative thinking, leadership ability, or analytical skills.
d. Overcoming Hardship
An Overcoming Hardship personal narrative is exactly what it sounds like. It’s a story that details how you overcame great obstacles while learning lessons on the way, eventually transforming you into the hard-working, ethical, and awesome law school applicant you are today. Although an Overcoming Hardship theme can be one of the most powerful Personal Statements you can write, there is a catch…you need to have gone through some serious shit in your life.
Admissions committees don’t want to hear about how you overcame bad grades to eventually get on your high school’s debate team. If you’re going to attempt an Overcoming Hardship PS, you’re going to need to dig deep and conjure up some memories that you may not want to share with others. Subjects like overcoming drug addiction, dealing with abusive parents, growing up in poverty, managing a physical or mental limitation, etc. are the kinds of stories needed in order to do it right.
The Problem-Solution type of Personal Statement is a format in which the author discusses a problem and subsequently proposes a solution that has, or will, solve the problem. Somewhat broad, philosophical problems are usually used in Problem-Solution essays such as: current problems with the legal landscape, characteristics that are lacking in the legal profession, or moral and ethical dilemmas that you are personally invested in.
The Problem-Solution essay can sometimes be difficult to write without sounding pompous or arrogant, so make sure to have many people read it before sending your PS to admissions committees.
3) Metaphor or Analogy
Using a metaphor or analogy to show admissions committees both your potential as a lawyer, and your command of the English language, can be difficult for the writer yet satisfying for the reader. A Metaphor/Analogy PS will definitely show off your linguistic skills (or lack thereof), so use this only if you have a large amount of confidence in your writing ability.
The Metaphor or Analogy essay will most likely take bits and pieces from a Personal Narrative as you entwine your two stories, leaving the reader with a heightened sense of the type of person you are and why your skills and personality will ultimately lead to your success as a lawyer.
4) Insightful Quote
Start by citing an insightful quote, weaving it throughout your Personal Statement to leave the reader with an understanding of your character, beliefs, knowledge, and/or skills. Although this can oftentimes be viewed as a sort of cop-out approach, if done well, it can make for a very memorable PS. However, if you don’t have a fantastic quote that perfectly capitulates the message you want to convey, you may be better off avoiding this type of personal statement. Admissions committees would rather here your words, not someone else’s.
Tip: If you do decide to use an Insightful Quote, don’t use a well-known quote. Really delve deep and find a quote (preferably by a person you can relate to in some way, shape, or form) that truly brings out all you have to say. The best quotes are those that at first glance have nothing to do with law school or having a successful career, but once dissected and explained, seem to have everything and more to do with it.
Note: The quoted author doesn’t even have to be famous! In fact, it may even look more impressive if he or she isn’t.
How To Write A Personal Statement:
1) Choose a Topic
The first, and by far the most difficult, step in your journey to the perfect Personal Statement is to choose your topic. You will, and should, spend the vast majority of your time simply thinking of a topic and refining it to perfection.
While attempting to find a suitable topic, most students go through a handful of techniques that ultimately yield the coveted moment of clarity. These “techniques” include, but are by no means limited to: brainstorming, soul-searching, asking friends and family about unique and interesting attributes they posses, frustrated hours of thinking, combing over your resume, contemplating giving up, writing a “What I Do Well” list, discussing the topic with professors, jotting down your interests and hobbies, and reading through sample personal statements.
If none of these techniques work, try again. Dig even deeper and read more sample personal statements. Don’t even begin brainstorming the rest of your PS before you come up with not just a solid topic, but an outstanding one. The reason you need a great topic for your PS is because of the simple fact that your Personal Statement needs to show, not tell, admissions why you will be successful in the future.
**If you take nothing else from this article, please internalize the fact that you need to SHOW, not TELL, the reader why you will thrive in law school and beyond. **
The difference between showing and telling is simple. Telling the reader that you will be a good lawyer is simple. All you need to do is write “I have done, this, that, and the other, all of which gave me the skills necessary to succeed in law school.” Showing, however, is much more difficult. To effectively show admissions that you will excel at school and beyond will take an essay that indirectly describes the qualities they’re looking for. If you’re personal statement describes a time when you took command of your Army troop after your captain was hit by a stray bullet, there’s no need to tell them of your leadership qualities because will have already seen that and more.
Simply put, showing is much more powerful than telling. It’s easy to write a personal statement with an iffy topic if you’ve resigned to merely tell admissions committees why you are worthy of a seat in their upcoming class. But in order to show them why you, and not Joe Smith (who happened to get the same GPA and LSAT score as you), deserve that spot, you really need to choose your topic wisely.
1a) Common Personal Statement Topics Worth Writing About
Just because you grew up in the suburbs, haven’t had to overcome great difficulties, aren’t a minority, and didn’t grow up poor, doesn’t mean you have nothing to write about!
Common Personal Statement Topics Include:
– Achievements and accolades
– Obstacles/hardships overcome
– Leadership positions held
– Interests/hobbies you’re passionate about
– Clubs/organizations you’ve created or been a part of
– Study abroad, traveling adventures, living in other countries, etc.
– Volunteer experience
– Risks you’ve taken and the rewards you’ve reaped
– Issues you feel are important
– Problems you’ve faced and how you’ve solved them
– Professional experience
– Why a specific law school or law school program fits your goals
Topics to Avoid Writing About
– Explaining poor grades or LSAT scores (that’s what addendums are for)
– How you’ve always wanted to be a lawyer
– How friends and family have always said you’d be a good lawyer
– Touchy subjects like religion, politics, abortion, etc.
2) Outline Intended Takeaways From Your Topic
Great, so you’ve done some soul-searching and have come away with an outstanding topic. Now it’s time to outline the all-important takeaways.
As we’ve mentioned earlier, the whole point of the Personal Statement is to give admissions committees exclusive insight into who you are and why you’d be an outstanding law school student and future lawyer.
That being said, your PS should focus on leaving the reader with the undeniable feeling that you will be successful in your future endeavors. Along with this, you want them to “take away” certain aspects about your personality and character that are looked upon as positive qualities (leadership, morality, work ethic, creativity, etc.). To categorize these takeaways, it’s best to formulate an outline, detailing how your topic relates to the specific things that you want the reader to take away from your personal statement.
Personal Statement Topic: Creating and organizing a school club that supports U.S. troops and veterans
Intended Takeaways: Leadership, organizational ability, creativity, moral and ethical compass, go-getter
Leadership –> As founder and president, I lead a group of students who shared my passion for helping others
Organizational Ability –> Kept track of fundraising money, organized the club’s structure and mission
Creativity –> Founded a unique, interesting, and meaningful organization
Moral and Ethical Compass –> Supporting U.S. troops and veterans is obviously a good cause
Go-Getter –> There was a need, and I filled it. Instead of sitting back and letting an opportunity pass, I went out and actually did something about it. I took a risk, put myself out there, and was rewarded with a meaningful experience.
Organizing your intended takeaways will help you write your PS and stay focused on the end goal. You should never have to explicitly state your intended takeaways in your paper because you are showing them with your actions.
3) Choose a Type of Personal Statement
We’ve already gone over the various types of Personal Statements that law schools are looking for. Now it’s time to pick one.
Just to remind you, the main types of personal statements are:
– Personal Narrative
– Metaphor or Analogy
– Insightful Quote
Depending on your intended takeaways, one type might be better than another. For example, if you want to show off your problem solving skills, a Personal Narrative displaying this characteristic may be beneficial. However, if you want to truly illustrate your writing abilities, perhaps a Metaphor/Analogy PS will suit your needs. Either way, you will most likely take tidbits from multiple types of Personal Statements as you refine your piece to perfection.
4) Write Your Personal Statement
Finally! You’ve thought long and hard about your topic, drafted an outline of your intended takeaways, thoughtfully picked out the type of Personal Statement, and now it’s time to write the damn thing.
Like a traditional essay, your Personal Statement should have an introduction, body, and conclusion. Your introductory paragraph should present the ideas you plan on writing about, as well as capture the attention of the reader with a satisfying hook. The body of your PS will show (not merely tell) admissions committees why you belong at their prestigious institution. And the conclusion will wrap everything up, leaving the reader no doubt that you will be successful in law school and as a professional.
Know Your Audience. The committees who will be reading your personal statement will be made up of law professionals, professors, and administrators. They have years upon years of experience at what they do, and can most likely judge the quality of your essay within the first couple sentences.
Hint: Because they have worked in the law field for years, they most likely have a positive attitude toward the profession. As a lawyer, you are supposed to be held to higher moral and ethical standing. Mentioning the altruistic ideals of fighting for a higher cause may gain you some brownie points. Bashing lawyers and law schools, on the other hand, may hurt your cause.
Have a Strong Introduction and a Satisfying Ending. As mentioned earlier, your very first sentence may be the most important sentence you write as a law school applicant. This first sentence must be enticingly unique and should hook the reader into your essay with grace and ease. Along the same lines, your final sentence is extremely important and will either leave the reader with a fond memory or unsatisfying tinge.
To ensure a rewarding conclusion, try to come full-circle with your PS by linking your conclusion to your introductory paragraph. For example, if you wrote about your Aunt in your intro, bring her back for the conclusion. If you started off with a quote, mention the author once again in your finale. Coming full-circle gives your essay continuity and closure.
Remember, the Key is to Show, Not Tell. Although we just went over this, we’re reminding you again. Show (don’t merely tell) admissions why you deserve a seat in their upcoming class.
Write in the First Person. Always use “I” during your Personal Statement.
Follow instructions. Before you begin writing you should read and re-read the instructions for each essay. Although most Person Statements are two pages in length and have a fairly open-ended prompt, some may differ. While a few schools will instruct you to put your name and LSAC number in the header of your paper, others may prefer the footer. Some may want you to include a paragraph about why you want to attend that specific school, while others ask that you not mention it at all. Read carefully.
Contemplate Personalizing Your PS to a Specific School. Including a bit about the specific school you’re writing to can be a nice touch that will certainly make your essay feel personalized; something the reader will surely notice. By no means does this personalization have to be a major part of your PS. Simply mentioning a defining feature of the school or city in which it’s located should do.
*See Sample Personal Statement #2 for a great example of how to personalize your essay
Don’t use Your Personal Statement as an Extension of Your Resume. Every law school application includes a space for you to attach your resume, so there’s no need to simply go over it once again in your PS. As we’ve mentioned time and time again, your Personal Statement will tell schools who you are as a person. Use this space to expand upon your character, highlight your strengths, and show why you will make an exceptional law school student.
Don’t use Your Personal Statement to Explain Bad Grades or LSAT Scores. That’s what addenda are for.
Never write in legalese. Just don’t do it. It’s not what they’re looking for and it will absolutely hurt your cause. Additionally, don’t try to fit in words that are beyond your comprehension or writing ability. Stay within yourself, write the best PS you can, and you’ll be fine.
Avoid Writing in a passive voice. Using a passive voice will take away from your writing, making it less exciting, wordier, and less dynamic. The passive voice occurs when you write a sentence in which the subject is being acted upon. The active voice, conversely, occurs when the subject actually performs the action expressed in the verb.
Passive Voice: “The boy was bitten by the cat.”
The subject (the boy) is being acted upon (by the cat)
Active Voice: “The cat bit the boy.”
The subject (the cat) is expressing the verb (by biting the boy)
Writing in the active voice simply keeps your wording concise and on-point.
5) Edit, Revise, and then Edit Some More
Handing in a Personal Statement with spelling or grammatical errors is one of the worst mistakes you can make as a law school applicant. Admissions committees expect you to spend hundreds, if not thousands, of hours studying at their university, so you should at least be able to spend the time to edit your PS.
Besides spelling and grammar, make sure to take special note of transitional sentences, the beginnings and endings of your paragraphs, sentence formations, and any literary devices you’ve used.
Have as many people look over your Personal Statement as possible. Although it’s good to have others edit your paper, make sure to maintain your unique writers voice throughout your essay.
That’s it! You’re done! Pop that bottle of champagne (for all of you 21+ applicants) and celebrate!
*For more insider tips and advice, read through our Personal Statement Advice section
Sample Law School Personal Statement #1
The freezing wind rippled through my windbreaker, gently nudging the small stones off a nearby ledge, as I sat alone and lost on the frosty mountainside. A faint noise in the distance grew louder, stronger, hurtling towards me as I stared up towards the peak. When the ringing became unbearable the dream dissolved and I awoke safely in my bed. Grudgingly I wiped the sleep from my eyes and reached for my phone. This call better be important.
Tommy, my childhood babysitter, neighbor, and friend called to tell me of his recent military assignment – a third tour of duty in the Middle East. As a seasoned Marine veteran, he fought in the midst of conflict for years. After his last tour we thought it was over; we believed he was home for good. He had been recalled overseas before, so I knew that pleading with him only lead to a lecture on duty and responsibility, words he embodied to the fullest. For Tommy the choice was easy; he would risk his life to defend his country whenever he was needed.
Our conversation drew to a close. Before hanging up I asked him what to include in the care package I already planned in my mind. For a long while silence echoed over the phone line until he finally replied, “Just send me some letters and pictures. It’s nice to be reminded who you’re fighting for.” These simple words would ultimately transform a complacent college student into an inspired founder of a twenty-five-member, non-profit organization.
That night, four years ago, I finally acted on the lessons learned from Tommy’s lectures. For the first time I understood that I too had the duty and responsibility to fight for what I believe in. My initial idea was to create a group that allowed students to actively demonstrate their support for those who protect our country. I brought this dream to fruition by forming Penn State Unites Soldiers Abroad. PSUSA is an official non-profit, university-affiliated organization that encourages students to form one-on-one relationships with American soldiers overseas by offering the platform to exchange correspondence letters and fundraise for care packages. By partnering with well-known soldier support groups such as Any Soldier and Soldier’s Angels, I was able to successfully work out a system allowing PSUSA to “adopt” an entire army platoon. After reaching out to local businesses we were able to organize joint fundraising efforts, soliciting hundreds of dollars to benefit soldiers and veterans.
Even though I have graduated and left Penn State’s campus, PSUSA continues to hold meetings, write letters, fundraise for care-packages, and broaden its reach. Hundreds of soldiers from platoons in over ten different countries have received pictures, drawings and thanks from PSUSA students.
Furthering my pursuits by becoming a lawyer will allow me to continue positively influencing the world around me. Through founding PSUSA, I learned how to work and succeed within a structured environment, lead a group of my peers, and create something much larger than myself, an organization that will continue to make an impact on the lives of young men and women for years to come. I fully appreciate the chance to continue fighting for what I believe in and understand the importance of taking advantage of any and all opportunities. Four years ago I was stuck on a ledge, idly watching the stones fall to the abyss below. Now that I know the path to the summit, I realize that I am ready for the climb.
Sample Law School Personal Statement #2
For the last decade I have been striving to reach the Moon. That celestial body lies, on average, 384,023 km away from Earth, and to this point I have travelled over 290,000 km in pursuit of touch down, not once breaching cruising altitude. The space shuttle’s domesticated cousin, the airplane, has squired me around the planet over six times. No single adventure equates to teeing off on the dark side of the Moon, but the experiences that awaited past customs each journey provided me with such irreplaceable learning opportunities that not even a lunar landing would warrant substitution.
Following a few domestic moves, at age eleven my family jumped the pond to Asia. The initial shell-shock of moving from Texas to Hong Kong wore off quickly as I began exploring my new home. Down the rabbit hole I went, encountering an amalgamation of foreign sights, smells, and sounds. I loved adapting and flourishing within a wholly dissimilar society. Accepting adaptation transmuted new opportunities into 24-karat experiences.
It would be near impossible to explain the developmental impact of experiences such as gazing at the tower filled with over 6,000 skulls in Phnom Penh’s Killing Fields, helping construct a school for emaciated children in Vietnam, or being in Thailand when the 2004 Tsunami struck, claiming more than 225,000 lives. Events like these made Asian Culture and History not merely academic interests, but instead studies with which I am inexorably and permanently connected.
This pursuit led me to obtain a Chinese Minor at Villanova University (no Major is offered), and added a further 45,000 kilometers to my travel total by studying abroad twice in China. The first time I studied language in Beijing, while during the second I studied economics and interned at a Chinese-based trading company in Shanghai. Others may have floundered when hazmat clad health inspectors boarded our airplane to quarantine anyone with a temperature to stop the spread of swine flu. To me, it was par for the course after Hong Kong’s SARS outbreak.
Learning about foreign cultures and languages requires a working knowledge of how their respective societies operate. While a different style of learning than for instance exploring the canals of an ancient Chinese water village like Xitang, my studies in Political Science bolstered my appreciation of Asian nations. Further I have found the understanding of the legal infrastructure of a society integral to its comprehension. This past summer, while working for the Firm’s Madoff Group, I was exposed to the complexities navigating various country’s legal systems to attempt and recoup and redistribute illicitly obtained profits. This helped me see that I could channel one of my prevailing interests into the profession of law.
There may not be a more internationally attuned school in the country than Georgetown Law School. Between the various joint degrees offered with the School of Foreign Service, the semester abroad program in Singapore, and especially the tantalizing Center for Transnational Legal Studies, there is certainly no other school in the world as attuned to my interests. If by Spring of next year I can look at Georgetown’s cherry blossoms as an enrolled student rather that an admiring tourist, then the Moon can wait, I will be exactly where I want to be.