Guidelines for Writing a Personal Statement
First, consider your general attitude or frame of mind before you sit down to write. It's very important to know why you're going to law school, to be confident about your abilities and motivation, and to be enthusiastic and eager for the opportunity. Please have the patience to complete the "Personal Statement Warm-up Exercises" section of this site, and read all of the material below, before you decide on a theme for the essay. Try to have an upbeat, positive attitude every time you write. The idea is for your general tone to convey these underlying perspectives. If you are unsure, doubtful, or a little desperate when you sit down to write, that will come through.
If YOU enjoy writing the essay, it will show and your audience will enjoy reading it! Find a topic(s) that really appeals to you.
Be yourself, not the perfect applicant. Trying to second-guess what a school is looking for is a very common mistake--which they can sense.
Read the following HPPLC documents:
- Writing an Effective Personal Statement For Law School
- Personal Statements
- Law School Admission—Questions & Answers for Juniors and Seniors
- Personal Statements for Law Schools Power point in PDF form summarizing do's and don'ts, with actual prompts and length restrictions from 9 popular law schools.
- Check out Asha Rangappa’s posts on Personal Statements from The (203) Blog [Yale's Admissions Blog].
BEFORE you begin writing, PLEASE take a few minutes to read over the tips below! It is a lot of material, and much of it is common sense--but it is good to be aware of these issues before you get started. And keep in mind that these tips are not written in stone! This is YOUR essay, and you have to be happy with it! But if you decide to ignore any of these guidelines, do so only after due deliberation:
- READ THE PROMPT ON EACH SCHOOL'S APPLICATION! All instructions for writing the personal statement may be different. Follow their guidelines precisely. You can access and review application prompts from your CAS account (before you pay their fee) without fear of actually submitting the application.
- Begin with something that grabs the reader's attention; then hold it throughout the essay. Many officials suggest telling a "story" of some kind--meaning there is a beginning, middle, and end. If admissions personnel agree on one thing concerning the personal statement, it is: "don't bore me!"
- While the final draft will be 2-3 pages, do not be concerned at all about the overall length in your first drafts. In fact, plan on writing too much at first. Get everything out. It will be much easier to edit and cut down on excess material later.
- Consider addressing the topic of “why law school”. Many admission officials will be looking for evidence that you are making an informed decision to enroll in law school—or at least that a JD degree fits into well thought-out plans. While this aspect does not have to be the bulk of your essay, you should consider discussing this issue.
- "Show, don't tell." In other words, do not merely state: "I'm highly motivated" or "I will work hard to succeed in law school!" Anyone can make such statements. Instead, include examples of actual incidents or vignettes from your life that support your assertions, and which, after being read, will cause readers to come to these conclusions on their own. Don't just say it–you must have lived it!
- Do not be too original in your approach. The personal statement is not the time to be clever, poetic, or cute. It is not an exercise in creative writing. It is an exercise in communication. Most officials advise that you stick to the traditional essay format. Trying something unusual is risky. Humor, if it works, can be effective--but again, it can be risky.
- Most experts generally advise against the extensive use of quotations, especially well-known ones, and especially as the title or first or last line. This is a common technique, and can be seen as a crutch or a lack of creativity. Feel free to disregard this advice (!), but do so consciously and thoughtfully!
- Do not try to assert that practicing law is just like your hobby, sport, or other leisure activity. It isn’t. If, however, your activity has produced transferable skills that have actually proven beneficial to your academic success, make the connection directly (for example, athletes with crowded schedules often learn to be well-organized with highly developed time-management skills that have paid off academically).
- Hesitate in mentioning TV shows, movies, or other "pop-cultural" reasons for choosing this career.
- Avoid clichés: for example, that your parents said you "liked to argue" or that you find the law "fascinating." Think about what is truly unique about your situation, and what specifically distinguishes you as an individual. Speak from actual experience, not merely desire.
- Avoid telling the committee about the "Law," or what makes for a good attorney or law student. Most folks who will read your essay will have gone to law school, and will have their own, often strong, opinions on the subject.
- If you have specific reasons for applying to a particular school, especially academic ones, tell them. No platitudes-just the facts. (If you can do this in your personal statement, great. But if not, this might be a more appropriate subject for a separate, short letter of addendum-at least for those schools for which you do have explicit reasons for applying.) Include what unique attributes you would bring to the school as well as why the school would be good for you.
- Do not regurgitate your resume, but feel free to write about experiences that also happen to be on your resume. Write about them in more depth, and evaluate and reflect upon the larger significance of these experiences--do not merely describe them. Combine similar achievements to showcase your abilities, talents, and avocations.
- Proof, proof, proof. Do NOT rely on spell-check! Personal statements should be read by at least two others who know English grammar well. Writing Tutorial Services can be useful, but even they are not perfect. Your statement must be. Any mistake or typo may result in an immediate denial. Be extra careful if you are writing at the last minute or desperately trying to meet a deadline.
- If you mention the law school in your statement, be very careful to send it to the proper institution! A mistaken reference can result in a quick denial.
- If there is a required question about becoming a lawyer, be specific and substantive in your reasons. This is where being self-aware and self-directed is essential. Some of the reasons may seem obvious to you. Present those reasons positively and from your perspective. You may want to become a lawyer because you enjoy the power of words, advocacy, or the role of a constructively engaged expert. You may want to become a lawyer because you have personally witnessed what lawyers can do--and you want to do that work. Think about it carefully. Avoid generalities.
- While others have said that you would be a good lawyer, or you have relatives that are lawyers, or you have always wanted to be a lawyer, these facts are not significant by themselves. Unless they are essential to the main theme of the essay, many experts suggest that you do not include them.
- AVOID LEGALESE! This is a principle stressed in law school as well. Legalese is seen as a crutch and is not impressive--just the reverse..
- Tell your story in your own voice. Speak naturally. Do not try to impress with your vocabulary. As they say, big words do not denote big minds, just big egos. If the aforementioned testimonial appears incongruous, one is hereinafter counseled to reformulate one's contemporaneous estimation.
- Remember, this is a PERSONAL statement. Some experts value writers who take a risk and reveal something personal about themselves. On the other hand, some details can be too personal. There can be a fine line. Again, it is helpful to have several people read it.
- Most admission committees pay close attention to: your ability to self-assess -- to reflect upon your own experiences and to draw conclusions from them about your goals, skills, and attributes; your ability to learn from your experiences; your dedication to learning from your mistakes, your willingness to challenge your own preconceptions; your ability to effectively assess your goals and your reasons for pursing them; and, equally important, your ability to convey this information in a coherent, professional manner.
- Most important: be yourself. Do NOT try to be the perfect applicant, or to mold your particular background into what you think they'd like to hear (e.g., "rock climbing enhanced my critical thinking and analytical skills"). They easily sense such contortions.
LETTERS OF ADDENDUM: It is usually preferable to explain administrative or negative factors in a separate, short (usually one or two paragraphs--but no more than one page if at all possible), objective letter of addendum. Use one such letter for each subject. Law schools have no problem with multiple addenda. HPPLC Prelaw Advisors can help you with any of these items. For example, the following issues would probably best be reserved for a separate letter of addendum. Note that, however, (depending on the totality of circumstances) while potentially beneficial, the impact of such addenda may be marginal at best:
- If you had a bad semester grade-wise, or even a bad year, or if you simply did uncharacteristically poorly in a course or two, such that your cumulative GPA is not really an accurate representation of your current abilities or potential, tell them about it. They appreciate such information. Focus on the objective facts, and keep it very brief. Such facts could be: initial wrong major or wrong academic track (such as premed or pre-business), a difficult transition from high school or away from home, a lack of focus on academics for whatever reason, personal issues, health problems, working too many hours, over-involvement in extra curriculars, poor performance solely in a subject area that you will not be taking in law school (such as foreign languages, sciences, etc.), a break-up with a significant other, family issues, etc.
You are free to express your hesitation in raising such issues (e.g., that you don't want to be seen as making excuses) however, such things are real: they do happen and do have their effects. Admission committees normally want to know if there is a "story" behind any distortion of your GPA, and indeed many applications ask about such situations directly. Be sure to recalculate your GPA omitting the "problem" semester(s) or courses, and provide an alternate concrete number for them to focus on (e.g., "if fall semester freshman year courses were omitted, my GPA would be 3.4"; "if my Spanish language courses were omitted, my GPA would be 3.6", etc.).
- Multiple LSAT scores where one score is 4 or more points higher than the others. If there is a specific explanation for the lower numbers, provide it (excess text anxiety, illness, lack of preparation, personal issues, etc.). Again, keep it very brief and objective.
- Do NOT explain a single low LSAT score UNLESS you can actually demonstrate that past standardized tests (e.g., the SAT or ACT) were low (percentile-wise) compared to your college GPA . Try to avoid saying: "I've always been a poor standardized test taker." Express it in a more positive manner, such as: "I consistently outperform what standardized tests have predicted...", or "standardized tests have never accurately predicted my future academic performance." Then give them the specifics (i.e., your SAT or ACT scores and your college GPA. If applicable, consider a brief mention of your GPA in the major, GPA for your last 2-3 semesters, honors--or any of the above). You do not usually need an official SAT report.
- If you have had any "disciplinary problem" or "indiscretion" with the law - put your best foot forward, but be sure to fully and completely disclose IF the application asks about such things. This is true even for incidents that have been expunged from your record or for which you went through pretrial diversion. If you need to include an explanation, some say it can be helpful to take responsibility for your actions, to express regret, to stress that you learned from the experience, and (if you can) to assure them that such things have not and will not happen again. Depending on the details, of course, most minor incidents (e.g., a single underage consumption that took place 3 years ago) will not have a negative impact on your chances for admission. Consult a HPPLC Prelaw Advisor if you have questions or concerns.
- If you have more than two "withdrawals" on your transcript, such that there may be a perceived pattern--an explanation may be in order.
- Always be brief and objective -- let the facts speak for themselves.
- Consider concluding the addendum with some verson of: "I hope the committee will take this into consideration."
- HPPLC Prelaw Advisors are available to help with any of the above material.
- Remember—you cannot write a great personal statement. Such essays are rewritten. And rewritten, and rewritten again. Expect yours to take 4-8 weeks at least. Plan ahead. Give yourself more time than you think you will need. Start it early enough so that you can put aside the "final" draft for a few days and look at it again with fresh eyes.
- Very important: be willing to start completely over from the beginning if the final product is not working! But do not delete old drafts. Save everything and label prior drafts carefully.
- If your essay exceeds the length requirement, simply call the admissions office and ask if your length is acceptable. For 70% of schools there will be no problem. But for 30% it will be an unforgivable error.
- If you notice a typo or mistake after you submit the statement to a school, call the admissions office and ask how to proceed. For some schools, if your file has not yet been distributed to the admissions committee, they may be willing to hold your file pending their receipt of a corrected copy (as an email attachment or overnight letter). At the very least, email the school to acknowledge and correct the error.
- Read the essay "THE PERSONAL STATEMENT: One Person’s View, of the View," by Collins Byrd, Assistant Dean of Admissions, University of Iowa College of Law, by clicking here.
Thanks to Pamela Bloomquist of Loyola University School of Law, Steven Baron of Boston College, and Rachel Tolen of Indiana University for some of the above material.