THE PERSONAL STATEMENT:
One Person’s View, of the View.
by Collins Byrd, Assistant Dean of Admissions, University of Iowa College of Law
Collins Byrd is one of the most prominent, well-respected, and knowledgable law school admissions officials in the country. Here is his take on this crucial item of the application. As do many admissions officials, he emphasizes the relevance of the applicant's decision to attend law school per se. For the record, however, many other officials might prefer a more "holistic" approach that in addition emphasizes the development, qualities, values, and/or distinguishing elements of your personal character. As he states, this is "one person's view."
"The Personal Statement is the second-most important document in an application. The most important document is the LSDAS Report, which has the LSAT score, the GPA, the transcripts and the Letters of Recommendation. The Personal Statement, though, is the next most important document in the application for admission.
The Personal Statement is the only place in the application with which an applicant can tell me what she really wants me to know about her. Consider the application process, for a moment: The LSAT is a reflection of the applicant based on a standardized test that was created in 1947. The GPA is a reflection of the applicant based on undergraduate work that has been done over a period of time, at one of over 3,300 undergraduate institutions in this country, which offer a bachelor’s degree. The Letters of Recommendation are reflections of the applicant based on the views and angles of the writers of the letter. The Personal Statement, however, is the only place where an applicant can tell us what she really thinks we need to know about her, and coming to us in an unfiltered, straightforward way. So, the Personal Statement is very important.
My recommendation on writing a Personal Statement is to follow the guidelines of length and style that are set by the schools to which you are applying. For example: The University of Minnesota Law School recommends that a Personal Statement be one to three pages in length, double-spaced. We will not frown upon Personal Statements that are longer, or single spaced, as long as the additional information does not repeat what has already been said in an earlier part of the Personal Statement. Some schools have longer or shorter length requirements; some schools have specific questions and essay topics that need to be addressed. The best guideline is to follow the guideline that is explained in the individual application for each school.
To emphasize the point again: Make sure the Personal Statement reflects what the applicant really wants us to know about him or her. The applicant needs to ask herself the following question: ‘If the Admissions Committee forgets everything there is to know about me, it will not forget the following things: Point A, Point B, Point C….” Then, the Personal Statement needs to tell us why Point A is important, how it was developed to become a strength or key part of an applicant, and how it will assist the applicant in being a better lawyer, attorney, law school student, citizen, etc. Then, Point B needs to be addressed: Why Point B is important, how it was developed to be a strength or key part of an applicant, and how it will assist the applicant in being a better lawyer, attorney, law school student, citizen, etc. Then, move to Point C, and go through the same thought process that was previously outlined. For each strength or important point, the applicant needs to be sure that it is an issue that will not be reflected in the undergraduate GPA or the Law School Admission Test score.
One quick point needs to be made about the use of the Personal Statement, versus an addendum to the Personal Statement: The Personal Statement should be used to assist the Admissions Committee in describing what a person’s motivations are for attending law school. The addendum to the Personal Statement should be used to discuss specific and unique problems that the applicant has had to overcome in his or her life, to explain an LSAT score or undergraduate GPA that might be abnormally low or high, or to describe irregularities in a person’s academic, extracurricular or personal background which are important for the Admissions Committee to be aware of.
In closing: I recently traveled to San Francisco, California, for the Bay Area Forum. I was assisted by a 3L student, one of our Student Ambassadors who has done outstanding work for us in the past, and who assists us with traveling, giving tours of the law school to prospects, and other public relations matters. A prospective applicant approached our table and proceeded to ask us a few questions. One of the questions/comments she voiced was, ‘I grew up in a small Midwestern town; and I do not have the glamorous background that some fellow prospects have, who grew up in large cities, or the East Coast or West Coast. How can my Personal Statement, consisting of a modest background and all, stand out in a competitive crowd?’ Before I could answer, the 3L responded by saying the following: “The Personal Statement is a Personal Statement, with an emphasis on ‘PERSONAL.’” I could not have said it any better. (I stopped short of handing my job title and Directorship over to the guy; but it put my rather longwinded approach into a short, succinct and accurate package.) Do not worry about how the Personal Statement looks in relation to other people’s statements or backgrounds. It should reflect the essence of why you want to earn a law degree. Make it the best you can. Make it say the things you really want Admissions Committees to know about you, and you alone. When reading Personal Statements, we are not interested in your record juxtaposed to someone else or something else. After all, you are developing your professional life for you, not for someone else. If your record stands out from the pack, fine. If not, well that’s the way it goes sometimes. The admissions professionals will make that judgment. The applicant needs to make sure that the Personal Statement reflects the applicant’s deep inner passions for wanting to earn a law degree."
To learn more about writing a personal statement, check out the pages below: