The essay told an epic tale about a student who struggled to achieve passing grades – moving on and off of academic probation, and through a myriad of stops, shifts, and re-starts, from one college to another – for the better part of a decade following his graduation from high school. For a time, it appeared that he was destined to be a college drop-out. To make matters worse, as the student floundered academically, he bounced around from one retail job to another. Then, one day, he took a position as a grassroots worker on a local political campaign. He quickly realized that he had found something that he loved to do, but just as importantly, he was very good at it. His life soon changed in dramatic ways. He almost immediately became a star local operative for a major political party, and in a very short time period worked his way up and into state-wide and national campaigns. His confidence ultimately inspired his academic career. He transferred any grades that he could (i.e., not the bad ones) to a new university, changed his major to political science, and revamped his study habits. For his final two years of college credit (which were required to attain a degree from the institution to which he had transferred), he aced nearly every course that he took and set his sights on a career in law.
As compelling as the above storyline is, it is important to always keep in mind that an outstanding story counts for little without an effective organizational structure and proper literary execution. Toward that end, the applicant in this case sought to engage the reader by presenting a scene in the opening paragraph which depicted one of the happiest moments of his life – his triumphant college graduation. It was as he moved toward the end of the first paragraph and into the second that he added the engaging twist which showed that his academic success story was far from the norm: it had been ten years (and many failures) in the making. Most importantly, the applicant did not harp on the lengthy, negative period in his life that I described above. Rather, he took a straightforward and succinct approach in recounting the great challenges that had stymied him for so many years. From there, it was off to the heart of the essay – how the applicant overcame his struggle and succeeded, ultimately setting a clear and direct course for law school along the way.
Finally, in the concluding paragraph of the essay, the applicant brought the reader full circle – back to the opening story. There he was, still standing at graduation, but instead of thinking simply about his past and how he had made it to this point, he was now looking toward the future and thinking about how he was fully prepared to conquer the challenges that lay ahead in law school and beyond.
I will never forget the excitement that this applicant felt when he received three acceptance letters from top law schools over three consecutive days. One of these letters came with a handwritten note from a law school dean who praised him for doing such an outstanding job on the personal statement. I should mention that this applicant ultimately ended up declining each of those three offers in favor of an offer from one of the most renowned and oldest law schools in the United States. While these successful results certainly help to keep this applicant’s memory in my mind, it is the personal statement that he wrote which most stirs my recollection.
Like many of my colleagues, I’ve advised on thousands of application essays over the years and been a part of success stories that are far too numerous to mention, but this was one of my most special cases because it showed not only how an applicant can overcome years of struggle, but also how in two double-spaced pages, he can demonstrate his success in a powerful way.
Every once in a while, somewhere out there, a law school applicant does something in the application process that can be described as a real game changer. The personal statement that this particular applicant wrote would probably best be described as a life changer.
(Photo Source: ayelienne)
Write about yourself. Do it now. Thanks!
The abrupt nature of this demand combined with a lack of practice will usually result in bad writing. From miniature autobiographies to abstract musings on current events, such topics typically obliterate a personal statement’s relevance, cohesiveness, and flow.
Whether for academic or professional purposes, we rarely discuss our personal narratives. The unfortunate reality is that most people have not had practice writing about themselves in years if ever—resulting in ineffective and inappropriate personal statement topics. To put it simply, you’re not alone! And that’s why we’re here to help.
In the following article, we will discuss tendencies to avoid when writing your law school personal statement. We will also provide critical guidelines for effective writing that you can use in all of your application documents.
1) Have One Theme and Discuss One to Three Experiences That Support It
As previously mentioned, avoid writing your life story in your personal statement. Firstly, there is just not enough room to do so. The typical law school personal statement has a two-page limit double-spaced (See Law School Personal Statement Formatting: What You Need To Know for specifics on format). Trying to cram all the interesting tales from your life into these two pages is impossible. Conform your writing to the limited space provided by the format.
Choose relevant experiences you have had that can fit together cohesively and convey the value you will bring to a law school’s student body. Be concise and get straight to the point. Sometimes, this means cutting out certain parts of your story that do not fit or do not support your underlying theme.
Whether overcoming adversity, pursuing your passion, or the next logical step in your career, you should have a single solid theme. It should encompass all the experiences you describe in your personal statement’s story. This is not an exhaustive list of theme types, but you can click here for more help with personal statement ideas.
Your theme will usually develop as you begin to discuss your experiences. One to three exemplary and/or touching experiences are really all that are needed to provide the body content of your personal statement. More than this can start to sound like a rehashing of your resume, a list of accomplishments, or just a description of how bad you’ve had it up to this point in your life. None of which will sound appealing to the admissions committee members reading your essay. To catch their attention, maintain it, and hopefully garner some respect from the people deciding your law school fate, keep it simple. Use one theme and up to three experiences as examples to support it.
2) Stay Professional; Don’t Take It Personally
Certain topics you may discuss in your application documents, especially for personal statements, diversity statements, and addendums, can evoke powerful emotions. It is vital that you are able to discuss these issues in a professional manner. Taking something personally, demonizing a specific person or group of people, or just having an overly negative tone can turn off the reader(s) to your writing whether they agree with you or not.
For this reason, avoid the following things that can make you sound informal:
- Writing as if you are making a journal entry
- Coming off as desperate, facetious, or sarcastic
- Being overly emotional
- Discussing intimate details of your personal life
- Being overly negative
- Harping on feuds between you and another person or group
- Describing situations and events with generalizations rather than facts
- Making assumptions, especially about the law or the legal field
- Expressing your unsupported opinions on controversial topics
- Being self-aggrandizing
- Boasting about your achievements or expressing arrogant behavior
Be realistic with your experiences. The sentiment among popular culture to constantly promote one’s self at the expense of others is not appropriate for an application document. Being humble sounds more realistic, and sounding more realistic will make you more believable as a candidate anyway.
Gaining the trust of admission committee members is key. The personal statement is usually the most prominent and sometimes the only document in your application that can create that trust. Cut out anything that may sound conceited whether you meant it to sound that way or not. We can help you with this.
3) Keep It Simple—Sentence Structure, Punctuation, and Grammar
While I write this blog article with impunity to formal criticism for my use of contractions, colloquialisms, informal use of prepositions, liberal use of commas and subordinating conjunctions, lengthy introductory clauses, sentences exceeding three full lines, and series and lists that never seem to end, you don’t have the same discretion if your application documents are being evaluated by admissions committees, which they will be.
As with other Gradvocates editors, I would very much like to split that previous sentence into more concise, easier-to-read phrases. I know that it would be more digestible for the reader. Alas, it is a perfect example of the informality we see in many applicants’ writing—both in what it describes and how it’s written. To lessen confusion, we strive to prevent unnecessary complexity in sentence structure at Gradvocates. You may feel the urge to squeeze every idea you have into one big, ugly, compound, run-on mess, but brevity is almost always preferred.
Here are some simple guidelines you can use to evaluate the structure of your sentences:
- Try to keep your sentences under two full lines max.
- Avoid colloquialisms, clichés, slang, and popular sayings as they are not professional or original.
- Don’t over-complicate your punctuation. This is law school—not a graduate English program.
- Avoid common wording errors that experienced writers notice .
- Use a comma before and if you are going to list out things in a series—American English prefers it, and legal writing requires it 99% of the time to avoid confusion.
- Don’t use contractions. We can because this blog is not an application document!
- Keep your introductory phrases short and under control, or it could get confusing.
- Don’t end a sentence with a preposition. Use the preposition and which instead.
- Don’t use words with which you are not familiar. Admission Committee Members can tell. This is especially true for legal terminology. You are not a lawyer yet, so be particularly careful when trying to utilize legal terms in your personal statement. We suggest against it unless you have had firsthand experience in a legal position or with that area of the law in your current profession. Otherwise, you can sound foolish at best or mistakenly admit to the unauthorized practice of law at worst.
- Keep your verb tense consistent. Only change it when necessary.
- Use active voice rather than passive where possible. This shows that you are confident about your decision-making.
Quality formal writing relies on using simple, straight-forward sentences. Succinct phrases that demonstrate your experiences and how they make you a great candidate are all it takes structurally. Your content is a different story and a different blog article.
4) Cohesiveness: The Importance of Transitions
Your personal statement needs to read as if it is one cohesive story. This means your theme should be consistent throughout your paper. The experiences you detail should support your theme and bolster your argument for why you are an exceptional candidate.
The introductory phrases and prepositions between paragraphs and sentences should help demonstrate how your experiences are connected. They should allow the reader to understand how all these ideas are related and set forth a logical flow to your story. If a transition from one part of your essay to the next seems disjointed, you can lose the reader’s attention.
Good transitions help strengthen the plausibility of your theme, which helps build trust with your reader. This is why you need to be sure that your experiences fit together under the theme you’ve chosen. If you are unable to effectively transition from one part of your essay to the next, you may want to consider revising or eliminating the experience that does not currently fit with your overall theme. You can always substitute it with another experience or go more in depth into current topics in your essay.
Read over your personal statement several times. Have others read it to get more than one opinion. Be sure to ask whether they think the story is strong and cohesive or if any idea or aspect should be altered or left out. It’s good to get this out of the way early on in the writing process—on your first or second draft, as having to rewrite a large portion of a disjointed personal statement is no fun, especially when you believe you’re almost finished.
5) Remember Your Audience and Tailor Your Document to Them
Again, you are writing to get into law school. The law is all about wording and language. The absence or addition of a single comma can change the entire meaning of a clause in a contract—leading to major legal battles. Therefore, punctuation and grammar are very important in this document. It’s the reader’s preview of how you think and write. Be aware of this, and review your personal statement several times before submitting it along with your application.
The rule with legal writing is that less is more. Lawyers write for meaning and understanding. They do not try to embellish their words. Be direct and succinct. Make your point in as few words as necessary to convey the meaning you intend to communicate—no more and no less.
Obviously, your writing should meet professional standards grammatically, as we talked about previously in this article. But be mindful that even though you are applying to law school, you are not expected to know the law. Don’t feel compelled to try to explain it to professors and senior faculty that obviously know it better than you do at this point. Your personal statement is not only a story, but it is a list of qualities conveyed through a narrative that you have actually lived. These tangible qualities portrayed through your experiences are what admissions committee members are looking to see, not your legal acumen.
Finally, remember to change your institution-specific information in each version of your personal statement if you are applying to multiple law schools. You do not need to rewrite your entire personal statement from scratch unless a school has a very specific prompt that you’re required to address. However, be sure to change the school and program names at the very least.
If a law school has a specific program that you are interested in, be sure to mention it in that version of your personal statement. If there are certain extra-curricular activities or organizations at a school that spark your interest, include them where relevant. The point is to try to customize your personal statement to make it more relevant for each school without rewriting it entirely.
6) Use Concrete Examples. Limit Abstractions.
A major problem for law school applicants is the use of abstractions in their personal statements. You should not be discussing legal theory or other complex topics in depth in your personal statement. The reasons are twofold. You can get into trouble by misinterpreting legal concepts, let alone complex terminology in other fields of study. More importantly, any room used to discuss theoretical circumstances is not room being used to discuss you and your experiences. It is your personal statement after all; it should focus on you and what you have done—less so on things you plan to do in the future or that may never occur.
Applicants tend to fall into this trap because they feel like their current experiences aren’t good enough for a law school personal statement. This usually isn’t true. Although there are limitations on what law school admissions want to see content-wise in your personal statement, such as unexceptional activities from high school and before, pretty much anything else can be used as a valid experience. You just have to convey how it made you a better person. As long as you demonstrate your efforts using tangible examples of your experiences, you’re set. Debating the merits of topics with which you have no real-world experience should be avoided.
Talk about your passions, profession, extra-curricular activities, leadership roles, civic and volunteer involvement, your work and internship experience, how you became interested in law, how you are unique, your perspective and what led to it, your skillsets and technical knowledge, etc. There are plenty of topics you can weave together to form your story. Just be sure to do it in an engaging manner that puts the reader on your side and shows your value as a potential law school student.
Some Final Thoughts:
Writing about yourself in a professionally appropriate manner can be difficult at first. This important document needs to discuss personal details of your life concisely and thoughtfully to an admissions committee looking for reasons to deny people. It is not always clear what can be seen as informal. This makes getting a second opinion on your work a must.
Read over your personal statement several times. If you ever get stuck, sleep on it and come back to it later. Sometimes, taking a break for a day or two can help you see your writing from a new angle. This can help you generate new ideas on how to develop it further.
Finally, always have your writing reviewed. More opinions are always better than just your own. As with any formal application document, get your personal statement reviewed and edited by a professional. This is where Gradvocates can help. Let our experienced personal statement editors help you perfect your law school personal statement.
For even more helpful tips, see: How to Write a Great Personal Statement.
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