1. No headings. No gimmicks.
2. Put your head in your story.
3. If you say you love American History (or any subject), you have to explain what you love about it.
4. When you discover abstract truths (“who you are” or “your life’s purpose”), elaborate…concretely.
It’s that time of year—personal statement time. Whether you’re in the brainstorming, drafting or revising stage, there are some great rules of thumb when it comes to writing your law school personal statement, rules that can help you stay on track to submitting a dazzling one.
Over at jdMission, I’ve been reviewing actual personal statements each week, highlighting their strengths and weaknesses, and discussing what lessons can be learned from them. Here are the most recent tips for making your personal statement sparkle, with links to the essays and reviews if you want to read more!
1. Tie the pieces of your story together.
A good personal statement has a narrative. You best convey who you are through story, and you choose to include certain stories because they say something about who you are—something significant. They illustrate the quality or qualities that you want the admissions committee to know about you. If stories don’t do this, well, they don’t belong in your essay. Odds are, you tell more than one story in your essay. You tell a few. They may or may not be in chronological order, but it is essential that they fit together, that collectively, they support what you are trying to say. If a story seems like it isn’t adding much or doesn’t fit, consider cutting it, or ask yourself if you can tell the story differently so that it is a better thematic fit. Read an example essay and review here.
2. In the climax of your essay (the big transition), avoid vagueness. Use concrete language instead.
If you are going to walk the reader through a rough patch in your life in order to demonstrate how you came out on the other side of it stronger, GREAT! Transition stories can be very powerful. They also, in order to be well told, need to zoom in on the moment of transition; it isn’t a part you can breeze over or tell from a bird’s eye view. For example, if you are writing that financial stress caused by a foreclosure in which you didn’t have an attorney drove you to illness, don’t say that you “experienced hardship” or that it “took a toll” on your health. What was the hardship? What was the toll? Specific, concrete details give transition moments their power. Read an example essay and review here.
3. Avoid bad beginnings and generalities.
I know this one is a generality (what’s a “bad beginning?”), but see why it’s so problematic? It’s hard to know what to do with it! One beginning that I would call categorically “bad” is the one that starts with you apologizing for who you are. Maybe it concerns you that the admissions committee wouldn’t want to admit someone who didn’t go to a liberal arts college and has worked her whole life to become a ballet dancer, and that’s a reasonable concern; you will need to demonstrate that you are up to the rigors of graduate-level academic work. Do not, however, begin your essay with, “I know you probably don’t think I can handle law school, being a dancer and all…” Start with the positive, with reasons why you should be admitted. Draw their attention to what about you makes you worth admitting, not to your weak spots. Read an example essay and review here.
4. Although your essay may be 90% there, the 10% may be most important.
Sometimes, I will read an essay that is so compelling, so well-written and engaging and believable and uplifting, that I forget I’m reading a personal statement. This sounds ideal, right? It would seem you should aspire to give this experience to the admissions officer who reviews your application. Yes, that is true, but: It can still fail in an essential way, even if it’s that good. It must still connect the dots between the Most Amazing Story Of All Time and why you’re a good fit for law school. I may not be able to put down The Hunger Games, but if I read it as part of Katniss’s law school application, I’d finish it thinking, “That was great!” and then I’d pause. “Oh…wait, why is she applying to law school?” Don’t forget what you writing, and why you’re writing it. Read an example essay and review here.
For those of you who took the June test and for those of you taking October with plans to apply in the fall, you’re probably hard at work already on your personal statement, or will be soon. Here are the five most important things to keep in mind when it comes to writing a fantastic personal statement, if you ask me.
1. Don’t skip brainstorming. The reason groups brainstorm, and the reason you should before you start writing your personal statement, is that it is the best way to get every idea “out there” instead of just going with the first thing that comes to mind. Why? Because believe it or not, the first thing that comes to mind is not necessarily your best idea. Before you pick up a laptop or pen and begin drafting, spend 15 minutes filling two to three pages with possible topics. Do not cross anything out. Don’t erase or delete anything. The point of this exercise is to come up with as many ideas as possible—however wacky, silly or strange it seems.When you finish, you will probably be surprised at how freeing the exercise felt. Now, you have a whole list of potential directions for your essay and are not locked into to any one or two.
2. It should be about you. Your personal statement is meant to be about you, not about your best friend, or your sister, or even how you think the world works. Of course you will include some discussion of the world around you and the people in your life to make your story clear and meaningful, but you should be writing much more about yourself than about anything else. Good questions to keep in mind are: how did you feel when X happened? How did it change you? What did you learn from it?
3. Talk about something that you learned. Stories about how you came to be who you are today are interesting. Stories about how you always were who you are today because you have not changed over the years are less interesting. “I have wanted to be a lawyer since I was three” may be true, but this kind of statement is not effective in a personal statement. Here is why. First, people like to hear about change, about discovery. They do not like to read about a lack of it. And second, generally, stories about how you came to realize your career choice do not take place in elementary school, or even middle school. You are just a kid then, and you think like a kid then. The only “kid” stories that should be featured in your essay are ones that help tell the story of how you became who you are today–and, for the vast majority of us, that’s going to include a heavy chunk of adulthood (or teenage-hood).
4. Look for connections that are not obvious. Have you had parallel experiences in your life that led you to a particular discovery, even though the experiences themselves seem unrelated on the surface? Or perhaps you expected Point A to lead to Point B, and it did. But then it turned out that Point B was not what you had anticipated. Rather than telling the first story that comes to mind because it feels like it has a nicely shaped beginning, middle and end, tell it the way it really did happen, and you could end up with something more honest, interesting and original. You will be shaping it in later drafts, anyway.
5. Don’t send it in without having someone else read it. Even if you are convinced it’s perfect, you should still have someone go over your essay with fresh eyes, because I would bet that it includes at least one typo you are missing. Once, in college, I pulled an all-nighter writing a paper. I submitted it at 9 a.m. the next morning then promptly crashed. I woke up a few hours later and walked to my desk, where the file was still open on my computer. I skimmed the first sentence. It had no verb. Are you thinking that means it was not a sentence? Yes. That is exactly what that means. My first sentence of my final paper was not actually a sentence. This is why you should have someone else review your work.
Check out the Telling Your Story column on jdMission’s blog for more.
As we near the end of this week, we again hope that those affected by Hurricane Sandy are making a progressive recovery and that life is returning to as close to normal as possible. To help everyone ease back into the usual routine, we’ve complied our weekly list of law school and LSAT-related links:
As you’re filling out law school applications and writing your personal statements, take a moment to stop by jdMission for some tips for avoiding oversimplification of your essay.
5 Non-Obvious Things to Do When You Start Law School (The Girl’s Guide To Law School)
Is Studying Law Boring? (The Guardian)
How to Stay Positive Amis Negative Law School News (Law Student Ally)
Don’t let the negative press about attending law school drag you down. Here are some great tips for staying positive and sticking to your goals.
Telling Your Story: Tell the Truth (jdMission)
What would a links roundup be without a little celebrity gossip?! Believe it or not, Rob Kardashian’s controversial future was one of the most talked law school topics on the web this week. I cringe for future generations..Rob Kardashian is Not Going to Law School, Says UCS Law School (Huffington Post)
As prospective law school students, your LSAT score is one key piece to a larger admissions puzzle that you must put together. I’m sure you’ve heard many times by now how important your LSAT score and undergraduate GPA are to your acceptance in to law school – but there still remains a bit of mystery surrounding certain aspects of the overall application. Just what are admissions officers looking for in a prospective JD student?
This week, Manhattan LSAT is pleased to be teaming up with AdmissionsConsultants.com – an admissions consulting firm with admissions counseling experience that spans decades – to bring you an exclusive interview with Sara Zearfoss, Dean of Admissions at the University of Michigan Law School.
Here is an excerpt from their exclusive interview:
What do you consider the most important part of the application process?
The personal statement, far and away. There’s a strong perception among applicants that the make-or-break factors are LSAT and UGPA – but while those are unquestionably important indicators of academic ability, it is certainly true that many people with strong metrics are not admitted, and also true that people whose metrics are well below our medians do get admitted. What never happens, however, is that someone who writes a terrible personal statement gets admitted.
To read the full interview, please click HERE.