In this series, a jdMission Senior Consultant reviews real law school personal statements. What’s working well? What’s not? If it were his/her essay, what would be changed? Find out!
Note: To maintain the integrity and authenticity of this project, we have not edited the personal statements, though any identifying names and details have been changed or removed. Any grammatical errors that appear in the essays belong to the candidates and illustrate the importance of having someone (or multiple someones) proofread your work.
When I was thirteen years old, after seven years of playing softball, I quit. I did so undramatically. My coach, tired of watching me fool around and pay little attention to what was going on around me, announced at the beginning of a game that I would be playing right field. If you don’t know Little League or teens softball very well, right field is where the coaches put you when you can’t catch and can’t throw. It’s where they hope you will do the least possible damage. I had been playing softball for seven years, and here I was playing the same position I started in at age six. I stood out in the field watching the game. I didn’t even bother moving, not even when the ball came down the line between me and center field. I stood there for nine innings. When I walked home at the end of the game, I simply never went back. Not to practice, not to the next game, not to the end of the season party. I quit, as easy as that.
When I was a sophomore in high school, all my friends joined the soccer team. Dutifully, I went out and bought an Adidas duffel bag, shin guards, and soccer shoes. I had never played before, but I was determined to learn. I went to pre-season practice every day. I ran laps around the school football field along with the other girls (soccer required much more running than baseball). I did so many sit ups that muscles began to ripple across my abdomen. I ran drills. I learned how to pass and aim for the goal. I became so much better than I was when I started. When the lists got posted for first and second string, I was convinced that I would be on first, along with all my friends.
My friends made it. I did not.
I never went back to practice.
By the time I reached college, I had made a steady habit of quitting when things didn’t go my way. And part way through my first semester, I had about had it with school. The classes were harder than the ones I had sailed through in high school, I was eating poorly and had gained quite a bit of weight, I was having a hard time keeping a budget, and, with my newfound freedom, I was drinking just a little too much—all pretty typical freshman problems. But to me, they seemed like the end of the world.
To make things worse, I had read Jean Paul Sartre’s plays in high school and loved them so much that I thought taking a class where we read the entirety of Being and Nothingness would be a good idea. The class was killing me. Having never taken a philosophy class before, I couldn’t follow the ideas behind existentialism. The other people in the class talked like they had been reading philosophy texts since grade school. I spent the first half of the semester asking questions that other students snickered at, and the second drawing in my notebook. I was going to fail. Better yet, I was going to quit before I failed.
I stopped going to the class. I missed one class; I felt better already. I missed two; this was clearly the right decision. I missed three; suddenly, in my inbox, there was an email from my professor asking if I was okay. When I emailed back, saying I was, he suggested that I come by his office and talk to him.
I probably could have avoided doing so, but I didn’t. He was a nice guy, I thought. He tried really hard to be a good teacher. I guessed I owed him some sort of explanation.
I explained. I told him how I was having trouble understanding, how stupid the class made me feel. I confessed that the best way, it seemed, to avoid that feeling was not to show up at all.
He listened to me talk. He really was a good teacher. After I got done talking, he said, “Look, fine if you’re never going to be a philosopher. But that doesn’t mean you have to be a quitter.”
Something clicked for me in that moment. I wasn’t a baseball star, so I was a quitter. I wasn’t first string in soccer, so I was a quitter. And I certainly wasn’t a philosopher. But did I have to go on being a quitter?
If this were a movie, I’d have stayed in the class and gotten an A at the end. But I didn’t.
I got a C+.
Over the next four years, I was faced with many more situations where the choices were be less than a star, or a quitter. And every time, I chose to stick with it. I learned the valuable trait of tenacity, a trait I think would serve me well in my professional future. As my quitting days fell further and further behind me, I began to excel in the things that I committed myself to, as you will see reflected in the grades I achieved in my last two years of college.
Now, I am confident that even if I am not always the star of something, I will complete it to best of my ability. When the choice comes down to quitting or finishing, I choose finishing.
Overall Lesson: Your personal statement should fit in well with the rest of your application.
First Impression: I like the first paragraph, and I like the candidate.
Strengths: This essay achieves something many others cannot: it focuses to a very significant degree on expressing the candidate’s vulnerability (she devotes more than 80% of her personal statement to describing herself as a quitter) but then makes a meaningful and poignant 180-degree turn to transform her instances of quitting into a story about a powerful transition. By the end of the essay, I completely believe the candidate; I believe her transition from being a habitual quitter to making strong commitments to her endeavors was real (and as she notes, I can refer to her transcript to confirm this)—but more importantly, I believe in her. She has sunk, she has reflected, and she has risen. Many candidates attempt to write about this type of arc, but few do so convincingly, and fewer still do so as powerfully as this individual has.
Weaknesses: The question of whether to discuss your decision to attend law school in your personal statement is contentious. Notice that this essay does not address the candidate’s reasons for wanting to attend law school at all.
Here is my general advice on this issue: if the rest of your application does not clearly indicate why you are applying—say, for example, you have no legal internship or student group experience, majored in a subject unrelated to law, and spent the past five years working in a biology lab—then you should at least touch on your reasons for pursuing a law degree in your personal statement.
However, if your application already demonstrates why you are applying to law school—whether through your college extracurricular activities, your work history, or your coursework—then you are probably safe to submit a personal statement that does not directly mention law school. I am not saying you should avoid discussing your law school aspirations in your essay, but in this case, if the candidate’s resume and/or transcript clearly communicate her interest in the law, I think this type of essay is acceptable.
Finally, this personal statement is on the long side, so it needs to be shortened a bit. Specifically, I would suggest removing any expendable text from her discussion of her quitting habit. However, she should add a few examples of times when she “was faced with many more situations where the choices were be less than a star, or a quitter” and yet chose to “stick with it.” This can be accomplished in a single sentence; she does not need to get too detailed or belabor the points.
I would discuss with the candidate how this essay fits in with the rest of her application. If her overall application is strong (and, specifically, reflects why she wants to go into law), I would feel comfortable with her submitting this personal statement with only minor editorial tweaks. 📝
Read more real law school personal statement reviews.
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