CPLA’s Personal Statement Blog

Week of 12/5

Putting it All Together: Completing Your Personal Statement

You’re in the home stretch and thinking that you’re ready to submit your application/personal statement. Although it will be helpful to have all your materials in before Christmas, do not make impulsive decisions when it comes to submitting your personal statement. Writing, particularly expressive writing, takes time; it is an emotional process, which is why putting aside your statement for a day, two, even a week, can be useful. Revisiting your statement after taking a break from it separates you from your initial reaction to your work. You may realize that a sentence or phrase you were at first unwilling to part with is much easier to let go of. With all this in mind, CPLA recommends that you consider the following before sending your personal statement off with your application:

  • Print it out — Once you upload your statement to LSAC, print it out directly from the application in pdf form. Go through it by hand and look for any typos, missing commas, or awkward phrases that you may not have caught by scrolling. Reread the paper aloud, and scan our blog posts or the Writing Center website for any last minute tips to improve it. Are there contractions in your paper? Is your word choice professional and precise?
  • Sleep on it — When you say “it’s ready,” give it at least another night of sleep. You’d be surprised the amount your opinion can change in twelve hours, and you don’t want to be left regretting sending it off before it’s exactly how you want it.
  • Double, Triple, Quadruple Check — Before pressing the “submit” button, check multiple times to make sure that your essay is the correct one for the school you are about to apply to! Then, submit your statements in the reverse order of which school is your top and which is not (in other words, start with the school you are least attached to). That way, if you do notice something that you want to change, you will be able to do it for the schools that matter more to you.

CPLA will be having our final week of personal statement drop-in advising next Wednesday 12/14! Drop by for questions before finals begin!

Week of 11/28

The Nitty and the Gritty: Tips for Correcting Mechanical/Grammatical Errors

Once you’ve tweaked your word choice, refined your sentence structure, put your paragraphs together, and read your statement so many times that you’ve gotten sick of it, it’s time for your final step: grammar and mechanics. Grammatical errors, while often minor, can distract from the content of your essay and give admissions committees the impression that you rushed through your revision. As you move towards a final version of your draft, keep the following suggestions in mind:

  • Avoid contractions – Although contractions may seem to be a reflection of your voice, they make your paper sound more informal and less professional. Expand all your “don’ts to “do nots,” your “wasn’t” to “was nots”, etc., unless you have a specific reason not to do so (i.e., you are quoting someone). Additionally, make sure that if you use abbreviations, you spell them out the first time they appear in your paper (i.e. CPLA becomes Center for Pre-Law Advising).
  • Pronoun Use – When you review your later drafts of your paper, be extremely aware of your personal pronoun use (“Us”, “We,” “You”). Using “we” and “you” generally or in reference to society on the whole can be dangerous. Your personal pronouns should refer to a specific group and it should be clear to your reader who this group is. The same applies to your impersonal pronouns (it, this, that). Underline each of your pronouns in your paper and make sure you can draw an arrow to exactly where in your paper it is defined. Make sure that the placement of your defined noun directly connects to your pronoun (check a handbook if you need help).
    Example: It is difficult for us to tell whether or not someone is lying.
    The problem with this sentence is that it is not clear to the reader who “us” is. Is it the writer and the reader? Everyone in society? People who are in the pre-law sphere?
    Suggestion: It is difficult to tell when someone is lying. OR
    It is difficult for most people to tell whether or not someone is lying.
  • Use a Handbook – If you have any questions about grammatical rules, no matter how minor, be sure to check out the UW Madison Writing Center’s grammar handbook. It is broken down by theme (comma usage, punctuation, subject-verb agreement, sentence fragments, run-ons etc.) and even includes a section with tips about how to proofread.

Before submitting your personal statement, have at least one other set of eyes look it over for mechanical errors. Schedule an appointment with Sherri/the Writing Center or stop by CPLA for drop-ins (only two more weeks to do so!).

Week of 11/21

Style, Voice, and Tone

For your personal statement to stand out and impress admissions officers, your paper should give readers a sense of who you are; when they finish reading it, they should want to start a conversation with you. While the content of your personal statement will give admission committees a sense of your background, its style will reflect upon your personality. Striking the proper balance between maintaining a professional tone and inserting your own voice can be tricky. CPLA recommends that, during revision, you target the following areas to address stylistic issues:

  • Word Choice – Believe it or not, each individual word that you choose can impact the way that you present yourself in your personal statement. Cliché, informal, and negative words can all detract from the ideas you present, and portray you in an unfavorable light. Choose precise, impactful words that do not carry a negative connotation; use Word’s “synonyms” feature, or an online thesaurus, if you’re stuck! Below are examples of four “categories” of problematic words:
    1. Clichés: Words that admissions officers see so often that they lose their meaning. Often, these words are broad and ambiguous, and can make a candidate seem generic or insincere.
      Examples: passionate, unique, challenging, inspiring
    2. Informals: Words that are overly casual and undermine the professional nature of the paper. Using these words can make it appear as if you are not taking the statement seriously. If you wouldn’t say the word in a job interview, leave it out.
      Examples: huge, cool, awesome, guy
    3. Negative Connotations: Words that carry a stigma or imply a negative attitude towards something. They may indicate pessimism or bias in a candidate.
      Examples: jock, nerd, hate, irritate, annoy
    4. Adverbs: Certain adverbs, such as “really,” “strongly,” and “effectively,” can hurt your paper because they are merely filler. If you take them out, your sentence means the same thing, and also sounds more clear and confident.
      Example: My perfect attendance record in college, despite my place on the varsity swim team, effectively illustrates my dedication to academics.
  • Refining idiomatic language – Along those lines, there are also plenty of phrases or sayings that, although common in everyday conversation, do not have much meaning in a personal statement. For example, expressions like “piece of cake,” do not provide your reader with an exact manifestation of what you mean to say. Search your paper for idioms or common sayings and try to replace them where necessary. This may require expanding upon a simple idea, or merely selecting more precise and specific words.

    Example: Despite the challenges I faced during my first year at UW-Madison, I gave my schoolwork my all and completed all my assignments on time.

    Despite the challenges I faced during my first year at UW-Madison, I tackled my schoolwork with a relentless effort and completed all my assignments on time.

  • Passive Voice – Although it is not a hard and fast rule, it is generally better to replace passive voice with active voice where possible throughout your paper. When you do so, you sound more confident, as well as more approachable. Scientific papers use passive voice to demonstrate the objective and impersonal side of their work; for a personal statement, you do not want to imitate them!

    : It can be seen through my years with the Peace Corps that volunteering my time is important to me.Suggestion: My years spent with the Peace Corps demonstrate the importance that I attach to volunteering.

Bring your draft into CPLA for more help, and be sure to check back next week for advice on how to address the grammatical and mechanical issues in your paper!

Week of 11/14

Revision, Revision, Revision:

Good writing requires revision, and not just one or two times reading through your draft. To refine your personal statement, be sure to give yourself at least a few weeks to self-revise and to conference with family, friends, Writing Center tutors, CPLA, and whoever else you feel comfortable with. Here are three tips for keeping a critical eye and catching common pitfalls!

1) Reading aloud – Chances are, by now you’ve been told many times that you should always read your work out loud when you revise. While it can feel a bit strange, there is a method to the madness. When you speak the words that you’ve written, you are more likely to catch phrases that sound clunky, run-on sentences, and even grammatical errors (like missing commas). As you read, mark places in the paper where you hesitate or find yourself needing a breath before the end of a sentence.

2) Tackling overly general phrases / sweeping statements – The best personal statements are the ones that “show” the admissions committee what you want to say, rather than just “telling” them. When you speak in overly general terms, you often come off as insincere, because it is a lot easier to lie with a broad statement than a narrow one. For example, instead of saying “I love football,” you might say “Each year, I attend every Badger football home game and even travel out of town for the occasional away game.” This attaches a specific and personal piece of evidence to your writing and illustrates your genuine passion for Badger football without you having to spell it out. During your revision, scan your draft for statements beginning with phrases such as “I am,” “I have” or “This shows.” For each one, ask yourself if someone else could have written that statement; if so, try to personalize it to an experience or trait you have.

Example: “I am a deep thinker, which would help me in law school.”

Suggestion: “My three years captaining the Ethics Bowl team and my background in Philosophy helped me to cultivate a desire to ask questions, as well as the ability to approach problems from multiple points of view; these traits will be invaluable in law school.

3) Cutting it down – Most schools call for your statement to be 2-3 pages in length, but some will not allow you to exceed two. Working in such tight constraints and with so much to say, it can be hard to keep your statement concise. If you’re having trouble deciding what should go, ask yourself: What would my paper lose if I removed this sentence/paragraph? Often, you will find that some of the anecdotes you tell go on for longer than they need to. For example, instead of spending a paragraph detailing the day-to-day responsibilities of your summer internship, see if you can cut down your experience to the 2-3 most important sentences about what you gained from it.

Check back next week for tips about style/voice/tone and visit the CPLA with your draft if you have questions!

Week of 11/7

From Topic to Paper

You’ve racked your brains, you’ve brainstormed, made lists, done free writing, and you’ve finally come up with what you want to say in your admissions essay. NOW WHAT?

Putting together the first draft of your personal statement may seem like the most challenging step. Whether you choose to outline it paragraph by paragraph, or just start writing, here are CPLA’s suggestions for putting your thoughts into words.

  • Write exactly what you want to say, without worrying about whether it will impress admissions officers. When you write the first draft of your personal statement, don’t worry about who your reader is and what his or her reaction will be. This will come later, as you begin to revise your work. Instead, try to make your first draft all about making sure that you have your ideas down in the way that you want to convey them.
  • Focus on your impact points. It is a lot easier to tinker with a later draft if your so-called “impact points” don’t need much revision. Your first and last sentence of every paragraph (particularly in your introduction and conclusion) are where you want to direct the most initial attention, because they comprise the structure of your paper and outline the main points that you are trying to make. Writing these sentences first may make it easier to assemble your paper in a logical order and to keep your statement on topic.
  • If you are applying to multiple schools, underline/highlight areas in your paper that can be tailored to each. Ideally, you will write only one personal statement and alter it slightly to each specific school. As you put together your first draft, be mindful of places that are easy to rephrase to fit each school on your list. If you’re having trouble finding any (if your statement is too focused on one school or location), you may want to tweak your topic to encompass a broader scope. (This is not a hard and fast rule: it will depend on the prompts that your schools provide you with, and whether or not you have a top choice that you feel passionately towards).

If you’ve already completed a first draft, check out points 2 and 3 to see if your paper needs work in any of these areas.

Looking for help with your revision? Stop by the CPLA for drop-ins or schedule an appointment with Sherri!

Week of 10/31

Selecting Your Topic

Both the beauty and the difficulty of the personal statement lie in its open-endedness; most schools do not provide a formal prompt, leaving the student with very few guidelines regarding the content of the piece. On the upside, this allows you to speak more freely and tailor what you want to say directly to your own background and experiences. On the downside, narrowing your focus and determining what you should talk about becomes more of a challenge. What exactly do admissions officers want to see? Are there questions that they expect you to answer? What experiences should/shouldn’t you draw upon?

If you are asking yourself these questions, and you’re stuck getting started, here are some brainstorming tips.

1. Don’t worry about “being unique.” When you’re deciding what to focus on in your personal statement, it’s tempting to try to find qualities or experiences that are unique only to you and that no one else will have. Remember, no matter what your background is, no one else has lived your life exactly as you have. Try shifting your focus instead to “What are my best qualities and what are my most meaningful experiences?”

2. Your statement should reflect WHY you want to attend law school and WHAT makes you an ideal candidate. Start by writing a sentence or two about WHY you want to attend law school and which qualities you have that will help you succeed while you’re there. Then, list out specific experiences you’ve had or significant parts of your background that clearly demonstrate these characteristics and why they support your goals.

3. Avoid re-iterating qualities that can be found in the rest of your application. Remember that your application already includes a resume and transcript, as well as an optional diversity statement. Avoid listing out accomplishments in your statement and including information that someone could get from the rest of your materials.

Once you ask yourself these questions, try 20 minutes of free writing. Looking at the lists you’ve generated above, try expanding upon the experience, qualities, and background that you possess.

Still stuck? Stop by the CPLA for an appointment or to check out the resources that are available!