Personal statements can be the best way for a law school to get to know their applicants. Each school may phrase their personal statement differently, so it’s helpful to check the prompt for the school before drafting/submitting (popular prompts found here). In general though, law schools look for an answer to two big questions: 1) Why is law school the next best step for you right now? and 2) Why should we choose you over someone else with the same statistics? Personality and character traits can be demonstrated in a personal statement by giving anecdotes that show (and don’t tell) the law school that you have particular qualities.
- What is the Goal of a Personal Statement?
- DOs and DON'Ts of a Personal Statement
- Brainstorming a Personal Statement
FIRST, and most importantly, the personal statement is your primary writing sample. In fact, it may be one of only two writings that the admissions committees will receive from you—the other being the LSAT writing sample that you composed in a mere 35 minutes. Admissions committees want to know whether you are a strong writer, and they will evaluate your personal statement through this lens. Well-written personal statements should not only demonstrate that you are proficient in your use of the English language but should also demonstrate that you can be logical, persuasive, engaging, and concise.
SECOND, at most law schools, the personal statement is a proxy for an interview. Only a handful of law schools offer interviews to applicants. For all other law schools, the personal statement is typically the only opportunity that the admissions committee has to get to know something more personal about you than is reflected elsewhere in your application. It is called a personal statement for a reason. It should make admissions committee members feel as though they have met you, and ideally, they will like who they met.
THIRD, the personal statement gives the admissions committee greater insight into your critical thinking abilities. Are you able to reflect on your life experiences and identify how one or more of those experiences has impacted you in some meaningful way? Critical thinking is an essential quality for law students and lawyers, and admissions committees want to see you demonstrate that ability in your personal statement.
FOURTH, the personal statement may give admissions committees a sense of your motivations for attending law school. Was your decision to apply well reasoned or was it a result of not knowing what else to do after college? Admissions committees prefer to admit applicants who have come to the reasoned conclusion that law is the best career path for them.
FIFTH, the personal statement can be a form of tie-breaker for applicants with similar numbers and experiences. An applicant who has demonstrated critical thinking, persuasiveness, and writing ability may have the upper hand.
Finally, the personal statement is potential and needed relief for admissions committees that review thousands of applications over the course of the admissions cycle. The other components of the application, while useful, can be dry and fatiguing to review in bulk. The personal statement is the one document that can bring life to an application file. Take advantage of that opportunity and give the admissions committees an engaging statement. It doesn’t need to be the great American novel, but it should at least give admissions committees a pleasant break from the rest of the application review process. They will thank you.
(1) Pay Attention to Each School’s Prompt
Hopefully, for most applicants, this is a no-brainer. The prompt for each school is first available in August/September when law schools release that year’s application. The prompts typically don’t change much year to year, so you can get a head start by looking at the previous year’s application. For many/most applicants, the prompts are similar enough that the same personal statement template can be used with minor adjustments for each school (see Tip #2 on personalization). For some applicants, however, the prompts are different enough that you should write multiple personal statements. Be sure that the personal statement you use for a school does in fact respond to the prompt for that school. The ability to follow directions is a necessity for law school applicants.
(2) Personalize Your Statement
Most law schools want to see that you have put time and effort into researching why that school is a good fit for you. One of the ways you can demonstrate your due diligence is to include a paragraph (typically at the close of your personal statement) outlining several specific factors that have drawn you to that law school. Be specific. Important considerations to note: (a) Vague statements asserting that a law school is a good fit for you without any supporting evidence or information are useless, so do your research and work on articulating the reasons for your interest in each school. (b) You can review a school’s website to determine what you like about that school, but don’t just regurgitate information from the website. They want to know why that information is relevant to your interests and/or goals. (c) Top-ranked schools (typically, top 5 or so) pretty much know why you would like to attend, so personalization is less important unless there is something that truly differentiates that school from others to you. (d) Some schools have a separate “optional” essay allowing you to discuss why you want to attend that school. If that is the case for one of your schools, write the separate essay, and omit the personalized paragraph from your personal statement. (e) Be sure to submit the correct versions to each school. Save the school’s name in the title to help minimize any potential for error.
(3) Be Personable
As you now know, one of your goals as an applicant is to let admissions committees get to know you. It is just as important that they like you. Admissions committees are in no rush to admit applicants who are arrogant, pretentious, elitist, or rude. So the tone you use in your personal statement is important. Don’t assume that you need to use a formal tone just because you think lawyers write very formally. By using a formal tone, you are actually building a wall between yourself and the admissions committee—the opposite of what you should be doing. Aim for a more conversational (but not casual) tone so that the statement flows easily for the reader. Further, forget the big words that you think make you sound smart. They actually risk making you sound arrogant, pretentious, or even unintelligent (if used improperly). Strong writing conveys intelligence without the need for big words.
(4) Tell a Story
Another easy way to be both personal and personable in your personal statement is to start off with an anecdote about yourself that sets up the framework for the rest of the statement. For example, if you are highlighting certain characteristics in your statement, tell an anecdote that demonstrates those characteristics. If you are discussing a defining moment in your life, describe a scene from that experience. A well-told anecdote can immediately capture readers’ attention and draw them into your world. Even if you don’t include an anecdote in the statement, the topic that you choose should, in a sense, “tell a story” about you in a way that captures and keeps the reader’s attention.
(5) Be Concise
Some schools set no limit for personal statements, but most suggest either 2–3 or 2–4 pages. Aim for two pages, double-spaced. Do not make the error of thinking that more is better. Law schools value the ability to persuasively convey information in a relatively short space. Also, keep in mind that admissions committees are reviewing thousands of applications. Don’t waste their time.
1. DON’T just restate your résumé in narrative form. That shows no critical thinking ability. If you are going to talk about more than one achievement or experience mentioned on your résumé, then connect the dots. Find a common theme that ties those items together.
2. DON’T address your weaknesses in the personal statement. Use an addendum.The personal statement should highlight the positives about you.
3. DON’T focus on your high school activities or accomplishments. Focusing on achievements in high school can draw attention to a lack of similar achievements in college.
4. DON’T be overly dramatic. Understatement is better.
5. DON’T spend too much time talking about someone or something else. Always bring the focus back to you.
6. DON’T start your statement with a famous quotation, no matter how well you think it might fit with the theme of your personal statement. Admissions committees want to hear your words, not those of someone else.
7. DON’T use legalese or Latin phrases.
8. DON’T be careless. Be sure not to accidentally mention the wrong school in your statement.
9. DON’T use big words in an effort to impress the admissions committees. It sets the wrong tone for the statement.
10. DON’T write a position paper or opinion piece. Even written well, those types of writings are not particularly useful to admissions committees because they miss the point of the personal statement.
Your goal in brainstorming a personal statement is to find a core idea around which the statement will be centered. What will be the take away for admissions committees reading the statement? The take away should not be a list of your experiences or accomplishments. Go deeper. The take away should concern something more: key characteristics, skills, or abilities; lessons learned; personal growth; passions pursued; the impact of certain experiences; or qualities about you that indicate readiness for law school.
If you are having difficulty developing the core idea for your personal statement, consider these brainstorming ideas.
- Write down memorable episodes (even minor) from your life, then select those that best demonstrate something positive that you want to convey.
- Describe yourself in 6 words. What is it about you that comes to mind?
- Review your resume and think about the impact of each experience on your personal growth.
You can also check out CPLA’s “Brainstorming Exercises” for more suggestions on how to get started!
Center for Pre-Law Advising (CPLA) support for personal statements:
CPLA advisors are happy to help brainstorm or review drafts of personal statements for UW-Madison students and alumni.
Please note: application documents (personal statements, resumes, etc) require an appointment to be reviewed. You can submit documents ahead of time via email if you wish or bring them with you to the appointment. Please be aware that during peak advising times there can be a 2 week wait for appointments. Thank you for your understanding as we do our best to serve and support all those exploring and applying to law school. We look forward to working with you!
UW-Writing Center support for personal statements:
The UW-Writing Center offers appointments for personal statement drafting help for current undergraduates only. If you also plan to bring your statement to the Center for Pre-Law Advising (CPLA) for review, we suggest bringing it to CPLA for suggestions on the topic/content first, and then taking it to the writing center for to improve the quality of writing.
Alumni and current students may attend a personal statement workshop put on by the writing center, usually scheduled in the fall.
Other Personal Statement Resources:
Sample Personal Statements
Advice from Law School Admissions Deans
Video: Law School Admissions Reps Discuss “The DOs and DON’Ts of Personal Statements”
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