University of Wisconsin–Madison

DOs and DON’Ts When Writing a Personal Statement

5 DOs:

(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.

10 DON’Ts
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.