Personal Statement Myths, Debunked

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There are some prevalent myths about what a winning personal statement must look like. Aspiring law school students often do themselves a disservice by adhering to these myths. It’s not just that buying into them is not helpful; buying into them may turn an otherwise solid effort into something that makes admissions committee members groan and roll their eyes. That’s not a recipe for success. So, let’s take a look at just two of these myths and see how you can avoid them.

Myth #1: A personal statement must include a tale of overcoming adversity.

Don’t get me wrong. A story about overcoming adversity can be a powerful part of a personal statement. The operative word there, however, is “can.” Some people have truly harrowing tales. Other people have led relatively turbulence-free lives. For the latter, the tale of adversity is either an outright untruth — not recommended for a personal statement — or it is a cloying effort to cast a normal life experience as tragedy, which comes off as farce.

The classic forced-adversity tale is the death of a grandparent. Nobody thinks that grammy was unimportant to you, but the passing of older generations is, in the words of the great and noble Mufasa, just a part of the circle of life. Now, if you cared for grammy as she lay dying, maybe that will work. But if you saw her on holidays and some weekends, then that’s not adversity. It’s life. Trying to cast that as adversity will just make your reader think that you’re overly sensitive and blow things out of their normal, albeit serious, importance. That’s a strike against you.

However, even for people who have experienced true adversity, the tale of overcoming adversity must be a relevant and reasonable part of a personal statement, the main thrust of which must always be an argument that you will be a valuable part of the law school to which you are applying and a successful lawyer after law school. It must line up with the other experience that you put in your statement and in your resume. Someone who experienced grinding poverty and hunger as a youth can use that as a launching point to discuss an interest in legal aid for the indigent. Ideally, that tale would include volunteering in college to help the poor and the hungry in some way. If, however, the tale of adversity doesn’t dovetail with the argumentative purpose outlined above, it ought to end up on the cutting room floor.

The upshot here is that some people don’t experience real diversity, and that doesn’t mean that they don’t have a right to be a lawyer. It just means that a personal statement ought to look elsewhere for its rhetorical power.

Myth #2: A personal statement needs to be a laundry list of accomplishments.

Again, whatever goes into a personal statement must serve a cogent argument about the applicant’s potential. Some reference to accomplishments is necessary, but the admissions committee isn’t just looking to see if you’re an awesome dude/dudette of whom they ought to be in awe. If you reference an accomplishment, ask yourself, “Is this evidence for my thesis?” If so, keep it. If not, cut it.

Admissions committee members read literally thousands of personal statements, and they’ll see accomplishments galore. Eventually, they will become unimpressed by all but the most amazing accomplishments.

Instead of trying the above, try this: Take what you’re passionate about and use it as a springboard to make the argument above. Even if it’s not strictly related to law school your passion will shine through. Let’s say you loved playing football and were a star athlete. The grit and determination you showed, your competitive spirit, your sportsmanship, will all make a compelling case that you’ll be a good law student, maybe one who’s interested in practicing sports law eventually. And, best of all, it won’t be forced.

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