Getting Personal On The Personal Statement

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There are very few do-overs in life.

I have a confession to make: My personal statement was awful. Just ridiculous and awful. I got into the school I wanted to nonetheless because of my LSAT score, and really only because of my LSAT score. With three years of law school since and many years after guiding students in the admissions process, I’ve learned a lot about what a winning personal statement looks like and what doesn’t.

Let me give you a brief rundown of the contours of my personal statement — you better believe I’m not putting that POS up online for the world to mock — and we can use that as a roadmap out of What Not To Do Land and into What To Do-ville. Basically, because I had no rationale for going to law school other than I’d reached the end of my twenties and had run out of other ideas for doing stuff before I die, I thrashed about for a while, even considering inspiration derived from Plato’s Republic, and then I settled on telling a story about my uncle.

Well, the basic story is that my uncle was a falling down drunk and general f-up for years, and then he cleaned himself up in his 40’s and became a lawyer. What does that have to do with me going to law school? If your answer was “nothing,” you’re correct! Basically, I said he inspired me to go to law school and then went on for another three pages trying to expand that into something worth reading. It was not worth reading. (For additional information on what not to do, see this article from a few weeks back detailing a few myths about writing a personal statement.)

The way to properly conceptualize a personal statement (and any bit of persuasive writing) is to think about what your reader wants, not what you want, and God forbid NOT a laundry list of all the things that makes mom proud of her little boy/girl. Instead, you are writing to law school admissions officers. To know what your reader wants, you must know what is important to your reader.

Admissions officers, and their bosses, are unfortunately very concerned with their law school’s rankings. A good ranking means plenty of students willing to pay full tuition, which in turn means that they get to keep their jobs. Some very important things that go into law schools’ rankings are dependent upon the quality of the student. The GPA of their students is important. Their bar passage rate is important. Their job placement rate is important. So, the argument you need to make is that you will do well in school, pass the bar, and be a successful lawyer on the outside.

Now, obviously if you just come out and say, “I’ll get good grades, pass the bar, and get a big law job,” they’ll just toss your application in the trash because your mouth (or word processing program, really) is writing checks your ass can’t cash. Instead, they want to see solid evidence that you’re smart enough and hard working enough to get good grades and pass the bar, and that you’re actually passionate about being a lawyer. Whatever the topic of your personal statement, those points need to be a thread that is woven throughout your statement.

So, don’t worry about proving that you’ve been through hardship or set up your own charity. Those are great bases for making the argument above if they’re true, but even if they are true and you can’t use them to make the points above, they’re garbage.

Instead, the best way to make your argument is to pick something you’re passionate about and turn it into an argument that you’re passionate about practicing law and hard working and competent. If you’re passionate about playing basketball, maybe that’s a great thing to turn into an argument that you’ll be a successful entertainment law attorney. Talk about how hard you worked, and how that work ethic follows you wherever you go.

At any rate, if you find yourself bored by what you’re writing, admissions officers will be doubly bored because they read hundreds of personal statements each year. Be passionate, and you’re on the right track.

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