How to Avoid the Missteps of the Law School Personal Statement
Unless you’re one of those people who have, paradoxically, a thousand things on your resume and too much time on your hands, you haven’t yet started your personal statement. And that’s fine. You have all summer to work on it, and you don’t want to be one of those people who, when talking about law school applications, makes everyone else feel dumb with a snide, “You mean you haven’t started your essay yet?”
However, the earlier you start on the essay, the more polished it will be.
Rewrites will be needed. Revisions will certainly be in order. Many people will look over your essay and give feedback. All of this will take time, so give yourself plenty of it to ensure that your personal statement, the most important of the soft factors, is up to snuff.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. If you’re just starting out, you’re also probably throwing many ideas around. Here are some common mistakes that you can avoid from the get-go to save yourself some of those rewrites, a whole lot of time, and many, many (many) bad drafts.
1. The Resume Rewrite
If only you could somehow get all of your life experience into a single document, thus proving your worth to law schools. A stunning display of your talent, in an easy to read format.
You can. It’s called a resume. And rewriting it in long form for your personal statement is a bad idea.
The personal statement is the time to display something deep about yourself, not the three months you spent glazing pretzels at Auntie Anne’s. Even if you’ve held more impressive positions than that, they’re better relegated to a few bulleted points on your resume. A good rule of thumb is that you should avoid anything that would read better in list format when writing your personal statement.
2. Someone Else’s Personal Statement
“They always say that dirt rains down from above, but it feels more like a swarm of insects as it assaults your face. The effect is only intensified by the buzz of bullets flying by.”
I’m expecting to get a story of your time as a Marine. Instead, I get a story of your grandfather in World War 2.
Can it be an effective story? Sure. But you’re going to have to quickly transition to how learning about his experience affected your life. How it caused you to volunteer at the VA. How it inspired in you a passion to serve those who had served their country.
Telling someone else’s story will always be more impersonal than telling your own. ‘Impersonal’ is the opposite of what you want in a personal statement. You may think that no story of your life can hold a candle to that of a family member; however, if I want a glimpse into your life, your story, your passion, there’s no substitute. Make sure that you’re the protagonist of your own essay.
3. Picking the ‘Safe’ Story
You grew up in abject poverty before developing a drug habit. After spending years as a busker, you had to sell your guitar to feed your habit. It was only after a child walked over and silently handed you a quarter that you realized the hard feeling pressing against your back was rock bottom.
And you wrote a personal statement about how you’ve always been a great debater, so law school is the perfect fit for you.
Don’t be afraid to talk about sensitive subjects. Your failures, and your reaction to them, tell me more about who you are than any amount of qualities you assert in yourself. These challenges you’ve faced have made you who you are; I can’t possibly know where you are without knowing where you’ve been.
Law schools won’t look down on you for being flawed. They’ll look positively at your ability to reinvent yourself. Everyone loves a comeback story, and everyone roots for the underdog. Show me that you’re not Ivan Drago, and I’ll root for you to take down Apollo Creed every time (yes, I just muddled Rockys 1, 2, and 4 in that reference).
4. The Final(-ish) Draft
Everyone knows that a typo can seriously affect the quality of your personal statement. It’s common knowledge. It’s something easy to correct.
And it is something that nearly every personal statement will have when it is submitted to law schools.
There is very little chance of you eliminating all of the grammatical errors, misspellings, and awkward sentences in your own writing. It would be like calling your baby below average (which, statistically, half of all parents face). You can read over your drafts all you want, but nothing beats having several other people read through it. They won’t be trapped in your voice, your head, your reading of the sentences. Have as many people as you can look over it.
And listen to what they say. Even if you eventually disregard their feedback, have a reason for doing so. It’s your essay, but someone else is going to have to read and interpret it. Make sure it says what you think it says (i.e. don’t be Vizzini).
5. Bragadocity? Bragadociousness? Braggadocio?
You’re a great person. I’m sure of it.
Unfortunately, you’re also sure of it. A little too sure.
One of the finest lines to walk on the personal statement is presenting yourself in a positive light while not sounding like you’re full of yourself. It involves working in all of those details about how great you are as necessary back story to whatever tale you’re weaving.
The only way to ensure you haven’t run afoul that line is to have others read your essay (and, hey, why not have them read it for grammar, spelling, and word choice while you’re at it?). If they tell you something comes off as bragging, it comes off as bragging. Don’t argue, just cut it. Or smooth it out. An amazing personal statement can be ruined by a poorly timed statement about how awesome you are. Unless you’re naturally deodorized (someone out there has to get this reference).
So don’t brag. That’s what letters of recommendation are for.