Personal Statements: Not as Scary as You Think

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Writing your personal statement can feel like the most stressful part of applying to law school. I put off working on my personal statement for a long time, but once I realized what makes a good personal statement, it wasn’t very daunting at all.

First, let’s take a look at some personal statement prompts. Here’s one from the University of Chicago Law School: “Please use the personal statement to introduce yourself to the Admissions Committee and to help the Committee get to know you on a personal level.” Chicago wants you to tell them a story about yourself so they can get to know you beyond your LSAT score and GPA.

Columbia’s prompt is similar. They first give you a long, wordy list of topics you could write about, and then they say you may write about “any other factors that you think should inform the Committee’s evaluation of your candidacy for admission.” Columbia’s personal statement prompt is just as open as Chicago’s, and here too, telling a story about yourself is the right approach.

Personal stories are the way to go, because you want the admissions committee to infer that you’re awesome rather than expressly saying so yourself. Saying, “I’m very smart”; “I care about people”; “I work hard” – that’s gauche. Instead, tell the admissions staff a story in which these positive characteristics show from your actions.

Your personal story can be about that that summer you spent painting houses for extra cash. It can be about your semester abroad in Guatemala. Or, it can be about your experiences serving in the armed forces. The topic really isn’t all that important, but do try to keep it appropriate, recent, and about you.

Don’t write about your Tinder conquests (not appropriate), or how you feel about the Star Wars prequels (not about you). Don’t write about high school – high school was a long time ago. What have you done lately? Finally, don’t write about how awesome your parents, grandparents, uncles, aunts, or friends are. It’s great if they are, but write about yourself. You should be the star of your story.

A lot of people think they need to write a “Why Law School” personal statement in which they try to convince the admissions committee that they truly, deeply, passionately want to go to law school. The only problem is that almost no one has a very compelling personal reason for going to law school. (Helping people? Yawn – that’s what everyone says. Making money? Honest, but unlikely to impress the admissions officers.) Another problem with this type of personal statement is that it can devolve into an analytical piece on the merits of justice and intellectual pursuits. That’s boring, and not very personal at all. So, unless the prompt specifically asks you to explain why you want to be a lawyer, don’t feel like you have to write a “Why Law School” personal statement – you don’t.

Another popular but misguided personal statement topic is writing about your deep, undying commitment to public interest law. If you don’t have a resume that can add credibility to a public interest personal statement, pick something else to write about, or you’ll run the risk of writing a personal statement that seems cliché and hollow.

That’s it – it really is that simple. Just tell the admissions committee a compelling personal story. If you’re looking for some additional help, check out some of our other personal statement tips. Good luck!

2 Responses

  1. Matt says:

    I’m curious where you draw the line for public interest law Personal Statements. If that really is what you do and it’s something that you are involved in, when is it okay to talk about it? What kind of resume actually backs it up? Obviously, if you’re just doing a canned food drive once a year, you can’t say that you’re involved in community service. But, if you’re involved with volunteer orgs for several hours a week – is that enough to warrant a Personal Statement about public interest?

    • Hi Matt,

      While you’re right that a once-a-year thing isn’t enough to write a public interest statement, I don’t think the right measure is hours per week. Rather, you should be making an argument that you will be an involved member of the law school’s community and a lawyer that will make the school proud after you graduate. If your public interest background can be cited as evidence that these things will happen, then it should be a centerpiece of your statement. To do that, you should do some research on each school to which you plan to apply and tailor your statement accordingly, expressing interest in participating in legal clinics, etc. that line up with your experience and plans. And, while you needn’t have a specific plan as to where you want to work after law school, you should give them some general idea about what kind of work you’ll do. If you’re planning on practicing public interest law, say so. If you have a particular area of public interest law you want to practice, say so. But if you’re planning on working at a big law firm, you may want to rethink your angle.

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