Things to Avoid on the Law School Personal Statement

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The Law School Personal Statement and Avoiding Cliches
Two pages. That’s how long you have to sum up your life in a personal statement. Law schools already have your GPA and LSAT, so those four years of school and three months of study are already covered, but what about everything else? Hell, it took 240 pages for whoever ghost-wrote ‘First Step 2 Forever’ to sum up Justin Bieber’s life; how can they expect you to get your story into 500 words?

Whether you’re just starting on your first draft or you’re trying to edit out those last few third-page sentences, here are three quick tips to ensure that the finished product is all killer, no filler.

1) Edgar Allan Poe, the master of the short story, would remove any storyline, any character, any word that didn’t contribute to the theme of his piece. This principle is the reason that his tales evoke such a strong reaction from readers, even today. Your personal statement should have a similar focus. It’s a laser beam, not a shotgun.

Pick one thing, one thing, about which you’re especially proud or passionate. Cut everything else. Right now. I’ll wait.

If you’ve got space left over after all of the cutting, fill it in with more stories about what’s left. Each of those little details will add to the depth of your piece, transforming it from a survey of your life to a picture of a person I’d like to meet.

2) Now, cut any sentence that speaks generically about what you’re trying to say. If I can put a sentence from your essay into someone else’s and it still makes sense, that sentence has failed. Like the ending of Lost: You could put Ross and Rachel in that damn church and it would have worked as the Friends series finale. You don’t want your essay to be David Schwimmer, do you? You want everything you write to be your own.

These generic sentences usually fall into the ‘tell’ category. You want to be showing the reader something. Read through your essay and replace any statement asserting that you’re funny/intelligent/a Hannah Montana fan with an example of that quality.

3) Finally, cut out the cliches. I read many, many essays and at least three times as many drafts; believe me when I say that you all have a few in there. Much like the generic sentences, cliches will make your essay bleed into every other personal statement read by members of the admissions committee, and they read hundreds of them. What are some of the most common cliches I see?

• “Nearing the end of my college career, I find myself at something of a crossroads.” We know. You’re graduating college, and, for the first time in your life, you realize that, well, you have to find something to do for the rest of your life (we both know you’ve taken the cheap way out by finding more school). However, that’s the same boat everyone else is in. Cut it.

• “I’ve struggled my whole life to succeed and, looking back at the mountain I’ve climbed, I’m ready to ascend to the peak!/law school will seem like an anthill in comparison!” God help you if you reference climbing a mountain in your application. Even if you mean it literally, think twice before you write about it in your personal statement.

• “I’ve always had an innate sense of justice/fairness.” You know what that’s called? A conscience, and only psychopaths are born without one. Sure, some of your fellow law students might fall into that category, but even members of the Federalist Society pretend to have one.

There are many more, and if you let yourself be guided by the second tip above, you’ll hopefully get them out of your essay as well.

GRAMMAR TIP OF THE WEEK
Who? Whom? Here’s an easy way to tell which one is right. Ask yourself a question based on the sentence, starting with “Who…?” If the answer to the question can be he/she/they, use “Who”. If it’s him/her/them, use “Whom”.

5 Responses

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  3. Lauren says:

    Great article. These tips will be useful in my writing process. I do have a concern. I recently climbed one of the highest mountains in Canada and want to include this experience in my personal statement. You suggest to think twice before writing about referencing a mountain climbing experience in a personal statement, I’m curious as to why you suggest that. Or, do you think there’s a way I could implement it without sounding cliche?

    • It’s going to be really hard to reference it without sounding cliche. Mountain climbing has become almost synonymous with achieving a seemingly-insurmountable goal in Western culture, and it’s been done to death. You can use it as a story/example to say something else, but I certainly wouldn’t focus my PS on the climb (unless you bested Everest), and I definitely wouldn’t use any type of reference to it as a challenge that you overcame.

  4. Josh says:

    Thanks for the article!

    Should I use personal growth in the paper? For example, I want to be completely honest about my shortcomings in the past and I would like to show how I used real-world experience and personal responsibility to overcome them. What would you suggest?

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