Talking Law School Personal Statements and Letters of Rec

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Last week, Hank attended a handful of events at the 2014 Pacific Coast Association of Pre-Law Advisors (PCAPLA) Conference and blogged about them. This is part 2 of 3.

It might be a law school applicant’s market right now.

But you still have to make a compelling case.

That was the final message delivered by Golden Gate University School of Law Associate Dean of Admissions Angela Dalfen to close out the PCAPLA Conference discussion on personal statements and letters of recommendation last Friday at UCLA School of Law.

Dalfen, along with UCLA School of Law Director of Admissions Talin Broosan, discussed law school admissions essays and letters of rec for about an hour, passing along their best pieces of advice to the dozens of pre-law advisors from all over the country who were in attendance.

Broosan likened the process of sorting through law school applications for the right candidate to looking for a mate. Your personal statement should show that you’re a good match for the law school you wish to attend. After all, admission committee members are looking out for the well-being of the entire school.

The key, according to Broosan, is to stand out in the pile. One of the worst ways to do that: regurgitating the school’s website in your personal statement. Broosan said she’s seen plenty of admissions essays where applicants simply copy and pasted the school’s mission statement. There are other ways to appeal to the law school without doing that.

Dalfen added that the purpose of the personal statement is to show you will be successful in a law school’s program, not just in your legal career. Your personal statement should paint a picture that you’re prepared for the hard work of being a law student.

How you show that is the tricky part.

Overcoming past hardships is the go-to theme of most law school personal statements, and most of the questions from pre-law advisors in attendance focused on how to best execute that theme. Dalfen and Broosan both agreed that capturing the reader’s attention early is key, but the point of the essay should always be brought back to why an applicant wants to attend the law school they’re applying to. You want to detail your past so the law school gets to know you, sure, but you have to show how you learned from your past and how it will help you handle the academic rigors as a 1L student.

If you have an especially remarkable story, Dalfen and Broosan encouraged writing about it in your law school personal statement under one condition: make sure it’s true. Dalfen and Broosan said they won’t hesitate to Google any candidate claiming to have an unbelievable story in their personal statement. In general, it’s good to Google yourself before applying to law school — just in case there are any red flags that might pop up in the review process. Also, if you have an exceptionally personal story you wish to discuss in your essay, make sure you ease the reader into it and connect it to how it applies to your motivation as a prospective law student.

While you are in complete control of what goes into your law school personal statement, it might seem as if you are helpless when it comes to the content of law school letters of recommendation.

Wrong.

Dalfen and Broosan encouraged applicants to have a lengthy chat with their professors (or whoever is recommending) before they sit down to write so that the recommenders have an idea of what the law schools you’re applying to are looking for. Just as you should know who’s reading your law school personal statement, your professors should know who’s reading your law school letters of recommendation.

Although Broosan admitted that law schools do take the writer into account, it’s up to the student to find the right recommender. She suggested asking professors if they can write strong, confident recommendations — not just scripted approvals. If a professor is hesitant to write you an LOR, run. Dalfen added that applicants should always have a backup plan, in case their recommenders fall through. And if you think a poor letter of rec doesn’t have an effect, think again. A basic rule of thumb: never ask for an LOR unless you’re confident you’ll get a good one.

So no matter the state of the law school admissions market, you still need a convincing personal statement and strong letters of recommendation.

If you don’t believe me, Google it.

Stay tuned tomorrow for part three, which recaps a discussion with a panel of law school admissions deans. Check out part one of Hank’s series.

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