You’ve taken the LSAT (and hopefully scored well!), built a strong academic record in college, and pursued internships that offered valuable life experience and prepared you for a career in the law. You are now ready to apply to law school!
An important part of your law school application is your personal statement. This is your chance to set yourself apart by showcasing both your writing and the experiences that have gotten you to this point in your life.
Before writing your personal statement, keep in mind that law school admissions committees read thousands of law school essays every year and encounter the same overused themes and logical fallacies. When you begin to compose your personal statement, your mind may go blank. You might think to yourself, “I know that I’m an interesting and unique person who has a lot to offer the world as an attorney. How can I convey all of that in two double-spaced pages in 11-point font?”
Composing a personal statement is the most challenging part of the law school application process for many aspiring law students. In our recent article, we at Stratus highlighted three key elements of a powerful law school personal statement. However, just as important as what to write, is what NOT to write. There are certain clichés to avoid when drafting your personal statement.
To stand out from the crowd and improve your chances of admission to your top-choice program, avoid variations on the following three themes unless you can discuss them in a meaningful and genuine way:
1. “Despite my privileged background, I have overcome significant hardship.”
Overcoming adversity and hardship can be a meaningful theme for a personal statement if stated in a nuanced and thoughtful way. Before you choose to write about this topic, it’s important that you reflect honestly and objectively on the hardships you faced and how admissions committees could receive them.
- Balance hardship with self-awareness. For example, if you have experienced socioeconomic hardship, faced discrimination, or struggled with illness, addiction, or disability, share how these experiences have shaped your character. Treat narratives of overcoming personal hardship with a healthy dose of self-awareness and self-reflection.
- Examine your advantages. A truly “next level” essay will go beyond explaining how overcoming such challenges has enabled you to better relate to marginalized people in society. It will take that analysis a step further and examine the position of privilege and relative advantages that have enabled you to make the choices you did. Maybe you had particularly supportive parents or access to resources that others lacked. How did that impact your ability to rise above those challenges?
- Explain your experiences. Demonstrate resilience without sounding trite by being specific about how you addressed these difficulties and how your experiences have shaped your professional interests.
- Demonstrate how you overcame adversity. Avoid grandiose and oversimplified statements that exaggerate the hardships you faced or your difficulty in overcoming them. Show (not tell) the reader what it took, and then let them draw from that description their own conclusions about your strength in overcoming adversity.
2. “I spent a few days/weeks helping poor people, and now they are better.”
Some of the best personal statements focus on an applicant’s volunteer work in providing valuable services to marginalized people—but so do some of the worst. What’s the difference? The key difference is the level of self-awareness and the depth of experience. A first-rate personal statement will articulate your depth of experience and reflect on those experiences in a complex and insightful way—for example, how becoming a lawyer might help you to better address the systemic forces of inequality that you observed. Resist the temptation to explain how you “solved” your clients’ problems.
- Be honest about your volunteer experience. If your volunteer experience has been brief and limited to “voluntourism”-type activities, mention it in support of a larger theme or not at all. Although spending a weekend working for Habitat for Humanity should indeed be lauded, it is important not to overstate these efforts.
- Acknowledge ethical conflicts. If you have lived abroad volunteering for a nonprofit organization or worked full time providing free legal services, contemplate the moral dilemmas or ethical conflicts that you confronted in your work.
- Question the impact of your volunteer work. In your essay, don’t be afraid to question whether the work you performed helped your clients and what social, political, racial, or economic dynamics impacted your work within the law. You don’t have all the solutions to fix the problems you witnessed, so do not pretend that you do. Rather, focus on how these experiences impacted you and led you toward seeking solutions through the practice of law.
3. “Obtaining a law degree will enable me to succeed in business or politics.”
Generally, admissions committees are wary of personal statements that do not evidence a clear desire by the applicant to become a lawyer and instead suggest a wide range of possible career options upon graduation. A strong personal statement conveys a sense of direction and details an area of intellectual curiosity or passion.
- Your future plans may be uncertain. While it is true that many successful businesspeople and government officials hold law degrees, their paths to those roles usually were not linear, and they have often spent some time practicing law. In fact, you may have broad-ranging career ambitions and feel unsure of what your future holds in 10 or 20 years.
- But it is important to determine your areas of interest in the law. However, for the purposes of your personal statement, clearly communicate why you want to be a lawyer, and identify at least one or two areas of the law that interest you.
- Law school can be transformative. Although you may think of it as a means to a larger end, learning about the law is a transformative process. People often enter law school intending to go a different direction after graduation but ultimately end up practicing law. So, why not keep an open mind and discuss some of the things that interest you about the law and legal practice?
What should you do to create a stellar personal statement?
To avoid falling into these three personal statement traps, organization, planning, and authenticity are key. Start by asking yourself these questions and reflect upon the answers honestly:
- Why do I want to be a lawyer?
- What are my academic or intellectual interests?
- What experiences have I had professionally or personally that have prepared me for law school and the practice of law?
- How will I contribute to the diversity of student life on a law school campus?
Write down the answers to these questions. Be sure to reflect authentically upon your personal experiences rather than writing what you think the admissions committees want to hear, and then organize them into an outline.
Follow the steps below to hone and revise your outline so that it is cohesive and organized around a common theme:
- Gather strong details. Fill in the outline with details—specific anecdotes, stories, and quotes (but be careful of clichéd quotes!) that build upon your theme with clear examples from your life.
- Write! Draft your essay based on your outline.
- Read, revise, and repeat. Review and revise your essay until you feel like it is the strongest and most authentic reflection of yourself.
- Cut ruthlessly. Then cut, cut, cut! Be ruthless and don’t fall in love with your own words. If something doesn’t ring true to you, admissions committees will have the same reaction. Every sentence should implicitly support your theme and advance your candidacy as a law student.
- Ask for feedback. Finally, ask trusted friends, family, and mentors to review your essay and offer you feedback on it—but remember that this is YOUR essay based on your experiences. Listen to feedback, but don’t compromise your ideas if you feel strongly about them.
If you follow the steps outlined above, your personal statement will be a unique reflection of your personality and will clearly demonstrate why you would make an excellent addition to the incoming class of law students at your top choice school. Check out some of our other articles regarding the personal statement for additional tips: