Deciding what to say in the law school personal statement is the most challenging part of the admissions process for some applicants.
“Even people who are good writers often have a hard time writing about themselves,” says Jessica Pishko, a former admissions consultant and writing tutor at Accepted, a Los Angeles-based admissions consulting firm. “That is perfectly normal.”
Pishko, who coached law school applicants on how to overcome writer’s block, says, “If you can find the thing that you really care about, that is who you are, and talking about that is a great way to write about yourself.”
Why Law Schools Ask for Personal Statements
Personal statements can offer J.D. admissions committees “a narrative” about the applicant, which is important because it is rare for law schools to conduct admissions interviews, says Christine Carr, a law school admissions consultant with Accepted who previously was an associate director of admissions at Boston University School of Law.
“It can then add ‘color’ to a one-dimensional process,” Carr wrote in an email. “The personal statement also allows the applicant to showcase writing ability. Law school and the legal profession require a clear and concise writing style that can be displayed by the applicant in the personal statement.”
Personal statements often help admissions committees make difficult decisions, Carr says. “Given a relatively robust applicant pool, institutions often have more ‘numerically’ qualified applicants – LSAT and GPA – than they can admit,” she explains.
Qualitative admissions factors, including not only personal statements but also resumes and recommendation letters, help to humanize applicants and “allow committees to build a community of law students not solely based on the quantifiable measures of test scores and transcripts,” Carr says.
“Law schools are looking to fill classrooms with engaging and qualified students. The personal statement can provide insight into an applicant’s personality and potential as a member of the school’s community,” she says.
What a Great Personal Statement Accomplishes
Excellent law school personal statements convey the essence of who an applicant is, experts say.
“The personal statement is the quickest way to get an overview, not only of the applicant’s professional life and background, but in terms of what they emphasize, a clear indication of what the applicant themself, values,” Jillian Ivy, CEO and founder of IvyCollegeEssay.com, a company that provides guidance on admissions essays, wrote in an email.
The statement “also gives admissions a snapshot of how well each applicant writes, if they understand how to brand or market their best traits, and thereby demonstrate that they know where their own strengths lie,” Ivy adds.
A strong personal statement will articulate an applicant’s vision for his or her future, including an explanation of short-term and long-term goals, and it will delineate how a J.D. degree will help an applicant get to where he or she wants to go, Ivy says.
“The more competitive the law school, the more admissions wants to see a level of understanding, drive and ambition within the personal statement,” she explains, adding that applicants should clarify why they want to attend a particular law school and how that school can assist them on their career journey. “The schools want to see that the applicant has taken the time to understand what their particular program offers, and what makes it different.”
How to Structure a Law School Personal Statement
The beginning of a solid law school personal statement ought to be intriguing, experts say.
“The statement should begin with a strong intro sentence, that summarizes the applicant’s goal or tone,” Ivy says. “For example, ‘I have always been interested in international finance.’ From there, the applicant would go on to describe ‘why’ they are interested in this area of financial law, and what in their unique background and experience has led them to pursue this path.”
A personal statement provides context for the experiences that have prepared the applicant for law school and led him or her to pursue a legal career, experts say. It’s also ideal to have a thoughtful ending “that ties the statement up,” Ivy says.
An important point to address in a law school personal statement is what “sparked” the applicant’s interest in law, Ivy says. She adds that law school admissions readers are aware that J.D. hopefuls’ career goals may change between the time they apply to law school and the day they graduate.
Nevertheless, it can still be useful for an applicant to provide an explanation of what particular area of law he or she wants to learn more about and what type of lawyer he or she would like to become, if that is something the applicant is clear about, Ivy says.
An effective personal statement will also explain an applicant’s background and how it has shaped him or her, Ivy adds. “It’s connecting the dots back to anything at all that can be relevant … to your new interest and what you want to pursue professionally.”
Applicants should tailor their personal statement to each law school where they submit an application, Ivy adds. “Harvard Law School is very different than Columbia Law School even though both of them are excellent schools,” she explains. “So each has their own approach to learning and to learning about law in particular.”
Law school admissions committees appreciate when applicants make it clear that they have done thorough research on the school and its J.D. program. This reassures admissions officers that an applicant will be a good fit and make a valuable contribution to his or her law school class, Ivy explains.
Experts advise that a law school personal statement should align with the content in the rest of the law school application. Ideally, the essay will emphasize a selling point that is conveyed elsewhere in the application, but not simply repeat information.
In order for a personal statement to be effective and stand out, experts say, it needs to be both representative of who the applicant is and distinctive from personal essays that others have written.
How to Start Writing a Law School Personal Statement
Carr notes that writing a law school personal statement can be intimidating because it isn’t easy to convey the essence of decades of events “into two pages double-spaced.” She says law school hopefuls are often unsure about which portions of their life would be most meaningful and interesting to an admissions committee.
“Some applicants have a tendency to throw the ‘kitchen sink’ at committees and write about everything,” Carr explains. But that’s a mistake, Carr says, adding that J.D. personal statements should be “clear and concise.”
Carr suggests that J.D. applicants concentrate on answering the central question of a law school personal statement, “Why law school?” Once they have brainstormed answers to that question, they should focus on a specific aspect or theme that explains their rationale for pursuing a career as an attorney, Carr says.
Ivy suggests that law school hopefuls who are struggling to decide what to write about in their law school personal statement should make a bullet-point list of the various topics they could focus on alongside brief one-sentence descriptions of each topic. The process of recording ideas on a piece of paper can clarify which ideas are most promising, she says.
“The strong ones will rise to the surface,” she says, adding that once an applicant has narrowed down his or her list of essay ideas to only a few, it can be valuable to solicit feedback from trusted individuals about which of the remaining essay concepts is the very best.
Law school admissions experts suggest that applicants recall the various pivotal moments in their lives that shaped their identity, and then consider whether there is any idea or thesis that ties these events together.
Focusing on a central concept can help ensure that a law school personal statement does not simply list accomplishments in the way that a resume or cover letter might, experts say. Plus, an idea-driven essay can give law school admissions officers insight into the way a J.D. applicant’s mind works.
A personal statement should illustrate the positive attributes the applicant has that would make him or her successful as a law student and lawyer. Sometimes the best way for an applicant to show his or her character strengths is to recount a moment when he or she was challenged and overcame adversity, experts say.
Experts advise law school hopefuls to write multiple drafts of their personal statement to ensure that the final product is top-notch.
They also recommend that applicants solicit feedback from people who understand the law school admissions process well, such as law school admissions consultants, and from people who know them well, such as close friends or family members. Getting input from friends and family can help ensure that an applicant’s essay authentically conveys their personality, experts say.
Once the statement is finalized, Carr advises, the applicant should thoroughly proofread it more than once.
Mistakes to Avoid in Law School Personal Statements
A scatterbrained or disorganized approach in a law school personal statement is a major no-no, experts warn.
Ivy suggests that J.D. hopefuls avoid “rambling,” adding that top law schools want to identify individuals who demonstrate that they are highly focused, ambitious, driven and persistent. “If you can hit those four things in your essay, then that’s going to stand out, because most people don’t know how to do that,” she says.
Because it’s important for a law school personal statement to be coherent and streamlined – like the law school resume – it’s prudent to use an outline to plan the essay, Ivy says. The most common mistake she sees in J.D. personal statements is the lack of logical flow.
“Instead of a linear line, they’re cycling around, and they’ll touch on something, and then they’ll come back to it again three paragraphs later,” she says, adding that an unstructured essay is “just messy” and will not make a positive impression during the law school admissions process.
Experts warn that law school personal statements should not be vague, melodramatic and repetitive. The essay should not merely describe a person that the applicant met or recount an event – it needs to convey the applicant’s personality.
Plus, language should be specific and clear. Absolutes like “never” or “always” are typically not the best words to use, experts warn, and it’s important to not overshare personal information.
In addition, J.D. hopefuls should understand that they have a lot to learn about the law since they have not gone to law school. They should recognize that the individuals reading their essays probably know a great deal about the law, so they should not write essays that lecture readers about legal issues, experts warn.
Grammatical and spelling errors can tarnish an otherwise good personal statement, so it’s important to avoid those, according to experts. It’s also essential to follow any formatting rules that a law school outlines for personal statements.
Additionally, though many law school hopefuls are tempted to begin their personal statement with a dramatic anecdote, they should resist because doing so will most likely make a negative impression, experts warn. An aspiring attorney does not need to have suffered a tragedy in order to write a compelling law school personal statement, and describing something bad that has happened does not automatically lead to an effective essay.
Furthermore, when a J.D. applicant submits a generic law school personal statement that could go to any school, he or she is missing an opportunity to explain why a particular school is a great fit, experts suggest. Another common mistake, they say, is when applicants use a positive adjective to describe themselves rather than sharing an anecdote that demonstrates that they have this good quality.
Additionally, when a law school hopeful includes storytelling in his or her essay, it’s best to focus on a single specific anecdote, because speaking in generalities is neither interesting nor convincing, experts say.
An applicant who writes a contrived essay based purely on what he or she believes a law school wants may come across as phony, experts say. It’s essential, they say, for a personal statement to articulate what special perspective a prospective student could bring to a law school class.
Law School Personal Statement Examples
Below are two law school admissions essays whose authors were accepted to their top-choice law schools. The first is written by Waukeshia Jackson, an intellectual property attorney who earned her J.D. from the Paul M. Herbert Law Center at Louisiana State University—Baton Rouge. The second essay is written by Cameron Dare Clark, a Harvard Law School graduate.
Pishko says these two personal statements demonstrate the necessity of sincerity in an admissions essay. “It has to be sincere, and it has to be you and what you want to write about and why you want to go to law school.”
Both essays are annotated with comments from the authors about how the essays were written as well as comments from Pishko about passages that resonated best and how the essays could be improved.