Ah, the personal statement. You’re told to write a 1-3 page essay that explains to an admissions committee what sets you apart from others. Well, where do you begin?
We thought we’d tackle this for our next entry in the series Preparing for Law School. Whether you have questions about choosing your topic, finding your voice, or anything in between, we hope you find the below insights helpful.
I had a love-hate relationship with the personal statement. I’ll begin with why I loved it.
The personal statement allowed me to do what I love most: write. I had an opportunity to prove to an admissions committee that there was more to me than an LSAT score and GPA, and that I was ready to take the next step in my career. It served as a great excuse to step away from the LSAT studying, and I felt like I was putting my creative writing degree to good use.
But I won’t lie and tell you that I didn’t struggle with it. The topic of my statement, sexual assault, was inherently difficult to discuss. I wrote about how my experience watching a criminal case unfold from the sidelines and being unable to make a meaningful impact solidified my decision to go to law school.
Emotionally, this was a tough topic to revisit time and time again. This leads to my first piece of advice: don’t make it too sappy. I accomplished this by only including pertinent details that were relevant to the thesis of my essay. I only had one short paragraph providing background from the case.
Another challenge I faced was making this an essay about me when I was writing about an assault that happened to someone else. This relates to my point about only including details you need. The admissions committee wants to know why YOU want to go to law school. A second piece of advice: reflect on your side of the story. I focused on the impact this assault had on my life, my goals, and my relationships. I stayed far away from putting words in others’ mouths.
I also struggled with the length of an essay that had no real boundaries. I was able to keep mine to just under two pages. If you need more space, go for it. Some schools do have different length requirements, however, so it would be a smart idea to research these before polishing your essay. And now that we’re discussing mechanics of the paper, proofread on your computer, proofread in print, take a step away from it and proofread again tomorrow. You don’t want to catch any typos or inconsistencies after you hit “Submit.”
My final piece of advice: spend time on your first sentence and make it good. Remember, this is your chance to grab readers and make them excited to learn more about you. I probably went through twenty drafts before deciding on the perfect first sentence for my essay. If you are comfortable sharing your essay with family or friends, you can even ask for their opinions as well.
You have to tell a good story. My personal statement opened with a young boy I had worked with at the Boys & Girls Club ripping a phone off of its cord and smashing it against a wall. Good stories start with action that piques the reader’s curiosity. But you can’t tell a good story just because you have it; there needs to be some connection with your motivation for coming to school. So it might be easier if you start your writing process by truthfully writing about why you want to come to law school, as if you were writing a letter to a good friend. This will help the personal side of your motivations come out more, although if you really commit to this strategy you should go back and make sure you’re using formal register. You should always research the school and figure out their thing. For example, BC is a Jesuit institution. Briefly, Jesuit schools aim to educate men and women committed to service for others by emphasizing character formation in addition to academic tutelage. You should consider tying in the school’s values to your statement. But don’t get carried away because the story will read like it’s forced. Once your narrative starts to take form, think about an action-filled moment you can describe with zeal and start your story there. The boy who smashed the phone in my story had a life that was symptomatic to me of how children in our communities lack the institutional support to prevent them from being sucked into the criminal justice system. Law school would provide me the opportunity to intervene in the lives of children like him.
You should have people read it and provide feedback. Choose people who know you well, so they can point to places where your narrative is forced and veers from who you really are. Also ask people to read it who don’t know you that well, so they can point out the holes in your narrative that need more information to make sense. People in both groups should be good writers and comfortable providing feedback that’s honest, critical, and, if need be, harsh. My sister is a ruthless critic, and I never pass on the opportunity for her to review my work. If you feel stuck, step away from the statement you’ve been working on for a day. Come back to a blank slate and start something completely new, and see where you end up. Sometimes a completely fresh approach is what’s missing.
Start now, edit often. Don’t feel rushed – but give yourself plenty of time to write, rewrite, tinker and tweak your story. Keep things concise and snappy. Even if you don’t have an impressive, life-altering story to tell, you want the reader to have a pleasant time reading it.
Instead of pretending to be a PR guru by adding my two cents to the excellent advice given by Courtney and Alex, I’ll leave you with a quote from Dr. Seuss: “The writer who breeds more words than he needs, is making a chore for the reader who reads.” Best wishes and happy holidays, everyone – perhaps I will get to meet you next Fall!
You might be interested in the rest of 1L blogger Courtney Ruggeri’s Preparing for Law School series: