The essay told an epic tale about a student who struggled to achieve passing grades – moving on and off of academic probation, and through a myriad of stops, shifts, and re-starts, from one college to another – for the better part of a decade following his graduation from high school. For a time, it appeared that he was destined to be a college drop-out. To make matters worse, as the student floundered academically, he bounced around from one retail job to another. Then, one day, he took a position as a grassroots worker on a local political campaign. He quickly realized that he had found something that he loved to do, but just as importantly, he was very good at it. His life soon changed in dramatic ways. He almost immediately became a star local operative for a major political party, and in a very short time period worked his way up and into state-wide and national campaigns. His confidence ultimately inspired his academic career. He transferred any grades that he could (i.e., not the bad ones) to a new university, changed his major to political science, and revamped his study habits. For his final two years of college credit (which were required to attain a degree from the institution to which he had transferred), he aced nearly every course that he took and set his sights on a career in law.
As compelling as the above storyline is, it is important to always keep in mind that an outstanding story counts for little without an effective organizational structure and proper literary execution. Toward that end, the applicant in this case sought to engage the reader by presenting a scene in the opening paragraph which depicted one of the happiest moments of his life – his triumphant college graduation. It was as he moved toward the end of the first paragraph and into the second that he added the engaging twist which showed that his academic success story was far from the norm: it had been ten years (and many failures) in the making. Most importantly, the applicant did not harp on the lengthy, negative period in his life that I described above. Rather, he took a straightforward and succinct approach in recounting the great challenges that had stymied him for so many years. From there, it was off to the heart of the essay – how the applicant overcame his struggle and succeeded, ultimately setting a clear and direct course for law school along the way.
Finally, in the concluding paragraph of the essay, the applicant brought the reader full circle – back to the opening story. There he was, still standing at graduation, but instead of thinking simply about his past and how he had made it to this point, he was now looking toward the future and thinking about how he was fully prepared to conquer the challenges that lay ahead in law school and beyond.
I will never forget the excitement that this applicant felt when he received three acceptance letters from top law schools over three consecutive days. One of these letters came with a handwritten note from a law school dean who praised him for doing such an outstanding job on the personal statement. I should mention that this applicant ultimately ended up declining each of those three offers in favor of an offer from one of the most renowned and oldest law schools in the United States. While these successful results certainly help to keep this applicant’s memory in my mind, it is the personal statement that he wrote which most stirs my recollection.
Like many of my colleagues, I’ve advised on thousands of application essays over the years and been a part of success stories that are far too numerous to mention, but this was one of my most special cases because it showed not only how an applicant can overcome years of struggle, but also how in two double-spaced pages, he can demonstrate his success in a powerful way.
Every once in a while, somewhere out there, a law school applicant does something in the application process that can be described as a real game changer. The personal statement that this particular applicant wrote would probably best be described as a life changer.
Year after year, as applicants begin work on their law school applications, they struggle to try to make themselves stand out among thousands of other qualified applicants.
What can prospective students do to illustrate that they are special and smarter than the competition? What will convince admissions committees that they are the ones who should be offered the coveted seats in the entering class?
In addition to putting together a tight, concise, and attractive résumé, and paying careful attention to each application question so that your answers are responsive and complete, you have the opportunity to show what makes you unique — or “special” — in your personal statement.
This essay is the vehicle through which you may shed light upon yourself as a person, over and above what is reflected in your résumé and academic record, both of which probably look very similar to many others.
What You Should Do (Generally)
Your statement should have a theme, tell a story, and leave your readers feeling that you are an interesting, intelligent, and insightful person. It should tell admissions officers that you know where you have been and where you are heading; that you have the ability, intellect, and maturity to succeed in the study of law; and that you will add something positive to their law school communities and to the legal profession.
You want to grab the attention of committee members in your first sentence; you want to keep their attention, both with the content of your story and clear, skillful writing. And when they finish reading your statement, you want them to want to have a conversation with you.
The best personal statement shares insights about you, based upon your experiences and self-reflection. It builds from and enhances the rest of your application package.
Essays That Worked
One personal statement I particularly enjoyed was a story about how the applicant loved to bake. She had developed and mastered certain cake recipes through trial and error — and persistence. She had started her own bakery and grown it into a successful business.
She used this story as a case study, a way of exemplifying the precision with which she approaches her work. The essay showed that she is attentive to detail and always strives for perfection while accepting that some failures along the way are inevitable. She concluded the piece by explaining how her experiences with the baking business — and the skills and strengths she had developed through it — would help her excel in legal studies. Her story was well-written, interesting, provided some nice imagery, and was different from many others.
Another very strong statement I read was from a young man discussing his service during a faith-based mission in South America. He recounted the trials and tribulations that accompanied living in a foreign country where he felt unwelcome. He went on to describe how — eventually — he was able to win over people in the community.
This applicant used specific examples of interactions in which both he and others opened their minds and hearts to learn more about each other. He explained how his notions of tolerance and acceptance had changed, how his spirituality and character grew during his mission, and how, during his time in South America, he had come to realize that he wanted to devote his professional life to serving others through a career in the law. His commitment was genuine, and that came across immediately.
What You Shouldn’t Do (Generally)
What you should not do is grab attention in a negative way. Some of the most memorable statements I read during my many years as an admissions dean did just that, and demonstrated extremely poor judgment on the part of applicants in the process. These essays were game changers for applicants who otherwise would have been admitted.
Stories That Didn’t Work
The Track Runner
One example came from a young woman who discussed traveling with her college track team and going to a male strip club. In excruciatingly graphic detail, she described the behavior of her friends and the anatomies of the male dancers. The whole admissions committee wondered the same thing: What was she thinking?
The Arrogant Applicant
Another example came from a young man who discussed how unique he was because he had excelled in his college studies and was much more intelligent than any other person who was applying to law school. He used complex sentences and multisyllabic words very excessively. He concluded his statement by letting the admissions committee know that he fully expected to be offered admission to all of the top-tier law schools, and that he would only consider attending this particular institution if he were offered a full-tuition scholarship — a housing stipend would be nice as well. Arrogance has no place in personal statements.
The Divorce Diarist
And do not be “too personal.” Discussing details of your parents’ ugly divorce is, in most cases, inappropriate for an audience of strangers. Admissions committees do not need to know about your family members’ extramarital affairs or their ugly battles over money.
A better approach for someone in this situation would have been to discuss the lack of attention she received from her parents while they were going through their divorce. This applicant might then have discussed the ways that this challenging family situation affected her growth and development, and her eventual maturation into an independent adult.
The Obit Author, and Other Odds and Ends
Other approaches to avoid are writing your own obituary — “Applicant X died on January 1, 2076, after serving as Attorney General, as well as Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court and President of the United States, over the course of his career.” Another bad idea is to present your personal statement as a legal pleading: “Here comes before the court applicant X and moves her admission to law school Y and, in support hereof, states the following….”
Further suggestions: Do not write a poem for your personal statement, and do not write your essay in the third person. Trying to show you are different because you are outrageous or ridiculous is not a convincing approach if you want to be taken seriously as an applicant.
What does work best when it comes to writing your personal statement is being yourself, exposing your good qualities, strengths, character, and passions. Law schools want to build classes of talented, interesting, and likable individuals. Show admissions committees you are one of these people in a well-written and thoughtful essay; and communicate to them that you are a serious candidate who has the maturity, ability, and drive to excel in law school and in the practice of law.
Find more advice about law school admissions from Noodle Experts like Anne Richard, who has also written about why you shouldn't let magazine rankings choose your law school.
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