Writing an effective personal statement is a challenging and often frustrating task, even for the law school applicant who has had a great deal of experience in writing. A carefully conceived essay will certainly compliment the credentials of a well-qualified applicant; it may tip the balance in favor of one applicant over another. When completing law school application forms, there is generally not enough room to elaborate or to highlight individual experiences and achievements. The personal statement may be the best opportunity to accomplish this. The personal statement is, in the abstract, an intimate portrait of a candidate. In reality, it is about you. It provides an opportunity for individual consideration which generally substitutes for a personal interview.
While there is no fixed formula for your personal statement, the key is to supply the law school with material about you and then to allow the admissions committee to draw its own conclusions from the information provided. Law school applications differ. Some applications include specific questions which provide an opportunity to deal with some of the areas mentioned here, while others will want you to include all areas in your personal statement. In preparing to write the personal statement, you should consider a number of questions. You may find some of the following suggestions helpful.
You should first consider: “Where did my interest in law begin?”, “When did I first become interested in a legal career?” You may want to highlight pivotal factors or experiences. These may include an inspirational role model such as a parent or teacher, an experience with the law or a significant high school or college course. One suggestion is to begin with a pivotal experience in your life which sparked your interest in law. It might be a job experience, a course taken as an undergraduate, or a childhood experience which developed your interest. However, simply rambling on about how you have had an interest in law since the age of ten and not explaining why does not help your case. Whatever the pivotal experience may be, find a clear way of describing this experience. You should also ask yourself: “What makes me a unique applicant?'”, “Why would this particular law school want me?”, “What makes me a desirable candidate for the rigors of studying and practicing law?” Focus upon particular personal qualities, life experiences or accomplishments which may be of interest to the admissions staff who will be reading the essay. Think of inner strengths and qualities. Consider areas in your background which may be of interest to the law school such as a rigorous undergraduate course of study, a particularly interesting employment history, life experiences and the like. Rather than listing your achievements, explain how you have excelled in areas such as scholarship or civic responsibility.
Some law schools suggest that you include a resume, if appropriate, to list achievements, extracurricular activities, employment history and the like. Other law schools include specific questions regarding these areas. The personal statement, in contrast, may focus on only one or a limited number of experiences which reveal who you are as a unique individual.
The importance of including outside interests such as extracurricular activities, student groups, the pre-law society, a fraternity, a sorority, employment and military service should be carefully weighed. Involvement in such activities should be included if it demonstrates leadership ability, professional growth or unique contributions. In contrast, simply stating that you were a member of an organization without explaining its significance to your application will not be useful. It may even lead to the conclusion that you diluted your academic efforts.
Similarly, with regard to employment history, you should only mention job experiences which have had a direct effect on your professional growth. An internship with a government agency or one within the legal field which sparked an interest in the legal profession are good examples for inclusion. One caveat – you may not want to mention affiliation with a particular political party or ideology because it may needlessly cause a subjective reaction on the part of the reader. In such a case, you may want to describe your experience in generic terms and explain how your exposure to the legal field will help you to be a successful law student. Be careful not to come off as being all-knowing. There is a tremendous difference between an essay which describes one’s budding interest in the legal profession through work experience, and an essay which attempts to demonstrate that one already has a vast knowledge of the law.
Military service may also be a factor which enhances your potential as a prospective law student. The military is often seen as a catalyst for developing and instilling discipline, leadership principles and tenacity. Focusing on themes such as these within the personal statement lets the committee know that time devoted to military service has been spent wisely. If you attended college part-time while in the military and your grades were not as good as after discharge, you may want to explain the difficulty in completing college-level courses while assigned to a military unit. In certain cases, a supporting letter from a unit commander can explain the difficulty in undertaking college studies while on active duty.
If you have definite career plans, you also focus upon the future by asking: “What are my goals and plans for the future?”, “How do these plans flow from my background and experience?”, “How will formal legal training help me to realize my goals?” In some cases, it may be appropriate to indicate whether and how a law school education would have helped you to be more effective in your prior activities. If it is applicable, indicate how law school and admission to the bar are the tools that you will need for your future endeavors.
Once you have thought through the content of your personal statement, the writing process begins. In the view of one law school admissions officer, the key is to stress strengths without being boastful or obnoxious and deal with weaknesses without being defensive. The law school application is, in a sense, your first legal case and the personal statement demonstrates how persuasive you can be in discussing your own candidacy.
Somewhere in your law school application, you will need to explain negative aspects of your credentials as a means of “damage control”. For some law schools, the personal statement provides you with this opportunity, while for other schools, an addendum or separate explanatory statement is more appropriate.
Significant adverse factors which may have affected the GPA, such as a change of major or a weak beginning, must be addressed whether in the personal statement or a separate statement. Be sure to mention such weaknesses. However, when presenting detrimental factors, do not dwell on them. Discuss meaningful personal factors but do not be melodramatic. It is particularly important to show triumph over adversity where it truthfully exists, such as a strong finish after a weak beginning.
If you are a consistently poor standardized test taker with a high grade point average, the personal statement may provide an opportunity to point this out. This does not mean that you should whine and plead. Some students utilize the entire personal statement to try to explain away a low LSAT score, rather than dedicating a single concise paragraph. The admissions staff want to see a picture of you as a whole person, not just a person who has difficulty in taking tests.
The weak points of every candidate’s law school application are always revealed and examined. The question is “on whose terms will they be examined’? You can frame the discussion by concisely confronting problem areas and then offering reasonable and informative explanations. As an illustration of this, a panel of admissions officers conducted a mock admission exercise at the 1991 Conference of the Northeast Association of Pre-Law Advisors. The panel considered the credentials of six hypothetical applicants. The applicant who decided to dwell on the reasons for his poor grades, rather than “good, solid reasons to admit him” fared very poorly. In contrast, the applicant who briefly mentioned the death of his mother, and how this tragedy helped him to grow, fared extremely well despite several negative factors in his credentials.
Many times applicants are reluctant to discuss personal tragedies, a history of financial disadvantage, medical disabilities and things of this nature. A reluctance is understandable, but needs to be overcome. The personal statement provides a valuable tool for the admissions committee to gain insight if there are serious problems in your life which may have prevented you from reaching your highest potential. It is up to you to provide the admissions committee with your explanation of difficulties such as a difficult course of study or a severe dip in grade point average, rather than leaving it up to the committee to decide what might have happened. In some cases, supporting documentation may provide a better understanding of special circumstances or difficulties.
The personal statement should generally not exceed two typewritten pages. It should be the product of a great deal of time and thought. Law school admissions officers look for clear and concise writing, free from grammatical error. Remember that they have to read thousands of essays. Make yours memorable!
The personal statement is your opportunity to paint a self-portrait, with the paper serving as the canvas. It is not, however, the place to demonstrate your intellectual brilliance in areas such as law, politics or philosophy; nor is it a philosophical exposition on your views about world problems. For this reason, you should never submit a thesis paper, term paper or other sample of written work in the place of the personal statement. Two of the most important guidelines in writing the personal statement are: “Write about yourself” and “Be specific”.
While your essay may communicate your confidence in your ability to complete the course of study, it should not project a pompous image. The most common error is the attempt to impress. Some candidates become pretentious or pedantic in their choice of words and phrases. An example of pompous verbiage submitted as a personal statement is:
The recommendations which I have presented from legal and educational leaders in my milieu adduce the level of motivation and acumen that you require. These qualities are touted as being the sine qua non for the successful law school applicant. You will find my credentials stellar in these and other respects.
Clearly, this is an example of what not to submit to a law school. There is a fine line between confidence and arrogance. It is crucial to understand the difference and to demonstrate only confidence, never arrogance.
Once you have completed the thinking and writing process, an advisor should read over the finished product at least once. It would be very wise to ask someone who is very well acquainted with both your credentials and the English language to read over your statement and provide input. The insights, reactions, and suggestions provided by an objective third party will help to polish the personal statement so that it paints a vivid and supportive picture for the admissions staff.
Creating a balanced essay can be very difficult to accomplish but certainly can be mastered through conscientious effort, in some instances writing and re-writing the essay a dozen times. As the Dean of Admissions for Georgetown once remarked: “Applicants should be advised to write their statements with great care. In many cases, they will be the determining factor’.
This article was written by Kevin J. O’Connor, Esq., graduate of Montclair State University and Rutgers-Newark School of Law. It includes material presented by sources such as N.A.P.L.A., L.S.A.C., Topics in Pre-Law Advising, The American Pre-Law Advisor, and actual advisement experience at Montclair State University. The article has been updated by Dr. Marilyn Tayler, Pre-Law Advisor at Montclair State University.
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