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Personal statements are critical in the law school application process. They need to read as genuine, unique and engaging, without sounding pretentious or out of integrity. The best way to understand how your essay should read—regarding tone, content, and style—is to review examples, both the successful and the not-so-successful.
An example of off-the-mark storytelling
Let’s start with what not to do. This example includes a few points of telling critique from LawSchoolExpert.com's Ann Levine, provided below:
It is Monday morning at 4:30 a.m., do you know where your son is? If someone had asked my father this question when I was in high school, he would have proudly told them that I was at the gym. Having dedicated 9 years of my life to wrestling, I can honestly say that I have what it takes to endure any of life's challenges. The skills that I developed to become a championship wrestler armed me with what I need to be successful at whatever I do. Self-discipline, leadership, teamwork, and the ability to think quickly in the face of adversity, these are all traits that make a winning wrestler. These are the same traits that I believe will help me in law school, and my life as a practicing lawyer.
I started wrestling in the eighth grade and quickly had to develop self-discipline. While coaches are often present, being fully-prepared as a wrestler requires a great deal of independent work. In wrestling, as in life, there are no short-cuts. I learned to either put in the effort, or pay the price on the mat. Those countless days practicing in the gym armed me with the skills to win, and taught me the value of being fully prepared. I also learned that my preparation, or lack of it, affected others. Wrestling is a uniquely-individual team sport. No one is allowed to help you during your match. But if you are not ready to do your best, you hurt both yourself and your team. Each person is expected to do their part. The responsibility that I gained as a team-member helped me to mature faster than my peers, and eventually turned me into a leader. I was elected Captain of the wrestling team as a Sophomore, an honor usually reserved for Seniors. I enjoyed being a role model for younger wrestlers. Giving advice, staying late after practice to work with teammates, and being in command of daily exercise routines, were duties I cherished as an early teenager. I also worked part-time during college. In both of my college jobs, I quickly earned management positions.
As the son of a small-town county prosecutor, I was raised with an understanding of the importance of community service. During college, as a member of Sigma Delta Pi (Hispanic Honor Society), I helped to teach English to recent immigrants. I have also been a child advocate for the past two years, which requires me to work closely with lawyers and judges to ensure that the children I represent get the best possible treatment. These opportunities for service have reinforced my desire to one day follow in my father's footsteps as a district attorney. The University of Texas School of Law would be a great step in that direction. I am particularly excited about the prospects of being involved in Professor Allison's Actual Innocence Clinic. I feel that the practical experience that I could gain from working for criminal defendants would help me to maintain perspective as a prosecutor.
As a two-time state, and former Big 12, champion wrestler, I understand the diligence required for law school. I look forward to the challenge. I believe that my perspective, enthusiasm, and work ethic will make a valuable contribution to the 2011 entering class. I hope to one day represent my community, workplace, and law school with the same gusto and pride that I have always brought to my wrestling teams.
What Ann says:
This essay's opening is too cute, and doesn't really tell me what the writer is all about. Then it goes on to talk about high school wrestling, and high school is not really the thing law schools want to hear about. You want to emphasize maturity, decisions you made during college, recent experiences. A good test is whether you could've written the same essay for college admission, and if so then you need to change things up.
This essay is also too much like a laundry list, throwing in an honor society name and that dad is a lawyer. The most important part of the essay is that the writer was a child advocate - the entire essay could have been about that experience and instead it's thrown in without showing growth from that experience.
For better examples of personal statements, check out these links:
The first, by Waukeshia Jackson, details her experiences as a working mother, which shows the applicant’s ability to handle the rigors of law school and, later, the legal profession. Crucially, Jackson does not come out and say that being a working mother is hard. Instead, she illustrates the difficulties of balancing work, PTA meetings, and gymnastics classes, employing an essential tactic for crafting great personal statements: Show don’t tell.
The second, by Cameron Clark, details the applicant’s personal journey as a racial justice advocate. In addition to the clear passion he displays in his writing, Clark uses another great technique that draws admissions boards in: Tell a narrative.
Tip: never use the words “passion” or “passionate” in your statement! Show your readers you are passionate with your tone and through the story you tell.
Each of these essays achieves critical objectives that any successful law school personal statement must meet. They show (not tell) that the applicant possesses attributes like passion and determination. They illustrate why a legal education makes sense for the applicant. They show that the applicant understands the school’s values and culture and the applicant would be a good fit for the program. Finally, they tell a narrative that stands out while remaining relevant.
Another great resource for writing personal statements is the Thinking LSAT podcast run by the makers of LSAT Demon. You can find all of their podcasts devoted to personal statements here.
The best advice from LSAT Demon: If any line of your personal statement could be easily inserted into another applicant’s personal statement (for example, “I am passionate about immigration law” or “I am a diligent worker with an attention to detail”, take it out. In fact, the advisors recommend that you use any form of the verb “to be” as sparingly as possible; starting sentences with phrases like “I am” or “I was” is the essence of telling not showing. Also, whenever you include an accomplishment, try to frame it as a problem you solved. Problem-solving is a key attribute of successful law students and lawyers. Moreover, this will add to the narrative qualities of your statement.