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Chapter 1: Preparing to Write Your Statement
Published November 2009
Your LSAT score has been tallied, your undergraduate grades have been earned and recorded, and your recommendation letters have been requested. To complete your law school application, you must write an excellent personal statement, one that sets you apart from a sea of outstanding candidates with similar academic qualifications. Like an interview, your personal statement introduces the application committee to the values, qualities, and accomplishments that make you unique—and uniquely qualified to excel in the legal profession. It is not an overstatement to say that your personal statement may determine the future course of your law school admissions. Admissions committees at top law schools feel that if you will not invest the time to write an exceptional personal statement, then you will probably not excel in their programs. Discussing the personal statement in an interview with Top-Law-Schools.com, Ed Tom, Dean of Admissions at UC Berkeley’s Boalt Hall School of Law, stated that “the personal statement is the first thing I look at when I open a folder, even before viewing the GPA or LSAT score. . . . The personal statement is the applicant’s opportunity to distinguish himself from hundreds of other applicants who have the same numbers, and the same major, and come from a similar school.” Your personal statement could, in other words, mean the difference between an acceptance and a rejection from your preferred law school.
This book is designed to give you the tools to write your best law school personal statement possible. The commentary and revision advice outlined here will explain how you will be judged in relation to other prospective students. You will learn not only how to avoid common mistakes but also, and more crucially, how to write what admissions committees consider to be the very strongest kind of personal statement. To write this book, I have drawn on my own experience and expertise as a lawyer with a degree from the UC Berkeley Boalt Hall School of Law and as the founder of Top-Law-Schools.com, a website dedicated to helping prospective law students with all aspects of the application process. This guide, developed from advice tested on my website and interviews with over a dozen deans of admissions from top law schools, will help you understand your audience, suggest potential essay topics to you, teach you the craft of writing persuasive personal statements, and give you an insider’s view of how the personal statement affects the application process as a whole.Unlike all other law school admissions guides, this book provides detailed analysis of thirty-one real personal statements—an insider’s look at triumphs and blunders in applicants’ statements. Furthermore, this book offers suggestions for small tweaks and major overhauls to personal statements that will help you write what admissions committee members want to find as they search for students to admit.
As you read through this book’s sample personal statements,you will see that personal statements all quickly start to sound the same. Now imagine that you are on an admissions committee reading through hundreds of satisfactory essays. Admissions committee members can spot a good personal statement in about five seconds. Dean Sarah Zearfoss of the University of Michigan comments,
Committee members are searching for personal statements with polished ideas and an elegant style; they expect to find no amateurish errors in the writing. They are looking for evidence of a powerful mind. Moreover, admissions committees want to create a law school class composed of unique individuals whose diverse views and stories will complement each other. Consequently, admissions decisions are based not only upon objective measurements, such as the GPA and LSAT score, but also upon subjective determinations, like the admission committee members’ response to your personal statement. Use this opportunity to show the admissions committee that you are more than a standardized test score and a cluster of good grades.
In some cases, a well-written personal statement can persuade an admissions committee member to argue passionately on your behalf in one of the all-important admissions meetings. In these meetings, the committee members sit around a table behind closed doors—sometimes for hours—while they hammer out the admissions list and, finally, the wait list. If an admissions committee member fights for your admission in a committee meeting, staking his or her own credibility on your admission, you will almost certainly be admitted. Committee members cannot come up with reasons to admit you by themselves; you need to provide that hypothetical committee member with a substantial list of reasons for admitting you. In your personal statement, you must interpret your own strengths for your readers and give them no reason to doubt you. Remember, the committee members know nothing about you except what you tell them in your application file and what your recommenders say about you. You need to present a picture of yourself as a well-rounded, intelligent, self-confident, and worldly candidate. By helping you write your best personal statement, this book can significantly increase the chances that your preferred law school will accept you.
Avoid Avoidance Behavior
Becoming a mature, self-sufficient adult means facing and completing some unpleasant tasks in your career. You must learn to accept some degree of disagreeable responsibility. For most of us, writing the law school personal statement falls into this category. As you would in a strenuous mountain hike, just keep putting one foot in front of the other, and don’t let the entire undertaking immobilize you. Eventually, you’ll reach your goal, turn around and look back, and the sense of achievement will be incredible.
Read Part One of this book to familiarize yourself with the personal statement genre. Then jump in. The sooner you start writing, the more time you will have to revise your statement based on the commentaries in Part Two of this guide. Any kind of writing is a creative process; you are creating something that did not exist before, and doing so is rarely easy. Remember this when you feel stuck or feel like your writing is not going as well as you had hoped. You may have to write yourself over initial roadblocks or, later, out of a slump. The most important thing is to keep going. Remember, writing your first draft is only half of the battle. Most of what will make your statement exceptional will come through revision, so it’s better to have a crude first draft than nothing at all.
In order to prepare to write your statement, block out a few hours, minimize interruptions, and give yourself a chance to focus. Once you have devoted a block of time to starting your personal statement, get to work right away. This is the stage avoidance behavior will set in. Beware of this and notice when it happens to you. Do not procrastinate these hours away by interrupting yourself every few minutes to get a drink or to check your email or surf the net. For most people, it takes about twenty to forty minutes to calm down enough to begin focusing on a mental task such as writing. Once you begin to sink into the creative process, you should find your mind becoming immersed in the task at hand and much less easily distracted.
In order to sink into this process, try focused free writing on the computer for half an hour. Set a timer, and do not stop until it beeps. Begin by imagining what your essay might look like. Create a list of keywords or sentences that express the distinctive perspectives or values you would bring to any law school. These are your arguments for why you should be admitted. Next, brainstorm stories and personal evidence that best illustrate these unique attributes. Finally, decide on a narrative structure that will allow you to most compellingly frame the story you want to tell about yourself.
The collection of free writing you create at the beginning of the process is your plan. It helps to make a plan before you write, however rough, because a plan will give your mind a foundation upon which it can build. If you cannot imagine some preliminary form you want your personal statement to take, then you will be more likely to hit a wall, to feel like you cannot go on, or to stop in the middle.
Once you’ve accomplished some preliminary writing, a little bit of the pressure diminishes. Begin writing your personal statement and see where your mind takes you. As you go, use the advice in this guide. Make sure to include specific evidence to back up your arguments for why you should be admitted to law school. When you are in the middle of a piece of writing, it is better to go on a little longer, until you come to a natural stopping point, rather than stopping abruptly. If you stop in the middle of a sentence or paragraph, you will need to take twenty minutes or longer to warm up again and focus, and you will have basically wasted that time.
The writing process might be unpleasant, but it should not be torturous. In law school, you will be expected to write a considerable amount, so you should begin finding ways to approach writing as a form of self-expression, a regular part of your life, rather than a hated obligation. That being said, there is much to learn about why good writing in a personal statement is good and how to craft a piece of writing that the admissions committee will immediately recognize as outstanding.
This guide will teach you how to analyze the components of your own personal statement. At the end of this process, you should be able to tell someone how your essay is structured, what its logical progression is, what each of its roughly six to ten paragraphs is about, and how each paragraph uses evidence to support its specific claims. You should be able to articulate what each component contributes to the overall effect of the essay. Finally, you should be able to identify your unifying theme. For most people, this unifying theme will be something like the motto or “tag line” of your statement, the angle from which you choose to present yourself.
It is greatly to your advantage to turn in your application as early as possible, so you should get to work on the personal statement sooner rather than later. Submitting your application close to the date the law school first starts accepting applications (around October 1st) gives you a better chance of being accepted. Some applicants wait until the last possible day to submit their applications, but by then many students have already been granted places in the entering class. The competition for the remaining slots becomes more difficult the closer you get to the application deadline. Your chances of admission will diminish dramatically the longer you wait to submit. “I cannot emphasize enough,” states Dean Victoria Ortiz of UC Irvine, “how important it is to view ‘deadline’ as a sort of warning date that indicates ‘if I apply by the deadline, it is really too late.”
» Continue to Chapter 2: Understanding the Admissions Committee and Its Expectations for the Personal Statement