Chapter 5: Writing Powerful Sentences
Published November 2009
After choosing your structure and topic, creating a paragraph-by-paragraph outline of your statement, and writing your first draft, you are still not done with your personal statement. In a sense, you are only just beginning. While composing and revising your statement, pay attention to your language. A successful personal statement joins powerful ideas with powerful expression. Make sure every one of your sentences is clear. Think of your personal statement in economic terms. Words are a scarce resource, so every word counts. If you were a real estate developer building on a plot of land in downtown Tokyo or midtown Manhattan, you would try to maximize the potential of every square inch you had available to you. Likewise, if you have five hundred words to paint a mental picture of yourself for the committee, you do not want to waste a single word. “The personal statement is…a sample of your writing, and we are looking for precision of writing skills,” says Dean Edward Tom of UC Berkeley Boalt Hall. “It is not up to Boalt to teach you how to write a sentence.”
Because the personal statement is so important to your chances of admission, you might be tempted to go over the word limit. You might think that writing more would be better than writing less, but you would be wrong: “Don’t make it too long,” cautions Dean Jeanette Leach of Santa Clara. “Santa Clara receives 3500-4000 applications, all of which will be reviewed, so don’t bore the admissions committee. Over three pages double-spaced is going too far.” A compact personal statement can be much more effective than an overwritten or lengthy statement—not to mention much less trying to the nerves of busy admissions committee members. Respect the page limit or word count. Most well-written personal statements are no longer than two to three double-spaced pages. Length does not correlate with quality. Do not make margins any less than 1” around. Use 12-point Times font. Use the limited space you have as effectively as possible. The advice in this section will help you use every available word effectively.
1. Hook your reader immediately.
Admissions committees read thousands of law school personal statements, and a boring introduction will result in the reader skimming over rather than fully considering the rest of what you have to say. Write a strong introduction. Hook your reader with a remarkable or a life-changing experience, an anecdote, a vivid description, or a question that will be answered by the rest of your personal statement. Your opening sentence is the most important part of your personal statement; use it to frame the meaning of every sentence that follows.
2. Write strong sentences.
Strong sentences have strong verbs. To seem, to feel, to think, to be, to know are examples of weak verbs. To attack, to overcome, to transform are strong verbs.
3. Use the active voice.
The passive voice uses the verb form “to be.” For example, The fire is seen by Joe (six words) is passive. In active sentences, the subject performs the action of the verb: Joe sees the fire (four words). Trial lawyers may use the passive voice as a rhetorical device to avoid attributing actions to a subject. Also, when used judiciously, passive voice can add a degree of variety to long pieces of writing. But the short form of the personal statement, avoid the passive voice. The passive voice robs your personal statement of clarity, brevity, and impact. Sentences written in the active voice are more powerful—and generally shorter—than those written in the passive voice.
4. Vary your words and sentences.
Word variety keeps your reader engaged. If you are writing about a job, you might want to whip out your thesaurus and find synonyms for “job,” such as “position” and “work.” If you have never used a word in written or spoken language before, do not use it in your personal statement. In general, do not use the same word more than once in a sentence unless you need to. From sentence to sentence, do not repeat a major keyword unless you can find no other word or phrase to express the same idea.
5. Write in a professional and formal tone.
Avoid contractions. Do not use colloquialisms. Write as if you were going to present your personal statement on stage before a large audience (all of whom are dressed in suits). Choose a style suitable for the occasion, but do not write “like a lawyer.” Lawyers are fond of “legalese”—that is, using long and often redundant words. The best law school personal statements display clear, succinct, enjoyable writing, never legalese.
6. Do not make elementary writing mistakes.
Elementary writing mistakes make you seem like an amateur. Unfortunately, even the very best writers make these sorts of mistakes. Do not take this aspect of revision for granted, even if you consider yourself to be a fantastic writer. Reread your personal statement a thousand times until all grammatical errors and typos have been eliminated. Do not confuse its and it’s or there, their, and they’re. Do not write complement when you mean to write compliment. Typos tell the committee that you do not take the law school application process as seriously as other viable applicants who have taken the time to meticulously copyedit their statements. A full catalogue of common writing errors is beyond the scope of this book. Any well-stocked bookstore will have dozens of excellent writing guides that can walk you through this sort of elementary revision advice.
7. Do not mismatch the number of a noun and its verb.
The group of kids love to eat is not a grammatical sentence—group (singular) is the subject of the sentence, not kids (plural). The group of kids loves to eat, meanwhile, is a grammatical sentence. Most native speakers of English should be able to “hear” when a sentence is correct or incorrect in this way. If English is a second language for you, seek out friends who are native speakers and ask them to read your essay.
8. Avoid clichés.
Every cloud has a silver lining, beat around the bush, fight tooth and nail: these are among the many clichés you should avoid like the plague (another cliché). Clichés do very little to tell the committee who you are and take up valuable “real estate” you could develop more wisely. At best, these clichés reveal that you are familiar with conventional wisdom and habitual sorts of analysis. A powerful mind does not accept received wisdom—or sentences—unreflectively.
9. Avoid sentences with empty subjects.
The English language permits sentences to open with subjects and verbs that do not refer to anything in particular. It is time to go (five words) and There are many cows standing on the field (eight words) could be rewritten more economically as Let us go (three words) and Many cows stand on the field (six words). In both cases the first two words of the sentences (“It is” and “There are” respectively) do not have any content. They do the work that a subject and verb are supposed to do but do not correlate to anything in the world. In longer-form writing, these empty openings serve the important function of varying your sentences. In a 500-word essay, you should not waste a single word.
10. Conclude powerfully.
The conclusion should pull together the different parts of the statement, rephrase main ideas and keywords, interpret the importance of your choice of topics, point towards the future, and finish with a rhetorical flourish. Conclude your personal statement by referring to your introductory paragraph. Restate your main thesis in a slightly different way that adds resonance to all that came before.