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Chapter 6: The Personal Statement Checklist
Published November 2009
Now that you have been introduced to the rhetorical approach to the personal statement, have considered your structure and topic options, and have mastered the art of writing great sentences, you are finally ready to compose a truly outstanding personal statement. Before you begin, look over this checklist. This list, culled from discussions with admissions directors, encapsulates the most important lessons that this book has tried to impart.
1. Have a clear idea of what you want to convey before writing.
Before starting your law school personal statement, draft an outline in order to determine the structure of your statement. Have a central theme or thesis that is pursued throughout your personal statement. Make sure to avoid controversial issues. Steer away from topics such as religion, political doctrines, or emotionally-contentious issues. While you may be an outspoken critic of affirmative action or organized religion, the admissions committee may be offended by your views. Choose a topic with broad appeal.
2. Write about aspects of yourself that readers cannot get from the other parts of your application.
A personal statement that repeats what the committee can learn from other parts of your application is a wasted personal statement. The personal statement is a specific literary genre that is very different from the list-like genre of the resume.
3. Do not use gimmicks.
Do not let your attempts to distinguish yourself tempt you to use gimmicks. This is one of the admissions committee members’ biggest pet peeves. Do not write in crayon, structure your personal statement as if it were a legal brief, or write a poem instead of an essay. “First and foremost, don’t try to be cute,” warns Dean Jeanette Leach. “Committees are not amused by your personal statement being a brief or a case on legal paper. Make the personal statement get to a point and treat it like an interview. If there are any questions that an admissions officer can’t answer from the rest of your application, put it in your personal statement.” Dean Victoria Ortiz of UC Irvine seconds this: “Do not be cute. Do not submit personal statements in poetry form. Do not pretend the personal statement is a memorandum of law submitted to a judge. Remember that admissions personnel are professionals and the applicant is aspiring to become a professional. The personal statement should reflect this professionalism.” Furthermore, do not conclude with any challenge to the admissions committee to admit you, such as, “I now leave it to you to help me fulfill my dream.” Some variant on the following statement, however, is acceptable: “I would welcome the opportunity and honor to be part of your program.”
4. Be personal in the law school personal statement.
You do not want to blend into the faceless mass of personal statements that your committee will be reading. Do not be afraid to use the first person (“I”). Cultivate a positive ethical stance. Focus in an honest way on your most favorable characteristics. This will allow your personal statement to stand apart from the multitude of statements that merely reiterate a transcript or generically describe how being admitted to law school will benefit the applicant’s life. “Be sure to ‘personalize’ your personal statement,” cautions former dean Robert Berring, “and [do] not turn out a generic statement modeled from some book on writing the perfect personal statement” (said before reading this amazing book, of course). “Putting together an entering class is like organizing a choir; we want 270 distinct voices,” agrees Dean Edward Tom also of UC Berkeley Boalt Hall. “There are hundreds of similar applicants, but only one you; so take the opportunity provided by the personal statement to let us hear your voice.” Write about things that make you genuinely excited and enthusiastic. Readers of your statement can tell when your enthusiasm takes over. Be optimistic.
5. Offer specific, meaningful stories and experiences.
Abstraction without content will not persuade anyone to admit you into law school. Concrete examples of how you have influenced others will build your credibility.
6. Tailor your personal statement for the law schools to which you are applying.
Making specific references to a particular law school or specialty will demonstrate your knowledge of and commitment to that law school. “It is a good idea to attempt to tailor the personal statement to the school to which it is being sent,” explains Dean Victoria Ortiz of UC Irvine. “And I don’t mean tailor by simply putting in the name of the law school…I mean showing the reader that the applicant has understood what characterizes each particular law school and can address in the statement why s/he would be a perfect candidate for that school.” Do check if professors you mention have retired or changed institutions. Do not send a personal statement to school B meant for School A. The admissions committee at Harvard Law School does not want to read about your desire to attend Yale.
7. Focus on your strengths and not your weaknesses.
Most applicants have some aspect of their application, such as a low LSAT score or GPA, which they view as a flaw. Discussing this weakness will only highlight it. “If you have done poorly on the LSAT or your GPA is low,” writes Dean Jeanette Leach, “do not make the explanation of that your entire personal statement. Put that in an addendum (see Appendix D for advice on writing an addendum). However, if it fits well into your personal statement, you should put it in.” Aim to write about the traits and characteristics that define you as an individual and showcase what you will bring to that law school. Your tone should be confident and positive, even if you choose to describe what you have learned from your mistakes.
8. Adhere to the page or word limitations.
Give the admissions committee what it wants: stay within the length limits set by each school. “I love it when an applicant comes to the point” (Dean Jeanette Leach).
9. Edit your law school personal statement.
Proofread the final draft of your personal statement several times, including at least once orally, for substance and style as well as errors in grammar and spelling. “There’s nothing more disappointing,” explains Dean Edward Tom, “than seeing an applicant with a good GPA, but poor writing skills. I don’t know how that happens, but it does. We’re not able at this law school to teach students how to write a sentence. They’ve got to know that coming in.” Have others edit your law school personal statement. Ideally, ask an academic advisor, professor, or someone familiar with the law school application process to peruse your statement. Pay attention to detail. Take your statement through several drafts. Finally, do not rely solely on your computer’s spell checker; it will not correct words that are improperly used, such as “form” instead of “from” and “none” versus “one.”
10. Make your personal statement do extra work for you.
Remember that you can give your personal statement to your recommenders. Sharing your statement with your recommenders shows them how you plan to position yourself in the law school application process. If they are aware of what personal characteristics you want to emphasize, they can address those traits in their recommendation letters, thus sending an even more focused and powerful message about you to the admissions committee. For more advice on letters of recommendation, see Appendix E.
» Continue to Chapter 7: Making the Most of the Sample Personal Statements and Commentary