Edit: Thanks to everyone for their comments, and badlydrawn and stab master arson for their additions. Keep 'em coming.
We hear a lot on TLS about law school admissions being all about the numbers – LSAT and GPA are King. While this might be true, there are a number of schools with famously “black box” admissions, especially in the T14. Obviously, something other than numbers is required. The personal statement is the most important part of your application after LSAT and GPA. It’s your one opportunity to display yourself as a person – as more than numbers or a list of achievements. This especially matters if you’re borderline at one or more schools you’re applying to, which, let’s face it, all of us are.
Perhaps I have an illness, but I genuinely enjoy editing people’s personal statements. I’ve done a number of (I think successful!) edits for TLS-users, so I thought I might try to summarize what I say to them into a more general form.
Some general tips to follow:
Make your personal statement personal.
Most personal statements describe some kind of experience you have had, whether a traumatic one you got over, a work experience, or a volunteer experience, so I’m going to offer my overly long two cents based on that experience-describing personal statement model.
The basic thing you keep hearing over and over again about personal statements is that they need to be personal. But how do you achieve this elusive personal-ness? It’s all about specificity. I find personal statements work best when they describe a single, specific experience in great detail, and analyze that experience and its repercussions for you. Trying to jam more experiences into your PS, at the cost of detail, risks sounding resume-like and impersonal.
You know that thousands of potential applicants have had similar experiences to you – a daunting thought. You need to get across how the experience you describe affected you personally – who were you before this experience? Who were you after this experience? What happened to you during this work/volunteer gig that didn’t happen to everyone else ever who’s done the exact same thing? All this should get across how you will be a unique addition to the law school of your dreams.
At the same time, don’t be so daunted by the prospect of making yourself stand out from thousands of other applicants that you can’t write at all. There is some level of formula in personal statements. It’s unavoidable. It’s perfectly acceptable to have a straightforward personal statement that describes a semi-common experience, as long as it is well-written and expresses a clear thesis – that you have grown into a strong and capable law school candidate. In fact, while it may be tempting to go for your most unique experience as your PS topic, this might not actually be the best idea. You want to pick an experience which definitively demonstrates personal growth, rather than going for shock value or sympathy points.
Especially for the first draft, you just want to free write with no filter. Every thought you have on your topic should go down on paper or into a word document. Your writing should be chockfull of details – what exactly were you doing? What were your responsibilities? How did you go above and beyond them? What was the name of the place you worked/volunteered at? Where were the names/stories of the people you worked with?
One applicants often forget to include -How old were you? What was the time period and circumstances?
There is plenty of time for editing the excess out later.
Pick a thesis and prove it.
Yes, you need a thesis. Your personal statement is, essentially, an argumentative essay, arguing that you are worthy of admission to X Law School.
As I mentioned above, your thesis can be pretty basic and still work wonderfully – “I had x experience and through it I learned y. This makes me a better law school candidate.”
The hard part is deciding exactly what your thesis is. You don’t need to come right out and state your thesis, but it does need to be clear both to you and your reader what you’re arguing.
Once you have a clear idea of your thesis, go over every line in your statement, looking to see whether it’s contributing to your thesis. For each line, consider – why have I included this line? Is it clear to both me and my reader why this line is in here? Considering (and subtly clarifying) connections to the overall thesis can help you either eliminate tangential elements, or bring the tangential elements in your PS together.
Not every line need directly contribute to your thesis, but each should be serving the overall purpose of making your thesis stronger.
In fact, prove everything you say.
You might be tempted to say something like “After my eye-opening trip to Spain, I went from an ignorant and narrow-minded everyday American to an informed global citizen.”
Leaving aside the fact that it’s not a good idea to insult your entire country, you should not say something like this unless you have definitively proved it. Everything needs details – examples and explanations.
Sometimes, including more details can be a touchy subject – for example, I recently edited a PS for someone who had suffered childhood abuse. I encouraged him to provide some details, because just the word “abuse” can mean anything from having your Nintendo taken away to being beaten daily. Of course it’s up to you how much detail you want to include about such a topic (and you need to be wary of focusing on this to the expense of explaining your personal growth), but I think for this particular writer the PS was a lot more powerful after he included some graphic detail in a brief introductory paragraph.
Don’t be insulting.
Writers rarely intend to be, but this is actually a semi-common problem. This is something you need to go over every line in your PS for. Is there anything that could be read the wrong way? This applies especially when you’re writing about disadvantaged peoples or countries and when you're writing about dumping your current career for law.
Also, remember, just because you belong to a particular ethnic/racial/religious group does not mean you can insult them. It’s acceptable to express your disagreements with certain practices of certain groups, so long as you explain it in a respectful way and allow for differences of opinion. Being PC might suck, but you don't want to risk pissing anyone off.
Show, don’t tell.
This is an oldie but a goodie. You never want to say “It was a long and arduous journey to get to where I am today”, not only because that sounds overdramatic, but because you should have demonstrated (in a few short sentences) how long and arduous your journey was. With a long and arduous journey, it can be fairly simple to add in more showing – just describe a few of the difficult incidents you underwent.
Showing vs. telling can get more complicated with a sentence like “Working with the children was the most rewarding experience of my life.” This sentence may just make obvious sense to you, but you should always think about why. Why was this rewarding? Why was working with kids more rewarding to you versus working with senior citizens or battered women? At the risk of sounding like a psychiatrist – how did working with the children make you feel? Obviously, there is a limit to how much you can explain your feelings before sounding ridiculous, but always go for more detail in your preliminary drafts and you can whittle away at it later. Describing and analyzing your emotions is the number one way to make your personal statement more personal.
And some mechanics tips to follow:
These should be a lot easier to incorporate than the tips listed above.
Avoid expletive constructions.
badlydrawn wrote:Expletive constructions are unnecessary words or phrases. Solid writing should be concise (each word must tell) and precise (avoid ambiguity and euphemisms). Trim the fat and give the meat, if you will.
"'This is," "It is (for this reason)," "That is," etc., usually indicate that one can write the sentence more concisely.
The fewer words you can use to express a thought, the more clear, concise, and even eloquent you sound. When you’re being overly wordy you tend to sound overdramatic, immature, and generally poor at writing.
stab master arson wrote:THE most common -- yet easily correctable -- problem of all the personal statements I've read here. Example:
WRONG: "It was then that I realized that perhaps a career in law should be a serious consideration for me."
RIGHT: "Maybe I want to be a lawyer."
Eliminate adjectives and adverbs.
You might have been told you’re too “wordy”. Often, this means you use too many adjectives and adverbs. I once had a Creative Writing professor tell me adjectives and adverbs are like crutches. Using them says to your reader – “I cannot come up with a strong enough word to express this thought, so I’m going to use three words!”
For example, “excellent” would be better than “really good”. “Good” is probably better than “really good”.
badlydrawn wrote:I would hesitate to use modifiers such as "excellent," "good," and "very." If you're going to use an adjective/adverb, make it count. Something is "very dirty?" You mean it's filthy. You owe thanks to your "incredibly brilliant professor who is a master in his/her field"? Why not just call him or her a luminary?
It’s unrealistic to try and eliminate every single adjective and adverb, but always check whether you can. Cutting adjectives and adverbs is also a great technique when you’re trying to fit into those pesky word-counts.
Don’t reuse the same word.
Read your PS aloud. If you keep using the same word, you will notice it. Go to thesaurus.com. Find synonyms that aren’t completely obscure and use them.
But don’t sound like you ate a thesaurus.
Once again, this is a personal statement. You want to have a semi-formal, mature style, but if you absolutely wouldn’t say something in conversation, it probably shouldn’t be in your PS. Your PS should contain your voice. If you do generally use a gazillion obscure thesaurus words… uh, good for you, I guess. You might want to tone it down anyway, to avoid sounding pompous to the adcomms.
Be careful with punctuation.
I can’t go over every rule for commas here, but punctuation is important! Once again, reading aloud can help a great deal. If a sentence is long and unwieldy, you know to break it up with some commas, semi-colons, dashes, or best of all – periods. If you’re at all unsure on how to use a form of punctuation, look it up. There are numerous guides online. The OWL at Purdue website at http://owl.english.purdue.edu/ is one good resource.
At the same time, resist the urge to show off your intimate reading of Eats, Shoots and Leaves. People rarely use semi-colons. More than a couple is definitely too many. Also avoid exclamation marks, ellipses, parentheses, dashes… And remember, comma overuse is just as offensive as comma underuse.
Avoid parenthetical statements.
But I love parenthetical statements, you might say. And hey, how will I express them without parentheses, dashes or commas?!
Parenthetical statements are a bad idea for personal statements anyway. A parenthetical statement is (as you might imagine) one that might be expressed in parentheses. For example:
“Leading my son’s boy scout troupe was incredibly rewarding. (I was a boy scout myself from ’94 to ’98.) Although I was supposed to be their leader and teacher, I learned far more from them than they learned from me.”
A parenthetical statement might also be expressed using commas or dashes. It just means a side-note – something related to what you’re saying, but which interrupts the flow of your writing, so you put it in as an aside.
Although your parenthetical statement might seem all-important to include, you want to avoid anything that interrupts your writing flow. Think about whether you can delete this information, or where else you might incorporate it. You might just leave it where it is, sans parentheses, and be surprised how much better your paragraph flows. Visually, parentheses (and dashes, to some extent – see what I did there?) let the reader know that an aside is coming up. They prepare to be distracted, and so they are distracted.
Don’t use rhetorical questions.
These may have been okay for freshman English (in high school!) but no longer. Rephrase these as statements wherever possible.
Hyphenate adjective phrases before nouns.
For example: badly-written personal statement, well-written book, ten-year-old boy.
Don’t hyphenate adjective phrases after nouns. For example: the personal statement was badly written, the boy was ten years old.
Write out numbers. Preferably all of them.
Definitely write out numbers below ten. You should probably write out all numbers less than a hundred, and even some above. This is just writing convention.
“Two” rather than “2”, “hundred” rather than “100”, “twenty-seven” rather than “27”, etc.
You are not the Picasso of writing.
There’s a time and a place to show off your creative methods of breaking all the rules of the English language. This is not it.
When should I start writing my PS?
Now. Seriously. People always underestimate how many drafts (and weeks!) it will take to get their PS to where they want it to be. One of my major regrets in my cycle is starting to work on my PS in late October and then not applying till late November.
Of course it varies from person to person (and based on how much work you are willing to put in), but you should leave yourself at least a month to get from first to final draft.
What should my PS be about?
Any personal experience (so this probably shouldn’t be 9/11 unless you were directly affected) which caused personal growth. You should demonstrate how because of this experience you are now stronger, wiser and more capable of tackling law school and the legal field.
You might also want to attack topics like Why Law or Why School X. Neither of these are strictly required, but I think PS’s works best when you can show how your previous activities have led you to the law school path or better yet, to a particular law school.
It seems like incorporating Why School X into your PS, or writing a separate Why School X essay can be very helpful in pushing you over the edge at a borderline school, or one where you might otherwise be yield-protected.
Why School X should NOT just be saying at the end of your essay “And I can think of no better place to accomplish these goals than at X Law School.” That is a major no-no. You need to demonstrate that you have done your research about a school, and explain why it would be an excellent place to accomplish your goals. If you don’t feel strongly about a particular school, your Why X section might come off as insincere and is better off avoided. Since you probably have one or two actual dream schools, save the Why X’s for them.
Harvard, Yale and Stanford are the only schools where Why X’s are probably redundant, since everyone is desperate to go to these schools and they know it.
How should my PS start? I can’t seem to come up with a creative introduction!
It seems like everyone channels their inner creative writer a bit and starts with a descriptive passage that places the reader in a scene with the applicant. This is a good, if over-used, way to pull your reader into your essay.
I also think it is fine to avoid the creative introduction all together and dive straight in to the meat of your essay. This is a situation where you have to go back to your thesis – is your creative introduction contributing to your thesis? Or is it just some pretty writing?
I have a first draft! Who should I have look at it?
People who will be willing to rip your PS to shreds without fear of hurting your feelings. Strangers on TLS, professors, or advisors might be good choices. Family and friends are generally not.
Also, since our personal statements often end up being even more personal than we expected, it can be easier to bare ourselves to strangers than to people we are close to.
I just got my PS back from some editors, and they all hate it. Do I really have to start over from scratch?! It’s my personal statement, maybe they’re all wrong.
Think about how much you want to go to your favorite law school. Then think about how many personal statements the adcomms there read every day, and how little tolerance they will have for your badly-written PS.
While it’s certainly possible that your personal statement is actually good and every single one of your editors is wrong, it’s not very likely. Are you willing to take the risk?
Your editors will probably mention at least a few factors they like about the PS – can you start over by shifting your focus to those factors? If not, you might need to really toss out your entire PS and go back to the drawing board for new ideas.
What kind of tone should I adopt?
I think a formal but conversational tone works best. It should sound like a conversation you would have with an adcomm, not with your best friend. Avoid slang. You want to sound smart and eloquent, while not boring your reader.
One exception: TLSers generally advise avoiding contractions (such as “it’s” instead of “it is”), although you might use them in speech.
Can I use humor in my PS?
There's nothing wrong with trying, as long as your jokes are non-offensive. However, jokes are almost never as funny as we think they are. You're unlikely to get a genuine chuckle out of an adcomm, but you are likely to gain an eyeroll. Since the majority of jokes in personal statements fall flat, it might be best to just cut them out. (Consider how many times you laughed out loud during this guide. Zero?)
How long should my personal statement be? What font and font size should I use?
Two pages, double spaced, size twelve font, Times New Roman. A few schools allow you go longer (Berkeley allows four pages, and Harvard allows you to go down a size eleven font) but this the general rule. You’ll probably find that at least one of your schools requires you to cut down to a two-page length. Chances are, this shortest version will be your best, so you may as well submit it to all your schools.
Don’t deviate on font and font size… really. Times New Roman might be the most boring font of all time, but pretty fonts are most likely to make you stand out in a bad way. If you absolutely cannot stand Times New Roman, use something very basic and easy to read, like Arial.
But if a school allows me more space, shouldn’t I take advantage of it?
This really depends. If you’re adding fluff in to make your PS longer, then no. For every sentence in your PS, you need to think about whether it should really be there. Does it contribute to your thesis? Will the PS still make sense without it? As I said above, your shortest version will likely be your best.
With a school like Berkeley however, where they allow you to go significantly longer, they do like to see you use the full four pages. You might want to add in a meaningful tangent to your PS (rather than filling in fluff sentences where you can), a “Why Berkeley” section, or write a completely different PS for Berkeley. You can certainly also go ahead with your two-page PS if you think it’s stronger than whatever longer alternative you come up with.
My school says PS should be no longer than 750 words. But it’s okay to go a little longer, right? It’s not like schools actually count words or something!
No. Don’t go longer than a school’s stated limits. Just don’t. Don’t forget you are at their mercy, trying to please them. Your self-indulgence in editing does not warrant the extra minute it’ll take an admission officer to read an extra word/sentence/paragraph. Of course they don’t sit around counting words, but it takes about two seconds to use the wordcount function on word processing software. Don’t risk pissing off an adcomm by being the person who thought themselves above the rules.
Questions you might ask the author:
I like your advice. Will you read my PS?
EDIT: Unfortunately, I am no longer taking requests to read PSes. I just started law school and I must gun appropriately so I can write my next article - how to be at the top of your class 1L year! I do feel like if you read through this guide you will get most of what I would tell you anyway, and there are many great editors on TLS available to you.
What are your qualifications to write this guide? Can I see your PS?
I have no “qualifications”. I’ve been interested in creative writing for most of my life, and started taking creative writing classes in high school. I majored in History (very writing-intensive) and minored in Creative Writing in college.
I am a much better editor than writer, and unfortunately for PS reasons, I have led a rather uninteresting and sheltered life in the suburbs. I don’t think reading my PS will be particularly helpful to you, but let me know if the curiosity is just killing you; I’ll consider sharing.
Is everything you stated in this guide a hard and fast rule?
Not at all. Not to beat a dead horse, but a personal statement is personal. You have to figure out what works for you. I am not an adcomm, but this guide is my assessment of what makes a good PS, and what makes a good PS better. There is certainly more than one way to write a successful personal statement.