Chapter 2: Understanding the Admissions Committee and Its Expectations for the Personal Statement

Published November 2009

About Your Audience

Admissions committees at top law schools usually consist of professional admissions officers, law professors, and law students. These are the people who will read your entire application file, including your personal statement. These readers want to understand your thoughts and see the world from your point of view; they want specific details about you. Take this fact to heart; it is one of the most important pieces of advice this book has to offer. Only specific details substantiate your claims. You must show the committee what makes you a strong candidate, not tell them how wonderful you are. If you make the claim that you are hard-working and motivated, for example, support your assertion by explaining how in college you volunteered eighty hours of your time to organize a series of lectures for your pre-law society. In one sentence, you have shown the admissions committee compelling evidence of your energetic and active investment in legal education initiatives. If you cannot support a claim with concrete examples or details, do not make the claim.

Members of the committee are looking for many different types of people. They are looking for future leaders in the public and private sectors. They want ambitious individuals with lofty goals as well as realistic plans for pursuing those goals. They are looking for those who have excelled in cross-cultural experiences or other kinds of situations outside their comfort zones. They seek people who have made an impact on the lives of others in concrete and meaningful ways. They are interested in individuals with expertise in a diverse array of technical and humanistic domains. They want self-starters with can-do inner drive. Dean Edward Tom of UC Berkeley concurs; he says he looks for applicants with “a passion for justice, determination, leadership ability, academic curiosity, compassion for others, or that…can relate well with people.” Through introspection upon your values and experiences, you must decide whether you are the sort of candidate top law schools are looking for. You cannot fake your way into law school or trick anyone into admitting you. Your personal statement will only be effective if it sincerely expresses your values and offers an authentic picture of your experiences. Dean David E. Van Zandt of Northwestern confides:

Obviously, the personal statement needs to be well-written, but you never know how original it is or how much help the person received. In the end, it is about the substance—what someone has accomplished up to this point—not the way they write about it. Like all other parts of the application, the bottom line is that we are looking for evidence that demonstrates strong leadership potential and the ability to succeed in what will be a multi-job career. As a result, examples of past leadership experiences, management of complex projects, or situations that involve overcoming obstacles or challenges tend to be the most useful.

There are questions the committee members will almost certainly ask themselves about you. A well-crafted personal statement will not necessarily answer these questions directly but will embed the desired answers into its narrative, preempting or foreclosing objections before they arise.

Seven Questions the Admissions Committee Will Ask

1. Have you demonstrated intellectual excellence?

The committee wants to know if you can learn and retain a vast array of laws, precedents, and cases. It wants to admit candidates who can interpret information and make decisions logically and swiftly. It will look for candidates who have strong skills in argumentation, who are capable of exemplary written and oral communication, and who are realistically confident in their own abilities. Dean Edward Tom of UC Berkeley Boalt Hall tells when he picks up a personal statement, he is looking for “curiosity, very strong academic potential, a centered person who has been out of school a year or two, an interest in an interdisciplinary approach to the study of law, and someone who is not applying because of outside pressures or expectations. Also the ideal candidate should be someone who enjoys school. …you’ve got to like school.” Such candidates will be good with clients, thorough in their research and interpretations, solid in the courtroom or at the negotiation table, and powerful as governmental or political leaders. More than anything, the admissions committee wants to admit future lawyers who will bring honor and respect to its institution.

2. Have you had a tangible impact on individuals or groups?

The committee wants candidates who have already made substantial contributions to their communities and to other people. “Our ideal candidate should be someone who revels in ideas, but who also connects those ideas to day-to-day realities,” writes Dean Richard Geiger of Cornell Law School:

We look for people who are active learners and who engage the world around them; people who not only create an agenda, but then do everything they can to make it happen; people who understand or are open to the notion that reasonable people sometimes may disagree. These traits are good proxies for the intellectual and interpersonal tools that define successful law students and leading members of the legal profession.

Giving examples of concrete actions you have taken demonstrates that your ambition or passion for particular causes has expressed itself in practical ways. The committee knows that those who follow through on promises and who take risks will become better leaders. Show them what kind of go-to person you are and will be.

3. Have you demonstrated good leadership skills?

It is important for lawyers to be good leaders as well as excellent collaborators. Talk about your leadership and membership experiences, offering specific examples of jobs or volunteer events at which you coordinated or oversaw others. Good leaders are often pro-active starters who motivate others. Dean David E. Van Zandt of Northwestern University Law School explains that he specifically admits good leaders:

In addition to strong academic abilities, [our admits] have solid interpersonal and communication skills, which are necessary for success in our very collaborative, team-based curriculum. They are forward-thinking, and appreciate that a traditional legal education paired with an emphasis on communication, presentation, problem-solving skills and cross-training management, will lay the groundwork for their career success regardless of the sector in which they ultimately practice.

Demonstrate your ability both to work with a team and to delegate responsibility to others. The committee does not want to admit introverted loners or those too arrogant to inspire commitment from others. Also indicate that you excel at planning and achieving goals.

4. Have you had real world experience?

The committee expects you to be mature enough to leave your family, city, region, and country, to travel and interact with people different from yourself. You need to demonstrate that you have reached beyond the safety net of college into the real world. Law schools are looking for worldly candidates who have engaged with serious issues; who keep abreast of the global political, economic, and social situation; and who have moved from theory to practice in a job, in volunteer work, in travel, or in some other capacity that has allowed them to experience the real world firsthand. Dean Sarah Zearfoss at the University of Michigan likes to see candidates who have found a part-time or summer job in a law-related field:

If you have to earn money, that’s fine—you should just be earning money. But it is also impressive if you can combine what you need to do, in terms of earning money, with some effort to explore your interest in law. So maybe you could volunteer two hours a week at the American Civil Liberties Union answering phones or at legal services in whatever town you’re in, or any one of a jillion non-profit legal organizations. Or you could try to get an internship for a few weeks so you could still earn money for the bulk of the summer. That would be, I think, a smart and impressive thing to do. Or you can try to find a job doing clerical work at a law office, which isn’t going to tell you too much about being a lawyer, but it’ll tell you a little and it will also start expanding your network of people in the legal profession.

5. Can you look at an issue from multiple perspectives?

A law student needs to be able to consider a question from all sides and argue from many different points of view. Problems look different from different vantage points. If you have traveled, for example, did you encounter cultures that hold assumptions about the world at odds with your own? Were you able to engage with others’ values and perspectives and come to a deeper understanding of why different social or cultural locations open diverse vistas on issues? It is important for lawyers not to be inflexibly dogmatic in their attitudes and judgments. An open mind is a powerful mind.

6. What will you bring to our school?

The admissions committee is trying to build a diverse class. Diversity in this context might mean race, gender, socioeconomic status, ethnicity, age, type of undergraduate degree, region or nation of origin, or any number of other factors. Additionally, the committee is building a class with unique personalities and intellectual interests as well as life experiences and talents. “Recognize your own abilities and talents throughout the application process and law school. It helps on your personal statement when you show the committee what you have to offer the school rather than trying to fit into a mold of what you feel they want you to be,” recommends former dean Robert Berring of UC Berkeley Boalt Hall. “This helps you in the application process, but also throughout law school. Throughout life and law school, there are too many people trying to tell you what to do. What matters the most is your own intelligence, and do not get caught up in trying to be somebody you are not.” An ideal law school class is one whose members will be able to support each another through three years of hard work and complement each other and the professors at their institution.

7. What brings you to our school?

Even if you are an all-around exceptional candidate and your personal statement is an inspiration and pleasure for the committee to read, you should explain to each school what attracts you to and excites you about its program. An admissions committee wants to admit people who will be excited to attend its institution. Your audience will perk up if you describe a campus visit you made, offering specific details about which faculty members you met and how that visit changed your perspective. If there is a professor whose work you admire, say so. Give the committee members several (primarily academic) reasons for believing their law school is the best fit for you. Some law schools require you to tell them why you want to attend their program. Dean David E. Van Zandt at Northwestern is adamant about this: “The personal statement should not be generic. It needs to be tailored to Northwestern Law in the same way that you would show interest if you were applying for a job. It’s important to show that you have done some research about us, that you understand how we are different, and that you affirmatively want to be part of our community.” Feel free to compliment a program’s strengths, but state specifically how you plan to make the most of what that school has to offer. Showing that you would take advantage of the school’s strengths as a means of achieving your personal goals is a way to convince the committee that you are highly motivated and that you do your homework.


» Continue to Chapter 3: The Rhetorical Approach to the Personal Statement
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