Chapter 4: Choosing Structure and Topic
Published November 2009
A persuasive personal statement will be an organic whole from beginning to end, not a collection of minute particulars. Your essay should seem less like a Frankenstein monster and more like a triathlete in top physical form. Seen as an organic whole, a successful personal statement will attend to its three key components simultaneously: values, structure, and topic. As you have already seen, every statement is an expression of your values. If the admissions committee does not believe in your values, even an eloquent and otherwise engaging personal statement will be of no use to you. The previous section took you through considering which rhetorical appeals might best showcase your qualities and values. This section deals with choosing a structure and a topic through which to present those values, guiding you through important decisions about how to structure your essay and how to choose which of the infinite number of available topics to write about.
Structuring Your Statement
You will need to decide what kind of structure you want your personal statement to have. When an architect begins to design a house, he or she must first decide what general shape to give it. Likewise, you are apt to work with one of the typical structures for the personal statement presented in the list below. You may mix and match them. Also, as any master builder or good writer knows, there are always creative ways of thinking “outside the box.” However, the following structures are tried and true, and you can personalize them depending on your specific topic.
1. Tell a personal narrative or story.
People remember stories. Although the admissions committee members are probably going to forget your LSAT score, list of undergraduate accomplishments, and other resume details, they will remember a compelling story you tell them. All conventional stories have a beginning, middle, and end. In almost all cases, they build suspense or interest through a rising action and peak at a climax, which is followed by a denouement designed to tie up loose ends. Often, stories have an explicit moral or lesson. A personal statement that narrates a story can illustrate important aspects of your character in a compact and effective rhetorical package. For example, you might explain how you have overcome odds that were heavily against you in order to get where you are today.This sort of story frames your life as a kind of quest narrative.
For More Information: To read a sample essay that uses a storytelling structure effectively, see Personal Statement 6: Coming Out.
2. Begin with a personally meaningful quote, which you analyze and refer to throughout your statement.
This is a difficult structure to master, but when it is done well, it can be satisfying for the reader. Do not randomly pick a quote from Bartlett’s. Do not pick a quote by a famous person whose work you have never read or have barely encountered. Spend some time addressing the various levels and resonances of the quote in relation to your life and goals. Do not use this structure unless you have hit upon a blockbuster quote and can work rhetorical magic upon it.
For More Information: To read a sample essay that uses a quote-based structure effectively, see Personal Statement 10: Ubuntu.
3. Sketch a Character.
Some writers excel at offering insightful or humorous character sketches of others. This structure allows the writer to show his or her keen observation skills and real world experience. You might sketch the character of a mentor, a relative who has impacted your life, or a person from a culture unfamiliar to the reader. You may even choose to sketch yourself in a familiar or unfamiliar environment. This is a technique well-known to novelists, and it adds a literary quality to your personal statement. This structure may be combined with others, such as the personal narrative. Be sure not to focus too much your personal statement on any one character other than yourself.
For More Information: To read a sample essays that use character sketches effectively, see Personal Statement 14: South Dakota.
4. Use a metaphor or analogy that helps your audience understand you.
A well-wrought metaphor can demonstrate your rhetorical mastery and integrate vivid imagery or powerful allusions into your statement. If you, like many law school applicants, have majored in English as an undergraduate, and if you have an impressive level of control over the English language, feel free to show your stuff. However, if your control over language is not as strong as you imagine, your failed attempts at linguistic pyrotechnics may sabotage your personal statement. Be sure, therefore, to stay within your depth when adding rhetorical flourishes.
For More Information: To read a sample essay that uses metaphor structure effectively, see Personal Statement 22: Muumuus and Moving On.
5. Pose rhetorical questions to your audience.
A question-answer structure has the potential to showcase your skill in persuasion and argumentation. If a committee member has begun to think about the opening question your statement poses, then your answer has the potential to showcase the deftness of your mind and your reasoning skills in action.
For More Information: To read a sample essay that uses a rhetorical-question structure effectively, see Personal Statement 26: High-Stakes Law Experience.
6. Present a problem and how you solved it or would solve it.
This is called the problem-solution structure. For example, you might discuss what is lacking in the legal profession or society or demonstrate a need for change and then give evidence for how you have begun to solve this problem in your own life or in the lives of others. This type of essay, like the question-answer structure, will showcase your analytic reasoning skills.
For More Information: To read a sample essay that uses a problem-solution structure effectively, see Personal Statement 2: Senior Design.
B. Topics for Law School Personal Statements
Your topic fleshes out the skeleton of your structure: that is, your statement’s topic, or content, to a great degree determines its structure, or form. Personalize your law school essay as much as possible by including concrete examples that showcase your character and by giving specific details to illustrate your unique experiences. Use sensory descriptions and vivid language to give your reader a picture of you and your accomplishments. As with all storytelling, the rule here is not to tell the readers what you want them to know, but rather you want to show them your perspective and experience.
Do not waste this crucial opportunity to distinguish yourself by writing a personal statement that merely summarizes your resume or transcript. Rather, expand upon what is noteworthy about you, your experiences, and your goals. A major family crisis or personal catharsis resulting in a drastic change in your grades is worth mentioning, whereas your presence on the honor roll is not. Your transcript already documents your grades, so use the personal statement to give the committee members information they cannot find in other parts of your application. Finally, try to use recent stories rather than older ones and, likewise, academic experiences in place of personal ones.
Most statements discuss the following topics. If you can set yourself apart with a unique topic, your personal statement will be more memorable; however, this list comprises many of the most genuinely important experiences that shape a person’s character:
- Engagement with New Technology
- Foreign Travel or Study
- Multi-National or Foreign-National Students
- Rural Upbringing
- A Unique Relative
- Language Acquisition
- The Impact of a World Event
- Outstanding Achievements
- Leadership Positions
Consider these options as you begin working on the main topic of your personal statement. The following eight topics are all a potential means of framing your personal statement.
1. Describe how you endured adversity or a personal tragedy and analyze how it shaped the person you are today.
This kind of statement may include difficulties in your personal or academic life or in your community. Be sure that you explain how this situation contributed to developing qualities that make you a good candidate for law school. Try to keep this sort of topic upbeat–explain, for example, how a tragedy has positively influenced your intellectual life or leadership skills. The personal statement must persuade the committee that you have what it takes to succeed academically and professionally, so the tragic elements of your narrative must showcase how and why you would be an excellent law school candidate and a fantastic lawyer.
For More Information: To read a sample essay that uses the topic of personal tragedy effectively, see Personal Statement 18: Gordie Day.
2. Describe what makes you a diverse candidate.
Admissions committees are looking to admit a certain number of students with diverse backgrounds, and they may even have scholarships to award specifically to these students. Consider using your personal statement to describe how your race or disability has taught you about yourself or fostered your interest in law. An essay about the influence of extreme economic hardship on you and your family might also meet the diversity requirements of some schools.
For More Information: To read a sample essay that uses the topic of diversity effectively, see Personal Statement 23: Hurricane Katrina. Also see Appendix D for advice on including a supplementary diversity statement with your application.
3. Show how you have matured and indicate how you hope to grow in the future.
In general, you should avoid talking about your life before college. If you have a good reason to mention your childhood or adolescence—such as an unusual history abroad or a specific obstacle you had to overcome—then try to present the bulk of this information in one short, vivid paragraph and refer to this youthful experience later in the essay to illustrate how and why it had such a formative influence upon your goals and values. This type of personal statement chronicles your growth over time in order to show how your growth emerged organically from your experience and your character.
For More Information: To read a sample essay that uses the topic of personal growth effectively, see Personal Statement 27: Uganda and Cambodia.
4. Describe what you have learned from a mentor.
Mentors can play invaluable roles in a person’s intellectual development. If there is someone in your life, such as a trusted professor or employer, who helped you realize your potential, you might want to structure your personal statement around him or her. However, be sure your personal statement discusses you and your accomplishments, not the mentor’s. You might do this by, for example, analyzing what choices you would make differently from your mentor. This type of essay allows you to showcase your analytic reasoning skills. Be sure not to seem overly influenced by a single person or idea, though. Show you can synthesize various ideas and choose your own way.
For More Information: To read a sample essay that describes the influence of a mentor effectively, see Personal Statement 31: Korean American.
5. Write about an event or issue of particular importance to you.
The easiest way to differentiate yourself from the rest of the applicant pool is to talk about your real-world experiences in a way that gives the committee an eye into your perspectives and passions. Chances are, if you think carefully about an event or issue that matters to you, your perspective will not resemble that of other people. The key to a topic of this sort is to be rigorous in your analysis and in the presentation of your opinions. Law schools want deep thinkers, not shallow pundits. Show your devotion to and experience with your issue by describing your experiences volunteering for or otherwise serving your cause. Tales of real-world action can powerfully move your reader.
For More Information: To read a sample essay that uses the topic of real-world action effectively, see Personal Statement 11: PR Agency Builder.
6. Write about coursework or research related to your law career or legal interest.
Appropriate topics of this sort might include completing a thesis, working with a professor, or volunteering for a legal aid clinic. As with your perspective on the world, you probably have a unique combination of academic or professional experiences that have contributed to making you who you are today. The secret to successfully deploying this topic is choosing an experience that has had a genuine impact on your qualifications and character and avoiding commonplaces and banalities. It is especially helpful if you relate your academic interests to the reasons you want to attend a particular law school.
For More Information: To read a sample essay that uses the topic of academic research effectively, see Personal Statement 30: Debate Skills.
7. Write about your passions, ideals, or favorite hobbies.
There is no easier way to let the committee know what gets you excited than to tell them. The risks here should be obvious. The passions, ideals, and hobbies you pick should relate to your desire to become a lawyer. Your love of hiking is a wonderful thing, but it has a place in your law school personal statement only if this passion materially affects what kind of lawyer you will be. Likewise, even if your topic is law-related, telling your reader you love something is never enough; you must always back up your claims with evidence. It is best to steer clear of controversial issues so that you don’t risk alienating your reader. To brainstorm for this topic, you might want to list your skills and personal qualities and consider how they will make you an asset to the law school or legal community.
For More Information: To read a sample essay that uses the topic of personal passions effectively, see Personal Statement 4: Happy Camper.
8. Write about leadership experience that you have had.
If you have ever had a leadership role in any arena, such as a club, sports team, or job, you should let your reader know. Nothing impresses members of a law school committee more than your real-world achievements.
For More Information: To read a sample essay that uses the topic of leadership experience effectively, see Personal Statement 18: Gordie Day.