The Personal Statement

Last updated: July 7, 2013

Private I: The Personal Statement

Gerald L. Wilson
Duke University

Many, if not most, law schools require applicants to write what is generically referred to as a personal statement. Students often find this to be the most difficult part of the application process and seek guidance from prelaw advisors (and hopefully not from one of these A Successful Personal Statements books!) Because many law school admission officers indicate that the personal statement is the second most important item in the application (after LSAC score and UGPA), prelaw advisors can be especially helpful at this point. 

First of all, the personal statement should be just what it says, personal, in the sense that it should be something that only that individual student himself/herself could write. Though opinions vary, in general, the statement should seek to connect the writer with the law school application. This is not to suggest that it should be a “I want to go to law school because”.... piece but it probably will be more useful to an admissions committee if they can gain a sense of why the student is applying to law school. In brief, the statement may well be an intellectual/experiential autobiography that makes clear as to why the writer is applying to law school. 

The essay, unless otherwise specified, and to make sure that it will be more than skimmed, in most cases should be no longer than two pages, double-spaced. It should, above all, be interesting. I cannot forget what one law school admission officer said about personal statements: “When I read a personal statement, I have one question in the back of my mind: Would I like to have a beer with this person?” (Or lunch if you prefer!) Think about what is being said there. Will the applicant be someone we want to get to know, someone who will add to the classroom experience and to the atmosphere of the law school?

Note carefully that the essay should attract the reader’s attention (without being gimmicky) and should focus on the student, not the law. Below are opening paragraphs from two of the worst personal statements I have ever read. Would you want to get to know these students?

“The best preparation for the study of law is a broad-based undergraduate education. Studying a variety of subjects in both the natural and social sciences develops both reasoning and communication skills.  Students must learn to apply logic to mathematical and social problems and to communicate using both words and numbers. In addition, extra-curricular activities and work experience improve a person’s problem solving abilities and communication skills. My diversity of academic and extra-curricular experience is my strongest attribute as a law school candidate.” 

Or, “As an undergraduate, I have taken particular interest in the structural frameworks within which society’s institutions confront recurring moral and ethical problems. Academically, I have focused on political institutions’ reflection of the society’s ethical sophistication, with special emphasis on the legal and judicial system in the United States. Additionally, my extracurricular activities have presented several opportunities to confront the ethical dilemmas of leadership in the unique circumstances indigenous to a university community. Together, my academic and extra-academic work have prepared and focused my interest in continued study of the law and legal institutions.”
 
Conversely, without resorting to gimmicks the opening paragraphs of the following three statements immediately attract the reader and make the reader want to read on to get to know the applicant. 

“As a little girl with olive skin, long black hair and large, dark but definitively non-western eyes, I was constantly subjected to the fascinated stars and inquiries of people curious about my nationality. Hurt by the subtle implication that I might be different from the other kids, I would smile and give the elusive response I’m an ethnic mutt. In this age of political correctness, those words would probably never leave my mouth today, but an amalgamation of unusual and distinctive elements is actually still the best way to describe myself.”

Or, “Until my mid-teens, I had believed that my father died when I was four years old. As a teenager I was told that the man I thought was my father was not my natural father. In order to conceive, my mother opted for a process known as Artificial Insemination by an Anonymous Donor, or AID. This revelatory information prompted me to research the AID phenomenon and the ramifications it posed to me as a child fathered in this unusual manner.”

Or, “Two summers ago I worked as a black foreman of an all-white construction crew in rural Georgia. It proved to be an extraordinary experience which taught me a lot about myself and which sparked my interest in becoming a lawyer.”

However, any good and exciting essay can be spoiled if not carefully proofread to eliminate misspellings, poor use of grammar, or awkward use of the language. Proof Read the document, and have at least one friend do it, too. Do not rely on spell-check on the computer. Sue and use, leaned and learned, for and fro, lust and must are all correct words but spell check may not help to discover problems with usage. A typo such as to for two suggests you do not pay attention to detail. Your documents are being read to evaluate your future performance as a good lawyer. Also, the personal statement may not be the place to discuss a bad semester or a personal matter that needs further explanation. This may best be handled by writing a separate statement. In the end, there is no formula for a successful personal statement, but there is one successful guideline: Be yourself!

Summary of No-No's for the Personal Statement

  1. Do not give the essay a title
  2. Do not use quotations
  3. Do not use dialogue
  4. Do not write in the third person
  5. Do not use the passive voice
  6. Do not make the essay a narrative version of your resume
  7. Do not use footnotes
  8. Do not tell them about the law, talk about you
  9. Do not be repetitive
  10. Do not read one of those “Winning Essays That Got Me Into Law School” books
  11. Do not compare yourself to other people, i.e. “I may not be as smart as many of your applicants, but I study hard.” or “While my classmates are out partying, I am in the library working hard!”

Summary of Do's

  1-10.  Be yourself! Make the members of the Admissions Committee want to get to know you and have you in class.

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