Most law schools require applicants to submit a “personal statement.” This is your opportunity to provide them with positive, interesting information about you that they can’t get from their other main sources: LSAT score, transcripts, and letters of recommendation. A “good” personal statement won’t compensate for a low LSAT or indifferent undergraduate grades, but it can enhance the viability of your candidacy. Also, a mediocre personal statement can hurt your chances for admission. Depending on the law school, your personal statement will range in length from 300 to 1000 words. Most law schools require personal statements that are two to two-and-a-half pages, double-spaced, with one-inch margins and 12 point font. Follow application instructions about the personal statement very closely; don’t exceed the length requested by the law school. A good plan is to write a generic 1000 word personal statement that you edit and adapt to the requirements of specific law schools. Don’t assume that you’ll be able to send the same personal statement to each law school to which you apply.
I have found that the practice of law is much like the collegial atmosphere at Alma College in that it requires … constant interaction among your peers and colleagues. Being a lawyer provides a new challenge every day, and Alma provided me with the education to face and resolve those challenges. -Michelle J. Murphy ’97; DePaul ’00
Some law schools require you to write on a specific topic, but most do not. Remember, your goal is to enable law school admission committees to understand you better as an individual. Recall, too, that admission committees read hundreds, even thousands, of personal statements. Work hard to make yourself stand out. Try also to convey to your readers that you are mature, honest, sincere, self-motivated, serious about a legal career, clear, and concise. Note: If a law school gives you the “option” of writing one or more additional essays to supplement your personal statement, you should do so. Assume that this “option” is an unstated requirement to test your motivation for attending that law school.
There are two main approaches to the personal statement. One is conventional and not terribly imaginative, but this option, if well done, can be effective. This “meat and potatoes” format divides your personal statement into four main paragraphs/subsections. In each of the four you address a different question that will help law school admissions officials to know you and your qualifications better:
- Why do you want to attend law school? In this section you could discuss why you are attracted to the legal profession and/or how attending law school will serve your academic and career goals.
- Why are you qualified to attend law school and to compete successfully there? Here you might highlight parts of your academic track recording, including independent studies and research projects; skills, knowledge and perspectives gained in specific classes; relevant internships; pertinent work, community service, and life experiences; and personal traits conducive to success in law school.
- In what extra-curricular activities were you involved that might be relevant to your success in law school and as an attorney? Do not just rehash your resume or list the extra-curricular groups in which you were a member. Stress what you did in terms of your responsibilities, leadership, and productivity. It’s better in this section to show evidence of commitment and contributions to one or two activities than to indicate or suggest you were a passive member of many groups and organizations.
- Why are you applying to this particular law school. Don’t be fawning or insincerely complimentary. Don’t say you’re applying because you think it’s one of the few law schools that will accept you. Show evidence that you see how the law school’s program, reputation, placement record, and/or geographical location appeal to you and will help you achieve your goals. You might indicate in this section what you will bring to this particular law school that will help make it more interesting, lively, diverse, and/or intellectually and culturally stimulating.
The second, more effective, approach is less mechanical and more anecdotal. Most pre-law advisors and law school admission committee members agree that the best personal statements are usually those that tell stories about applicants and allow readers to draw positive conclusions about the applicants’ chances for success in law school and likelihood of enriching it. This story-telling approach is difficult to do well, but it could reap dividends for you. Central to this option is highlighting one or two positive trait(s) you have that will contribute to your success in law school and beyond. The positive trait(s) should not be immediately evident to law school admission committee member from your transcripts, LSAT score, or even your reference letters. What sorts of attributes might you pick from to use as a central theme for your personal statement?
- Diversity. How would you contribute positively to a law school’s diversity? This doesn’t necessarily refer just to race, ethnicity, or gender. If you’re from a small town in Michigan and have strong family ties, how will this enhance the law school to which you’re applying and contribute to the legal profession? If you spent considerable time living abroad, what experiences and perspective did you gain that have shaped your life in ways that will contribute to your success as a law student and attorney?
- Overcoming obstacles and/or responding creatively to challenges. Your goal is to show how you dealt with obstacles, adversity, or challenges in ways that made you a more mature, determined, ethical, self-confident, and/or competent person. What you coped with successfully could include illness or accident to self or family member, growing up in poverty, the death of a parent or sibling, getting cut from your high school basketball team, flunking algebra, getting fired, or having a run-in with the law. The nature of the obstacle, adversity, or challenge is less important that your truthful commentary on how you responded to it and how your response made you a better person, if it did.
- Perseverance, determination, motivation, self-discipline. If they apply to you, these interrelated themes are good ones on which to base stories about your life that underline traits useful for law school and your career.
Other possible themes around which to build an anecdotal, story-telling personal statement:
- Making choices.
- Adapting creatively to new and different environments.
- Following through on commitments.
- Prioritizing goals and managing time efficiently to achieve them.
- Critical turning points in your life.
Whatever approach you take in writing your personal statement—the conventional “meat and potatoes” or anecdotal story-telling—please remember the following “do’s” and “don’ts”:
- Avoid excessive use of personal pronouns.
- Be concise and direct. Avoid using convoluted sentence structure and passive voice. Avoid “arty” or “fairy tale” stylistic devices—e.g., “Once upon a time there was a four-year-old-boy sitting in a treeless, windswept field who, while eating a stale crust of bread, contemplated his future and his secret desire—which sizzled like eggs in a frying pan—to become a patent attorney.”
- Avoid writing about yourself in ways that suggest you are afflicted with self-doubt, angst, and identity crisis.
- Try to personalize your statement by discussing specific experiences and achievements that set you apart from other law school applicants.
- Unify your personal statement by giving it direction with a theme or thesis. A superior personal statement will allow the reader to grasp this theme or thesis without you beating the reader over the head with it.
- Strive for clarity and conciseness. Make sure your personal statement contains no misspelled words or grammar errors. Proof-read your statement carefully.
- Start your statement with an attention-grabbing lead—e.g., an anecdote, question, or engaging description of a scene or event.
- Be relevant. Provide information the reader doesn’t have from another source, but tie what you say to knowledge about you that reflects favorably on your chances for success in law school and as an attorney.
- Revise your statement at least three times. Set it aside and come back to it over a period of several days between each revision.
One way to come up with a theme for your statement that doesn’t duplicate what the law schools already know about you is to ask yourself, “What would a member of my family say about me to a law school admission committee?”
- Don’t be vague, general, and theoretical. Don’t use your personal statement as an academic exercise in which you analyze large issues like “justice” or “ethics and the legal profession.” You are more likely to impress the committee by writing about what they don’t know—namely, you—than about what they already have opinions.
- Don’t start your essay with, “I was born in…” or “My parents came from…”
- Don’t be flippant or clownish, though gentle humor may be OK.
- Don’t try to impress your readers with the erudition of your vocabulary.
- Don’t make things up. If your personal statement adopts the obstacles/challenges model, only write about obstacles, adversity, and/or challenges that you actually experienced.
- Don’t strive so hard for originality that you come across as being too clever. It’s possible to write a personal statement from the perspective of your pet cat or boa constrictor, but you have to be very talented to bring this off well.
- Don’t rely exclusively on your computer to check your spelling.
- Don’t provide a collection of generic statements and platitudes.
- Don’t use your personal statement to simply rehash your resume.
- Don’t spend time in your personal statement explaining—or explaining away—what you fear are “problems” with your other application materials, such as a low LSAT or low GPA in the fall term of your sophomore year. If such explanations are warranted, attach a separate note to your application.
- Don’t sent your personal statement to any law school without first having one of the pre-law advisors (Drs. Cameron, Cunningham, Dixon, Gorton, Hulme, Lorenz, Olbertson) read and critique each draft of it.
For examples of personal statements that “worked” for Alma College alumni, see the Sample Personal Statements subpage. Also consult Paul Lermack, How To Get Into The Right Law School, ch. 10 and Willie J. Epps, Jr., How To Get Into Harvard Law School, pp. 273-369, both of which are in the college library’s reference section.