TippingtheScales: Top 3 Clichés to Avoid in Your Law School Personal Statement

by Erin Abrams, Stratus Admissions Counseling

Originally published as an expert guest post on TippingtheScales 

You’ve taken the LSAT (and hopefully scored well), built a strong academic record in college and pursued internships that prepared you for a career in the law. You are now ready to apply to law school. Bear in mind that law school Admissions Committees (AdComs) read thousands of these essays per year, and come across the same overused themes and logical fallacies. When you begin to compose your personal statement, your mind blanks. You think to yourself, “I know that I’m an interesting and unique person who has a lot to offer the world as an attorney. How can I convey all of that in two double-spaced pages in 11-point font?”

Composing a personal statement is the most challenging part of the law school application process for many aspiring law students. In order to stand out from the crowd and improve your chances of admission to your top choice program, avoid variations on the following three themes in your personal statement.

1. “Despite my privileged background, I have overcome significant hardship.”

Overcoming adversity can be a meaningful theme for a personal statement, if stated in a nuanced and thoughtful way.

  • For example, if you have experienced socio-economic hardship, faced discrimination, or struggled with illness or disability, express how these experiences have shaped your character. Treat narratives of overcoming personal hardship with a healthy dose of self-awareness.
  • A truly “next level” essay will go beyond explaining how overcoming such challenges has enabled you to better relate to marginalized people in society. It will take that analysis a step further and examine the position of privilege and relative advantages that have enabled you to make the choices you did. Maybe you had particularly supportive parents or access to resources that others lacked.
  • Demonstrate resilience without sounding trite by being specific about how you addressed these difficulties and how your experiences have shaped your professional interests.
  • Demonstrate resilience without sounding trite by being specific about how you addressed these difficulties and how your experiences have shaped your professional interests.

2.  “I spent a few days/weeks helping poor people and now they are better.”

Some of the best personal statements focus on an applicant’s volunteer work providing valuable services to marginalized people but so do some of the worst. What’s the difference? The key difference is found in the level of self-awareness and the depth of experience. A first-rate personal statement will articulate your depth of experience and reflect on those experiences in a complex and insightful way. For example, how becoming a lawyer might help you to better address the systemic forces of inequality that you observed.

  • If your volunteer experience has been brief and limited to “voluntourism-type” activities, mention it in support of a larger theme or not at all.
  • If you have lived abroad volunteering for a nonprofit organization or worked full-time providing free legal services, contemplate the moral dilemmas or ethical conflicts that you confronted in your work.

3.  “Obtaining a law degree will enable me to succeed in business or politics.”

Generally, AdComs are wary of personal statements that do not evidence a clear desire by the applicant to become a lawyer, and instead suggest a wide range of possible career options upon graduation. A strong personal statement conveys a sense of direction and details an area of intellectual curiosity or passion Resist the temptation to explain how you “solved” your clients’ problems.

  • Don’t be afraid to question, in your essay, whether the work you performed helped your clients and what social, political, racial or economic dynamics impacted your work within the law.
  • A law degree prepares you best for one thing – practicing law. Following the Great Recession of 2007-2009, the conventional wisdom that a J.D. is a useful advanced liberal arts degree no longer holds.
  • While it is true that many successful businesspeople and government officials hold law degrees, their paths to those roles usually are not linear and they have often spent some time practicing law. In fact, you may have broad ranging career ambitions and feel unsure of what your future holds in 10 or 20 years.
  • However, for the purposes of your personal statement, clearly communicate why you want to be a lawyer and identify at least one or two areas of the law in which you are interested.

What should you do to create a stellar personal statement?

In order to avoid falling into three personal statement traps, organization, planning and authenticity are key. Start by asking yourself some key questions and reflect on the answers honestly. For example:

  • Why do I want to be a lawyer?
  • What are my academic or intellectual interests?
  • What experiences have I had professionally or personally that have prepared me for law school and the practice of law?
  • How will I contribute to the diversity of student life on a law school campus?

Write down the answers to these questions. Then, organize them into an outline. Hone and revise the outline so that it hangs together structurally and is organized around a common theme.

  • Start to fill in the outline with details – specific anecdotes, stories and quotes that build upon your theme with clear examples from your life.
  • Review and revise your essay until you feel like it is the strongest and most authentic reflection of yourself.
  • Then cut, cut, cut! Be ruthless and don’t fall in love with your own words.
  • If something doesn’t ring true to you, AdComs will have the same reaction. Every sentence should implicitly support your theme and advance your candidacy as a law student.
  • Finally, ask friends, family and mentors to review your essay and offer you feedback on it.

If you follow the steps outlined above, your personal statement will be unique reflection of your personality and will clearly demonstrate why you would make an excellent addition to the incoming class of law students at your top choice school.

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