Make Your Personal Statement Personal

It’s that time of the year when people are applying to law schools.  Because I’ve gone through the application process myself, I’ve been asked to review personal statements over the years.  Based on that (and  the opportunity to review some applications in law school), I’ve developed certain views on what makes a good personal statement, not just for law school applications but for applications in general.

In a way, the personal statement is the most important part of the application.  Yes, the score on the standardized test, your transcript and letters of recommendation are crucial components, but there is very little you can do with them, albeit with two exceptions.

First, I urge you to confirm with the professor who is writing your recommendation that s/he will actually recommend you.  It could be an awkward moment when you pose the question, but the damage done by a non-recommendation is catastrophic.  I heard the same advice at a forum of deans of admissions and thought it was a joke. Then I read a letter in which the professor accused the student of cheating on the final exam.  Such letter is fatal, regardless of the quality of the remaining aspects of the application.

Second, pick a professor based, not on grades, but on your personal relationship with him/her.  The best letter of recommendation I ever read was from a professor who consistently gave the student a B but wrote glowingly about the student’s attitude and the work of the student as his/her research assistant.

Similarly, I think the most important aspect of the personal statement is to place the emphasis on the “personal.”  It is the one chance you (rather than a third-party, like a professor) have to make the application about the person, beyond the numbers and list of accomplishments.  In that regard, doing a run-down of your academic achievements and work experience is a terrible idea.  That’s what a resumé is for.  If you discuss more than one course work or one work experience in your personal statement, it’s probably too many.  Just pick one, if you feel the need, and elaborate.

To make the statement personal, I always urge people to tell a story, which makes the essay both memorable and entertaining.  The story doesn’t have to be long–actually, it can’t–but it should capture an event in your life (not life of others) that a reader can’t easily glean from the resumé.  Of course, not all of us grew up with no food on the table, working three jobs to support the family and walking an hour to school, uphill both ways, because the bus was too expensive.  But everyone’s life is unique and there’s always a good story or two to tell about what makes you different.

Telling the story is the easy part; the challenge is to make the story mean something, and that’s what I call a theme.  The theme gives an overall purpose to the personal statement; it is a common bond that ties together everything you say.

I have mixed feelings about whether the theme should answer the question, “why are you applying?”  On the one hand, it’s not easy to make a genuine connection between a personal story and the reason why you want to attend law school (or college or medical school or whatever you are applying for).  It’s essential that you come off as genuine if the essay is to read personal, but not too many of us experience the moment of eureka when you said, “My god, I now need to go to law school.”

On the other hand, you are writing the personal statement for a specific purpose of getting accepted into a school.  Most schools understandably require you to explain why you want to attend their school in the personal statement.  Even if it doesn’t, the personal statement would probably read a little off if it doesn’t mention the topic.  The problem here is that the reason most people give for “why law school?” doesn’t correlate well with what law school really does. The most common example of this is people who say they are applying to law school because they were interested in politics in college.  If they’re interested in pursing their political interest, they should be applying to Georgetown’s Public Policy Institute for a degree in Master’s in Public Policy, not law school to become a lawyer.  It’s a Catch-22:  you’re writing an essay about why you want to go to law school, but you don’t know what law school does because you haven’t attended it.

I have no good advice on what the theme should be or how you should develop it, except that you should spend more time thinking about it than writing about it.  The writing should come easily if you develop a strong theme because the theme is the most difficult part.

Once you establish a theme, everything in the personal statement should relate to the theme, including your story and academic achievement or work experience you choose to highlight.  It is crucial to keep your essay focused and concise.  You don’t have the space to digress and you can’t afford to lose the attention of the admissions officer.

As for the actual writing, I think you should strive to write a statement that is grammatically correct but will be a good read.  That it needs to show mastery of the English language is an obvious point.  For this, I think you should  ask a third person to thoroughly review the essay because the tendency is always to gloss over your own mistakes.  Read the first and last paragraphs thrice because any mistakes there make them even more glaring.  As my high school teacher advised, if you’re going to make a mistake–and one hopes you will not–bury them in the middle.

The statement, though, probably shouldn’t read too polished because you don’t want to lose the personal feel.  By this I mean that some rules of “good writing” can be ignored if the essay reads better.  Nor would I scrub the statement to make the writing more sophisticated.  Hence, I don’t think occasionally starting a sentence with an “And” or a “But” is inadvisable and I wouldn’t rely on a thesaurus to show off the vocabulary.  Remember, your audience is an admissions officer who has to read hundreds of these essays.  Your goal should be to convey a message in a quick, captivating manner.

It’s of course easy for me to say how I think you should write your personal statement.  I know how difficult a task can be because my personal statement did none of the things I urge above, part of how my application process was nearly an unmitigated disaster.  My personal statement discussed  how we should reform the American educational system.  The statement was highly polished and so impersonal it did very little to convey who I was.  I would have been wise to take the advice of a reader who commented that the personal statement read like a campaign speech.

Regardless of whether you take my advice, you should spend a significant amount of time thinking about and perfecting your personal statement because it is well worth the effort.  If you have weaknesses in other parts of your application, it can offset them.  If your application is on the border line, a memorable statement can get you through the finish line.  It is the one shot–the only shot– that you have to say who you are.  Don’t waste it.


2 Responses to “Make Your Personal Statement Personal”

  1. 1 Konstantin Kuznetsoff September 20, 2011 at 1:04 pm

    good post. do you mind if I post it on the web site dedicated to education in U.S?

    • 2 joesas September 21, 2011 at 5:40 am

      Thanks, Konstantin! You were indeed the inspiration. Thanks for reading, hope you continue to and good luck on your application!

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