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App Happy: The Personal Statement

Que the Sports Center theme music.  This critical portion of the application often draws looks of panic from applicants and many ambiguous answers from admissions departments. The Personal Statement should seemingly be simple. Who has a better understanding of who you are and why law school is right for you right now than you? Unfortunately, it often does not feel this way.

What It’s Not: A personal statement is not a statement of purpose. A statement of purpose, typically used for graduate school admission, provides a summary of your experience in the context of your professional aspirations. It essentially sums up where you’ve been, where you are now, and how this program will get you to your next step. The Personal Statement, however, is far more narrowly focused. Rather than a summary of your experience, it is typically an insight into one single experience or one characteristic that you want to highlight.

What It Looks Like: Schools often list their requirements in both the application instructions and in the portion of the LSAC site in which you upload the Personal Statement. While page limits vary, the standard is a two-page Personal Statement in 12 point Times New Roman font, double-spaced. Be sure to add your name and LSAC number in the Header so that your statement is rightfully attributed, and follow guidelines the school presents.

The Content: The Personal Statement is often described in pairs of antonyms. It is your space to be authentic yet concise, confident yet humble, purposeful yet abstract. It is no wonder many applicants struggle with this portion of the application. 

To develop a clear personal statement (that will fit in the space allotted), it is often recommended to focus on a single characteristic, life event, or topic. I suggest considering what areas you will feel most confident, and thus comfortable, writing about. Please do not think that because you’re _____  you have to write about ______. For instance, because I’m a woman, I have to write about sexism. There are additional places to self-identify your diversity, background, and challenges (namely the diversity statement and addenda), but your personal statement does not have to be one of them.

That being said, if you’re most confident writing about your perspective as a nontraditional student, or your former position as a chef, or your political lean, then, by all means, do so. Just, be authentic and keep the focus on you, not relying exclusively on the ideals of others or research to overpower your voice. 

If you’re stuck: If you have 10 minutes, a piece of paper and a pen take some time to draw an Identity Tree. Think about your roots (family, friends, the place(s) you grew up, formative childhood experiences). Next, sketch out your trunk. What three values do you hold most dear? What qualities do you admire about yourself? Consider your branches. What are new possibilities that you’re growing into? What do you want to learn about? What additional responsibilities do you have?  If you're really having trouble, talk it out with someone who knows you well. Ask them, what am I always arguing about? What stands out to you about me? What do you think I value most? 

When you go to actually start writing, remember that you don't need an attention-grabbing lead right away. Often, admissions counselors note that they don't need the Danielle Steel novel drama ("it was a dark and stormy night" or "at five years old I knew that I wanted to be a lawyer forevermore"). Remember that your first sentence may have yet to reveal itself or be buried deeper in your writing. Focus on getting what you want to say down on paper and the structure will often organize or reformulate itself. 

Review: Leave plenty of time to edit and revise your drafts. Choose outsiders to read it that can tackle different components, such as content and grammar. One person may be able to provide perspective in an area that others can't. Choose people that will be supportive and provide constructive criticism, not those that will diminish your confidence or be competitive. Read your statement from the end to the beginning (one paragraph at a time) to ensure that it flows. You may even consider a service like CLEO's ASAP, which provides review services by CLEO's legal trained staff for a reasonable fee. 

Finally, there’s a lot of great information available online. Here are some of my favorite Ms. JD perspectives:

What are some personal statement tips and tricks that have helped you? 

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Tatum Wheeler is a fellow law aspirant based in the San Francisco Bay Area. When she’s not working, she spends her free time exploring new trails with her dogs, reading narratives, and cheering on her favorite sports teams, the Cal Bears, Oakland Athletics, and Pittsburgh Steelers. Please feel free to contact her with any questions, comments, or further advice.

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