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Students Survival Guide to the Law School Personal Statement

Victoria Glover
Learning Artifact ENGL388V
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What is the Personal Statement?

So youve decided to apply to law school. Congratulations! Now it is time to start


putting together your application.

List of schools? Check.


LSAT? Check.
Letters of Recommendation? Check.
Resume? Check.

That leaves the personal statement. This is the most important thing to understand
about your personal statement: it is one piece of your entire application. But it is an
important piece. Just like any other piece of your application packet, it tells the
admissions committee something about you as an applicant. It gives a snipped of not only
your writing style, but your mastery of the art. It is your chance to tell them your story,
what drives you, where your passions are; something they would not find anywhere else
in your application packet. It is your opportunity to show the admissions committee who
you are.

You want to make the admissions board read your essay and say, I would want
this person to sit next to me in our classes the next three years. You want them to walk
away with a clear picture of what you are like in the flesh. Law schools dont usually do
interviews, so in reality, this is it. This is why your personal statement is so important. It
is not a statistical number or a list of your professional experiences. It is your testimony
of yourself and a snapshot of your writing prowess. So how do you go about it?

The Prompt

The very first thing you should do is look at the prompt for the schools you are
planning to apply to, and make sure you answer it. Generally, you should not be
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submitting the exact same essay to every school you are applying to. Rather, you should
be addressing the specific things each prompt asks for.

Some prompts are more vague while others are more specific. Usually, the prompt
is not a question, but rather a statement. Occasionally a school will ask you why you want
to go there. Make sure to research the school and answer this question explicitly in your
essay.
If you are unsure about the prompt, or you want more insight, you can always call
the office of admissions. The individuals in these offices are very busy (especially if you
are calling while applications are rolling in), so make sure you have specific questions to
ask.
The main thing to remember is your audience is the admissions committee, and
you want to show them respect (especially when they are the ones giving the thumbs up
or down for your admission to the school). It shows disrespect and/or carelessness when
you do not read and correctly respond to the prompt, so make sure to research and read
each prompt carefully!

How Do I Know What to Write About?

You want your personal statement to be unique. While some choose to use a
unique format or style, your personal statement is usually something about you that is
unique. Some people have very unique stories, but most of the world does not. If you are
one of the few, then write on! If not, you might feel stuck on what to write on. So how do
you find something unique to write about? This is where some deep introspection
comes into play.

Think about what your passions are. Think about what drives you, what gets
under your skin, what makes your life worth living. And write about it. One suggestion is
to do a free write; dont think too much, just let your thoughts wander and write it all out.
When you are done, you can go back through and pick out some things you want to
convey to the schools you are applying to.

Just a warning, some people write about experiences with racism, divorce, sexual
assault, the death of a loved one or other occurrences because they believe it is what
makes them unique. However, a lot of other people (maybe not the majority of people,
but a good amount) have experienced similar things. So make sure if you do choose to
write about these things, write about how they affected or changed you, not just the story
itself. This makes your essay unique because it is about you, not just an event.
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Some prompts give you a specific word count, while others say there is no word
limit or just dont even mention it. If the prompt has a word count, do not go above it.
Just dont do it. The admissions committee has a word count for a reason. Ignoring this
would be ignoring your prompt, which is disrespectful to your audience. If there is no
word count, this does not mean you dont have to worry about wordiness. You should still
aim to be as concise as possible.

Generally speaking, admissions committees would rather see you talk about a
very specific instance or topic rather than a long story or broad theme. This is partially
because of how short your essay is, but it will also make for a more interesting and
insightful reading. Make sure you get deep with what you decide to write about.

What you dont want to write about is something the committee can find
elsewhere in your application. That would be redundant. The most common mistake is
people write about something in their resume, such as a job, club or study abroad
experience. The admissions committee will already see this, so you dont want to tell
them about that legal internship you had one summer for a second time. If there was a
specific instance during your internship or other experience on your resume that really
impacted you, this could be a good topic as long as you elaborated about how it affected
you.

Also, you want to make sure your personal statement does not become a clich or
really contain any clich phrases. Again, this is an essay about you (and it is supposed to
be unique). They dont care about clichs, and it is most likely not something they will
want to read. So just stay away from those.

Remember, always make sure you are answering the prompt for the school you
are submitting your essay to. If the school asks why you want to go there, dont just
imply it. Be explicit and specific. This may also help you determine what you want that
schools personal statement to be about (which is why we suggest reading it first).

Organizing Your Essay

After you have a general idea about what you want to write, start to think about
the specific message you want to convey to the admissions committee. Many people find
the personal statement difficult because they are not used to writing narratives or creating
a piece about themselves. Rather, they usually write academic essays structured with a
thesis and supporting points.
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Although it may not seem like it, your personal statement is not that different:
there is still a sort of thesis and you still need to support it with details. In this sense,
your thesis is the main point you want your readers to take away. Pretend the person
reading your essay doesnt know you. After reading it, they run into someone who also
doesn't know you, and they need to describe you in one sentence based on what they just
read. This needs to be your takeaway, and this is what your thesis is. It may not come
until the end, but your essay should have one specific message you want to convey to the
admissions committee.

The rest of your essay acts as your support. This can come in the form of a
specific story. If you do want to tell a story about yourself, make sure the actual story-
telling only takes about half a page (double spaced). The rest of the statement should be
what you learned from this experience or how it changed your life from that point on.
What you dont want is to just tell them a story; you want to tell them about how you are
now as a result.

One of the best ways to begin organizing and writing is to make a flowchart or
idea map. This will help make sure your ideas connect and are in an appropriate order.
Again, you need to make sure everything you put in your essay supports and ties back to
your main theme or takeaway. Dont imply things; you want to be explicit with how it
relates. Anything that doesnt directly connect to your main takeaway should not be in
your essay.

The Beginning and the End

After you have your main idea and started organizing your personal statement,
you need to consider how you want to begin and end the essay. These are two of the most
important parts of your essay. Think of it this way: admissions counselors read thousands
of personal statements each year. While the content of your statement obviously matters,
the beginning and ending could be the difference between an admission committee
continuing to read and remembering you and putting it down and forgetting.
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The beginning is, like any other piece, your hook, or your lede as journalists
call it. You are fighting for your audiences attention, and this is your first opportunity to
make an impression. Admissions counselors are not obligated to read your essay; if it
does not grab their attention and interest, they could put it down and move on. This is
why it is so important to make a statement quickly and effectively.

One of the best ways it to make sure your opening paragraph is no more than two
short sentences. If your first paragraph takes up the first half of the page, you will have
buried your lede (and probably exasperated your reader with the sight of it). This also
gives them enough information that they may have an idea whats coming, but they have
to keep reading to find out more. Remember, you need to grab their attention, and do it
fast.
Do not start your essay with a quotation or a song lyric. Again, this does not tell
your reader anything about you, and it is also a clich. Thats two faux pas in one! Make
sure your opening gives them a snippet about you and makes the audience want to keep
reading.

The ending is the last thing they will read, so it needs to be just as good, if not
better. These are the words that will ring in their ears after they put down your essay. Like
any other essay, you do not want to introduce new ideas in your final thoughts, and like
the beginning, the best endings are usually short and to the point. Unfortunately, this is
where many students tend put in clichs. While the ending may be the most difficult to
write, it is one of the most important parts, so make sure you think long and hard about
what thoughts you want to leave your readers with.

While a prompt may ask you why you want to go to that particular law school, do
not end your essay with, And this is why I want to attend ____. If they do ask you,
make sure you address that in your essay with specific reasons (which will require you to
do some research). Regardless, your ending should be the lasting impression you want to
make on your reader, so more than not it should be about you.
Drafting and Editing

Writing is a process, one many people often underestimate the amount of time
needed to complete. Some people spend almost a year drafting and editing their law
school personal statements. Although this may not be the case for everyone, this is not
something you want to be throwing together at the last minute. Make sure to allot and
spend an adequate amount of time editing your personal statement; it will pay off. Here
are some tips for the drafting and editing process:

Take breaks from your writing. Similarly to a free write, the first time you sit down and
write out your personal statement you may just want to get it all out on paper. More
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likely than not, the first thing you write should look nothing like what you actually
submit to your schools of choice. It is difficult to sit down and write an entire essay, so
try doing it in stages. Take a break of at least a day between writing and re-reading what
you have done. You will come back to it with fresh eyes and maybe some new ideas.
Also, some ideas just hit you, so keep notes in a notebook or on your phone between
working on your essay.

You are too close to your own writing. While you may write your essay alone, you
definitely should not edit it alone. You are too familiar with your own writing to catch
your own mistakes or recognize where ideas and sentences are awkward. You should
have at least three people edit your final work before you submit it. This does not mean
three people throughout the editing process, but rather three people looking at exactly
what you plan to submit. There are more details to come on why this is so important.

Make sure your ideas still flow. Sometimes, after writing,taking out, reorganizing and
rewording ideas they no longer flow. Similarly to how you make a flow chart before
writing your personal statement, it can be helpful to make one after you write it to make
sure your ideas still flow smoothly. It can be hard to see if your organization is sound
when it is in paragraph form, so zooming out and looking at just the bare-bone ideas may
help.

Put every word--and idea--on trial. Most personal statements are meant to be short. This
is for a couple of reasons. The first is practical: admissions committees must get through
thousands of essays, so they want to keep their reading to a minimum. The second is
admissions committees use the essays as a way to evaluate a candidates writing prowess.
One of the greatest skills a writer can have is the ability to say the most with the fewest
words. If you can convey a powerful and detailed message in a short essay, you have hit
the jackpot. So in order to make sure you are not wasting words, look at every single
word and eliminate those that are unnecessary. Make sure to do this with your ideas too.
Unless it is absolutely pertinent, cut it out. If you go through and tighten up your
language, this could result in you having left-over words for your word count, which
gives you more space to put in additional and important ideas in the place of wasteful
words.

Read your work out loud and backwards. One way to edit your own writing (before you
have others edit it, of course) is to read your work aloud. This may help you spot any
errors or typos, but it will also help you see where there is awkward phrasing. If it is
difficult for you to read out loud, it will be difficult for an admissions committee to read
through easily the first time. You dont want to make reading your essay difficult; rather,
it should read smoothly and naturally to make their lives easier. Reading your essay
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backwards will also help you spot any typos or errors because you are taking it out of the
context of your sentences.

Common Mistakes to Avoid

Typos and Errors. This seems self-explanatory, but it is one of the biggest faux pas you
can make. First off, it is disrespectful to your audience because it shows you did not take
the appropriate time or put in the appropriate energy on your essay. If you didnt care to
edit your work, why should the admissions committee care to read it? Second, it conveys
you are not a good writer. Other than getting to know you, admissions committees look at
your personal statement as a testament of your writing ability, which is so important in
law school. Errors and typos make it seem you are (perhaps) less of a competent writer
than you really are. If you are ever in doubt about a grammar question, make sure to look
it up or ask for help. One dean of admissions said in her 15 years as dean, she has only
admitted one person who had a typo in his personal statement. Those are not good odds,
so remember to have at least three people edit your final piece.

Passive Voice. This may be dj vu from your previous English teachers, but this is very
important, especially in your personal statement. Staying in active voice will definitely
cut down your word count. Think about it; if you say, The ball was thrown by him, that
is six words, as opposed to the four-word alternative, He threw the ball. Keeping your
writing in active voice will also make it more powerful. Lastly, it is important because it
assigns agency to an appropriate subject. For example, if you write, She was hit, there
are key pieces of information missing. Who hit her? It is much more powerful to say,
Her attacker hit her. Neglecting to include this information can not only be misleading,
but it also weakens your message, especially if you are telling a personal, emotional
story.

Legal jargon. Some people try to stick in legal jargon or terms they either read or learned
at an internship. They often think this will make them appear savvy, but in reality it
highly increases your chance of looking silly. Even if you know what a word or principle
means, you may not be using it correctly, and you risk looking not only like a try-hard but
also ignorant. So just stay away from those.

The word that and other filler words. This goes back to being concise, and this is a
great way to help stay below your word count (which is really important) or to just
tighten your language in general. Go through and eliminate the word that where
possible. You will be surprised to see how many times you use it. For example, if you say,
The trail that I used to run, you could easily remove that and you have eliminated
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one word. A case where the word that is necessary would be, The trail that begins at
the creek.

Being redundant. This happens more than you think. For example, actual fact, major
breakthrough, plan ahead, and still remains are all quotidian phrases that are
redundant. Redundancies waste words, so make sure you put every word and idea on
trial. If it is not necessary or you already said it (or something similar to it), get rid of it.

Clichs. Again, this is a waste of words. It does not tell your reader anything about you.
When editing your paper, go through each sentence and ask, Does this tell the
admissions council about me, or is it just a general claim or statement? If it is the latter,
get rid of it or adjust it to make it more personal.

Long paragraphs. Aesthetically, this is not pleasing. If an admissions committee member


picks up your essay after reading about five-dozen other essays and sees a large block of
text, he or she will probably not be overly excited to read it. You want to make it as easy
as possible for your reader to get through your essay, so short paragraphs will help keep it
fast-paced and easy to read.

Resources for You

For questions about grammar: https://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/section/1/

To see examples (and feedback): http://www.top-law-schools.com/personal-statement-


examples.html

To schedule a visit with UMDs Pre-Law Advisor: http://www.prelaw.umd.edu

There you have it. Just remember to be yourself, follow your gut, and you will probably
end up where you are supposed to be.
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Keep calm and write on!