The What and Why of Personal Statements

Numbers speak, but they always say the same thing. A 180 is a 180; a 150 is a 150. Admissions officers differentiate candidates with similar scores largely by looking at their personal statements.

But what is a personal statement? Is it a personal narrative? Is it a statement of purpose?

Yes. And yes.

You want to tell the admissions committee more about yourself both as a person and as a future lawyer. Write a story about why you're applying, or explain how an important experience taught you something that will help you succeed.

It’s okay if you don’t have a story that could be adapted into an inspirational movie. Anyone who’s lived a day has enough material to write an interesting personal statement. You’re the only one in the world qualified to write yours.

What’s the Goal of my Personal Statement?

Imagine an admissions officer who has to choose between two candidates with equal numbers. The first writes an essay about how her trip to Juarez ignited her burning passion for social justice. The second writes about why he likes to milk goats on his parents’ dairy farm.

Is the second candidate out of the running?

Not at all. Applicants who claim a moral prerogative are a dime a dozen. Applicants who demonstrate their unique way of seeing the world are rare, and the ability to do so is a virtue in itself. It’s easy to make an extraordinary experience seem mundane, but difficult to make a mundane experience seem extraordinary.

The goal of your personal statement is to put forth the most interesting version of who you are, not the most heroic. Although it’s nice if you can demonstrate your selflessness, leadership, or perseverance, it’s even more important to demonstrate your sincerity, thoughtfulness, and particularity.

To understand why, think about an admissions officer’s job. She has to assemble a class of people who are similar in one way—that they are likely to succeed—and diverse in every other way. She has to predict the prospects of each candidate with a very limited set of information, and she has to do it quickly. In other words, she has to thin-slice. The only way she can get through the piles of applications in her office is to glance at the numbers, scan the résumé, and spend a few minutes at most on each essay.

She has a couple tools to help her evaluate personal statements: a highly developed bullshit detector and a mental catalogue of great essays. She also, probably, has a rapidly diminishing store of patience. It won’t be easy to impress her with your resilience or commitment to social justice. She’ll have encountered candidates who overcame bigger challenges and demonstrated bigger commitments to public service. Luckily, she will not have encountered anyone else trying to be you.

If you can produce a compelling and distinctive demonstration of your resilience, compassion, or commitment to public service, go for it. If you have superb reasons for going to law school, state them. But no matter what, you should strive to give the admissions committee a rapid, crystalline, genuine sample of your you-ness.

Admissions officers want a class that’s diverse not just in terms of race, ethnicity, region, and sexual orientation, but also in terms of background, interests, personality, and perspective. Whether you’re writing about dairying or damaged North American nations, you want your reader to look up and say, “I don’t think we have anyone quite like that. I’ll bet this mature, self-aware person will make the community more vibrant. And by the way, she’s a really good writer.”

To review, you sometimes want to…

  • demonstrate your leadership, commitment to public service, etc.
  • explain why you want to be a lawyer.
  • explain why you want to go this law school in particular. (More on this later).

You always want to…

  • make your application sticky and distinctive.
  • demonstrate your good judgment, maturity, and self-awareness.
  • show that you can write well.

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