Your (gulp!) Personal Statement

It’s post-Labor Day, and you know it’s time to get your head in the law admissions game.  Your fingers are on the keyboard.  Should you take the advice of your  [ __  pre-law advisor,  __  mom,  __  roommate,     __  old flame who’s in law school,  __  uncle who thought about a law career]  and write about  [ __  the deplorable state of the justice system,  __  your infatuation with all things Washington and Lee,       __  your critique of our third year curriculum,  __  your mock trial triumph] ? 

Here’s our take on what makes a great personal statement:

At Washington and Lee, our mission is to craft as lively a classroom conversation as we possibly can.  With only about 130 seats, this can be quite a challenge.  The personal statement is your opportunity to give us a sense of who you are beyond what we can glean from the rest of the paper we’ve required of you.  The best use of that opportunity?  Tell us something about yourself that we won’t discover otherwise.  As a starting point, we recommend you imagine that our admissions committee has one seat available, and is considering your file and one other, both with the same numerical qualifications.  Your personal statement will be read aloud.  What do you want us to know about you before we make a choice?  What makes you who you are? 

We know this is still a daunting prospect, so here are a few concrete guidelines:

We read thousands of files, so you should strive for your personal statement to be memorable… within limits.  Accordingly, if you summarize your resume, you’ve wasted the opportunity.  On the other hand, iambic pentameter, baked goods, photo albums or the necessity of a decoder ring are not the sorts of “memorable” we’re after.  (You think we’re joking, don’t you?  We’re not.)

While the topic of your statement should actually be personal, it should stop short of triggering a “TMI” response.  For most, this will rule out your assessment of the state of any particular aspect of the law, on one hand, and anything overly intimate on the other.  In the world of personal statements, unique is good… unless it’s very, very bad.  If you’d feel queasy asking an acquaintance or potential employer to review your statement, we suggest you redraft.

Every year we receive numerous well-written personal statements that highlight the aspects of W&L Law the writer finds attractive.  This sort of statement almost never hurts an applicant, but hardly ever helps as much as a personal statement can.  Your discussion of an aspect of the educational experience available here, no matter how eloquent, is not likely to stick with us very long.  We know about us; tell us about you.

Don’t discuss your LSAT score or your grades in your personal statement.  We accept any number of explanatory attachments to your application, and recommend you deal with these issues in a separate submission.  There’s more to you than your numbers, after all!

Write it yourself.  We know there are writing services and even fill-in-the-blank forms – every year applicants taking advantage of these tools find themselves defending allegations of misconduct before the LSAC.  We can assure you:  it’s not worth it.  We also know there are plenty of people whose thoughts you value, and we’re occasionally treated to the details of an applicant’s editing process in a “show changes” version of their personal statement.  By all means, consult with people you think are knowledgeable, consider their comments as you draft and redraft.  But before you submit your essay, pause for a day or two.  Read it again.  If it isn’t your voice you hear when you read it, start over.  You’re embarking on a career where your ability to write persuasively will be your stock in trade.  Consider this your first assignment.

Proofread.  You’ll have read this thing innumerable times, so get someone you trust to read it too – preferably someone who knows the difference between its and it’s, and other common errors that spellcheck won’t cure.  We’re lawyers, and we can spot typos in our sleep – we just can’t help it!  We’re also amused by the many errors and absurdities that mail merge can yield.  These sorts of mistakes are unlikely to be serious enough to get you rejected out of hand (we’re human too!), but they most definitely alter the impact of your personal statement.

Follow the rules.  We provide guidelines on length and font size on our application.  Ignore them and you run the risk of offending tired eyes, and worse, setting the bar for your statement higher than that applied to those who abide by the rules.  It’s never in your best interest for your actions to imply that your file is worth twice the review time as every other.  (Consider the necessary editing process to be good practice for your chosen profession:  courts all over the nation prescribe typeface, font size, margins and filing length; non-conforming filings are summarily rejected by the court clerk.)

We’re willing to take your application as sufficient evidence of your interest in studying law, so you needn’t try to convince us of the sincerity of your ambition.  Remember, we’re trying to get an idea of the voice you might bring to campus.  While you’ll do a lot of talking about law here, of course, we’re after a sense of what might inform your contribution to the conversation.   So tell us about your losing season, your musical aspirations, that pivotal vacation experience, the single most important piece of advice you’ve ever received, your troubled (or wonderful) relationship with your sibling, why you volunteered… you get the idea.  Those are the things that bring manila folders to life.

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