The Personal Statement…The Revenge?

In my experience, no two words engender more hand-wringing among law school applicants than “personal statement.” And, as a once and former law school applicant, not to mention someone who regularly counsels prospective students on this very task, I feel your pain. For me, drafting my personal statement was an experience roughly equivalent to a shallow water shark attack: all desperate flailing and flash panic. However, remain calm. All is well. You are not alone. We are here with you.

What about that word “personal?” Not to get all Dr. Faye Miller here (lest this turn into a market test for Pond’s Cold Cream), but is there any less desirable task than discussing yourself in 750 words or less ? Perhaps discussing yourself in 1000 words or more? Having to read your personal statement aloud in front of an admissions committee before the mandatory talent segment of a law school’s application? See, it could be worse. There is at least no compulsory baton twirling or falconry involved. Yet.

Furthermore, if given two to three pages of double-spaced text in which to discuss your true self and your interest in, preparedness for or, say, longtime dream of attending, law school (please note: these are only examples of topics about which applicants often write), what might you say? How might you say it? Better yet, how shouldn’t you say it? So many questions. So little time.

Combine this internal maelstrom of intermittent self-doubt and woeful insecurity with the veritable quagmire of zen-like, often conflicting, mostly vague, and largely unhelpful opinion as to just how one should approach this admittedly nebulous task, and you have a formula for paralysis. It’s a rather strange situation. Somewhat akin to having 256 channels and being unable to find anything you want to watch on TV. A million different ideas as to how you could write your personal statement, but a true dearth of definitive ideas as to how you should write your personal statement. What’s an applicant to do?

In this post, I hope to provide some clear-er advice as to what makes a successful personal statement at our law school. More importantly, perhaps, I hope to provide you with some general rules you can use as you craft your personal statements for the other schools to which you’re applying. Obviously, each school is going to have its own preferences as to subject matter or format, but there are certain axiomatic principles you would be well served to observe as you embark upon this task.

First and foremost, before you even set cursor to document, please remember this: It is entirely possible to write an exceptional personal statement even if you have not previously lived an exceptional life. Too often applicants feel a certain anxiety because their lives have heretofore been of a largely pedestrian stripe. If this is the case, do not worry. If experience is any guide, you are among the overwhelming majority of candidates applying to law school.

Furthermore, I often get the question, “What’s the best personal statement you’ve ever read.” Admittedly, I have a hard time remembering this sort of thing. I find this task more challenging than remembering my first birthday party. Maybe it’s the ravages of age. Maybe it’s the collective mental toll of one too many Jersey Shore marathons. Either way, when it comes to my greatest hits of personal statements, I invariably draw a blank.

This is largely a product of volume. We read thousands of files. Most personal statements are effective, well-written, thoughtful pieces of personal prose. The personal statements I tend to remember (or can’t help but remember, or can’t seem to forget, as the case may be) are those that are exceptionally, for lack of a better word, bad. So, with that said, let the harsh lessons of your transgressive forebears be your guide to the proper narrative footpath. Tread lightly:

Let’s begin with the low-hanging fruit: Proofread. Do not trust your law school future to the slings and arrows of spell and grammar check. In this technologic age, it may be hard to believe, but computers lie and Bill Gates will fail you. Furthermore, familiarity casts a certain glaze over the authorial eye. You’ll have read your personal statement innumerable times, so get someone you trust to read it too – preferably someone who knows the difference between its and it’s, to and too, there and their (as you can tell, homophones often prove problematic) and other common errors that spellcheck won’t cure.  These sorts of mistakes are unlikely to be serious enough to get you rejected out of hand, but they most definitely alter the impact of your personal statement.

You are applying to law school. We assume you are interested in studying the law. Consequently, please do not devote these pages to a discussion of the shifting landscape of constitutional law in the post-Rehnquist era, or your feelings about the state of the law, or a particular area of the law, to name a few such topics. A personal statement of this ilk is truly a wasted opportunity. We want to know about you, and such discussions too often prove more obfuscatory than illuminating. You’ll certainly do plenty of talking about the law during your time Washington and Lee. We want to know what might inform your contribution to the conversation.

Please do not restate your resume or discuss your LSAT score. As my mom always said, “There is a time and a place for most things,” and the precious real estate of your personal statement is neither the time nor the place for such discussions.

If your personal statement requires the services of a printing press before being fully fit for delivery to a law school admissions committee, it is too long. Every year, we receive several personal statements exceeding fifty pages in length (this is not a joke). Moreover (and more seriously), if your personal statement is over two to three pages long, pare it down. When applying to law school, it’s a great idea to follow the rules. After all, you are asking to join a rule-driven profession in which you will be asked to uphold and enforce various rules (some which may seem rather trivial to the casual observer) on a daily basis. Start cultivating these habits now.

For example, consider our personal statement instructions (these can be found on our application):

“Your statement should be no longer than three (3) pages of double-spaced, Times New Roman 12 point text. We regularly receive outstanding personal statements that fill only a single page; a lengthy statement is not required.”

In fairness to all our applicants, we only have so much time to devote to each file. Please be mindful of these temporal limitations when compiling your application. While other schools may not shackle your authorial esprit with such an express limit, two to three pages is actually a good length to keep in mind as you sharpen any personal statement. Trust me. The admissions officers at the law schools to which you apply will thank you. Tired eyes appreciate nothing more than a crisp, clean and measured personal statement.

While how you choose to craft your personal statement can often say as much about you as the subject of the statement itself, your personal statement should not be your first foray into creative writing. It should not even be your ninth or tenth. If you are currently planning a Joyce-ian encapsulation of a formative event in your life replete with shifting perspectives, fragments of blank verse, rich metaphorical symbolism and veiled mythological references, please, please reconsider. Even with applicants who have creative writing backgrounds, this type of essay often proves less successful than its lofty aspirations might, at first blush, suggest. More often than not, such literary ambition obscures the real subject of the statement itself (and that in which we’re really most interested): You.

While the topic of your statement should be personal (i.e. you), it should stop short of making a reviewer uncomfortable. This is why it is exceedingly important other people (and by “other people,” I mean “a lot of other people”) of varying ages and perspectives review your drafts. At every school to which you apply, your application will most likely read by a bunch of very different people. All of these people will have different sensibilities and sensitivities with regard to certain subject matters and narrative choices. Assume every admissions committee has a very low “squirm threshold.” Your personal statement should make an admissions officer feel absolutely confident about your potential for success at his/her law school, not worry for your sanity, personal health, physical safety and/or welfare.

And now we come to the moment where this blog entry goes rogue. As a prefatory remark, I am well aware of the somewhat controversial nature of the following point. However, despite its rebellious nature, I believe it is advice worth heeding. Specifically, do not include a school-specific tag in your personal statement.

Every year we receive numerous well-written personal statements highlighting 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.

Furthermore, without fail, each and every admissions cycle (and this brings us to the mathematical portion of the blog – Brace yourself. I’m an English major) we (let’s call us, “School A”) receive a number of personal statements in which the candidate in question expresses his/her long-held, unmitigated and deeply passionate desire to attend “School B.” As you may have noted, in this particular admissions equation, School A does not equal School B, and, therefore, by the transitive property, while it is good to know said applicant has always wanted to attend “School B,” it hardly makes us (“School A”) feel better about his/her interest in our law school (not to mention attention to detail).

This is the risk you run when you include a school-specific tag in your personal statement. The potential for error is considerable and there is little advantage to be gained from such a reference. There are many schools with ampersands and/or “Washington” in their names. Treacherous waters for the inattentive applicant to be sure. Don’t be another statistic.

And lastly, write your personal statement yourself. We know there are writing services and even fill-in-the-blank forms, however, we can assure you:  it’s not worth it. This is hardly the way to begin your legal career, and the annals of LSAC misconduct hearings past are rife with the sad tales of regretful applicants who charted this same misguided course. As previously noted, 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.

Good luck and happy writing!

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