The Personal Statement

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. 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.

Let me begin by encouraging you to think about your personal statement as an integrated part of your application. I realize this sounds strange, but too often, I find candidates think about their personal statement as some separate, almost isolated thing. At W&L Law, we take a holistic approach to file review, meaning, we will read your entire application. Consequently, you should think about your personal statement as part of this whole and contemplate what role it plays in the overall narrative you’re trying to convey to an admissions officer reviewing your materials.

Now, our personal statement instructions: “Your personal statement should give the Admissions Committee a sense of the person behind the objective credentials presented in your application and supporting documents and should not be a restatement of your résumé in narrative form. Your statement should be no longer than 3 pages of double-spaced, Times Roman 12-point text. We regularly receive outstanding personal statements that fill only a single page; a lengthy statement is not required.”

What to make of all this? Well, first and foremost, while some schools will ask you specifically to discuss your interest in their law school, we want to know about you. In other words, your personal statement should be just that: personal. Furthermore, your personal statement should not be overly long. If you are finding it hard to write your personal statement in two to three pages, you probably should consider a new topic, or at the very least, consider narrowing your current topic. But let’s get a little deeper…

What about that word “personal”? Let me begin by saying I find candidates often struggle to identify a topic because they are searching for something exceptional, some watershed moment in their life, and they invariably feel they have lived a fairly ordinary existence prior to applying law school. Please know, it is entirely possible to write an exceptional personal statement even if you have not previously lived an exceptional life. We are not necessarily asking to know more about the most transformative moment in your life. Rather, we want to know more about you. When you’re thinking about your personal statement, focus on experiences that were truly meaningful to you (even if they were not of the landmark variety). Don’t discount your volunteer experiences, your familial relationships, your time coaching a youth basketball team, that class in which you had to work really hard to earn a B, etc. After all, it is often the most ordinary subject that makes for the most extraordinary personal statement.

Give yourself plenty of time to write your personal statement. You have likely written a great many essays in your lifetime, but most (if not all) of these essays dealt with some abstract intellectual idea or, at the very least, someone or something other than yourself. I’ve found most applicants are often uncomfortable talking about themselves, and it takes a while for them to find their authorial voice. Get organized and make sure you give yourself a few extra weeks to work through these challenges.

Furthermore, don’t feel you have to connect your topic back to your interest in law school, or even that your topic has to relate to your interest in law school. 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 stripe 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.

Pick a narrow topic. Too often candidates choose a really broad topic, and their personal statement doesn’t tell us very much about who they are because they are breathlessly trying to catalog any number of loosely-connected life events. Pick one thing – a conversation, a single event, a particular moment in a relationship – and talk about it in detail. Remember: your personal statement does not have to tell us everything about you. Rather, it should reflect the most important aspect (or aspects) of who you are.

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. 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 rough 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 spell and grammar check. In this technological 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, 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.

Your personal statement is the place for you to highlight your strengths not to discuss perceived deficiencies in your law school application. Please do not discuss your LSAT score, undergraduate GPA, etc. in your personal statement. The more appropriate place for such discussions is a supplementary addendum. We have a fairly liberal addendum policy, and if you feel there is any aspect of your file we need to know more about, simply attach an addendum to your application.

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.

While our length requirement may seem onerous, it is born out of a genuine concern for fairness. 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 set 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 this approach. 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 truly personal 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), 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, 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.

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 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.

And lastly, remember: The goal of your personal statement should be to give us the sense that you are someone who will be successful both at our law school and in your future career as a lawyer. Any personal statement that leaves an admissions officer with this feeling is a successful personal statement. Any personal statement that falls short of this goal is, well, less than successful.

Good luck and happy writing!

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