Law School Personal Statement Tips

Posted by Ann Levine | August 13, 2008

One of my law school admission consulting clients sent me an email this morning with 5 key questions about law school personal statements. The questions were so good (and so common) that I wanted to share my responses with all of my pre-law readers. In addition to the points below, please read these posts from applicants about how I helped them use their personal statement to reach their law school admission goals.

1. What does a personal statement do? What does it add to the application? What is its function?

If someone with your numbers has a possibility of being admitted to a particular school, but not everyone with your numbers is admitted to that school, then the major deciding factor is the personal statement. It’s your chance to become more than a list of your accomplishments, more than your transcripts, more than your LSAT score. This is your chance to be personable, likable, impressive (without being arrogant) and to generally give the impression that you’d be a great asset to their school and alumni base. (Addition on 8/30/2012: It’s also a chance to demonstrate that you’ve thought about why you want to go to law school, and that it’s not a default decision.)

2. What to you makes a statement stand out? What are the components of a great personal statement?

There are certain things a law school wants to be assured of – maturity despite youth, commitment to the study of law despite lacking a specific career aspiration, ability to succeed in a rigorous environment, independent thinking skills, feeling a duty greater than simple self-interest. A good personal statement uses none of these phrases, but tells a story that convinces the reader to come to the conclusion(s) on his/her own.

A good personal statement is interesting to read, without needing to rely on shock value. It has a conversational rather than academic tone. It’s not there to show how many big words you know. Lawyers need to write like real people – clear sentences. Start now.

3. What made you groan when working in admissions? What were common mistakes people made?

I would groan, roll my eyes, and write sarcastic comments on personal statements hinting of the following:

  • Arrogance/Elitism.
  • “A voice for the voiceless” – The purported drive to serve others and to heal the world and be a public interest lawyer when there’s little community service in the person’s background to back it up.
  • Repeating a resume by listing every internship and position ever held. If you’re going to discuss something that is on your resume, do it to show a problem you solved, a learning experience you had, how it helped you determine your future career (good or bad).
  • Providing lots of conclusions with few facts to back them up. (For example, “My strong work ethic……” and then not really showing anything remarkable about your work ethic).
  • Not being specific enough – talking around issues (“I had a rough time but overcame obstacles” without giving details about the obstacles so that the reader can evaluate for him/herself whether the feat was impressive).

4. What, if any, subjects or themes should be avoided because they are cliche/common/inappropriate?

Some topics that have become trite and overused include the injured athlete story, the study abroad story, and a personal statement based on a current event from the headlines that did not personally impact you.

I think there is a misconception that personal statements must be about overcoming paralysis or poverty. You don’t have to apologize for having a privileged life – just show what experiences have led to your growth and to the decisions you have made.

I also think a lot of people remember their clever undergraduate essay about contemplating the lumps of peanut butter as they spread across the bread and think they should repeat that (please don’t – remember, we’re going for maturity here). Another test is that if everything you’ve written could’ve been something you wrote for your college applications (stories from childhood, etc.) then it’s not the right personal statement for law school.

Generally, I urge people to stay away from high school unless there’s a really good reason to talk about it. (Again, maturity).

I also urge people to stay away from anything that will make them appear to be high maintenance or complainers in general. Law school faculty and staff won’t want to touch you with a ten foot pole.

5. Is it better to think of the personal statement as telling a short story that has broader implications/ says things about me as a person, or should I think of it as a theme through which I can incorporate many components/stories etc.

Tell the right story for you and the theme will be apparent. You’re marketing yourself, not a theme.

[By the way, I'd like to note that the client who sent me this e-mail does not have to worry about any of these common mistakes and is not in danger of annoying any law school admission committee member. It just goes to show that the wrong people are always asking these questions, and the people who should be worried about making these grave errors usually fail to recognize these traits in themselves.]

8/30/12: Click this link for more tips on the blog and videos about writing a law school personal statement.

(****Note added to this blog post 4 years later: August 30, 2012:  the person who sent me these questions as my client is now a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania School of Law, where she was on the admission committee and a Writing Fellow, and she is currently employed with LawSchoolExpert as a proofreader/editor! To learn more about Rebecca, click here.)

 

Categories: Law School Personal Statements

85 Comments »


85 Responses to “Law School Personal Statement Tips”

  1. Anonymous says:

    Should a personal statement be double or single spaced? I am writing mine and am doing them as double spaced documents, but would like to know if this is correct.

  2. R. N. says:

    I am writing my personal statement and repeat my resume, but I do so because:

    1. My first job is very unique and has given me experience traveling around the world.

    2. My second job is at a law office. I feel this shows I know what type of work attorneys do.

    Neither of these are past jobs (past employment is only on my resume).

    Do you still think it is a bad idea to include these?

    Thank you for this blog. I am a dedicated reader!

  3. Ann K. Levine, Esq. says:

    Yes!

  4. Ann K. Levine, Esq. says:

    Ok – whoops – my last comment was for anonymous.

    For R.N., I would say the answer is “it depends” and I don’t know whether you’ve presented the material effectively without reading it. There are always exceptions to every rule! (And that’s what you’ll learn in law school – to say “It depends” and then decide what it depends upon!)

  5. Marshall says:

    Hi Mrs. Levine, I have a question that might sound silly. What is your recommendation as far as acronyms in one’s personal statement? For example, should I write out the name of the university as opposed to just using the traditional acronym (ie. George Mason as opposed to GMU)?

    Thank you for your time and this wonderful blog.

  6. Elizabeth says:

    I am considering spending a portion of my personal writing about my DUI. It was life changing experience that shifted me from self interest, pretention and carelessness to a mindest where personal responsibilty=civic responsibility, accepting consequenses and learning from mistakes. The experience was truly shaping, but is it crazy/stupid to talk about myself committing a crime? Please advise…

  7. Laura says:

    Would it be appropriate to included a devastating fact in my personal statement? An arson fire claimed the life of my husband and gave me severe burns to my person when we were 20 year old college students. This impacted my UGPA a great deal.
    For the next 7 years of my life, I experienced a civil trial and criminal trial and these experiences inspired me to study law. This whole experience is something that I have carried with me for over 10 years and has made me who I am today. I just do not want this to come across as being overly dramatic.

    Also, I am currently a paralegal. Should I comment about my experiences in my current position?

    • Ann Levine says:

      Laura,
      Almost anything can be a good topic or a bad topic – it’s all about presentation. But, yes, your experiences with this tragedy can be made into a great personal statement. Your experiences as a paralegal can probably be addressed on a resume and in your LORs, so only include it with the rest of the Personal Statement if it flows naturally – don’t try to “work” it in. I have a webinar coming up in June on personal statements (a 2-part webinar) that you might find helpful. There is also a lot of information on personal statements in my book.
      Good luck!

  8. Cienna says:

    I also have a topic I am not sure how to filter/censor– my mom has been pursuing an individual who committed a fraud/embezzlement to her criminally for last 2 years and due to her limitations in English (we are from a non-English speaking country) I have been directly involved in the long and painful legal pursuit, communicating/meeting with different types of lawyers (litigation, real estate, criminal). In the process of it, the individual took advantage of the notoriously strange libel law in my country and charged me with libel as a retribution to my mom, which is criminal there (I did put up a blog warning people to avoid his scam). All this mess (having to be on the phone daily or traveling every weekend combined with the mental distress– my mother fell weak and suicidal) definitely did interfere with my academic performances especially in a particular semester or two, and has prevented me from writing the oct 2010 LSAT because I couldn’t be issued a new passport from my country upon my misplacement of it, since my police reference wasn’t entirely in the clear– I am currently required to resume the currently withheld criminal investigation back in my country. However, once I prove my innocence (if the “libel” was done for the greater good, one is innocent), which I am 99.9% confident I will, the charge will be tossed.

    This was a life-changing, a wake up call sort of moment for me, where I had to completely grow out of my passive child state and face the realities of the limitations in law legislation and enforcement worldwide as an adult– especially regarding fuzzy moral standards such as freedom of speech. As an innocent victim who wanted to merely prevent additional victims, it was an enraging and disillusioning experience to go through this event, where I had to witness law being abused against its goal of serving justice and order. This experience has undeniably become the driving motivation for me to study law, and I feel reluctant to disclose the whole story despite its importance, for I may be presented as a criminal suspect– something Law Admissions people may not be too crazy about.

    • Ann Levine says:

      Cienna,
      I appreciate you sharing your story. I think the circumstances you present are unique and therefore not something I can respond to in the blog format. You can wait a year to apply, hoping things will be resolved and you will be better able to prepare for the LSAT. Whether you apply now or a year from now, I think you would benefit from the advice of an experienced admission consultant.

  9. Josh says:

    I have a short story (it would take about a paragraph) from 4th grade when I came up with an idea for a new “sport” to play with my friends…it ended up backfiring and I got hurt but I think the whole experience serves as a great metaphor for things like my drive/creativity/leadership (which I would explain with more mature examples from college in the rest of the essay) and is short enough to not take up a significant portion of the essay. Would this be ok? I feel like the comedic side of it and it’s relevance (I am also aiming at a career in sports law…) would be beneficial for them trying to understand who I am, but I don’t want to come off as “dwelling in the past” or being “too immature.” What do you think?

  10. Matt says:

    Hi Ann,

    Your blog is great, thanks for providing this resource. I am writing my PS about my father who was a district judge for many years. My angle is that I initially didn’t want to pursue law, partly because I wanted to be different from him. I finished undergrad 6 years ago and have been working full time in the business world since then. I’ve been successful in my career thus far, and my experience has led me to the decision to pursue a legal education now and to focus on business law. So I have taken my own path to law school, but my father’s influence was still big for me indirectly (his morals, dedication, etc.) and I am more like him than I thought. Do you think this is a strong enough topic? I also played around with the idea of writing about a big project at one of my previous jobs, but that did not seem personal enough. Any advice would be much appreciated.

    Also, I am thinking about purchasing a consulting package, how many hours would be enough to have you review/edit a personal statement draft?

    Thank you.

    • Ann Levine says:

      Hi Matt. Any topic can be done well and any topic can be done poorly. It’s all about execution. You can start with the minimum package and get some feedback and if you want to continue getting help with it you can always add time on to that. Feel free to contact us through the initial consultation free form and we’ll get right in touch with you about consulting.

  11. Rachel says:

    Hello. What should the format of the personal statement be? Do I need a heading? Is it OK to use smaller than 12pt font? Thank you.

  12. Peter says:

    Hi,

    I was on a dance team and I tore my bicep ligament and even though I was in a lot of pain, I decided to push through it and continue with the dancing. Would the “not giving up” theme work with my statement?

    Thank you

  13. Kendra says:

    Hi Ann,

    I experienced a tragic event at the age of three and it has always inspired me to work hard, to reach my goals and not to succumb to the “vicitm” personsa. I have always had a full time job since turning 16 and I graduated high-school a year early. My life hasn’t been hard and I haven’t traveled. I want to write about what happened to me when I was three and how it shaped my life and how it has led me to law school. How can I write my personal statment without playing on the emotions of the admissions counsel?

    Thank you.

  14. Gene says:

    Hi Ann,

    I’m a non-traditional student with 20 years experience it the IT industry. My purpose for trying to get into law school is to expand my skill set and change the focus of my career towards IT policy regarding privacy and security. Up to now my career has centered on design and operations of business IT systems.

    Should I try to pack 40+ years of life experience into a personal statement or should I just discuss my primary goal and how I see a law degree helping me get there?

    Regards,
    Gene

    • Ann Levine says:

      Hi Gene. Your personal statement isn’t an autobiography – it’s a chance to highlight the experiences that are most relevant to your decision to go to law school so I think highlighting why this makes perfect sense at this point in your career is probably a smart move.

  15. Racheal says:

    Hi Ann: I am just starting to work on my personal statement. I am a veteran and served in afghanistan. Is this something that should be included in my personal statement? I only ask because I am also a paralegal, but i saw in a previous post that you advised against work experience in your personal statement (as it will be in your resume). My military experience has definitely shaped the person I am today. Thanks.

    • Ann Levine says:

      Racheal, of course it is!!! Work experience can also be addressed – what I meant in the other post is you shouldn’t simply repeat job duties but instead tell a story that adds context.

  16. Diane says:

    Hi Ann: I am thinking of the best way to tell my story. When I was 18 years old, I became pregnant and had no support. This drastically changed my life and at one point I even considered dropping out of college. However, I stuck it out and struggled and my “mistake” became my blessing. My son motivated me to prove everyone who said I wouldn’t make it wrong. I took a semester off and still graduated on time. I maintained a 3.85 GPA for a whole year. Is this appropriate for a personal statement or should this be in another essay?This is something that has truly impacted my life and I don’t want to seem emotional or dwell on this situation but I think it’s important to show how I overcame this obstacle and how something that once put my life on hold was now pushing me forward in ways I never expected and relate it to my passion to attend law school evident in my resume (interning and community work). I just want to make it clear that despite this, I continue to excel and even though I thought about dropping out of school, I’m now pursuing goals I had before I had a baby which would be evident by my resume.

  17. Ryan says:

    Ann,

    A couple of years ago I spent a week in the hospital, some in the ICU, with meningitis, seeing the support of my family and friends when I was in that state, motivated me to work harder and pursue becoming a lawyer-which has led to my current paralegal position. Would it be a mistake to include this experience within my personal statement?

    • Ann Levine says:

      Ryan,
      I would want to make sure you weren’t trying to overblow something for “sympathy points” and instead be able to make a clear connection between that incident and your goals.

  18. Cameron says:

    Ann,

    First–thanks for all the help with this resource!

    For my PS, I am considering focusing on (long story short) a point during undergrad where I was studying a degree for the wrong reasons, and as a result floundered academically for my first two semesters. I realized I should be pursuing a major I am passionate about, found my strengths in that area and bounced back.

    I feel that it shows academic and professional growth (as I am now working in the field I had studied), it helps explain why I want to attend the particular school I am applying to (one of PS requirements), and it shows that I have left the “safety-net” of college. However, I know that addenda and supplemental essays are more appropriate to explain weak-points in my academic career. Would it be wise to avoid using that certain situation? Should I still include an addendum discussing it (to explain my low cumulative GPA, for example)?

    One last question: Should I express interest in certain programs? It seems unavoidable since I have to explain why I want to attend the particular school. I already know what areas of law I want to study and why I want to study there, but I feel any explanation would just be me regurgitating highlights from the school’s website.

    Thanks for you time, your blog has been a great help!

    • Ann Levine says:

      Hi Cameron,
      I’m glad the blog is helpful.
      Remember to focus your personal statement on something positive. I’m a little worried that you’re going to have a hard time with that balance, and that it’s probably more appropriately addressed in an addendum.
      Answer each school’s prompt; if they want to know why you want to attend, and if you have a really great reason and can back it up, then by all means mention it.

  19. Kathy says:

    Hi,

    I am an older (50) recently obtained Bachelors in CJUS (2011) and this is my 3rd round applying. I revised my PS so many times that I submitted without the correct version attached. A few grammatical errors and logical sequence of the statement errors were in the one that was sent. I emailed my dream school (because of location I can only attend in the state I live in) and the admin assistant agreed to insert the corrected emailed version. Do you think this will lessen my chances of a review? If the committee knows that an updated version is attached will they look at the other version that came from LSAC?

    I am so stressed about this I can hardly sleep at night. Although this isn’t the worst thing but time is ticking away and I am in a do-nothing go-nowhere job that I am not suited for and just want to get into law school already.

    Any advice is greatly appreciated!!

    • Ann Levine says:

      Kathy,
      Is this your third time applying to the same schools and you sent in the wrong version? Oy vey.
      They will add your new version of your essay to the file, and you did the right thing by sending a correct version. I hope that correct version was really great!
      Good luck!

  20. Kathy says:

    Actually, the other two times I applied it was very late in the cycle. The 1st time was right before the March 1 deadline and the second time I had my application held until after the February LSAT (which did not go well). So again it was late in the cycle.

    THIS time I had revised the PS quite a number of times but neglected to double check that the correct version was uploaded and attached (you are right to comb over it with a fine tooth comb before hitting submit)! I have again taken the LSAT this October after attending a prep class and using anxiety control techniques on testing day.

    The corrected version was much better (and as you say hopefully great in the eyes of the admissions committee).

    Thank you for your response, I feel better now and will sleep much better as well :D

  21. Sarah says:

    This has been so helpful! Thank you for sharing your experience and advice.

    My interest in attending law school began when my parents adopted my two youngest brothers (who are biologically my cousins). The process was extremely difficult, expensive, and emotionally debilitating. Now, especially after working as a paralegal and volunteering as a Guardian Ad Litem, I want nothing more than to attend law school.

    Now for the tricky part. I am a first generation college student, so of my eight aunts and uncles, 28 first cousins, and five younger brothers, I am the first to finish college and the first woman to even attend. To save money, I graduated from a community college before transferring to a university. I spent a good portion of my free time working as my family was not able to help financially and my scholarships did not cover everything. I actually ended up sending a lot of money home to help them (and I still do). Consequently, I don’t have the best GPA and did not get involved in a lot of extracurricular activities. To top things off, I only did slightly above average on the LSAT.

    I really don’t want to play the “sympathy card” in my PS, but after some research I have gotten the impression that law schools would be interested in my experiences. Plus, explaining my situation would definitely help explain my less than stellar GPA. How do you think I should I approach this?

    Thanks!

    • Ann Levine says:

      Sarah, law schools will be VERY interested (and impressed by!) your background. You should do this in a straightforward way rather than in an overly dramatic fashion, but you need to tell your whole story -absolutely!

  22. RA says:

    Ann,

    I noticed in the section about what “makes you roll your eyes” you specifically mention the “voice for the voiceless” pursuit ie public interest law. That is, honestly, exactly what I want to do. I have community service on my resume to back it up, but is there a way I could frame it that would avoid sounding cliche or disingenuous?

    Thank you,
    RA

    • Ann Levine says:

      OF course, RA! You don’t have to use those words to make a case for this being your goal. But you need to back it up with facts and show how this has always been central to your goals.

      • RA says:

        ok, thank you so much. Is it ok to talk about religion / faith if it is not the central focus of the essay?

        • Ann Levine says:

          It really depends, RA, because if you mention an involvement with religion, it’s totally appropriate. But if you start talking about your relationship with God, it starts to feel uncomfortable to the reader.

  23. Nesa S. says:

    Hi Rachel,

    I am writing my personal statement and am having doubts about my topic. I chose to focus on the fact that throughout my undergraduate career I had to take the bus to school. The commute would take me up to the three hours one way and thus severely limited my time. On top of paying for school myself, spending six hours out of my day on four buses greatly shaped my undergraduate years. I am weaving a theme or resilience throughout my essay as well as how eventually I began to use my hardships to motivate me my last two years of school.

    I’ve madea great effort to not sound whiny, rather I want law schools to understand my accomplishments in light of my every day situation.

    Is using my experience of commuting inappropriate?

    Thank you so much.

    • Ann Levine says:

      HI Nesa,
      This is Ann.
      I think there is potential if you do this creatively, rather than in a straightforward manner.

  24. Nana says:

    Hi I wrote my personal statement on my difficulties as Peace Corps volunteer of color. I have 2 questions 1. its pretty conversational but how do I know if its too informal 2. It talks about a specific experience and shows maturity and growth but does not necessarily talk about why I want to study law. Is that a problem?

    • Ann Levine says:

      Nana,
      Neither of these are necessarily problems unless (re: #1) you come across as complaining, blaming, or unjustifiably angry and (2) a law school specifically asks why you want to practice law as part of its personal statement prompt.
      Sounds like a fascinating essay!

  25. Lanie says:

    Hi,
    I’m not sure where to start with my personal statement. I have had a life full of struggle but have not let that affect my pursuit of education. I also don’t want my PS to be cliche in the fact that I was poor, single parent household and only one in my family to graduate HS and college. I know my passion for the law is intense and those around me know that it’s all I’ve ever wanted to do. I don’t know how I can turn my ‘struggles’ into a PS without sounding cliche.

    Lanie

    • Ann Levine says:

      Lanie, the factors you mentioned are crucial to share – your attitude is what makes something not a sob story, but an uplifting and impressive one.

  26. David says:

    Ann,

    I am having difficulty in separating my addendum from my personal statement. Is it acceptable to rehash certain events? I had to deal with a lot of adversity coming into college from several different areas of my life which led to a series of underwhelming grades. I would like to focus on how I left school and took care of my issues and since returning have maintained a 4.0 despite several life-altering events in my life that took place upon my return. Would it be okay to talk about my obstacles and the maturation process that led me to this point in the personal statement then use an addenda to talk about my grades? Or are there cases in which a personal statement essentially suffices for both?

    Thank you,
    David

    • Ann Levine says:

      David, Some overlap is acceptable between your addendum and personal statement, but the personal statement should focus on the positive and the turnaround.

  27. Tammy Rhodes says:

    Ann,

    I am not sure where to start my PS. I had meningitis at the age of 6 weeks and lost 65% of my hearing. I was a high school drop-out but I am exactly 1 year from obtaining my MA in Legal Studies. I thought about using my lack of hearing and the fact that I am a first generation student in my entire family as my topic. How difficult it has been for me to obtain my high level of education despite my disability. My perseverance and determination not to be ‘different’ has been my inspiration, would this be a good topic?

    Thank You,
    Tammy

    • Ann Levine says:

      Tammy,
      If you’ve succeeded and done well in school, then it’s a persuasive topic. But if you haven’t done well, it’s just ok. The fact that you were a high school drop out who then did well is a great story -but if you’ve barely scraped by, it doesn’t help your case. It’s all about presentation, and I’d need a lot more facts about your background and accomplishments to steer you in a more clear direction.

  28. Sheri says:

    Miss Ann,
    I am working on my PS and was confident in its direction until reading your blog, now I’m not so sure. I over came years of DV, went to nursing school while raising my children and experienced diversity that all have made me who I am today. I am a strong, driven woman and want nothing more than to segue my experiences into a law degree. I have become the voice and advocate for my peers, staff and patients. This really compacts 17 years of what I’m trying to portray in my PS, but I think you’ll understand and be able to advise me if the direction I am taking is that of one the admissions committee is looking for.
    Regards,
    Sheri

    • Ann Levine says:

      Sheri, your story is absolutely relevant in your personal statement! I love the theme of advocacy, especially.

  29. Withheld says:

    Hi Ann,

    I want to write about my motivations for studying law and I would also like to say something significant about my path to this point (I am 27 and have worked off and on since I graduated from undergrad at 21 – this is my first time applying to law school.)

    Anyway, the major obstacle/challenge I’ve overcome in life has been my struggle with major depression and anxiety disorder since I was 10. Besides my mental illness, I’ve always been really smart, though, and privileged.

    When I was 23, in my first really great job out of college, I had a “nervous breakdown” that ended me in and out of the hospital. Finally, I got shock therapy (ECT) and cognitive behavior therapy. During my recovery, and through several influential experiences/people, I realized I wanted to get my JD.

    Sorry for the long story – but I guess my question is “Is it a horrible idea to write about how a nervous breakdown and shock therapy saved my life/ put me on track to do law school – something I’ve always wanted to do?”

    Also, is it possible to get just a single PS review, paying the hourly consultant fee? Thanks so much!

    • Ann Levine says:

      Withheld,
      This is a tough one…..I think it depends on the situation, but generally I think it’s better to focus on the positives in your background.
      Jocelyn can do a review of your current draft and give you feedback on this.

  30. Sophia says:

    Hi Ann,

    I have have taken the LSAT 3 times and am planning on taking it the 4th time, as I have taking more initiative to getting more one on one help to increase my score. I want to know if I can re-use the same personal statement as last year when I applied to all the law schools again for next fall? I really believe the reason I was rejected was as a result of my LSAT score and possibly my 2.8 UGPA, as my personal statement was very stimulating and my graduate school GPA was 3.8. Any advice will be much appreciated!

    • Ann Levine says:

      Hi Sophia,
      I assume that you are entitled to a fourth LSAT because you did not take all 3 within the last two years, right?
      I think that at least updating your PS is a good idea… otherwise it looks lazy…

  31. Stella says:

    Hello Ann,

    I am currently working on my applications. I want to be sure my essay doesn’t come across as a “voice for the voiceless” phony type. Last year after my brother’s good friend pasted away his family and friends (including myself) organized a charity for him. I was lucky enough to join his family and a few friends to travel to the village (in a 3rd world country) that we were raising money to build. The experience was very life changing because it’s one thing to know there’s extreme poverty but it’s totally different to see it up close. I was very moved that something so beautiful came out of such tragedy. Anyway, long story short I realized that I had so much potential to continue helping people that weren’t given the same opportunities that I was. I was curious if you thought this was a good topic and any pointers to make sure I don’t sound like I want to save the world and become Mother Teresa. I really do care about the community and helping others but on paper it’s hard to come across genuine I’m finding.

    Thank you for your help!

    • Ann Levine says:

      Hi Stella, It sounds like you had a really meaningful experience, but I think you’re right to be worried about the topic for the reasons you expressed. You want to show that you’re not idealistic about what a law degree can do, and you want to sound like you actually DID something rather than simply OBSERVED something. Does that make sense?

  32. Brittany says:

    Hello Ann,
    I’m finding your website very helpful as I complete my applications for the ’13-’14 cycle. Thank you for all that you do!

    I plan to write about my experience growing up in an immigrant Caribbean family and struggling with maintaining my roots while assimilating into the American culture. You mentioned taking caution when telling stories from childhood. Should I be worried that my essay will sound immature? Is my essay best suited for my personal or diversity statement?

    • Ann Levine says:

      Brittany, so happy this is helpful. I think that this sounds like a diversity statement unless you bring the story forward to what motivated you to do certain things, pursue an education, find a direction in law, etc.

  33. Lola says:

    Hi Ann,

    I have been trying to write a PS for the past few days, but with no luck. I have looked at TONS of exceptional statements, but can’t seem to figure out how to begin mine.

    I am applying to schools outside of the USA and wanted your advice on which topic you feel I should pursue (I want to discuss my life experience mainly).
    1) moving from country to country due to a parent’s diplomatic occupation and then him being forced out of the post due to home government instability and seeking political asylum elsewhere. So with this topic I can talk about being independent, adapting to various situations etc.
    2) Mentally disabled brother attempting suicide when I was 18.

    I want to be straightforward (no emotional or flowery language), and show how these events influenced me as a person and differentiate me from my peers.

    Thank you for your help.

    • Ann Levine says:

      Hi Lola,
      I want to apologize to you – I don’t know how your question slipped through the cracks and I’m just now seeing it. Please forgive my late response.
      I can’t, however, give any advice about law schools outside of the U.S. My expertise is in ABA Approved law schools in the U.S. I think both of your topics sound promising, and I wish you the best of luck.

  34. Natasha says:

    Hi Ann,

    I am an applicant who has no relevant legal related experience (work or extracurricular wise) and who has life experiences, but doesn’t know how to make them relevant to law school. Would you be able to provide any suggestions on how I can still write a persuasive personal statement?

    Thank you

    • Ann Levine says:

      Natasha, This is a great statement. You don’t have to relate your life experiences to law school at all. Write about your experiences and what you’ve learned, show what’s important to you and how you have come to be where you are right now in life, and you’ll be just fine!

  35. ENW says:

    Thanks so much for this post! I, like a few others, have a question about content.

    I am currently an AmeriCorps member and am only interested in going to law school for public interest. I’ve been doing different kinds of volunteer work ever since I can remember, but this is the first year I’ve been able to do it full time. I was going to start off the my PS with a short anecdote about how I tried to start a full-on nonprofit group of knitters to raise money for a local failing homeless shelter when I was in fourth grade and ended up in the principal’s office for disrupting class. I also thought about including a quote that I think defines my attitude toward service by Marian Wright Edelman. I’d finally also like to brand myself as a home-grown Arkansan, which is a little different flavor than most applicants.

    Does this sound like too much or too cliche to you?

    Thanks!

    • Ann Levine says:

      Hi ENW,
      So happy the post was helpful to you. I love your long history of public service but would prefer for you to avoid the cute anecdote from childhood. I would rather you pick something more recent and mature to highlight. I think you could have used that story on college admission essays but I would prefer not to read it in law school. I like the Arkansan flavor, though!

  36. Georgi says:

    Hello Ann,

    Great article! I’m having trouble writing an engaging narrative for my personal statement. I know what I want to convey through my statement but am stuck. I am a first generation college graduate (youngest of five children) and want to discuss the struggles I had growing up in a household that didn’t have education as a top priority. My mother and some of my siblings did not graduate high school either. Through my experience I have come to cherish education and from further research want to work in education reform. Anytime I sit down to write only negative memories come to mind and I do not want to write anything putting off. Is there any advice you can give me?

    Thank you !

    • Ann Levine says:

      Georgi,
      Considering starting your essay with a triumph or proud accomplishment or an example of the education you cherish, and then looking backward to what you came through to get to this point. This would remove some of the negativity and potential bitterness and still tell your “obstacles overcome” story.

  37. Marty says:

    Hey, this is a really great blog, and thank you for all the great tips. I have a choice between two topics, but I can’t tell if one topic will be an advantage or a disadvantage, and I was hoping you could help me.

    The topic that I’m worried about deals with my obsessive compulsive disorder. I had a low cumulative gpa because the lsac factored in my community college experience, which was when I was learning to overcome ocd. I eventually learned the proper strategies to deal with it, transferred to the university and graduated with honors in economics, which is where I found my love for international trade law.

    Do you think it’s a bad idea to talk about my ocd? I wouldn’t have found my love for the law if I hadn’t overcome it and continued my education.

    • Ann Levine says:

      Hi Marty,
      I’m glad you’re asking me this question. I did have one client a couple of years ago who wrote about his OCD, and he got into the law school he was hoping to attend, but his numbers were pretty strong for that school. I think this is a dangerous topic because while it is an obstacle you overcame, if you leave any doubt about your abilities to make it through law school or practice law, there is a potential that it might backfire. Since you’ve shown you can deal with it and do well, you may be able to pull it off.

  38. Lana says:

    Hi,

    I forgot to write my name, LSAC # & whatever the attachment is on each of my documents and I have already submitted the application – will this negatively impact my application?

    Lana

  39. Nat says:

    Hey Ann,

    I have written my personal statement for the current cycle and was very confident in its merit until I referenced the section of your book on supplemental essays, and I am afraid that since its theme is on my understanding of perspective it falls into the category of a diversity statement..but I am not sure. In a dry nutshell – the essay talks about experiences abroad that helped me clearly see the value of perspective and how this value has helped me realize what I want to achieve out of a law degree? Please advise.

    Also, is it completely awful to do a story on my abroad experience. What would you say constitutes that typical study abroad essay that is tired?

    Nat

    • Ann Levine says:

      Nat, a personal statement can be a diversity statement topic – absolutely! I do think most study abroad experiences are overdone. Some exceptions might include if you operated completely in the foreign language, lived with a host family, went for more than a semester, went back to the same country more than once and became fluent, saved money and worked hard to be able to pay for it, etc.

  40. Josh says:

    Hi Ann! Thanks for the tips.

    I’m having some trouble with a theme. I have not been working my entire educational life for law school, in fact, I’ve only just realized my passion about three years ago. I had a life changing moment when I stopped being “the dreamer” and started being “the doer”. I went from academic probation to honors, continuing high school in college to getting my hands dirty getting to personally know what the law is like, and overall looking at other people rather than just me. I have no idea how to put that into a statement. I’ve written 20 page papers arguing historical perspectives but my PS is giving me trouble.

    What you suggest?

    Again, thanks for helping “us stressed-out” pre-law students with our applications!

    • Ann Levine says:

      Josh, I like your turnaround story and recent focus. I like the dreamer/doer juxtaposition. I think you’re thinking on exactly the right terms!

  41. Alyssa says:

    Hi Ann,

    I am in the process of writing my personal statement. I saw that you wrote not to talk about high school. I started my personal statement talking about my first high school debate tournament and how I had lost every round, however while at this tournament a stranger came up to me and started to teach me about debate. I then transition into my successful college debate career from that. The thesis is along the lines of how knowledge not only benefits one self but can be used to better other people and society. Any thoughts?

    Thanks,

    Alyssa

    • Ann Levine says:

      Hi Alyssa,
      I think this topic is predictable at the beginning and grandiose at the end. The thesis shouldn’t be about knowledge in general: it should be about how you incorporated this lesson into future challenges.

  42. britt says:

    I enjoyed the post. I am really struggling with topic ideas for my personal statement. My current idea is to talk about how I decided to pursue a career in law. I originally planned on going to law school right after college, but an internship persuaded me to go to graduate school instead. I graduated from UT-Austin with a M.S.E. and have spent the last 3 years working as an analyst. During that time, I have come to realize that although I have job that I enjoy, I don’t have the career that I want. I feel that this story may be a little too cliche. I have a few other ideas, but I think this would be the one that most highlights how I have grown since my undergraduate days.

    Thanks for your help.

    • Ann Levine says:

      Hi Britt, Sorry for the delay in getting back to you. It’s been a crazy month! I don’t think you should base your PS on Why Law, necessarily, because it ends up being more about weaknesses (“Well, although I didn’t always want to do law and I did other things, then I….”). I’d rather you focus on personal growth, accomplishments, and perspective you have gained.

  43. Derick says:

    Ann,
    My company has offered to pay for my education in a pursuit towards a joint JD/MBA degree. I’ve always wanted to work towards my MBA degree, but I never really put much prior thought into achieving my JD degree. After discussing this option with the executives of my company and some of their legal counsel I’ve decided this is probably the best path for me as the education and experience I will gain in law school is guaranteed to make me a better leader. Since I really had no desire to go to law school until about three months ago is this a safe topic to discuss in my personal statement? It seems most law school personal statements are tailored towards a deep seated desire towards going to law school or some life changing event in their past that made them want to pursue this career. I have no desire to be an attorney, instead I wish to be a great business leader and I feel that achieving a joint JD/MBA degree will give me the skill set to do so.

    Thanks,

    • Ann Levine says:

      Hi Derick,
      Fabulous that you have someone paying for law school – and for your MBA. Personal statement doesn’t have to be Why Law, and shouldn’t be “I never really wanted to pursue law” – rather share your experiences and strengths and what you hope to bring to the table. Make it about you, not about what you will do with a law degree.

  44. Jacklyn says:

    Hi Ann,

    I was wondering what your stance is on talking about personal struggles with mental health related issues? I know it is controversial to talk about in an application for law school, but despite having suffered from anxiety/depression and an eating disorder, I was able to excel in school. If anything, these personal difficulties illuminate my capacity for perseverance. Before university, the flirtation with an eating disorder I had during high school developed into a debilitating relationship with food. At thanksgiving during my first year I made the decision to withdraw from school and seek treatment. I returned from the treatment facility with a recommendation to seek a psychiatrist back in Canada (the treatment centre I attended was in the U.S.). I took the rest of the year off and worked. I reapplied to a school closer to home (2 hours away v.s. 6 hours away from home). The psychiatrist I saw back in Canada put me on a “cocktail of medications” (actual phrase used by the psychiatrist) over the summer. Slowly the medications began to alter my mental state, where I became uncharacteristically paranoid that people were constantly judging me and making fun of me. At the time, no one thought it was the drugs that had caused this change – everyone attributed the behaviour to my new stigma of being mentally ill. When I returned to (a new ) university in the fall, this paranoia culminated in a traumatic experience where I was in a state of hysteria and experiencing auditory hallucinations. I was handcuffed in my dorm and escorted by campus police to their squad car, which was parked at the front of the biggest residence (note: this occurred during broad daylight on a school day where students, where in and out of the residence and witnessed this highly embarrassing and shameful experience). I continued to suffer from these hallucinations in the hospital, where I was held for 42 hours and deemed as a danger to myself and others. I was on watch by an officer the entire time. They called my parents and told them to drive up 2 hours to come see me, and informed them that I may be a schizophrenic. It was the most dehumanizing experience I had ever gone through. It turns out that I was not a schizophrenic, but intoxicated from the multitude of medications that I was PRESCRIBED. I never took more than I was supposed to, but the amounts I was given, especially of a particular stimulant, was double the recommended dose that psychiatrists are advised to prescribe. That was only one of the two other medications I was put on (in very, very high doses). Needless to say, I was too ashamed to return to residence, so I moved into a house off campus. Unfortunately, I went into a deep state of depression after the traumatic experience, as I was subsequently socially rejected by former friends and found it particularly difficult to branch out not living in residence. I also began to do poorly in school, despite having come to university with a 95% average. I would spend hours studying, but would freeze in the exam rooms and got through a total of 10 questions in 1 hour on my first midterm. Second semester things started to turn around, as I was weaned off the medications by a campus psychiatrist and was given extra time for exams and my own room (the medications interfered with my ability to concentrate in a public setting – noise from other test takers were highly distracting). I finished the year with a 62% average, which is not horrible, but was not indicative of my potential. I took a summer course in sociology and got an 85% in the course, allowing me to be accepted into an honor’s specialization program for the fall. Second year I finished with a 92% average and just finished my third year with a 91%.

    What I want to try to convey in my statement is how hard working and resilient I am. There were multiple points in my anecdote where I never gave up, despite failure. After leaving university once, I returned (which most people suffering from eating disorders do not do). Secondly, during the first week of my second attempt, I went through I highly traumatic experience. Most people would have dropped out of university after that traumatic experience, yet I stayed. Even after when I was doing horribly in my first semester (I was getting 40-50% on exams), I still stuck it out and forced myself out of bed every morning, despite suffering from clinical depression and social anxiety that resulted from the trauma. Moreover, by the start of second year I was able to enrol in an honor’s program, raise my average by nearly 30% (and maintain it in the subsequent year). I also have worked on overcoming my social anxiety by forcing myself to travel alone to learn how to surf, volunteer abroad, and get involved in campus safety via foot patrol and volunteer for a youth out-reach program.

    Although not elegantly written, I just wanted to lay out the details of my personal story that has inspired me to seek a career in law. Having personally experience plight and suffering, I seem to have developed an ingrained aversion to any sort of injustice. A career in law would not only empower myself, but help me empower those around me who too are facing hardship. Is this something worthy of putting in a personal statement or is it too controversial?

  45. Andrew says:

    Ann,
    Your article and replies to other comments have provided great insight into how I plan to write my own personal statement.

    I grew up in a military family, which definitely affected who I am today. I am currently in my senior year of undergrad and have spent the last 4 years in military training through the ROTC and various other military programs. Immediately upon graduation I will be commissioned as an Army officer and will hopefully be allowed to go straight to law school before serving actively. My plan is to become a lawyer for the Army.

    Given my childhood lifestyle, my college experiences, and my goals for the future would you recommend that I use the military as a focus of my PS? Or is this too cliche and instead should I simply use those as a part to further elaborate on myself and my strengths as an applicant?

    Thank you for your time and advice,
    Andrew

    • Ann Levine says:

      Andrew, sounds like the perfect topic! Why avoid it if it’s your true motivation and explains how you have spent your time?

  46. BAC says:

    Thank you for the insight. I am sure it will prove helpful as I write, edit,rewrite, edit and obsess over my personal statement.

    My question:

    Can being too political in the personal statement work against you, depending on the personal values and affiliations of the admissions committee?

    I am a die-hard feminist who has worked in intimate partner violence intervention advocacy, lgbt rights advocacy and anti-poverty initiatives since I graduated college 5 years ago. I am applying to law schools in an attempt to create a voice for myself that will have more bearing in policy driven work. I am also an army spouse, who after years of not living within close proximity of my wife, is adamant that my time in law school will be spent in cohabitation bliss. This lowers the options to law schools within a two hour drive of an army base, which limits the options, though there are still some pretty good ones among the mix.

    At this point, I feel like if any right-wing, conservative were to read my personal statement, he would kill it with fire immediately. Should I tone it down a notch?

    Also, disclosure of being gay, especially for any schools in the South – could this be a bad idea? I know I expect better of academic communities, despite sentiments of the larger geographical area, but I am still hesitant.

    I would appreciate any insight. Thanks.

    • Ann Levine says:

      BAC,
      I love this question! Why on earth would you hide yourself and your passions? It’s absolutely a huge part of why you are applying to law school and what you bring to the table as an applicant. If someone hates your politics and doesn’t want you at their law school as a result, that’s not a school you should want to attend. I can assure you, except at schools with formally conservative missions, this will not happen. In fact, most law schools skew liberal. Don’t tone yourself down, even in the South. A couple of years ago I had a client who was admitted to (and attended) U. of Alabama after writing an essay about her bisexuality. Don’t water yourself down. Just go for it!

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