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November 5, 2010

Writing the Law School Personal Statement

Law School Personal Statement Writing ApproachThe Pre-Law Advisor at Elon University, Dr. Nim Batchelor, has graciously agreed to share some of his excellent thoughts on writing a law school personal statement.

Please thank him in the comments!

An Approach to Writing a Personal Statement

By Dr. Nim Batchelor

Elon University, Fall 2010

When I advise students about how to approach writing a personal statement for their law school application, I begin by posing the following question:

Suppose that the law school admissions committee were to invite you for an interview. You walk in and take a seat before the full admissions committee. The chairperson says, “We have studied all of your application materials—your letters of recommendation, your transcripts, and your resume—and we feel that we have a clear sense of the 'paper you'. However, before we make our final decision, we’d like to get to know the 'human you'. Given that we are somewhat short of time, in the next five minutes, please tell us about the 'real' you that we could not appreciate from your other application materials."

What would you say?

Now, suppose that you had several days to compose your response and that you will be allowed to read your response to the committee. What would you include? How would you organize it?

Once this framing question is in place, I encourage my students to proceed in the following way:

1. Think back across your entire life. As you do this you will come across a set of 10-20 episodes, vignettes, or stories that you commonly use to tell others about your life. Sort through them and select four or five that:

1. represent “who you are as a person,”
2. that exemplify a core trait about which you are somewhat proud, or
3. that reveal something deep about yourself.


2. Next, imagine that your life is a novel. You are both the main character and the author of this novel. Episodes from your “life story” are among the things that shape and reveal your character. You have made many choices and those also reveal something about you. Most importantly, if you are actually living your life—rather than just letting it happen to you—there will be motifs, patterns, tendencies, and a direction in your life story.


3. Your application is a signal to the admissions committee that you believe that three years of law school, passing the bar exam, and taking a job in the legal profession is a natural extension of your life's story. But why is it a "natural" extension of your life's story? The central task of a personal statement is to persuade the admissions committee that this is true about your life.


4. [This is where you start your personal statement] You need to select and very briefly recount three episodes from your life. Each story should both reveal and provide substantive evidence for your claim to have a particular set of character traits. In addition, when taken together, these three stories should make it evident that you’re your life story contains a “must go to law school” motif. That is, from reading these three stories, it should be clear that attending law school is the next logical chapter in your life story. [By the way, if you discover—in all honesty—that your life story does not include a “must go to law school motif,” then you ought to schedule a conversation with your prelaw advisor just to verify that applying to law school is your best move. Of course, it might be; but it is worth the conversation.]


5. The conclusion "therefore, you should admit me to your law school" should remain implicit. However, if you have chosen well, it should be an obvious implication of your essay.


I remind students that this essay needs to be the best writing that they have ever produced. They should expect to go through at least five or six drafts. I also remind them that they should read their early drafts aloud and that their later drafts should be read and critiqued by at least four or five very bright people.

I find it efficient to preempt difficulties by describing a few of the most common mistakes that applicants make in their essays.

* Applicants often devote too much space describing an event or activity and not enough space talking about their own character. It is like what interior decorators say, “Your frames should accentuate your paintings, not dominate them.” Analogously, I press my students to remember to make themselves the centerpiece of their essay. Thus, for example, I often end up saying something like, "No! You’ve written an essay that tells the committee more about our university or more about your parents than it does about you."

* The mere fact that you did something is far less interesting than what it meant to you or how you integrated it into your life. Don’t merely tell the committee that something happened to you; tell them how you reacted to that event or about how it shaped and influenced you. The more you can describe your inner thoughts, dispositions and values the better.

* However, it is not enough merely to say that you have a particular virtue. For example, you can’t simply say, "I'm a very caring person." You need to provide evidence for such claims and you do that with your vignettes. So, for example, you might say, “When I was a kid, my teachers gave me an award because I would play with the handicapped kids when others chose to ostracize them. Ever since then, I am amazed by how often people comment on my sensitivity to the plight of those who are struggling in life.”


Once students see these points, they get what they need to do.

I conclude my advising session with two reminders:

1. I tell them that most people report that faithfully carrying out my recommended process is a genuinely difficult soul-searching exercise. It can be psychologically challenging and frequently results in a few tears. If it feels a little bit like you are exposing your personal diary to the world, then you are probably doing the task well.

2. Finally, I remind them that they are not in an oppositional relationship with the admissions committee. Applicants and admissions committees are collaborating in an effort to discover whether they are a “fit” with one another. It is your job to tell them who you really are. Then, since they know themselves far better than you know them, it is their task to render a judgment about whether you are a fit for their program. If you try to play that silly game where you attempt to say what you think they want to hear, you will thwart this process. So, be honest and be yourself.

Of course, I don’t suggest that this is the only way to go at this task. However, after years of advising, this captures what I’ve settled in on saying to my students.

***

See more law school personal statement tips.

Photo by Allie Brosh / CC BY-NC-ND 3.0



16 comments:

  1. This is excellent advice. Thank you. I'm pondering my personal statement now and wasn't sure where to start. This helps a lot.

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  2. Thank you, Dr. Batchelor. Your advise is the most helpful and relevant I have read in a long time concerning the Law School Personal Statement.

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  3. thank you, your advise has been incouraging. I have done almost 8 rewrites over the last three months and I feel I am finally starting to write what I truely need to convey. this just gives me more incouragement that I am on the right track. just in the nick of time.

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    Replies
    1. spell encouragement right pleaseeeeeeeeee, don't mess that baby up on your personal statement. I Incourage you.... Nope.

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  4. **advice** sorry bout that.

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  5. This is really great advice. Thank you thank you thank you!

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  6. This really helps, Dr. Batchelor.

    Thank you very much.

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  7. Hyperbole!! I frickin' love that girl; her shit be all sorts of hilarious!

    Crunch- "advise" vs. "advice" was the least of your worries.

    Man, I've got to stop hatin'.

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  8. After reading that advice, I realized I'm not Law School material. Low GPA, Various entry level type professional jobs, ie Firefighter, Infantry LT, Research Analyst, Cannery worker, etc. (jumping around). My current and only reason to apply to Law School, is because I think it'd be cool--no big picture here.

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  9. Thank you for the clear and detailed advice, Dr. Batchelor. I'm on the third draft of my personal statement now, and am using your guide to strengthen my own statement's weaknesses. Your insights are much appreciated!

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  10. totally life saving! THANKS A BUNCH.

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  11. Thank you, thank you and thank you!!! I must admit I was clueless as to how to approach crafting my personal statement.

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  12. Dr. Batchelor is the best! his philosophy of law class was amazing, and I'm so lucky I was able to have him write me a letter of rec.

    wooo go elon!

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  13. Wow, this was really helpful! Thank you Dr. Batchelor. My second draft was a 'what's what' of your 'what to avoid' subsection. Very glad I read your suggestions.

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  14. I'm not sure what you mean. Not work out in what way? You mean graduate and not have a job? Or graduate and not enjoy the practice of law?

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  15. As a prelaw adviser and consultant, I agree with so many of the points that Dr. Batchelor brings up in this excellent article. I especially agree with tip #1 about looking back over your entire life for stories and vignettes, and one his last tips that writing the personal statement for law school is a soul-searching endeavor and it can be hard and it can bring up tears. Writing an essay about yourself that reveals who you really are can give you an amazing amount of confidence, pride and self-knowledge. But often those wonderful feelings are mixed with remembering the challenges and difficulties you went through to become the person you are today.

    While I do agree with most of what Dr. Batchelor wrote, I respectfully disagree on points #3 and #4.

    Regarding point #3, unless the law school specifically asks for them to address "why law?" in the personal statement prompt, and the applicant has a really compelling reason for why law school is right for him or her, I do not recommend that they address why they want to enter the legal profession. The reason is because often the personal story that the applicant conveys in his or her personal statement does not lead naturally to why they want to study law.

    On point #4, I think it would be very hard to write about three episodes or stories from one's life in a 2-page personal statement (some schools accept a longer PS but most limit it to 2 pages). In most cases, I recommend writing about just one episode, event or occurence and how and why that one thing has shaped you into the person you are today. Again, the story may not scream out "this person must go to law school," but it will give the committee a very good idea of the applicant's values, interests, personality and point-of-view. It gives them that very personal view into the applicant and makes them think, "I want to meet this person. I want them to come to my school."

    If you can achieve that, you've done your job.

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