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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