Law School: Getting In | Personal Statement Excerpt

The below excerpt is from Thane Messinger's Law School: Getting In, Getting Good, Getting the Gold.

The Perfect Personal Essay

Personal essays might be the only form of cruel and unusual punishment never raised to the Supreme Court. How to find your soul—and then package it just right—for some unknown admissions committee? How to do so when you’re busy enough with part-time jobs, classes, crushes, and the occasional all-nighter?

First, your essay cannot be rushed. You should, optimally, think about it for years. If you’re reading this while contemplating law school once you graduate college (or high school and then college), that’s time enough to think about what it is that’s important to you, and then how you might—with at least some literary flair—present that to a faceless group of senior law school professors, deans, and admissions officers.

What if you don’t have years? Well, this is hardly theoretical as most of us end up throwing something together in months, if not weeks. You must think of something unique. Not off-the-wall. But unique. This means unique to you. The admissions committee will have read, hundreds if not thousands of times over, about “Why I love the law!” and “Why me ’cause I’m gonna’ save the world!” And so on. Does this mean you should not say that you love the law or that you’re planning to save the world? Well, unless you have some way to convincingly explain that love, or that passion for utopia…that’s correct. You should not attempt a “standard fluff” essay.

You should also not read any book on “best” essays for admission to law school. The moment they hit the shelves, they become exactly the type of essays not to use. Why? Because admissions folks then see hundreds of essays that practically plagiarize. No, no, no.

I was surprised when I spot-checked some of these. The essays I read were such a turn-off that I would have been hard pressed not to toss the entire application into the Reject pile, regardless of the LSAT. This is deeply personal, true, but what they should see is a glimpse of your better self—or your not-so-better self, with some indication of self-awareness, critique, and general ethical value. In other words, are you a decent person? Not perfect. Decent.

What the admissions committee is looking for is some indication of what type of lawyer you will be—the type of person you are. While this might seem like a tall order—how can thousands upon thousands of essays be “unique”?—in reality it’s a taller order for them than for you. After all, you need to write just one.

So, writing an essay about a childhood experience with, say, a grandparent’s involvement in a lawsuit and the impact that that had on you, and the reasons that affected your thinking about what the law should be—that might be more effective than a fluffy “I wanna’ save the world” (which is easy to read as “I really wanna’ make a lot of money but I’ll pretend to want to save the world”).

Now, don’t everyone write about your grandparents. It should be something unique. To you. Something that, while it might and should strike a chord in anyone who reads it, is intensely personal. No one other than the committee (and whoever you ask) will read it. As with the LSAT, this is something you should take exceedingly seriously, and it is something you should want to be proud of. It should be an essay that will knock your socks off when you find it in a box fifty years later.

It’s not much of an exaggeration to state that, aside from your LSAT score, your personal essay is the most important part of your application. It almost goes ahead of your GPA. Even with a stellar LSAT score and GPA, a bad essay will kill your application. And if there’s anything to save a mediocre LSAT score or GPA, it’s your personal essay.

As to asking others to read your essay, it’s common to ask parents, family, or friends to read your drafts. This is a mistake. Even if they are exceptional writers, they’re the wrong ones to give advice. First, they’re too close. That means they’re probably too subjective about whatever it is you’re writing. Second, they’re probably not from the academic or law school worlds, which means that what guides them might (and probably will) be different than what guides the admissions committee. Finally, they’re almost certain to be too gentle. Yes, that is worse. Unless they tell you “This is crap!” as a standard response to any situation (in which case see “they’re too subjective,” above), chances are they won’t tell you what really does need to be redone.

So who, then? Most likely, you should ask professors who have known you at least reasonably well, and you should make it clear that you want genuine criticism—and you should be prepared to take it. If you even start to talk back when they do critique your work, pinch yourself. Hard. If you can slap yourself without being noticed, do that too. You need help. And what you write will almost certainly not be good enough…not yet. This willingness to honestly review and then to revise is the essence of high-quality writing. You should accept with genuine appreciation a real critique, meaning a higher-order “This is crap…and here’s what you might do to fix it.”

The result should be an essay that you read, re-read, and re-re-read many times over, smiling as you wonder who on Earth wrote such a lovely piece. My goodness, how can they not let you in?

***

Check out Thane Messinger's Law School: Getting In, Getting Good, Getting the Gold for more.

You can also read more Law School Personal Statement Tips on the blog.

Excerpt/interview for LSAT Blog / © Thane Messinger 2008-2011


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



5 comments:

  1. I echo your advice on avoiding the "Best of the Best" or "100 Successful Law School Essays" books. The most popular one published by Harvard University Press contains essays chosen by students on the school paper of Harvard's UNDERGRADUATE college. These kids are hardly qualified to judge what is good and usually just solicit essays from their friends. The best example of the trash you will get is actually the last essay from the 3rd edition of the undergraduate volume - self-pitying trainwreck.

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  2. I have just discovered this excellent blog.


    Thank you!

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  3. If you are re-applying to the same law school, do you have to create an entirely new personal statement or is it ok to recycle the previous one?

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    1. It depends on how good your first personal statement was.

      I recommend meeting with a law school admissions officer from that school you're reapplying to (in-person is better than phone but if you're far away, phone is totally fine) and seeing if they'd be willing to give you advice on your PS.

      If they're cool, they might actually tell you the problems or issues they have with it. Or they might say, your PS is fine, but you need a higher LSAT score. Whatever advice they give you, follow it. And thank them for their time in a follow-up email or thank you card!

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  4. Great advice, Thane! I agree with 90% of what you recommend.

    I especially agree with you on NOT showing your personal statement drafts to your family members and loved ones. Don't expect your loved ones to be objective. They will either tell you they love it like Thane mentions (which isn't helpful when you know it could use some revision) or they will tell you, "It's doesn't sound like you" (their idea of you, not your idea of you), or "You sure you want to write about THAT?" (they don't like how personal it is). You will invariably end up changing the essay, making it less personal, and making it worse.

    I respectfully disagree with the tip to instead show your draft to your professors. I find that most professors confuse a "personal statement" with a "statement of intent." Most of them did not go to law school--they went to graduate school to get their PhDs--and they have a very different idea of what the essay should say. After meeting with their profs, many students end up changing their statements and making them less personal, less interesting and too academic.

    I recommend showing your draft to your prelaw adviser or someone who knows you but is not necessarily personally and socially close to you. This could be a classmate, supervisor, coworker or mentor whose opinion you respect.

    Pick people you believe will give you objective feedback and who are not afraid to tell you the truth. Ask them to read your statement and tell you if the essay makes them want to personally meet you and bring you to their law school? After reading it, can they describe YOU and your story to a friend of theirs? Do they get what you're about and do they want to know you more after reading it?

    If yes, you have a winner on your hands. Proof it, polish it and get it ready to send.

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