Law School Personal Statement Goals

LSAT Blog Law School Personal Statement Goals
This post on navigating the personal statement is by the author of A Comprehensive Guide to the Law School Personal StatementMargaret Klein, PhD, a personal statement editor.


There are four goals in writing the personal statement:

1) The reader should like you
2) The reader should be impressed by you
3) The reader should remember you
4) The reader should understand why you are applying to law school.

The most important goal of the personal statement is to get the reader (the admission officer) to like you. Your essay is your chance to make an emotional connection with the gatekeeper of your admission! If you get the admission officer to smile, think, “Oh, I know just how she feels,” or want to get to know you, you have struck gold.

Conversely, making the admissions officer dislike you is the worst thing you can do in your personal statement. If you piss off your reader, they might go out of their way to have you rejected; you might be getting a thin envelope even if your grades and scores would usually merit admittance!

So, how do you get someone to like you?

This is an extremely complicated question. Usually liking and being liked feels like a natural process. It can be decoded, however. I will offer three specific guidelines that will help you accomplish this task:

1) Be sincere.

The best way to make an emotional connection with anyone, including with your reader, is to be sincere. If you write about your life in an emotionally open, honest, and genuine way, your reader will form an emotional connection with you. He will imagine you and want to meet you. He will want to help you accomplish your dreams.

The first step to writing a sincere essay is to choose a topic that is sincerely important and meaningful to you. Sincerity is not a moral imperative, it is a strategic one. If you write about your time volunteering in a low-income school because you think you should you will have a hard time conveying enthusiasm and passion. If you write about sincerely your life and what truly pulls you to become a lawyer (as discussed last week), you will be able to articulate your ideas and experiences in a more genuine, moving way.

2) Don’t brag!

Being impressive-- goal #2 of the personal statement-- should not be confused with bragging. People sometimes think that the way to impress is to load up the essay with impressive content. For example, “After returning from scaling Kilimanjaro in record time, I founded 3 clubs at my school to benefit underserved children, which now command a total budget of $250,000. Then the mayor gave me a major award.” This strategy—which I call the “resume blast”—fails because readers do not like being blasted by your accomplishments, no matter how great they are! Admissions officers, just like anyone else, do not enjoy being bragged to. It does not make them like you, and it might make them want to put you in your place.  For this reason, bragging is one of the biggest mistakes you can make in your personal statement. Don’t do it.

3) Tell a story of struggle and triumph.

There are different techniques that you can use to discuss your accomplishments without bragging. The most effective one is to use a narrative of struggle and triumph-- to tell the story of a time that you struggled, but ultimately emerged victorious.

Relating a situation that was difficult creates empathy in the reader.  They make a human connection with you. They feel for you. They begin rooting for you. Then, when you relate your success, you don’t sound arrogant or braggy (arrogant people talk like nothing is hard for them), you sound confident.

Don’t be intimidated by the words “struggle” or “triumph.” They might seem like words that describe only Herculean feats of strength and bravery, but in truth, they can be applied to small challenges and victories.

I helped an applicant create a narrative of struggle and triumph when the struggle was that he had to fire an employee who he liked personally. The triumph was his ability to carry out his responsibility, to do what was necessary. I read an outstanding personal essay about a young man overcoming his stutter. Struggles can also include a career change, a personal setback, or a very meaningful project. Applicants can take on the mantle of a struggling group, and write about their struggles and triumphs as part of or on behalf of that group. For example:

While working in a low-income school, I became painfully aware of the devastating consequences of wealth inequality. As I became more involved in city government, working with the Board of Education and City Council, the fire in my belly only grew. There were so many roadblocks to change!

The struggle and triumph strategy provides benefits in likability, impressiveness, and a dramatic, interesting essay. Another bonus of writing a story of struggle and triumph is that it fits easily into a compelling narrative arc and a clear essay structure. You introduce the problem—which grabs the reader immediately—you describe your struggle, and then you describe your triumph!

Finally, if you tell a story of struggle and triumph, it also can give your essay a simple and compelling structure: you begin by discussing the problem, a compelling way to start, you elaborate your efforts in the body of the essay, then you describe the triumphant resolution, and how this led you to desire to be a lawyer/ attend law school in the conclusion. Your essay doesn’t have to follow this exact structure, even if you utilize the struggle and triumph outline. But using a struggle and triumph narrative usually brings your essay a stronger and clearer structure, but also a more exciting tone, and, of course, strongly enhances your likability!

Photo by lululemonathletica

1 comment:

  1. While I completely agree with Ms. Klein that stories of struggle and triumph are good ones to write about in the personal statement, I respectfully disagree with her top four goals for the personal statement.

    I think the main goal you are trying to achieve with your personal statement is #3: The reader should remember you. With the added caveat: they should remember you and want to bring you to their school. (Because they could remember you in a negative way and want to make sure you never come to their school!)

    Trying to make sure your readers like you and are impressed by you is a tall order to fill. I think it's too much pressure to put on yourself when writing the personal statement. To write something very personal is hard enough without having to think, "Will they like me?" Or "Will they be impressed by me?"

    If you write a good story with a beginning, middle and end about something significant that helped shape you into the person you are today, the admissions committee will remember you.

    The key thing, the hardest thing, is being willing to be vulnerable in describing your personal experience on paper.

    If you can do that, they will want to meet you. And hopefully, your admittance letter will be in the mail (email) very soon.