The 3 Essential Features of a Great Personal Statement

The personal statement.  Remember that exhausting exercise you had to go through applying to college?  It’s about to get worse.  Why is it so hard?  Let us tell you a secret:  It is not supposed to be an easy exercise.

The admissions committee has a lot of information about you:  transcripts, test scores, letters of recommendation, and a resume.  Not to mention narrowly tailored essays, potential C&F statements, …and the list goes on.  But the personal statement gives you the opportunity to express something about you as an individual that is not seen in other elements of the application.  What else do you want the reader to know about you?  In almost all instances you get to choose!  Take this opportunity to showcase some of your best attributes.

Most schools leave the instructions on personal statements topics pretty wide open, leaving some people at a loss for a starting point.  Let us help.  (Note:  please read the school’s instructions because they may have specific requirements.)  The general rules to written work still apply here, so it should be a polished piece of writing that is proofread by you and by others, and then proofread again (Pro-tip:  read your statement out loud.  You will pick up mistakes you missed when reading silently to yourself).  As for content, the personal statements should have three key elements.  Regardless of the topic, your personal statement should:

  1. Be compelling;
  2. Be professional; and
  3. Leave the readers with a favorable impression of you.

No joke, that is all.  The anxiety, sweat, tears, and procrastination can be mitigated, even nullified, the sooner you start thinking in these terms and the sooner you can check off these three boxes.  What is more, most applicants don’t hit all three.  This is your chance to shine.

Compelling – Keep in mind that your application will be read along with thousands of other applications throughout the cycle and likely along with dozens of other applications in the same day.  Keep this mental image in mind when you are writing your introductory paragraph:

The person reading your file is doing so on a weekend.  They just got back from a week of travel visiting undergraduate colleges.  Ohio State is playing Michigan on channel four and they are sitting on the couch next to an intimidating stack of 55 other files equaling about 110 pages of Personal Statements alone.

Your statement needs to keep the reader’s attention throughout the entire two pages.  “The last cigarette I ever smoked was at 5am in the shower Christmas morning” *grabbed our attention.  *“All my life I have wanted to be a lawyer” probably did not – and likely soon thereafter the volume was turned up on that Ohio State/Michigan game.  This doesn’t mean, by the way, that you have to make up a story if you do not have one, but you should avoid being redundant to other elements of your application, additional essays, and resume.  The personal statement should have a narrative arc that makes sense for your story as well as for the overall message of the statement.

*Professional * – Remember that you are applying to a professional school, not a school for creative writing.  Exercise good judgment with your topic choice, the language you choose, and your overall tone.  The topic does not necessarily have to be law related or “why I want to go to law school,” but it should demonstrate an aspect of you that is appropriate for this setting.  Accomplishments, moments of growth or introspection, learning experiences, difficult choices you’ve made, or other challenges are usually quite appropriate.  Remember that you do not know who is reading your personal statement.  Don’t tailor it to what you think someone wants to read, but be respectful that this is essentially a stranger.  A stranger with decision-making power. 99% of Personal Statements have some mistake in them – be it a typo, grammatical error, template that keeps the wrong name of the law school you are applying to, etc. etc.  Don’t be the person applying to the “office of emissions.”  Button that statement up entirely, because even a little mistake might not be so small to the person with the decision to admit or deny you.

Leave reader with favorable impression of you – You are applying to law school; you want the person who is reading your application to invite you to be a part of the community.  Show them your best side; demonstrate that you are going to contribute to the class.  If you are a naturally funny person, please feel free to add that element to your personal statement.  If you are not funny, this is not the time to try your hand at humor.  Demonstrate that you put some thought, time, and effort into it.  If the reader has a favorable impression of you as an individual after reading your personal statement, this can make a big difference in the overall decision.  That reader is going to look at 54 other Personal Statements that solitary Saturday alone.  Be one of the of the two or three names that she remembers fondly walking into the Office of Admissions Monday morning.  This can make all of the difference in the world.

*And even though I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again:  Have someone proofread for content and grammar.    *

Coming soon: the top 10 Personal Statement mistakes! (week of May 19)

Coming somewhat soon:  An example of a really good Personal Statement