How to write a good personal statement for law school

By Hillary Mantis

“I am at a standstill in my personal statement,” Lucy, a rising senior, emailed me. “Frankly, I can’t seem to really even get started. What are the components for a good personal statement? I could write about my summer legal internship, but that doesn’t seem original enough,” she said. 

I receive a lot of emails like Lucy’s. So as we heads towards fall and personal statement writing season, here are a few tips:

- The topic does not have to be incredibly unique. While you don’t want to sound trite, the reality is that there are limited topics for personal statements. It’s fine to write about a legal internship. It shows your interest in law school. Chances are, an admissions officer has read multiple essays about whatever topic you choose. Your particular take on what you learned during your internship, and what you experienced should make your essay unique, even if the topic isn’t. Remember to include details that made the experience memorable for you.

-What’s more important is your voice and writing style. It should be written in the first person, and reflective of an experience you have had that has ultimately led you to want to go to law school. Whether that is a legal internship, a course you have taken, an experience working in student government, volunteer work or nonprofit experience, study abroad, or whatever you choose to write about, as long as it is personal to you and your experience, the topic should be fine.

What you don’t want to do is write about or focus on someone else’s experience—parents, friends, etc.—it should be reflective of you, and you should be the central character in the essay.

-Stick to one topic. You can’t fit all of your activities, internships, study abroad and volunteer work into one essay, which is usually only about two pages long. That’s what your resume is for, and you will have a chance to describe other activities and jobs on your applications.

When applicants try to write about more than one topic or activity, it tends to sound disjointed, and not in-depth. If you can’t decide what to write about, do a quick draft on two different topics, and see which one you like better.

- Work on your conclusion. I often find that essays get stuck towards the conclusion. Writers sometimes veer off into the land of legal clichés, because they don’t know how to end the essay. Stick to talking about yourself and your main topic.

If you haven’t directly addressed why you want to go to law school, because you chose to write on topic not related to the law, the final paragraph is a nice opportunity to do so. For example, an applicant I know who wrote about studying Italian and living abroad concluded her essay with her desire to practice international law.

-You should be able to use your personal statement for most law school applications. While some schools will have word limits and some may not, and some schools may give direction while others will leave the topic open ended, a well written statement which is about two pages long should be good for most of the law schools you apply to.

Many schools will have an optional diversity statement as a second essay, and some schools will have a shorter school specific essay (why are you interested in our law school?), or other short supplemental essay. Where possible, do the supplemental essays to show interest in the schools you are applying to.

If it is a “why us” essay, for example, think about what you saw on the law school tour that especially interested you, whether it was a course, a clinic, and internship, a professor, or the location of the school. If you did not get a chance to visit, look through their website to see what they offer in particular that is of interest to you.

Now is a good time to start to brainstorm your personal statement, or at least think about a topic. That way, by the time you have your scores back, have your recommendations in, have a resume and are ready to complete your applications, it will be done.


Hillary Mantis works with pre-law students, law students and lawyers. She is director of the Pre-Law Program at Fordham University Law School and author of career books, including "Alternative Careers for Lawyers." You can reach her at altcareer@aol.com.  


 

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