In many respects, applying to law school is like putting together a court case-say, a criminal defense. The completed application form resembles a lawyers brief or petition, studded with carefully arranged facts. The LSDAS report is the deposition of an expert witness who has reviewed your documents and specimens. Letters of recommendation are the statements of character witnesses. In this view, the personal statement resembles the moment when the defendant takes the witness stand, faces the jury, and tells his or her own story in his or her own words. The testimony doesn't just state facts. It also reveals character and personality; it discloses the presence or absence of traits like sensitivity and maturity. The jurors see the defendant as a person, not as a summary of other people's impressions.
In criminal cases, defendants have a constitutional right to remain silent. Some do not testify. But whenever this happens, there's a perceptible sense of disappointment in the courtroom. Jurors look forward to the moment of revelation; when it doesn't come, some of them feel cheated. They think that the defendant doesn't consider them important enough to talk to, and they conclude that the defendant isn't taking the process seriously.
At all costs, you want to avoid giving the law school the impression that you are a frivolous and casual applicant. You demonstrate your seriousness by submitting a carefully prepared personal statement. Law professors know that good essays are difficult and time-consuming to write. They expect to see the personal statement in your file and are put off if it is not there.
That doesn't mean that all of the essays that are submitted are read carefully. Just as the defendants testimony won't sway the jury in an open-and-shut case, so a personal statement won't overcome poor numbers or add anything to very good ones. In such cases, essays are not evaluated in detail. A clerk places them in the appropriate applications files and an admissions official probably skims through them. They're rarely entirely ignored: "We try to at least read through all the essays," one law professor told me, "because of the potential for embarrassment if we admit someone who turns out really nasty."
If your numbers place you on the borderline between acceptance and rejection at a school that makes a point of considering subjective factors in its admission decisions, then your personal statement will be scrutinized with care for evidence that you can do law school work. It may be studied by several admissions officials and discussed in conference. It could make the difference between acceptance and rejection.
Your personal statement will also be of vital importance if you are applying to a Croup I or Group II law school. Since all their serious candidates have superb numbers, these law schools have to rely on other criteria. Because the personal statement can reveal your character more clearly than any other part of the application process, it can provide evidence that you bring something unique to legal study: unusual abilities, or background traits, or experience, or just a distinctive way of looking at the world. You won't be admitted to a top law school unless you can distinguish yourself in this way.
But even at an insurance school, where your personal statement won't be read closely and can't help you that much, it can hurt. If it's unclear or filled with rhetorical errors, the law school may conclude that you lack the necessary communications skills. A glaring barbarism may catch even a skimmer's eye, and if your essay reveals you to be an offensive or insincere person the skimmer may flag your file. You may then be subjected to a more detailed evaluation instead of being automatically admitted under the rolling admissions program. You need to take care with your personal statement even when you're applying to a school that should be safe.
Most law schools specify only a vague length limit, typically "one or two typed pages." A single sheet of double-spaced typescript will hold about 250 words; two single-spaced sheets contain about 1,000.1 suggest that you aim for a personal statement between 500 and 1,000 words. Shorter essays are too sketchy to disclose a clearly developed and unique personal voice; longer ones may make the readers impatient. You needn't worry about running a few sentences over the length limit.
Choosing a Topic
Very few law schools follow the tradition of creative writing and MBA programs, which require applicants to write about very specific topics.
The drawback of not having a precise topic is that you'll have to choose your own topic. Because you have your whole life to choose from, you'll probably find it hard to make a choice.
Law schools tend to seek tough-minded, logical problem-solvers, because studies show that people with these qualities are most likely to succeed there. A personal statement about how you solved some problem (like financing your undergraduate education) or overcame some obstacle is always appropriate. Or you can write about some unusual feature of your education. If your major is not a typical one for prelaw students, you can explain how you expect it to contribute to your legal education and career.
Here are some things to avoid:
Don't choose a topic that makes you seem immature or of questionable character
Avoid talking about yourself in the abstract
Avoid emphasizing negatives
Allow plenty of time
As your essay goes through draft after draft, it should be repeatedly critiqued. Always ask your readers to paraphrase the main point of the essay. Ask also if anything seemed confusing or unclear. Work on developing an earnest and sincere tone and rewrite or eliminate anything that strikes your readers as inappropriate, in bad taste, or offensive.
Tone can best be assessed by a reader who doesn't know you at all or whose contact with you has been formal and detached. Always ask your readers how the essay makes you seem: would they hire such a person? Would they go out on a date with such a person? Does the essay make you seem too flippant? Is anything in it in poor taste?
If you tell a joke, make sure it is funny. Jokes depend on timing and delivery and often do not translate well from spoken to written English. They may also be generation-specific. Older and younger people find different things funny. Ask your detached readers whether they laughed while they were reading, and, if so, where. If younger readers laughed and older ones did not, eliminate the joke; grizzled old law professors may view it as evidence of immaturity.
You may also wonder whether admissions officials will read your essay with an eye to deducing your political views and, if so, if there s an orthodoxy of correct views you must subscribe to. The answer is no, in the sense that the readers won't care if you are a Democrat or a Republican, or if you did volunteer work for a soup kitchen for the poor or for a think tank whose goal is the lifting of environmental protection rules. They're lawyers. They recognize legitimate political differences.
Many law schools are pioneers in the ongoing effort to acknowledge and respect the differences between subgroups in our multicultural society. Being "politically correct" in this sense won't hurt you, and it may help. Use common sense. Don't write in such a way that you imply the inferiority of others. If you're a man, don't refer to young women as "babes" and don't reminisce about the good old days when women stayed home with the children. If you're a woman, don't write as though men are members of an alien oppressor class.
Making It Correct
Law professors may pore over your essay for evidence that you can communicate clearly in writing. You can best demonstrate the possession of a skill that eventually can be put to use writing legal memos and briefs by making sure that your essay uses the written English language properly according to the rules. You need to demonstrate that you can write mainstream English-that is, grownup-prose.
Many lawyers and law professors are dissatisfied with the quality of the prose that their colleagues turn out. Lawyers are said to write excessively wordy and lengthy sentences, and to rely unnecessarily on the passive voice and excessively on technical terms, vague words, and repetitive qualifying clauses. Because of this criticism, writing requirements have been stiffened at many law schools.
Grammar and punctuation count. Word usage, proper paragraphing, and such sophisticated rhetorical techniques as parallelism, all count. If you have difficulty with such things, refer to any standard guide to English usage. The Little, Brown Handbook and similar manuals are commonly available on campus. Perhaps you've kept the copy you needed for freshman English composition.
As with anything you do, neatness counts. Typographical errors, and even blots and smudges, distract the attention of the reader from the content of the essay. The best way to avoid typographical errors is to type the essay yourself on word processing equipment, stopping frequently to proofread. Hired typists, and even friends, are less familiar with your own vocabulary and less well motivated to do a good job.
Before you send it off, make sure your name appears on each page of your essay. Number the pages, and use paper clips rather than staples. You want your final application to reflect attention to detail and thoroughness-the qualities admissions officers look for in potential future lawyers.