Law School Personal Statements: What Not To Do

Granted, they don’t yet know who you are. But many reviewers are secretly rooting for you, hoping that you’ve written a good statement, an interesting statement, a statement that will leave them saying, “Wow, what a unique and impressive applicant!” Unfortunately, in most cases they are sorely disappointed. Not only do most personal statements fail to meet the criteria of being “good,” but they actually cross the line and into the realm of “bad” or even “ugly.”

What not to write in your personal statement

Sure, reading harsh critical reviews of movies or restaurants can be entertaining in its own right, but more important for aspiring law students, criticism can always be framed constructively. Since law school personal statements are made to be scrutinized by admissions committees, it’s only fair to study examples of what to avoid so that you can get a clearer picture of what you should do in your own writing.
To help you craft an effective essay, here’s a sampling of some choice law school personal statement openers that, one way or another, miss the mark. Enjoy:

  • “The ball falls through the net as the buzzer sounds. I give Cornell the victory with a last second shot. Unfortunately this never happened, but even now the dream remains.”
  • “When taken chronologically, anyone’s life may seem to be a series of loosely connected events. Each follows the other, sometimes neatly, sometimes not, but…”
  • “I have never been fond of dogs; I find their habits repulsive, their odor offensive, and I shudder to think of one living in my home. And yet, one day…”
  • “The final brush strokes in the portrait of [name], applicant for admission to the X School of Law have been completed, and I would very much appreciate your bringing them to the attention of the Committee on Admissions.”
  • “‘It is true,’ the witness begins, ‘that my undergraduate GPA is low, but I submit to you that success, past and future, are not measured by grades alone. Mental toughness, leadership, demonstrated hard work intellectual vision should also count for something, and do, if I read my NYU Law School prospectus correctly.’ Murmurs of ‘typical English major bluster’ waft from the jury’s bench, but the witness continues…

Types of Bad Personal Statements

To help you avoid common mistakes like these, let’s look at some categories of bad personal statements.

The Law-Breaker

If an application lists essay page limits, word limits, margin limits, font limits, or even character limits, follow these guidelines unless otherwise directed by an admissions officer at the schools in question. And, when in doubt about an application rule, make a 3-minute phone call to the admissions office to confirm the requirement. While there may be an admissions officer or two who are kind about overlooking a rule here or there, there are others – especially at the end of a long day after just having read dozens of awful essays – who will not be so forgiving. Also, don’t forget – you’re planning on becoming a lawyer, and it is expected that you will play by the rules. Don’t give reviewers an easy reason to downgrade your application.

The Writing Disaster

Typos, improper word usage, poor organization of paragraphs, and terrible punctuation. These are just a few of the key elements that make our next worst of the worst nominee one of the most well known bombs in admissions offices nationwide. This type of statement will sink the application even before the reviewer has finished reading it. Fortunately, for those who wish to avoid the writing disaster, there’s a simple solution. Proofread your statement and have a close friend or colleague with fresh eyes – one who hasn’t read lots of drafts – review it closely before submitting. The statement isn’t solely about content. The writing itself is important.

The Inappropriate Downer

Here’s an interesting personal statement intro for you: I have bad grades, I’m an awful test taker, and I have two convictions for drinking while driving – oh, and a summons for urinating in public, though not while I was actually driving the car. Had enough? Do you really think an admissions reviewer is going to approach your essay with a positive attitude after having read all that? Hmmm. Probably not.
Don’t get me wrong. It is possible and, in fact, advisable to explain these types of problems (if you have them). However, unless otherwise directed by the application rules, it is advised that you not do so in the personal statement, but rather in a concise addendum to the application. That doesn’t mean that you can never refer to a negative aspect of your background in the personal statement. For instance, a negative reference is simply going to be unavoidable when writing an essay about how you’ve grown or matured over the years. In this case though, the negativity should be kept to a minimum. For example, if you’ve overcome a life-threatening illness, it is absolutely fine to briefly discuss the obstacles and the bad times, but the focus should be much more on how you overcame than on how you were held back. Be upbeat. Be positive. Be inspiring. Don’t bring me down.

The No-Show

One key mistake that some applicants make in the application process is their failure to show how great they are. Admissions officers will not be impressed if you simply tell them that you are your personal statement. One of the most important things that you will do in your personal statement is tell one or more concise stories that demonstrate critical aspects of who you really are and what makes you special. Simply telling readers that you are good, great or special will only get you so far – and in fact by simply telling without showing, you are likely to come across as arrogant, unfriendly, and just plain uncool.I f admissions officers read an essay in which you say great things about yourself, but you don’t really provide stories that truly show this to be the case, they could very well conclude that.

The Gimmick

Don’t write a personal statement that relies on gimmickry. This includes framing your essay as a poem; a newspaper article written in the third person; a movie script; a stand-up comedy routine. While the words of your statement should flow like poetry to one’s ears, you should not write an actual poem.

The Essay About Your Mother

While your mother may be a great and inspiring woman, she should not be the focus of your personal statement. For that matter, neither should your father, brother, sister, cat, snake, or turtle. Now that doesn’t mean that you can’t include very brief references and examples in your statement about a person who has been the greatest inspiration in your life. That can be fine. Ultimately, however, the vast majority of the verbiage in your essay must be focused on you and your experiences – no matter how amazing the stories of those who inspired you may be.