Do I Have to Write About X in My Law School Personal Statement?

Here's a question frequently asked by law school applicants, with variations on a theme:

My LSAT instructor says I have to write about public service in my personal statement.

My mom says I have to explain why I switched majors in my personal statement.

My dad says I should write about The Law in my personal statement.

My friend who's a 2L says I have to write about a big dilemma in my personal statement.

Do you agree?

No. Law schools typically give you wide latitude to decide what to showcase about yourself in your application essay, especially when they ask you to take a more personal approach, as is customary (in contrast to the "why do you want to go to law school" type questions, which are very narrow). Take advantage of that latitude! They don't want to read 5,000 essays about a dilemma, or 5,000 essays about public service, or 5,000 essays about The Law, or 5,000 essays about how Organic Chemistry is really hard and so you switched from pre-med to Political Science and, lo and behold, your grades went up. How would they even stay awake? 

There's a lot of well-intended advice out there, and it's often wrong. So wrong, in fact, that you might be hurting your application if you follow it, because you'll be submitting something stale and clichéd and generic (and sometimes terribly obvious) instead of an essay that helps an admissions officer know and understand you better.

Instead, think of your assignment this way:

What does this total stranger (the admissions officer) need to know about you

(1) that will help her "get" who you are and

(2) that she won't be able to learn about you in other parts of the application?

There's no one topic that works for everybody. The "right" topic will be specific to you. Ironically, if you approach your essay trying to deduce in advance what an admissions officer wants to hear, you'll produce the opposite. Instead, approach the essay asking yourself those two questions above, and you'll be much more likely to produce an essay that accomplishes its mission.

Here are more tips on how to zero in on a good personal statement topic: "Picking a Topic for Your Law School Application Essay"

Are there particular approaches you found helpful in finding your own "right" personal statement topic? Please share.

Former Dean of Admissions at the University of Chicago Law School and a recovering lawyer, Anna Ivey founded Ivey Consulting to help college, law school, and MBA applicants navigate the admissions process. You can read more admissions tips in The Ivey Guide to Law School Admissions, recently updated and available as an e-book, and find Anna on Twitter and Facebook.