Don't Confuse a Personal Statement with a Think Piece

When you're sitting down to start drafting your law school personal statement, you might feel a strong temptation to write a think piece, or an opinion piece, or a position statement. All about a Big Issue that shows you're a Big Thinker who thinks Big Thoughts and proposes Big Solutions. 

And no wonder. That's what you've been trained to do in college: Identify and analyze a problem, weigh different approaches and solutions, articulate and defend your own position, and demonstrate that your mind is a golden chariot of great finesse and lightning speed. If you've had a good (note the qualifier!) liberal arts education, you can probably crank those out in your sleep by now.

So you use the same model for your personal statement, because it's what you know how to do, and you're good at it, and you think the goal here is to show how smart you are. But you realize it's not supposed to be a term paper, so you spice things up with some anecdotes. You start by describing a first-hand experience you had with the conflict in the Middle East / the breakdown in the legislative process on the Hill / the dearth of potable water in the developing world / the role of race in America / creepy privacy issues in the era of Big Data / the North Korea Problem. Then you segue into your position on that topic and your preferred policy solution, and you spend most of the essay planting that flag and defending it. Then you finish with a concluding paragraph that ties it all into law school, and why you want to dedicate your career to those issues with the benefit of a first-rate legal education.

But that kind of op-ed think piece is not what admissions officers are looking for in your application essay.

I know that seems weird and counterintuitive. Isn't being a lawyer all about having a position and defending it? Isn't it all about using words and writing as powerful tools to get your point across? Isn't it all about thinking about big problems and big solutions?

Sometimes, yes. But that's not what you're being asked to do here. 

Assuming you have them, it IS a good idea to talk about your concrete goals, and how law school fits into them, especially in this Hieronymus-Bosch-hell of a legal job market. It IS a good idea to be able to tie the threads together and give a good sense of what you want your contribution to be. 

But ultimately the focus is supposed to be primarily on you, not on an issue. 

And you're certainly not expected to propose and defend a solution to a big, tricky issue in a 2-page, double-spaced personal statement. You know how many facile think-pieces-disguised-as-personal-statements I've read over the years?  Too many to count. And they always leave the reader... wanting.

There's no way not to be facile in attempting an essay like that. You just don't have the room to develop it into the term paper your pet issue deserves. That approach does not serve you well, and it doesn't serve the admissions officer's purpose, either. And that purpose is to get to know you better. The essay is not a test of your intellectual firepower as you propose your policy preferences around non-renewable energy or whatever. It's to get to know you, and also to make sure you have mastered written English at a reasonably elevated level. (Many applicants haven't, even from fancy schools, which is one reason why graduate admissions officers are sorting for it in the essay.)

For these purposes, it's enough that you care about an issue, have a demonstrated track record involving that issue (whether in school, in your work, in your activities, or from personal experience), and that you want to do more with it. It's enough to articulate how law school will help you be more effective in those endeavors.

And remember: you don't have to write about an issue at all in your personal statement. But if you do, keep the focus on you: your experiences, your motivations, your goals. You absolutely CAN rock your personal statement if you are mindful of the true topic you're being asked to write about: you.

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. If you prefer the book-length treatment, read more law school admissions tips in The Ivey Guide to Law School Admissions. You can also follow Anna on Twitter (@annaivey), or join the conversation on Facebook. Looking for personalized feedback on your personal statement? We're here to help