Over the past 12 weeks, I’ve written a series of LSAT lessons that should be enough to get novices up and running. These lessons will also disabuse refugees from other LSAT programs of any bogus notions—race the clock, read the question stem first—they picked up elsewhere.
Today I’m going to shift gears a bit. Applications open in early September at most law schools, and forward-looking students have started asking questions about their personal statements. “Where the hell do I get started?” is by far the most common of these.
Last Wednesday, I guest-taught the Admissions Hour with LSAT Demon tutor (and soon-to-be Yale 1L) Carl Lasker. In that session, we brought back our “Personal Statement Woodchipper,” wherein we read one brave applicant’s draft personal statement. And, well, we shredded it. Like always.
The biggest problem with this one, like so many others, was that it left us with no real picture of who the person is or what they do. There was too much cinematic scene-setting, too much industry jargon, and too much Tarantino-style timeline-skipping.
There was not enough of the actual applicant we were supposed to be learning about. In short, the personal statement wasn’t personal.
We each have a dozen different stories, any of which could make the foundation of a strong personal statement. So it’s less important that we pick the perfect topic, and far more important that we get our bad first draft out of the way ASAP. Until we have a draft, we can’t start cutting the worst parts and teasing out more of the good stuff. The purpose of this lesson is to help you get started.
This isn’t the only way to get started—it’s just one way. If you’re stuck, this might be a good way to get the words flowing.
The basic formula: I am. I did. I do. I will.
Ben and I talk endlessly about showing, rather than telling, any time a personal statement comes up on the Thinking LSAT Podcast. The point is to demonstrate your strengths and achievements via facts, rather than forcing conclusions down the reader’s throat. Fact-driven writing is far more powerful than conclusion-driven writing. So the bulk of your statement needs to consist of sentences that follow the basic formula of “I did X.” We want your statement to be stuffed with sentences that feature you as the star of the show—don’t be shy about using the word “I” as the subject of your sentences—with active verbs. Here are some examples:
I wrote. I managed. I researched. I reorganized. I developed. I created. In short, I kicked ass.
Generally, you should avoid passive construction using forms of the verb “to be.” Steer clear of be, am, is, are, was, were, being, and been. When you see these verbs, replace them with something active.
Why, then, do I suggest starting with “I am”?
As Carl and I discovered in the Admissions Hour last Wednesday, the emphasis on active verbs can sometimes fail to give readers the necessary footing. We dive right into an action scene, without any background. So in this formulation of “how to write a personal statement,” it’s okay to start with a very brief statement of who you are, to help us understand the action to follow. Then skip back in time, just once, to discuss some background. Then progress into the modern day. Finally, if necessary, talk about the future. We’ll start in the present.
Ben Olson doesn’t let me use italics any more, but if I were allowed to use them I would italicize the “very” in “keep this section very brief.” I’m talking one or two sentences. See how it looks as a short, standalone paragraph. Using myself as an example:
I am the co-founder of LSATDemon.com, an LSAT preparation program with students and teachers from around the world. I’m also the co-host of the Thinking LSAT Podcast, which published its 296th episode last week.
This tells the reader who I am today, priming them for the story arc I’m planning to take them on. Don’t do more than a sentence or two of this, because it’s telling rather than showing. But the reader now has a picture of who I am in the world, which will help them comprehend the following sections.
Immediately, we transition back in time to provide some background. We’ll only do one such shift in the timeline—generally, chronological stories are much easier to digest. Readability is key, so we’ll only go forward, never backward, from here.
After graduating from Babson College in 2006, I began moonlighting as a GMAT teacher. My employer at the time needed an LSAT teacher, so I started teaching that as well. In 2008, in the summer between my 1L and 2L years of law school, I started Fox LSAT. I rented the back room of a Mission District cafe for my first class, which struggled to enroll a dozen students. But strong Yelp reviews and word of mouth filled subsequent classes.
From here, I’d continue to progress through my career. I’d talk about books I wrote, my in-person classes, the podcast, and founding LSAT Demon. This section can be anywhere from one paragraph to a page, depending on how much history is relevant.
Law schools are keenly interested in the person you are today. If they admit you, that’s the you who’s actually coming to class—not the you from five years ago. So we’ll shift to the present tense here to show the reader the strong, positive, winning applicant they’re looking for.
I now teach LSAT classes three days a week, and I love teaching now more than ever. I am especially proud of our free resources, including the Thinking LSAT Podcast, which have reached tens of thousands of students. I hire and manage a staff of two dozen freelance teachers, writers, and editors. Together, we offer multiple live classes seven days a week.
Here I could write about favorite students, or interactions I have with the teachers I mentor, or the laughs I have recording each week with Ben. You don’t have to choose the one perfect story, and each anecdote doesn’t have to be wildly impressive. Just demonstrate that you are capable, reliable, creative, thoughtful, resourceful—in other words, someone with their shit together.
Many excellent personal statements—especially for anyone who already works in anything even tangentially related to business or law—can end right here. You’ve shown who you are, what you’ve done, and what you currently do. Your reader is in the business of selling law school. They can put the pieces together between what you’re doing now and the opportunities they believe their law school can offer you. They already know you’re applying to law school, so don’t waste time with “I am applying for matriculation at your fine law school blah blah blah.”
But if you’ve been a musician for 15 years, or you studied chemistry in college, or your history-to-present doesn’t exactly scream law school, you may want to add a fourth, extremely brief section:
If it’s obvious that you’re changing career paths completely by applying to law school, try closing with a very brief statement about what you plan to do. One or two sentences is plenty, as you haven’t actually done any of this stuff yet—and it’s all just kind of BS until you actually do it. But you want your story to make sense (and hopefully it does, in fact, make sense), so go ahead and tell them what you’re trying to do.
I hope to gain experience in trade secret and copyright law. Eventually, I might explore a legal practice in the licensing of digital educational materials.
Boom, that’s it. Shitty first draft of personal statement complete.
I am. I did. I do. (And optionally, I will.)
That’s one or two sentences to introduce yourself. Then a paragraph to three-quarters of a page of what you did, leading up to three-quarters of a page of what you do now. End it there, or, if necessary, add one or two sentences of what you hope to do.
This isn’t by any means the only way to write a personal statement. But it’s at least a framework for getting something on the page that isn’t a complete mess. From here, if you find the glimmer of something you like, it’s all about the rewrites and editing.
Study with me, for free.
I love teaching the LSAT. In LSAT Demon Live, I currently teach four classes per week. My favorite class on the current schedule is our LSAT study group, which is absolutely free. It happens on Thursdays, and I hope you’ll join us.