In last week’s lesson, I chiseled out five personal statement commandments:
- Consider your audience.
- Put your best foot forward.
- Avoid passive voice.
- Omit thoughts, feelings, and other mental states.
- Stop talking about interviews and job offers.
This week, I’m hauling another stone tablet down the mountain.
Commandment: Make it about you.
Law schools are considering whether to admit you, not anyone else. They’re not admitting your parents, grandparents, spouse, children, mentor, or whatever random guru you might be tempted to quote at the top of your statement. You. So, when in doubt, omit all references to anyone other than yourself. It’s not egotistical to omit them—it’s a personal statement!
The express purpose of the document is to convince admissions officers that you’re going to succeed at their law school. You’re going to be a successful attorney. You’re going to be a high-profile alum who’s going to raise the prestige of the school. YOU, goddamnit. Before you include anyone else in your statement, ask yourself: “How does including this other person make me look good?” Name-dropping a powerful boss doesn’t count. We care what you’ve done for that boss, not that you know their name.
Virtue signaling doesn’t count, either. It impresses nobody when you reference the Dalai Lama, Mother Theresa, Willie Nelson, or any other saint. If these people have actually inspired you so deeply, you’ll have done something with that inspiration. Please, for the love of god, tell us what you’ve done.
Commandment: Stop selling law school to law schools.
Many applicants suffer from the misconception that they have to spell out precisely how their experience will translate to success in law school. I hear this a lot:
The problem is that my reason for wanting to go to law school, and the reason why I think a school should accept me, is because I’m good at this type of work and it’s enjoyable. I don’t know how to convey that in a statement.
This applicant, after nine years of experience at a law firm, feels insecure enough to close her draft personal statement with the following explanation:
After many years in the legal field and dedicating thousands of hours to improving my skills and knowledge, I have reached a “knowledge wall.” This figurative wall cannot be ascended without law school. To reach my career goals and continue my growth in the legal industry, law school is the course of action. I have demonstrated skills, knowledge, willingness to adapt, and solid foundational abilities for becoming an attorney through the actions and accolades described above. This is strong grounds for predicting a favorable probability of success as a law school student.
Putting the frivolous and clumsy “knowledge wall” metaphor aside, the point of this paragraph is the obvious, and thus boring, “law school is next if I want to be a lawyer.” It is all telling, no showing. It makes me sad.
You’re flouting our first commandment: Consider thy reader. Your audience sells law school for a living—all day, every day. They, and their predecessors, have been doing this since before you were born. If anyone believes that law school’s a good idea, it’s them. You have nine damn years of experience in a law firm! No one believes more than a law school admissions officer does that someone with nine years of law firm experience is a good fit for law school. You’re their target market.
They know more about this business than you do. They know about opportunities you’ve never even considered. They can fill in the blanks. If you show yourself as a winning contributor at your current firm, they will see a world of opportunity for you at their school. Let them make the connections—ones you might not even think of—instead of trying to force one on them. Especially something so ham-fisted and mundane as “this is strong grounds for predicting a favorable probability of success.” Delete this entire paragraph. Use the available space to provide positive facts about yourself. Let the facts speak for themselves. Don’t blather on with conclusion after conclusion.
Ben here: I’m going to give Nathan a break. Those tablets are heavy. Here’s another one.
Commandment: Stop using the vomit-inducing word “advocate.”
The word advocate is nauseating because everyone uses it to sound like they’re an attorney. Oh, really, you were “advocating” for someone? Wow, you must be an attorney. It’s grating to hear that word over and over in the comparatively few statements that we see every week. I can’t imagine what it must be like for an actual admissions officer.
But there’s another more substantive problem: It’s not clear what you mean by “advocate.” Did you speak in front of a crowd? Petition a judge? Write to your political leaders? What actually happened?
And yet another problem: When you “advocate” for something, we still don’t know the outcome. So we’re stuck with two burning questions: (1) What did you actually do? (2) And did you even succeed?
I can see it coming. When people are given a commandment, they are quick to find a workaround that’s just as bad. I’m not telling you to replace the word “advocate” with fight, defend, or any other silly synonym. I’m telling you to tell us the facts. What did you do? What steps did you take? How did you win? How did you kick ass? You got this.
Back to Nathan...
We’re up to eight Commandments for Personal Statements that Don’t Suck. Please, for the sake of Ben’s and my mental health, make sure your statement follows these commandments before you show us a draft.
I’d love to hear what you think about this lesson—email me at email@example.com.