Three More Commandments for Personal Statements that Don’t Suck

Three More Commandments for Personal Statements that Don’t Suck

It’s September, and wise law school applicants are trying to follow our advice to get in early on rolling admissions. Offers of admission and scholarships tend to be much more generous for those who apply in September than for those who apply in any other month. Good on you, if you’re applying right now. Thank you for listening to us. It’s gonna work out well for you, I promise.

Unfortunately, most of the personal statement submissions we receive don’t follow the bulk of our advice. Maybe you’re new. If so, welcome! Check out our previous personal statement lessons and podcast episodes here, here, here, here, and here.

It’s a bit discouraging to constantly read personal statement submissions that seem to flout all our advice. I’m not saying anybody should feel sorry for me. I love what I do, and I can’t imagine doing anything else. But going forward, if you’re going to submit a personal statement to the Thinking LSAT podcast, you’re going to have to run a bit of a questionnaire gauntlet here:

lsat.link/statement

By all means, please do submit. But make sure that you’ve taken advantage of our pre-existing resources before asking for custom advice. It’s a bit rude not to, don’t you think?

Or maybe you don’t think. That’s cool too! I’m nathan@lsatdemon.com if you want to tell me I’m full of shit. Or, if you’re enjoying these columns and you’d like to suggest a different topic—I’d be delighted to have a mental-health break into almost anything else—please propose something. I read every email, even if I don’t have time to respond to them all.

I’ve got a couple more hard-and-fast rules for you. The first one’s really simple:

Commandment: Two pages, double-spaced, max

Most law schools expect a two-page statement. We expect that you’re going to use the same statement for almost all of the 10–20 schools to which you apply. So when you submit via lsat.link/statement, for consideration on a future episode of Thinking LSAT, that’s what we’re going to require. One page is too short. Three pages is too long. Anything between one and a quarter and two full pages is acceptable, and that’s a pretty damn wide target to hit. Use 11- or 12-point font, with double-spaced lines.

While we’re at it, please left-justify (not full-justify) and choose a normal font, like Times or Arial. This is a professional document, so it’s not appropriate to let your Comic Sans flag fly.

This commandment is non-negotiable if you want us to read your shit. We will not read it if you don’t follow this rule.

Why am I such a hardass about this? Well, you’re too young to remember Van Halen, but Van Halen was a rock band in the ’80s. Allegedly, Van Halen had a rider in their tour contract that specified all sorts of complicated stuff about how they wanted their mics and speakers and instruments and whatever other rocker shit. Anyway, one of the things they specified was a bowl of M&Ms backstage. This bowl of M&Ms was to have all the brown M&Ms removed. Allegedly, if Van Halen showed up to play their bitchin’ rock show in Fresno or wherever and there were no M&Ms—or there were M&Ms with the brown ones not removed—Van Halen would leave the building. No bitchin’ rock show for you, Fresno or wherever!

This wasn’t because Van Halen hated brown M&Ms. It was because they wanted the venue to follow all the other requirements in their damn rider! If I see a statement that’s one page, or three pages, or not double-spaced, I will know immediately that you’re not following our guidelines. No bitchin’ personal statement advice for you.

Commandment: Use a damn period sometimes.

Y’all gotta stop it with the colons and semicolons and ellipses and other artsy bullshit. Even when you use them correctly, they’re annoying distractions. But putting all that artifice aside, your sentences are too damn long. Look:

Throughout my time working and volunteering in community service, I have been a part of several impactful events and programs, such as being the ambassador at the Capitol One’s Race for the Kids charity event, vice-president of my community centre’s Youth Council, and running virtual programs during the COVID-19 pandemic in order to connect and stay in contact with youth during a difficult time.

Come on man. There are 64 words in that sentence. Anyone who tries to read that sentence out loud would pass out from asphyxiation before they finish. It’s just not that hard to use a damn period once in a while, to allow the reader to catch their breath. Nobody’s going to get anything out of that crazy list of vague and unrelated items. Make them separate sentences! If you’re proud enough of these achievements to include them in your personal statement, then give them their own stage on which to shine. Stop crowding them into long-winded lists that your reader is probably just going to skip.

I don’t know where I learned it, but someone somewhere told me that 35 words should be a hard cap on words per sentence. I myself violate this at times, but I shouldn’t. When I take the time to go back and edit myself, I find it’s hard to justify even getting close to the cap, let alone breaking it. If I just use a damn period sometimes, I can find ways to cut each of these sentences into two or three, without ruining the style. You should do the same. Even 35 words is too many for most of us. I suggest 25 words per sentence, max.

Commandment: Omit most days, times, months, and years.

Applicants stuff their personal statements with references to times of day, days of the week, months and seasons of the year, and years themselves. These details aren’t crucial parts of your story, so they should be omitted. Look:

Wednesday, April 13th, 2011, started like any other humid day during Nigeria's rainy season.

As it turns out, the date is very important to this applicant because of something very bad that happened to them. The entire story violates our commandment to put your best foot forward, and so the entire thing’s gotta go. But even if we were going to keep the story, we’ve gotta lose the date. It makes no difference to the reader whether this happened on a Wednesday or a Saturday, in April or in November, on the 13th or the 32nd, in 2011 or in any other year. It doesn’t get you any closer to making the reader think, “Wow, this guy’s gonna be a kickass lawyer—we have no choice but to admit him,” so it has no place in your statement.

It’s especially egregious when months and years are included to make reference to when someone was hired. This information is on your resume. If I cared, which I don’t, I could look it up there. (I won’t.)

Sometimes applicants push back like, “What’s so bad about including this? Do law schools really not want to read about thoughts and feelings, or my job interview, or high school, or specific dates?” This objection misses the point. We have only two pages, max, to put our best foot forward. To make the most of our opportunity, we must ruthlessly omit things that are neutral to our story. If it’s not moving the story forward, it’s gotta go. Every sentence, starting from the very first one, needs to draw the reader toward the conclusions that you’re a badass, that you’ll be even more of a badass after law school, and that the reader will have a terminal case of FOMO if they even consider denying or waitlisting you.

With all these don’ts, maybe you’re confused about how to get started. That’s okay—just start putting words on paper. Good writing doesn’t just appear out of the ether, perfectly formed. It’s the result of shitty first drafts and merciless rounds of editing. The finished product needs to be somewhere between one and two pages. The first draft can be four pages, or more. Don’t edit yourself too much, just get it all out there on the page. Then use these commandments to cut, cut, cut, leaving only the good stuff behind.

My free October 2021 study group meets every Thursday at 4pm PST / 7pm EST on Zoom. All you need is a Demon Free account. Come say hi!

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