On the last couple episodes of the Thinking LSAT podcast, Ben and I have read a half dozen personal statements. It’s that time of year. Over the next couple weeks, we’ll cover a few more. The purpose of this lesson is to give you some ideas about what not to include.
Think of your personal statement as an argument in favor of your candidacy. You’re trying to leave the reader with the impression that you’re destined for success in law school and beyond. How do you lead readers to this conclusion? By providing facts, of course.
It’s your life, and no one knows the facts of your life better than you do. So which facts should you include, and which facts should you leave out?
Omit facts that could be interpreted against you.
This point should be obvious, but many students choose to include facts in their personal statement that could be interpreted negatively.
Let’s take a quick diversion into LSAT logical reasoning. Consider the following argument:
Caitlyn’s leaving town for a few days and needs someone to take care of her dog. She’s looking for someone responsible to feed, water, protect, and walk the mutt. Neighbor John, right across the hall, says he will be the perfect dogsitter.
If we wanted to strengthen John’s case for being a perfect dogsitter, something like “John loves the dog and will pay careful attention to her” would unequivocally strengthen his argument.
If we wanted to weaken John’s candidacy for dogsitter, something like “John frequently forgets popcorn on his burning stove and doesn’t realize it until black smoke fills his house” would unequivocally weaken his case.
It’s easy to see clear strengtheners and weakeners. But now consider something like this:
John is a serious gamer who rarely leaves the house.
If you were hoping to build John’s case for being a dogsitter, you might think this helps him. You’d point out that if John’s always in the house, he is always available to feed, water, and protect the dog.
But there’s always an attorney on the other side, looking to twist your facts against you. In this case, the attorney against John would say, “But Caitlyn wants the dog walked! If John rarely leaves the house, how can he walk the dog?”
On LSAT logical reasoning, ambiguous answers—ones that could be read either as strengtheners or as weakeners—are never correct. You wouldn’t want to include in your brief a fact that your opponent can turn against you.
Don’t sabotage your own case.
Consider the following bullet points, all lifted from real-life personal statement drafts submitted to the Thinking LSAT and LSAT Demon Daily podcasts:
- I was very irresponsible in college, so I earned terrible grades.
- I partied too much, and I failed to manage my time properly.
- I struggled with drugs and alcohol.
- I suffered from anxiety and depression.
- I come from an uneducated family, so I squandered my educational opportunities.
- I butted heads with the administration at my alma mater.
- I was mistreated by my former employer, and I ended up filing a lawsuit against them.
- I had medical issues that made me unable to study and/or work.
- I was in an abusive relationship.
- College was hard for me because I had to manage my dyslexia, ADD, ADHD, and/or Tourette’s Syndrome.
- The odds are always stacked against me.
- I worked four jobs simultaneously and never earned what I was worth.
- It’s difficult being a single parent.
- My mother/father/grandmother/grandfather/brother/sister is sick/addicted/mentally ill.
- I feel defeated/anxious/depressed when I see how many people in the world are sick/poor/downtrodden.
Law school admissions folk are humans. I believe that humans are generally good. They are educated, modern, liberal-leaning people who genuinely want you to succeed in the world. But they’re comparing you against a stack of other applicants, all with similar LSATs and GPAs, and they can choose only some of you, not all of you.
Stop putting reasons to deny you in your law school application!
If all else is equal—which it almost certainly will be at one or more of the schools you’re applying to—any of the facts above is more likely to hurt you than to help you. It’s simple human nature.
Do we want the candidate who we know for sure has struggled with alcohol and depression, or the one with similar stats, who didn’t mention addiction or mental health?
Should we choose the applicant who wrote about a conflict with the administration at his former school? The one who sued his prior employer? Or the one who didn’t?
We can offer only one full-ride scholarship. Should we give it to the guy who overshared a whole bunch of family drama? Or the gal who showed much better judgment by leaving that type of shit at home?
You’ve only got a page and a half, two pages max, to tell your story. You have a whole lifetime of facts to choose from, which necessarily means that you must omit almost a lifetime of facts. Stop sabotaging yourself by including facts that could be interpreted against you.
Fine, then what should I include?
Think about a lawyer you admire. What makes them so successful? These are the traits law schools are looking for. Don’t tell the schools you have these traits, show them—by marshaling facts from your life that unambiguously demonstrate these qualities in action.
Don’t tell them “I am hardworking.” Instead show them your 5 a.m. arrival time at work. Show them your midnight departure time. Show them statistics about how many more cases you handled or sales you made.
Don’t tell them “I am trustworthy.” Instead show yourself opening or closing the store. Show yourself handling important filings. Show yourself being on call when it matters.
For god’s sake, don’t tell them “I am passionate.” Instead show yourself doing things that demonstrate your passion. Nobody wants to hear how much you claim to care—we want to hear what you’ve done about it.
Ultimately, law schools want winners.
Before you go off on some sob story or overshare personal struggles—which we all have, by the way—ask yourself whether the inclusion of any particular detail is an unambiguous point in your favor. Your main competitors are demonstrating their ability to advocate by stuffing their personal statements with facts that can only be interpreted favorably. Judiciously, they omit details that could be perceived negatively. They’re not relying on pleas for sympathy. They’re not whining, oversharing, or complaining. They’re marshaling facts in their favor. Half of the battle is leaving out facts that could be used against them.