A personal statement is only as powerful as the story it tells, and the story is only as powerful as the details that comprise it.
In this installment of “Writing Your Personal Statement,” I’ll talk about something that’s just as important as getting personal: Getting specific.
Once again, I’ll call your attention to what a personal statement ultimately is: It is your on-paper interview with the Admissions Committee of the schools to which you’re applying. And, again, I’ll call your attention to what the statement should be doing: It should be talking about you. However, understanding these two very important principles will still yield a less-than-stellar personal statement unless you truly connect with the reader, and the only way to connect with the reader is to give them specifics.
Let’s start by clarifying what I mean by “specifics.” In the context of the law school personal statement, “specific” doesn’t mean that you should describe in detail what you were wearing, thinking, and eating during the events you will chose to write about. “Specific ” doen’t mean that you should try to remember exact dialogue and regurgitate it on a page. Specifics, when used in law school application lingo, mean “specific events that back up your claims.” For example:
- If someone tells the admissions committee they want to study law in order to become a public defender and help people, they should back up their claim with a specific story that shows them doing exactly that–i.e., the story of how they helped a client the summer of their junior year of college while they were interning for Legal Aid.
- If someone tells the admissions committee are strong and capable of overcoming adversity, they should back up their claim with a story that shows them doing exactly that–i.e., excelling academically in high school and college despite a rough upbringing and a lacking academic support system.
- If someone tells the admission committee that the indiscretions they made in the past (a criminal record, a poor academic performance in college, etc.) are not indicative of their potential now, they need to back that claim up with specifics–i.e., specific stories demonstrating their exemplary work ethic and drive at work, or stories about how they’ve spent their probation in positive ways (i.e., mentoring at-risk youth).
Get the idea? Many students speak in generalities (“I want to study the law to help others,” or “My past will not affect my future,” or “The things that I have survived have made me a stronger person”), and think that making these generalized statements makes their essay sound impassioned and impressive; in reality, these generalities (even if they touch upon things that actually happened to the writer personally) ring hollow.
Pretend for a moment that you’re the one interviewing someone for a position: Wouldn’t you want to hear them back up their claims? Imagine you’re hiring someone to work as a teacher; would you simply believe their claims that they “can teach very well,” or would you want them to tell you specific stories about difficult situations they’ve faced in the classroom and how they’ve overcome them? Imagine you’re looking to hire someone to manage your office; would you be satisfied with hearing them say they “can manage a large group of people,” or would you want them to tell you about a particularly trying or complex office logistics problem they have encountered, and how they resolved it amicably?
Specifics not only make you memorable, they also make you believable. Whenever I find myself reading a personal statement that makes any sort of claim about the author (for example, “I know that I will make a difference!”), and then provides nothing to back it up, I always find myself raising an eyebrow in askance and wondering, “What exactly makes this person believe they can do this? What in their life has qualified them to make that statement?” or, even worse, “Did they just say that to try to impress me?”
Don’t let law school admissions members raise an eyebrow when reading your statement. Think of your personal statement as the centerpiece of the “case” your presenting to schools as to why they should let you in; give them as much specific evidence as you can to back up your theory that you will not only be a successful law student, but also a successful attorney.
The ten parts of this series are:
- Part 1: Take Your Time
- Part 2: Plan It Out
- Part 3: Get Personal
- Part 4: Get Specific (this post)
- Part 5: Embrace Variety
- Part 6: Step Away
- Part 7: Edit
- Part 8: Involve Others
- Part 9: Proof
- Part 10: Don’t Be Afraid