The other night I co-hosted a free PowerScore online seminar on the basics of the law school admissions process. This seminar, known as Admissions 101, covers each step of applying to law school, and it discusses how to approach the application process and what the law schools are seeking from you as an applicant. During this seminar I spent a lot of time answering questions about two things in particular: letters of recommendation (LOR) and the personal statement. Due to the large number of LOR questions, I'm going to do a special seminar on just the letters of rec on December 6th at 8 PM Eastern / 5 PM Pacific. If you want to know more about how to get the best LORs possible, come join me (sign up here)! And, we'll also look at some past examples of real letters (both good and bad) sent in by former students of mine—trust me, that's always entertaining!
The other topic that came up repeatedly was the personal statement. Aside from the LSAT, I think the personal statement is the most difficult part of applying to law school, and there are always many questions on what to write, how to write it, how to write a killer opening sentence, and what law schools want. A while back I did a comprehensive seminar on creating the best possible personal statement, and if you haven't already, I suggest you watch the recording of that seminar. In the meantime, I want to follow up on a point that arose the other night, and one that I also briefly addressed within my personal statement seminar: the importance of making every word in your application count.
When I read law school applications (and I do so fairly frequently just through the normal course of helping students), one thing I often see is non-essential verbiage, redundant ideas and messaging, and sentences that sound rather grandiose but that ultimately mean nothing (I call this lawschool-speak, which is a cousin of corporate double-talk). While an applicant can get away with one or two instances of this type of wasteful language, often the first drafts of applications I see are filled with instances of this language. This is a problem because there's a supply and demand issue at the heart of any application: you only have so much real estate available to deliver your message, and if you waste any part of it, you reduce the effectiveness and efficiency of your message. At the same time, you risk annoying readers, because they see so much of this language that they are sensitized to its appearance, and they resent their time being wasted by being forced to read it.
Most dangerously, this type of language can appear all over an application: in the personal statement, in addenda and optional essays, in letters of rec, in a résumé, and in letters of continuing interest and other communications directly with the admissions office. So, it can appear almost anywhere, but to avoid it we first need to know what it looks like.
With this in mind, let's look at some examples:
Stating the Obvious
Statement: "I firmly believe the Juris Doctor (J.D.) program nicely supports my long-term career aspirations" or "I see attending law school as affording me many more opportunities."
Analysis: I've seen these types of statements in many personal statements, addenda, and letters of continuing interest. Here's the problem: you are already applying to law school, so you clearly have made the decision that attending law school and obtaining a JD is a good career move. Telling law schools what they already know doesn't move your app forward.
Statement: "I am confident that I can bring a unique perspective to Duke's law school class."
Analysis: Well, each person is the result of a unique set of genetic, biological, and social circumstances and so automatically each person has a unique perspective. What is really meant here is that your experiences are different than the typical applicant, and that you feel you will approach issues in a different fashion than most students. That's fine, and that can be a point worth exploring; just make sure you state that clearly. Side note: be very careful about comparing yourself to other students in a way that disparages or denigrates those students. It's generally not a good look and it is very hard to pull off successfully.
Statement: "In 2009, I accepted a position with Amazon, working in their Kindle publishing division. Three years later, I was promoted into a junior management position, and the following year I began an Executive MBA at the University of Washington."
Analysis: The problem here is that this information all exists on your résumé, and thus restating these developments without adding personal perspective is repetitive and wastes an opportunity to help the committee learn about you. Each part of your app should bring something new to the table, or shed a different perspective on some part of your person. Do not just repeat yourself, or other parts of your application!
Saying Nothing of Value or Being Unclear
Statement: "It would be an honor to get accepted into law school."
Analysis: While this may be true, what does it say about you, and what is the value of the statement? That you appreciate educational opportunities? That's not terrible but is that really worth conveying at the expense of other points about you? Isn't there something better to say about yourself? I bet there is.
Statement: "I want to ask the tough questions."
Analysis: This is one of my all-time favorite sentences in a personal statement, and it came across my desk years ago. The student who originally wrote this is now a partner at a major law firm, and he is doing just fine; thus, we can make light of something he wrote a long time ago! When you first read this sentence, it strikes you as someone expressing the desire to challenge authority and buck the system. But, is that what that sentence actually says, or is it what we read into it? In this case, the student didn't provide further explication of his intent, and so this could have easily been interpreted into ever more ridiculous versions of the "tough questions." For example, all of the following are tough questions that might fit the bill: What is the square root of 14,318,656? Does time flow at a constant rate? What happens when you die? And so on. The takeaway: make sure that what you write says what you intend it to say, not what you read into it or hope that it will say.
Telling the School Something They Already Know
Statement: "Harvard Law School has produced many Supreme Court Justices...."
Statement: "Indiana offers an excellent legal education, and I would be proud to attend and call Indiana my alma mater."
Statement: "Georgetown is located in our nation's vibrant capital city, and learning in the seat of our national government would be an immensely valuable and rewarding experience."
Analysis: Statements like these appear with a very high degree of frequency in law school apps, and in some cases the applicant almost seems to be talking to him or herself, and in others the applicant seems to be attempting to gain points by complimenting the school. But, the focus in your applications should always be on YOU, and thus these statements don't do you any favors because they reiterate points that anyone working at the school already knows.
Statement: "Should I be accepted into your fine law school, I am confident that I will excel in my studies and contribute to your academic community."
Analysis: If the school decides to accept you, they will be convinced you can succeed, and it is their opinion that really matters. Thus, stating that you think you will do well isn't really of value (nor is it certain), and in any event it tells the school something they will determine on their own through an examination of your academic records and performance.
The short list above certainly isn't exhaustive, but it gives you a sense of the types of statements that often creep into law school applications (and really, all applications). The next question is: how do you avoid these types of issues or fix them if they already exist in your application? It's both easy and difficult: you have to go through every single word in your entire application, and examine those words and sentences and make sure they are there for a specific reason, and that they are contributing to moving your overall message forward. If asked, you should be able to explain and defend the purpose of any sentence in any document in your app. If you can't explain why it is there and what benefit it is providing, chances are that it shouldn't be there! Be relentless! Go through your app with a fine-toothed comb and be brutal on your writing. This is how good writers become great, and it makes good apps into great ones. Don't waste the reader's time, and focus on always moving your central message forward.
Some of the most valuable time you spend during the admission process will be on razoring through your essays and cutting out the redundant, extraneous, and plain useless statements, so don't skimp on this important editing step!
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Image credit: "Tandoor Embers" courtesy of Rajan Manickavasagam.