This is the first in a series of blog posts aimed at helping students get into top law schools authored by our friend Derek Meeker, founder and president of Dean Meeker Consulting. He was Dean of Admissions at the University of Pennsylvania Law School before joining global law firm Paul Hastings as recruiting manager.
“But I don’t have a WOW factor.”
I would say if I had a dollar for every time I heard that statement from a law school applicant, I would be rich. Of course, I would never write such a sentence in an essay because it is a cliché – and clichés are on the Dean’s List of the top 5 “must avoids” in a personal statement. But we’ll get to the personal statement’s must haves and must avoids later (come back in a few days for Part 2!). Right now, I’m going to provide tips on how to choose a topic and tackle your first drafts. (And explain why you should pay attention to the brilliant advertising team for Harley-Davidson).
It is that time of year when applicants, now finished with the LSAT (or about to be finished – good luck to all September test takers!), realize that, in fact, the LSAT may not be the hardest part of the admission process. For many, it will be writing the personal statement. This difficulty often stems from one of two sentiments: the perceived lack of a “wow factor” altogether or the perceived lack of a “wow factor” that is unique. Two of the most common questions I hear from law school applicants are: “But there’s nothing unique about me; I grew up in a middle-class suburb, went to fine schools, and had no significant challenges to overcome. What could I write about that would be interesting?” Or, at the other end of the spectrum, “But don’t a lot of people write about their challenges as a first-generation American (or being raised by a single-parent, or living abroad for school or work)? Is that really unique?” Whether you believe you are at either end of these spectrums or somewhere in the middle, my response is the same. The personal statement is about YOU – YOUR experiences, YOUR achievements, YOUR challenges, YOUR goals. It matters less what the topic is, e.g., whether it is common, and matters more how you write about it. What did a particular experience or challenge mean to you? How did it influence, inspire, or teach you? What decisions have you made or what actions have you taken as a result? How will you influence, inspire, or teach others as a result? As long as you write about a topic that is meaningful to you, about which you genuinely feel passionate, and that has somehow shaped you or defined your goals, it will be compelling.
Or as a 2011 Harley-Davidson ad (that I happened to cut out and tack onto a bulletin board as a constant reminder to myself) stated: “When writing the story of your life, don’t let anyone else hold the pen.” No one else can hold your pen, even if his or her experience or background seems similar to yours. So, don’t worry about trying to find a wow factor or whether your wow factor is unique enough; be who you are and share who you are. The admissions committee’s job is to put together a class of students that will engage, challenge and teach one another through their individual backgrounds, experiences, values, and beliefs. Thus, your job in writing the personal statement is to show the admissions committee the voice or perspective you would bring to the classroom and how you would contribute to the law school community or to the legal profession – based on your background, experiences, values, and beliefs.
So now that you know you don’t need a wow factor to write an effective personal statement, how do you come up with your topic? A great way to identify a topic for your personal statement is to do what I call a “life inventory.” Reflect back on your life – your childhood, college, and post-college years (if applicable) – and contemplate your:
Personal circumstances (e.g., the geographic settings in which you grew up or spent time, family dynamic, socio-economic status, culture, religion, schooling, etc.)
Identity (e.g., personality quirks, race, ethnicity, ideology, political affiliation, sexual orientation, gender, etc.)
Life events or changes (e.g., moves, births, deaths, illnesses, relationships, ceremonies, personal accomplishments, etc.)
Academic, artistic, or athletic endeavors
Leadership positions, substantive extra-curricular or community service activities
Internships, professional jobs, or specific work projects
As you recall these experiences, which are the ones that stand out the most? Which are the ones that elicit a charge or emotional reaction? What were the experiences, events, or moments, even, that particularly engaged you, challenged you, inspired you, taught you, influenced you, changed you? Write down those experiences. Is there a common thread – a characteristic, skill, or value – running through some of those experiences? If so, that may be the theme for your essay. Are any of those experiences directly related to why you want to go to law school or to your career goals? If so, that may be a map for an essay that outlines your journey toward becoming a lawyer. There may be one experience in particular – a challenging project or period of time at work (or within a student organization) that required you to step into a new and unexpected role, a significant accomplishment that required a sustained commitment and effort, an academic paper or project that unearthed an intellectual passion – that markedly shaped your convictions or influenced your career goals; if so, you might center your essay around that one event.
Once you have identified your potential topic, start writing. Just show up to the page and write freely – without judgment, without editing, and without a page limit. (If you remember nothing else from this blog, please remember this tip: do not try to write a 2-page personal statement in your first draft – or even second or third draft). Get your story – with vivid, detailed examples – onto the page. As your essay takes shape over multiple drafts, you will begin to refine and edit as necessary to meet various schools’ page requirements. Trust me: allowing yourself to write freely in your early drafts will result in a stronger, more memorable essay.
Most importantly, “Keep calm and Harley on.”
About Derek Meeker:
Derek Meeker served as the Dean of Admissions & Financial Aid for the University of Pennsylvania Law School, as the recruiting manager for global law firm Paul Hastings, and as an admissions reader for the University of Chicago Law School. He also previously worked as a law school admission consultant, successfully coaching numerous clients in gaining admission to Yale, Harvard, Stanford, and every other top-ranked school. His 15 years of comprehensive experience – on the law school side, the law firm side, and the law student side – are unparalleled in law school admission consulting. Derek holds a J.D. and a B.S. in Journalism and is a current student in the Writers’ Program at UCLA. He also serves as a volunteer writing and career coach for the Posse Foundation and College Summit. To learn more about Derek or his services, please visit www.deanmeekerconsulting.com.