This is the second 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 UPenn Law before joining global law firm Paul Hastings as recruiting manager. If anyone is an expert with respect to what it takes to get into a top law school, as well as write a good personal statement, it’s him.
By now, you have read part one of my personal statement blog, selected your topic, and are now working on a draft of your law school personal statement – or you bought a Harley and decided to postpone law school (in which case, you will already know what your essay topic is when you return next year!). Part two of this blog states The Dean’s List of the top 5 must-haves and top 5 must-avoids. But I’m first going to share the biggest mistake applicants make when writing the personal statement, because avoiding it will not only help you write a more effective law school personal statement, but a more effective resume as well.
Single Biggest Mistake: The Mini-Biography
First, keep in mind that writing is the single most important skill for success in law school and for success as a lawyer. Thus, the law school personal statement is a critical measure of your writing ability. It also is the one component of the application over which you have complete control, so you certainly don’t want to weaken it with silly, but common mistakes such as typos or grammatical errors (or inserting the name of the wrong school to which you are applying!). Aside from those types of errors, the single biggest mistake applicants make is writing a law school personal statement that is broad and sweeping and reads like a mini-biography (i.e., that rehashes what is in or what should have been in the resume). Or, as I would refer to it when I reviewed applications at Penn, the “resume tour.”
The law school personal statement should be narrowly tailored; the essay could expand on one particularly influential experience, or it could be based on a theme (e.g., the pioneer, the curious intellect, the underdog, the problem-solver) that you illustrate through a few detailed experiences. One of the reasons applicants make the “mini-biography” mistake is that they don’t take full advantage of writing a comprehensive resume that is tailored for their law school applications; they simply submit a one-page resume similar to the one they submitted for job opportunities. The employment resume and the law school resume are not the same; the law school resume does not need to be limited to one page (unless the application instructions specifically state that, but few, if any, do). Admissions committees want to know how you’ve spent your time since you began college. They want to know, for example, about part-time jobs you held, even the ones that may now seem irrelevant to you. They want to know how you contributed to the various organizations with which you were involved. Many of them also enjoy seeing interests and hobbies on the resume because that tells them something else about you outside your academic and work experiences.
I recommend that applicants write the resume before beginning their law school personal statement and that they write a broad and inclusive resume, within reason, of course (a two-page resume is quite typical; anything more is usually excessive unless you have advanced degrees, have published extensively, etc.). Doing so will help you avoid writing a mini-biography in your law school personal statement, because the resume, along with the other components of the application, will provide the big picture of who you are and the experience you will bring to law school.
Now, let’s turn to the essay’s must-haves and must avoids.
The Dean’s List of the Top 5 Personal Statement Must-Haves:
1) An interesting story that conveys the perspective, voice, or contribution you would bring to the classroom, community and/or profession;
2) Cohesiveness (e.g., don’t make an abrupt transition to why you want to be a lawyer if the story you are telling doesn’t naturally transition there; you could always write a one-page supplemental essay that discusses your specific academic or practice area interests, career goals, and why a particular school is an ideal place for you to study given your interests and goals);
3) Consistency as to the rest of the application (e.g., an essay that discusses a passion for immigrants’ rights when there is no related work experience or community service in the resume will seem disingenuous);
4) Grammatical impeccability;
5) Why law school – the reader at least should be able to infer from the essay why you are pursuing law school, even if there isn’t an explicit discussion; that said, as I reference in point 2, a supplemental essay is a great way to include a more detailed discussion on why you are pursuing a law degree if your personal statement does not include it. Clearly articulating your goals will convey to the admissions committee that you are focused, mature, and prepared for the rigors of law school and legal practice (and, thus, that you will be more marketable to employers).
The Dean’s List of the Top 5 Personal Statement Must-Avoids:
1) Clichés of every sort (e.g., cliché phrases such as “I worked my tail off,” cliché statements such as “I have wanted to be a lawyer for as long as I can remember,” or cliché quotes from famous people such as “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I – I took the one less traveled by.” – oh, haven’t we all!)
2) Focusing too heavily on someone else (e.g., the influential mother who was a homemaker, teacher, author, and friend; it’s fine to write about someone who inspired you or perhaps influenced your decision to become a lawyer, just don’t take up too much of the essay writing about her or the admissions committee may want to admit her – the personal statement needs to be about YOU.)
3) Telling, telling, telling (i.e., the best personal statements show, not tell; rather than simply telling the reader, “I fell in love with law during my first business law class, and for the next two years took every business law class that my college offered,” show how the course or a project inspired you or what you learned from it through specific examples. Take the reader into your journey.)
4) Passive voice. (Write your sentences in the active voice! Be conscious of this rule in your writing now and you will never have to hear about it from a partner at your future law firm.)
5) A generic conclusion with a trite reference to grandiose career goals. (e.g., “I am now ready to begin the next chapter of my life – advocating for the rights of the voiceless in our society.”)
Stay tuned for more tips in the coming weeks on writing stellar personal statements and supplemental essays. Until then, I leave you with one last piece of advice from a particularly gifted writer that is wholly on-point for the personal statement:
“A writer’s style should be direct and personal, his imagery rich and earthy, and his words simple and vigorous.” ~Ernest Hemingway
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. As a law school admission consultant, he has successfully coached 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 continuing 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: http://www.deanmeekerconsulting.com/.