The Law School Application Process:
Tips for Writing a Personal Statement
Christine Nemacheck, Associate Professor of Government & Pre-Law Advisor
The College of William & Mary
The most challenging part of the law school application may well be the personal statement. You’ll find
loads of advice for writing personal statements on the Internet, in books, from paid consultants and
previous applicants. To some extent, which advice rings true to you may be as personal as the statement
itself. Regardless of which advice you pursue and consider, keep in mind that your personal statement is
an opportunity to let an admissions committee get to know you on terms you control—a rarity in the
application process. So, try to see the statement as an opportunity to provide insight into who you are
and what you would bring to their incoming class that no other applicant does.
I hear frequently from students that they are stumped by the personal statement because “nothing
horrible has ever happened to me” or “I’ve had no great obstacle to overcome.” My response is to
congratulate that student. That’s a good thing, not a problem. And the personal statement does not have
to be a testament to your ability to overcome huge obstacles. It is a vehicle to introduce yourself to the
admissions committee and to provide some insight into who you are as a person.
The personal statement should be positive. This is not a venue to explain poor grades or campus
disciplinary action. Instead, choose an accomplishment about which you are proud and that says
something about you and the things you value. For example, if you participated in a spring break
medical trip, or if you help build a house through Habitat for Humanity, you could talk about that. Or,
perhaps you have worked part-time while in college to help pay for your expenses or to pay for your
own tuition. These are important accomplishments that say a lot about you as a person. You could
discuss why you felt it was important to work and what this says about your dedication to your own
education. The point here is that you should pick something (an event, an experience) or someone (a
mentor, teacher, parent) important to you and use it as a vehicle to give the admissions committee
insight into who you are as a person and what you bring to the table.
In writing your statement, keep in mind that depth is typically preferable to breadth. Do not try to take
on too much. Think about what it is you want to convey and then think about how you can best convey
it. Rather than talking about every extra-curricular activity in which you’ve been involved, discuss one
and explain why it was that you became involved, how you gave of your time and energy, and what that
experience meant to you.
Admissions committees do not have much time to read statements—get their attention immediately and
keep it. One way to do this is to start your story in motion. Ira Glass of This American Life is a genius
story-teller. Once you start listening to one of his stories, it is very difficult not to stay through the end
of it. His advice about story-telling applies well to writing a personal statement: a story (or your
personal statement) is “saying this happened and that lead to this next thing, one thing following
another. And some of the things in the sequence can be that made me think of this and then I said this.
There can be facts and ideas as part of it but one is leading to the next is leading to the next…. You want
to start with the action….” Another building block “is that you have a moment of reflection…. Here’s the
point of this story.” (Chicago Tribune, August 15, 2009). There are many versions of Glass’ advice on this
topic and it is advice that applies to personal statements just as to radio stories.
Law schools will have their own requirements in terms of length and specific questions. Make sure to
adhere to those restrictions. Generally, though, personal statements are about two pages, double-