Unsolicited Advice on Writing a Personal Statement

Hello Student who has asked for a letter of recommendation!

Because I teach smaller undergraduate seminars on a regular basis, writing letters of recommendations for graduate school (including law) is a regular part of my fall semester. As you probably know, I always request that I see a copy of applicants’ personal statements so that I can write a letter that complements what the student has written about themselves—highlighting strengths, mitigating potential weaknesses—and generally waxing poetic about the student from an instructor’s standpoint.

Every student is different, and I don’t pretend to have any special knowledge or magical formula. But I’ve noticed that I’ve written out many variations on the more or less the email too many times to count (rhetorically, not technically, speaking), so I thought I would synthesize the most common suggestions into a short reference essay.

These are only my opinions. You could or maybe have gotten different advice from other letter writers. In any case, obviously these are YOUR statements and need to reflect your own values, priorities, and personality.

This is not a time for humility

Trying to convince people that you are awesome can be an uncomfortable endeavor for anyone with any sense of humility. On the other hand, you shouldn’t resort to unconvincing “rah rah I’m so great” rhetoric, either. There is certainly an art to infusing descriptions of your interests, accomplishments, and skills with adjectival glamour. Learn to toe the line between highlighting the significance of what you’ve accomplished and simply listing stuff you’ve done. Learn to love the humble brag. Many truly outstanding students who stand out in my memory comes across as entirely pedestrian on paper.

Be unique

It’s always useful to highlight unique personal strengths or characteristics that set you apart from other applicants. But you also have be selective about what constitutes unique, given that you are competing against people quite similar to yourself.

Provide details

Be sure to elaborate as specifically as possible WHY you are interested/passionate/dedicated to your field of interest. The more detail the better, like the way a certain class changed your thinking and how you subsequently pursued your interests in uncommon ways. This will help the admissions committee understand why investing in you is such a good idea.

Go beyond your transcript

Too many personal statements do not go beyond an explanation of what you’ve done in your academic career—basically a prose version of your transcript. Personal statements are the best/only place to highlight your talents that aren’t otherwise apparent—–and to showcase the energy and intellectual depth that will set you apart from most other applicants. What really intrigues you about what you want to do? Even if you can’t be very specific right now, what can you really bring to this program and your future career that others can’t?

It’s easy to see academic success or struggles via transcripts. But what I can’t see is WHY that person is doing what they do, or HOW that person thinks about the world and their place in it. Personal statements are super helpful in answering those questions. The admissions people want to learn about YOU, personally. They are also, I think, considering what kind of colleague you will be, and what kind of citizen you will be once you leave them and venture into your own career.

Don’t dwell on past indiscretions

If your personal statement needs to address some deficiencies in your transcript, that’s fine. Perhaps you were unfocused as a student for some time before hitting your stride. It’s not uncommon to be somewhat disinterested in coursework until a certain course or event refocused your energies. But you don’t need take a lot of space to make that relatively straightforward point. This is also a good chance to highlight perseverance in the face of adversity.

Saying that you’ll work hard is not convincing

I write a lot of letters for law school applicants, and the most common corrective advice I give is to pull back from repeating: “I really want to study law and I’m going to work really hard at it!” Instead, the more you can say about WHY you like law, or what eventually motivated you to take your academic talents in that direction, or the difference you want to make via your law career, or how you are uniquely suited to make certain kinds of contributions given your background—those personal details really bring out your own personality more effectively than generic statements. They also make a case for why the admissions committee should pick YOU versus other applicants. Provide evidence or examples of your intellectual curiosity and ability to succeed at studying law. That would go a long way in showing readers, rather than simply telling them, how you’re going to be a success, which of course you will.

Think about fit

For any pool of applicants, many more are going to be qualified than can be admitted. Part of, if not the bulk of, the selection process is about finding a good fit between the person, department/faculty, and institution. So your personal statements need to explain not only why you are a star applicant, but also why the place to which you are applying matches your interests and ambitions. It is very obvious if you do this superficially after having spent a few minutes with the department website (which is probably outdated).

Write YOUR letter

The personal statement is definitely a genre unto itself. So it’s easy to compose a statement with the goal of trying to give the admissions committee what you think they want. After all, this is primarily the model of academic writing that you’ve followed to this point–to give the instructor the “right” answer according to the formula or rubric for the assignment. This isn’t altogether a bad thing, as an established genre, there are conventions that are largely expected.

However, a grammatically flawless and thoroughly boilerplate letter is maybe the easiest to overlook. Academic success is about finding a balance between scholarly convention and scholarly novelty. Your letter should demonstrate that balance. It should be YOUR letter in the sense that no one else could write it even if they had the same experiences and transcript. It’s a bit intimidating to attempt to capture the richness of your personality, talent, and ambition in a short letter. And it’s difficult. And it’s something you’ve probably never really tried to do before. Which is why truly effective personal statements really stand out—they are rare. And they are well worth extra time if you take your application seriously.