Learn how to write a law school personal statement that dazzles admissions committees
Part 1: Introduction
The law school admissions process can feel confusing, scary, overwhelming, or, most often, all of the above. Questions like “What LSAT score do I need?” “How many law schools should I apply to?” and “Do law school rankings matter?” may weigh on your mind.
But amid all the uncertainty, there’s one thing we know for sure: the two most important components of your law school application are your undergraduate GPA and your LSAT score.
That means you should spend as much time as you’re able improving those two things. If you’ve already graduated from college or are about to graduate, you should focus on improving your LSAT score as much as you reasonably can.
But while those two statistics are invariably the most important ones to having a successful law school admissions cycle, they aren’t the only factors considered by admissions committees.
In this article, we’ll discuss the third most important part of your application: your law school personal statement. Because your LSAT and GPA carry so much weight, you shouldn’t begin thinking about your personal statement until you already have taken the LSAT. While you wait for your scores, you can turn your attention to the essay.
Part 2: Why does the law school personal statement matter?
A quality personal statement—a short essay in which you articulate who you are and why you want to go to law school—allows an admissions officer to understand your motivation to attend law school, and the reasons why you want to attend their school, specifically.
As admissions committees decide between students who have similar stats (i.e., GPA and LSAT score), they might turn to a tiebreaker: the personal statement. An effective law school personal statement can mean the difference between a letter that begins with "Congratulations!" and one that says "We regret to inform you..."
Part 3: What should a law school personal statement do?
The personal statement should tell the admissions committee something about you outside of your academic qualifications (i.e., GPA and LSAT score) or work experience (i.e., law school resume)
The PS is an opportunity to showcase your personality, reflect on the experiences that led you to apply to law school, and demonstrate how you will make a great addition to the school’s incoming class.
Meet our students
Throughout the course of this post, we’ll provide examples from students who have gone through this process to see the writing process in action. These examples are either real essays that have been slightly adjusted for anonymity or are composites based on real students who have had success applying to T14 (top-tier) schools.
Tucker: Tucker is from North Carolina and studied at UNC. He has bits and pieces of political experience, most notably working on a state representative’s successful campaign. He wants to return to North Carolina after law school to work as a public defender or return to politics.
Teresa: Teresa is a first-generation Nigerian immigrant who went to a large technically-focused state school, studied mechanical engineering, and ultimately decided a strictly technical career is not her forte.
Deepika: Deepika graduated with a 4.0 from a state school close to home. She studied pre-med, but toward the end of her undergraduate career she decided med school wasn’t for her. In the last year, she’s worked for a local law firm as a paralegal and wants to become an attorney, preferably ending up at a big firm in New York City.
Pavel: Pavel did well as an undergraduate at Michigan, winning the collegiate national debate title along the way. He doesn’t know what kind of law he wants to practice, but right now he’s most interested in the work of prestigious non-profits like the ACLU.
Part 4: Law school personal statement brainstorming
Before you begin writing, you should spend time brainstorming ideas. Because law school personal statement prompts are almost always broad—e.g. “why do you want to go to law school?”—applicants often feel uncertain about how to proceed. Either you have too many ideas, or no clue what to write. First let’s look at a strategy you can use if you don’t know where to start.
Grab a notepad, and answer the following questions:
What’s a time—a year, a summer, a month, even a day—that helped define who you are today?
What are your fondest memories from college?
When did you first think about becoming a lawyer?
What’s the hardest thing you’ve experienced?
What personal accomplishment are you most proud of?
What cause do you care about most? When did you first begin to care about it?
What qualities do you associate with the law? When did you first begin to think about the law in those terms?
Who’s had a significant impact on you? What’s an important experience you had with that person?
What’s a Big Idea that changed the way you think? How did you encounter it (i.e. in school, with a friend, through religion, etc)?
What is definitely not on your resumé but is still an important part of who you are?
Feel free to ask yourself additional questions. The more ideas, the better.
Before moving from the idea-generation phase to the writing phase, take some time, whether it’s a few hours or a day or a week to step away from the process. This next step is best done when removed from the context of your brainstorming.
Focusing your ideas
Here are some of the topics that our students came up with:
Working on a local election campaign
Losing faith and deciding to leave the church he grew up in
Making environmental documentaries during his film coursework
Her senior product design engineering lab
Grandmother teaching her how to cook as a child
Interning for a civil/environmental engineering firm focused on renewables
Interning for a human rights non-profit
Growing up in Slovakia
The route to becoming the collegiate national debate champion
Being on the swim team in college
Her favorite painting, which is by a Sudanese refugee who immigrated to the United States
Working at a local law firm
Once you’ve generated a list of ideas, choose the one that most compellingly answers ALL of the following questions:
Why go to law school?
Before applying, let alone writing your personal statement, you should be crystal clear on why applying to law school is the logical next step for your ambitions and career.
This matters because admissions committees see too many law school applications from people who just need another step—a credential, a degree to top off their B.A. in English and render them more employable, or a place to hide out for three years. Explaining how a law degree will help you achieve your professional goals is crucial.
What personal strengths do I have that are not apparent in the rest of my application?
The admissions committees get two windows into your personality and life beyond the numbers: your personal statement and your letters of recommendation. Since at the very least you know what context your professors and/or other recommenders have on your professional and academic life, you can also deduce which aspects of yourself they might miss out on that an admissions officer would find compelling. The personal statement is a great place to highlight those.
Why do I want to attend this school specifically?
You should be able to articulate the reasons why a particular school appeals to you. Does the school have a strong reputation for your intended specialty (e.g., public interest law, constitutional law)? Is there a specific faculty member with whom you want to conduct research? Is there a student organization on campus that can benefit from your expertise and leadership?
The more you’re able to tailor your personal statement to each school, the greater your chances of admission. This requires thorough research: look at the school’s website, reach out to current students and faculty members, and go on a campus tour if possible.
Let’s look at how our students applied these principles.
Teresa’s desire to be a lawyer is tied to her background in engineering. She wants her future career to be technical, but she sees real appeal in the skills that practicing law would employ, which has her thinking that a career in IP law could be a good fit. When she writes her essay, she wants to make sure she refers to her engineering expertise. Her idea to write about her experience on a product design engineering team survives this scrutiny.
Tucker, as we mentioned, was politically active throughout college, but much of that activity was informal, so he found it hard to capture in his resume or elsewhere. He wants to use his personal statement to highlight some of that passion, so he’s chosen to write about his Appalachian roots through the lens of the local candidate he worked with and how they relate to his advocacy.
If you feel like you still have a few winners after narrowing on those criteria, you still have to pick just one. The final selection should be a combination of all the above lessons, while also asking yourself “Which of these can tell the best story?” At the end of the day, great personal statements tell a story, and some of your ideas probably map more easily to that reality than others. If the idea doesn’t yield a story, it may not be your best. Kill it.
These questions may serve as a litmus test for whether an idea can turn into a good tale:
Is there a natural tension or conflict present?
Did you change at all from the beginning to the end of the relevant time period?
Whichever idea you choose, you should be able to answer yes to at least one of these questions.
To that end, while Deepika felt at first that her time at a local law firm melded naturally with her desire to go to law school, the emotional arc she identified in how moved she was by the painting and the emigré narrative of the artist felt an easier story to tell, not to mention a more unique one (law schools read a lot of essays about being a paralegal).
Similarly, Pavel was torn between writing about his debate experiences or interning with an NGO, but his version of the former gives more insight into who he is and how he’s changed and grown, which means he’ll be able to tell a better story.
Part 5: How to write your law school personal statement
Start with an outline
Before you dive into writing the best personal statement the admissions committee has ever seen, it’s often useful to create an outline. An outline will keep your ideas organized and help you write more efficiently.
Here’s one path you could follow as you outline:
First paragraph: Lead with the anecdote or story
It may be tempting to write straight away about the importance of the legal system or why you’re excited about a particular school, but beginning with your narrative draws readers in more effectively. In addition to hooking readers, an essay that tells a story will be more memorable than one that feels focused entirely on listing your readiness for or interest in studying the law. To drive this home further, every applicant has an interest in studying the law. Pinning that interest to a story only you can tell will make your application all the more memorable.
Body paragraphs: Connect the narrative to a thesis
Only after you’ve told the story should you articulate your thesis, your “here’s why I am applying to law school/want to be a lawyer/care about the law.”
Conclusion: Tie it all together
After telling a story and spending time articulating your goals more clearly, a concluding paragraph can usefully bring those two thoughts back together and leave the reader with a thought that reminds them both who you are and why you’re applying—the best result you can hope for from a good personal statement.
After you’ve finished the first draft of your law school personal statement
First, congratulations! Writing the first draft of your personal statement is no small feat. But the work has just begun! Your personal statement should undergo several revisions before submitting. Some tips for revising:
Read your essay aloud
By doing so, you will notice small typos and wording issues, as well as larger issues with form, that you wouldn’t otherwise. Reading aloud shifts the way your brain consumes the work, sometimes to great effect. It also helps you get a sense for how much an essay has your voice. You should sound like yourself when you read your essay aloud.
Ask for feedback
You should have a peer, professor, or admissions advisor read your essay. The core question to ask them to evaluate is, “Do you have a good sense of who I am and why I want to attend law school after reading this?” If the answer is no, revisions are necessary.
For big changes, rewrite instead of editing
This one can be a bit of a pain after investing all the time you have, but if you decide to make a large change in form or content, start again with a blank page. It can be tempting to preserve your existing structure and just slot in the changes where they fit, but you’ll end up with a more cohesive and coherent final product if you start anew. You needn’t trash everything you wrote, of course. Print out a hard copy of your original, keep it on the table beside you, and open a clean doc. Rewriting from scratch whatever you do keep rather than performing a simple copy-paste will ensure you end up with one essay at the end, rather than two spliced together.
Part 6: Law school personal statement examples
Let’s take a look at the Harvard law school personal statement Tucker was able to produce based on the process we’ve walked through.
I did not know that my home town was a small one until I was 15 years old. Growing up, I thought I lived in the big city, because Greensboro has skyscrapers—isn’t that the dividing line between the big city and not? It’s also the first town that appears on interstate signs in North Carolina once you get on I-40, headed west from Durham. I figured if the interstate thought we were important, why shouldn’t I? So when I went to Rochester, New York in tenth grade for a student conference with my friends at school, I proudly announced that I was from Greensboro to the first person who asked, only to have her, a Bronx resident, respond, “Uh, where?” It was then that I learned one thing it could not claim to be was “the big city.”
That student conference, as well as the handful of other opportunities I had to travel in high school, was my first inkling that for many people the Blue Ridge Mountains were not a known part of the very big world I grew up aching to see more of. Because even before I realized that Greensboro was no major landmark, I still wanted to explore beyond it. My mother taught French and Spanish and was always eager to ensure I realized there were places beyond my backyard. I was also exhausted by the idea of graduating college and returning home to work in Greensboro, where, at the time, jobs were not always plentiful and hobbies were few. But, for financial reasons, college was not my long-dreamt-of exodus. I went to the University of North Carolina, which, while an hour away, certainly belongs to the same chunk of Carolina as Greensboro.
In Chapel Hill, I loved long drives. My road of choice was Mount Sinai Road. It winds down the banks of Old Field Creek, bridging the gap between Durham and I-40. It's the start of the route I took back to High Point to visit my family, and it's where I rode my bike during Chapel Hill summers. It was on Mount Sinai that I first realized how attached to this region I am.
Along Mount Sinai’s twists and turns, you can get a real sense of what North Carolina is and can be. There’s a deep agrarian heritage and rolling hills that hide the sun from their most intimate holler. Along these roads live a people who do not mind being heard, as their “These are God’s roads, so don’t drive like hell,” sign would have you know. Most of all, though, Mount Sinai was one of many places over the last 25 years in Appalachia that taught me how much this land means to me. I recognize the grasses and the trees and the architecture and the people in a way that I could not possibly know another place, and that knowledge has rooted me in a way that I did not expect as a child at a student conference in Rochester, New York.
As I realized how distinctly Appalachian my own personal history is, I started to see similar connections in my family. I learned of our family struggles with substance use and of my mother's father’s affinity for our Confederate heritage. I learned I'm only a few generations removed from the McCoys of Hatfield-McCoy fame. I learned that the not-so-rosy Appalachian existence was not a storybook reality but a familial one. However, I also learned of my grandfather's sense of adventure and of the unique sense of play my father was gifted with as a child by being able to spend so much time outside in the crick. I learned that my grandmother once modeled for the rail photographer O. Winston Link and that my great uncle once threw a snowball at Elvis.
In the last year, I also saw Appalachia couched in a larger national context, especially as I tried to reckon with my homeplace from afar while living and working abroad last summer. I intimately knew the people, “the poor, white, rural voters,” being bandied about as political caricatures on television. As the opiate crisis worsens, a national spotlight is being thrust on my neighbors in West Virginia. As commentators wonder how much historical context justifies the presence of Confederate monuments, attention turns to Charlottesville. My homeplace, my Appalachia, is becoming a topic of a much larger conversation about how to support the plight of the rural American while not also succumbing to the part of that population that longs for an unequal, racist past. I believe my voice adds to that conversation. So, I took to door-knocking for Representative Edward Mitchell, knowing that the first impact I might have could be a political one. I don’t want to stop there. The law can open even more doors.
The Appalachian conversation is necessarily a legal one. As some Carolinians line up along racial boundaries, many good lawyers are working to combat the mass incarceration of minority populations, while other good lawyers champion free speech for even the most maligned activists. When free speech intertwines with debates about white nationalism and the South's history, impact litigators argue multiple sides to arrive at good legal judgments that do not stop at popular opinion. As my own mayor was maligning the presence of refugees, Virginia immigration lawyers were ensuring that local migrants were educated about their rights and responsibilities. The rigor in pursuit of justice that legal conversation applies has an immense role to play in these heated debates.
In particular, the conversation about race can go deeper here at home than most are willing to take it. One issue that has faced recent attention in the highest courts is equal representation in the electorate. Studying at Harvard will train me to ensure that existing civil rights are protected. It will teach me about the viewpoints informing present discussions of how civil rights are defined and advocated for. While race, gerrymandering, and voter ID laws are contentious issues on a national scale, both recent attention and my deep roots in the region have made it clear to me that North Carolina is a place where the legal conversation needs to be carried further. I want to attend Harvard to acquire the skills, legal context and history, and education to do this work in my home.
Another example, a Yale law school personal statement, this time from Teresa:
November 1 is my favorite day of the year. When I was growing up, my father would call it “Design Day.” I think he liked the alliteration. He loves woodworking, and he would spend the early fall amassing natural treefall from the woods behind our house in anticipation of November 1. Every year, he’d spend the day making things, small and large, whether a bird with a bandsaw or a new coffee table. He first invited me out into the garage when I was seven. I still wonder why he felt the imperative to concentrate so much of his hobby time into that one day, but I think he understood pinning it to a date would make it somehow more special, even if it was an arbitrary one.
Over the years, in that garage, and especially as an early teen, I learned how valuable it was to create something, to make a thing you call your own. That same feeling was reborn as a senior at Purdue University. As part of my studies in mechanical engineering, my classmates and I were required to join one of myriad senior design teams. The topics ranged from designing our own delivery drones to creating various nanotechnology applications. I eventually decided to work on a project designing new flatpack shelters that could be deployed in disaster areas with improved durability and sustainability, because I was excited by the real-world applications of my studies helping others. I saw not only my own progress first-hand, but also the development of others’, and, yet again, again the intrinsic value of a made thing.
But the reality for many creators in America is that their work is under threat. The chief protection for many fledgling creators, whether they’re scientists or engineers or musicians or writers, is the legal system. Patent trolls aim to trounce startups; large institutions create environments unfriendly to more nascent artists. In between them stand good lawyers ready to defend the individual artist, scientist, inventor. While the American intellectual property system is not void of imperfections, it remains true that copyright and patents can and should protect the creations of every person who experiences the same precious sense of creativity my father introduced me to every November 1.
The crux of my shift from wanting to be a maker myself to instead wanting to lend my voice to their defense was seeing Dr. Everett Simpson in action. Dr. Simpson, himself a lawyer, now teaches engineering ethics but spent the spring semester consulting all of the projects with patentable work on their IP obligations and rights. The care with which he approached the issues, but especially our interactions, opened my eyes to a world in which I might leverage my technical expertise as an advocate rather than an engineer, a combination I find so appealing.
It’s thanks to those interactions with Dr. Simpson, backed by my father’s own creativity from day one, that has led me to apply to Yale Law School. Knowing that your program in IP law is a strong one and being especially excited by the research that Professor Yochai Benkler is doing on the intellectual commons, I am confident that after three years at Harvard, I will be positioned well to train as an advocate for those creators near and far.
And a final full-length student example, Deepika’s essay:
He lives in Nairobi now. He was not born there: He grew up in Sudan, along the Nile. On a few separate occasions, he was dismissed from his studies for his political involvement, a reality I can know about but find hard to internalize. After a few efforts to pursue his practice in Sudan he left Khartoum for Benghazi. I don’t know his name. What I do remember is how it felt to see his paintings for the first time.
I was spending the summer working for a public health nonprofit based in Kenya, exploring a future career in medicine, and I’d used my weekend to visit a gallery with some local friends. Despite growing up in a family that appreciated art deeply, no one had equipped me for a moment where a painting could bring me so immediately to tears. Agnostic to the artist’s story, which I got only after he saw my reaction to his work, the painting itself was just such a guttural and emotional work. Something about how directly he’d translated his own trials into the medium flew straight through me. The name of the piece was Resurrection, and it was scratched from a discarded advertisement board that he had repurposed. The faceless figure told a story of a life plagued by violence, that violence rendered on the work itself with haphazard scratching and peeling of the paint. I was breathless seeing what he had gone through, and thinking of how that had made its way onto the “canvas.” We talked for a while, swapping our very different stories of moving countries. After, I said a sincere thank you, and I left.
By the end of that summer semester, I was sure that medicine was not the career for me. But I didn’t immediately know where to put all my passion. In a moment of serendipity, I was able to experience firsthand the value of the legal world and see attorneys in action by working as a paralegal. The hands-on legal experience I received there was ultimately vital to my decision to practice law, but I return to that summer in Nairobi as a real clarion call to do something different.
Recalling that artist’s story both in his own words and by seeing Resurrection, I understood what a privilege it is to have a legal system that can uphold freedom of expression, and one that also makes way for new futures for immigrants like my parents year after year.
To that end, I want to apply my desire for more legal experience specifically to the problem of migration. In addition to the real personal transition that this artist’s work opened for me, this decision feels an important one now more than ever as the current administration angles toward, I believe, increasingly harmful and inconsistent implementations of immigration policy to the detriment of young children who could one day paint a Resurrection II.
Part 7: Frequently asked questions
How long should a personal statement be for law school?
Many universities won’t specify, but most others say between a page and half and two pages double-spaced, which comes out to around 500 words.
What law school personal statement topics are off limits?
Just about anything can make a good personal statement, as long as you adhere to the advice above. One exception worth noting: you shouldn’t use your personal statement to talk about a low GPA or LSAT score. If you do feel you have a compelling context for one or both of those, you should submit a separate addendum focused on that, rather than wasting valuable space in your personal statement.
Should I write a separate personal statement for each school?
While it’s okay to use the same narrative across applications, each essay should be tailored specifically to the school to which you’re applying. Make sure to triple check that you didn’t refer to the wrong school at any point in your application.