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November 17
The 99%

Winner of the most-frequent-question award with regard to the mechanics of law school admission is: “What should I write in my personal statement?” Often, the underlying anxiety is something along these lines: “My life is unfascinating. Nothing earth-shattering has happened to me. I have achieved nothing momentous. I have nothing to say.”

The bad news is, this fear is likely well-founded. But the good news is, it doesn’t follow that you have nothing to say. And you don’t need to resort to fiction to do it.

(In fact, I actually think that having something hugely noteworthy that you want to write about can be at least as much of a curse as a blessing. Particularly if the noteworthy subject matter is on the order of what gets coded in the admissions biz as “obstacles overcome,” it can be difficult to hit the right tone. It’s easy to sound victim-y, or to lapse into oversharing. But that is a subject for another day.)

As an initial matter, take comfort from the fact of your ample company. Truly, most people crowding the hallways of law schools—let’s call them the 99%—have had largely uneventful lives. Hardly surprising, with a mean age for entering law students of 24 and change; it may be a conceit of age, but I think it takes most people some time to accumulate life drama. In any event, one thing is clear: a pedestrian life story does not, itself, keep you out of law school.

Now, focus on the purpose of the personal statement. It essentially functions as an interview—your chance to have a five-minute monologue with the Admissions Office, explaining why you should be admitted. There are a lot of different tacks you can take with that—generally, some variation on the theme of what you expect to contribute to the law school community or the legal profession—and while the mere fact of the endless possibilities can be daunting, you can at least be assured that since it’s all about you, you certainly have available the information you need to craft it.

But from my perspective, the topic isn’t the key. Certainly one of the best personal statements I have ever read was about oboes. That may not sound compelling, but it was masterfully handled (and PS, it gave me a lifelong respect for oboists). And I am quite confident that in any given week’s pool of applications, I can pull out ten personal statements addressing the same general topic. Easy examples: how Peace Corps, or military service, or Teach for America, or an LDS mission, prepared one for law school. The particulars, however, will be vastly different, and thus so will be the extent to which the essay succeeds. Gertrude Stein wrote, “Everybody’s life is full of stories. Your life is full of stories; my life is full of stories. They are very occupying, but they are not really interesting. What is interesting is the way everyone tells their stories.”

Tell me your story.

-Dean Z.
Senior Assistant Dean for Admissions,
Financial Aid, and Career Planning
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Comments

Re: The 99%

My interest is piqued--what made the oboe PS so compelling, if you don't mind me asking? And was it from this cycle? It must have been spectacular if it stood out so strongly!
 on 11/17/2011 7:07 PM

Obstacles Overcome...

In the early part of your post, you mentioned how many people tend to come across sounding victim-y. I was wondering if you have any tips on how to share a story of overcoming an obstacle, without sounding like a victim or sharing too much information. I  have been struggling with finding a way to share my story in my personal statement, but feel I might be better off going with a different topic in order to avoid coming off as seeking pity!
 on 11/21/2011 4:36 PM