The Personal Statement Application Essay (PSAE)
Why the Essay is So Important
Your Personal Statement Application Essay (PSAE) can be the difference between gaining admission or being denied. It is your only opportunity to present yourself as a person, rather than as a set of numbers. You need to put your best qualities out there in your PSAE for the admissions committee to see. They need to LOVE it, as admissions personnel are trying to assemble an interesting assortment of students in each year's entering class.
Please remember that the PSAE is not an open letter to an admissions committee; it is a creative writing exercise! Hence, do not tell them who you are; show them who you are by telling a story that demonstrates the kind of person you are.
Admissions personnel read thousands of PSAEs. After a while, they all look the same. Far too many applicants play it safe. But the PSAE is your only change to distinguish yourself from other applicants whose numbers (LSAT scores and GPAs) qualify them for admission. So, unless you figure out a way to stand out, you have wasted your one and only opportunity to do so.
That being said, you need not write a PSAE on some new or completely unique topic. Rather, the key is to be specific and personal. Let your personality come through. Give the committee an opportunity to gain insights into who you are as a person.
This is not the place to write an essay on legal theory or legal philosophy. It's about YOU!
Things to Make Sure You Do
- Write an essay that is no more than two pages, double-spaced (one page single-spaced) in length when formatted with normal 12 point font and one-inch margins.
- Run both a grammar check and a spell check on your PSAE. And, after having done so, print it out and ready it aloud to catch errors that computers miss. Mistakes in spelling, grammar, and syntax are typically fatal errors in the law school admissions process.
- A winning personal statement reflects candor, introspection, and self-awareness. So, get personal and write in the first person. But be careful not to start too many sentences with the word "I."
- Write with short, declarative sentences, and with well-structured paragraphs. A concise, easy to read PSAE is far superior to one that attempts to impress the readers with fancy vocabulary, overly complex sentences, or legalese.
- Be genuine! In other words, show the readers who you are, not what you think they want their successful applicants to be.
- SHOW traits like motivation, maturity, enthusiasm, honesty, independence, perseverance, creativity, passion, strong personal ethics, confidence, and appropriate humor. However, while emphasizing such strengths, be careful not to be obnoxious or arrogant. If you balance your essay by addressing a personal weakness, do so without being defensive.
- Start your essay with an attention-grabbing lead: an anecdote, quote, question, or engaging description of a scene. For example:
- “The city was burning. Gray smoke filled the black sky when . . . .” This essay goes on to poignantly discuss the death of this student's friend during the Los Angeles riots, and how coming to grips with his friend's passing clarified the student's career goals and motivated him in his studies.
- "Have you ever been afraid? I mean REALLY scared? I am not talking about knot you feel in your stomach when being pulled over by a police officer for a traffic offense; the fear you felt the first time you watched The Exorcist; the first drop off the Viper roller coaster; or even the impending sense of doom when your parents caught you as a teenager doing what they had explicitly forbid. I am talking about the bone chilling fear I felt as the barrel of the 9 millimeter was pointed at my head and I heard the hammer of gun being cocked."
- Unite your essay and give it direction with a theme or thesis. The thesis is the main point you want to communicate. Depth on a topic is far more effective than breadth.
- Use concrete examples (not generalizations) from your life experience to support your thesis and distinguish yourself from other applicants. For example:
- GENERALIZED AND BORING: “Although Mom and I are very different people, I consider her the most profound influence on my values and the person I have become. I constantly try to emulate her.”
- CONCRETE AND VIVID: “I love jogging, tennis, skiing; she considers walking to the car to be exercise. My alarm clock rings at 6:30 a.m. on Sunday; her day begins at noon. I need a certain amount of time pressure to produce my best; she hates a last-minute rush. Yet, despite these irritating differences, Mom has set an example of determination, professional excellence, and service to the community that I am constantly trying to emulate.”
- Remember your audience! Law school faculty and administrators are not persuaded by “I learned more in my extracurricular activities than I ever learned in class” or “Varsity football was the most valuable part of my undergraduate education.”
- Limit your PSAE to a full description of one particular event, activity, or theme, rather than making a laundry list of your accomplishments. Remember: depth over breadth!
- End your essay with a conclusion that refers back to the lead and restates your thesis.
The Big Mistakes
- Grammar, spelling, usage, or syntax errors will almost certainly get your application moved into the rejection pile. So, not only should you proofread carefully after having run a grammar and spell check on your document, but also, you should have several people proofread your essay for you.
- Playing it safe is a mistake. It likely means your essay will be boring, rather than making it stand out. Visit Vault.com's PSAE section and read the article "Standing Out." There are several excellent examples of essays that worked.
- Writing on a trite topic, or starting off with a trite phrase is a huge mistake. Examples of things to avoid:
- Do not write a “Why I want to go to law school” PSAE.
- Do not write a “Why I want to be a lawyer” PSAE
- Do not write a “How I will champion the cause of justice” PSAE
- Do not start your essay with: “I was born in . . . .”
- Do not start your essay with “My parents came from . . . .”
- Do not use platitudes about the “forces that molded me into the person I am today” or “the top-notch faculty, diverse student body, and outstanding alumni network” of a school.
- Do not use buzzwords like “pro bono,” “intellectual property,” "empower,” “clerkships,” and “diversity.”
- Do not use legalisms like “heretofore,” “whereas,” and “therein.”
- Do not use legal acronyms such as DA, TRO, M&A, ADR, IPO.
- No gimmicks! This is not the place for a poem, a drawing, words written in crayon or magic marker, scented paper, a photo essay, etc.
- If you are writing about someone you admire, do not write a tongue-in-cheek essay on a person clearly not deserving of flattery, even if it is false flattery designed to highlight your command of irony. As Liz O'Neill (2010) points out, "Mike the Situation, or the Kardashian sisters or some other walking punch line" are basically "schmucks."
- Avoid using the death of a pet as an illustration of personal growth.
Visit Vault.com's PSAE section and read the article "Why Do I Want to Be a Lawyer" for insights into how to integrate such a theme into an essay without falling into the usual pitfalls on this trite topic.
- Don't be a clown or a comedian. Humor is fine; in fact, it can work wonders! But it has to be appropriate.
- Do not write about politics, religion, legal philosophy, or any controversial topics such as abortion, euthanasia, gun control, the death penalty, etc. These invite disagreements; that is not the purpose of the PSAE. Moreover, you do not want to take the risk that your reader will consider you to be ill-informed, narrow-minded, ignorant, or intolerant.
- Do not write a PSAE that is a variation on "The Little Engine That Could." No one wants to hear about “I think I can; I think can; I thought I could; . . . I knew I could!!!” The only exception to this rule is if you overcame some great obstacle -- the story of which shows that you are a person of great strength, determined will, and high moral character; then, by all means, tell the story!! For example, if you beat cancer, survived a terrorist attack or kidnapping, or the like, then sharing something of that magnitude will make for a powerful essay.
For more information on how to integrate your personal qualifications to study law without telling a "Little Engine That Could" story, visit Vault.com's PSAE section and read the article "Qualifications."
- Do not write an essay of apology. Your PSAE is your chance to put your best foot forward. It should be a positive essay that demonstrates great things about you. It is therefore not the place for explanations about some negative aspect of your application, such as a bad semester of grades; a low LSAT score; etc. Address negative parts of your file in a separate addendum to your application, not in the PSAE. Similarly, the PSAE is not the place to confess significant wrongdoings (e.g., drinking, drugs, crimes) and then explain that you have "seen the light" and reformed.
- Do not write a metaphor essay. As writer Liz O'Neill (2010) explains, application essay writers "describe the fine qualities of random nothings: roller coasters, beanbag chairs, Chunky Monkey ice cream, Taylor Swift’s new album, the McRib sandwich and their grandmother’s knitting basket. This goes on for three to five paragraphs. Then, in a stunning conclusion, the essay reveals that all along -– all along! -– the object has been a parallelism to the applicant’s own character and disposition." Don't go there.
- Do not write what is commonly referred to as the "Mother Theresa Essay." Many students have engaged in significant volunteer efforts. If you have done so, it's fine to write your essay on your experiences. But do not overstate the value of your contributions in an attempt to impress the admissions committee of your deep altruism and magnanimity.
- Essays that are variations on the "There's no place like home" lesson of The Wizard of Oz are not usually well-received. You may have very good reasons for wanting to stay near home and attend a local law school. Those reasons, however, rarely impress readers.
- Under no circumstances should your essay be a narrative retelling of your résumé!
There are some wonderful Internet resources with examples of essays that worked. Check out: