An Effective Personal Statement
Cornblatt, Georgetown University Law Center
Perhaps the single most often asked question
by law school applicants is 'what do law schools look for in a personal
statement?' The short answer, of course, is that there is no short
answer. There are, however, some guidelines and suggestions that
I would like to offer which hopefully can give you, the advisors,
some framework from which to work.
One word of caution should be noted here.
I have been on law school panels with other admissions people who
I have observed, at times, cringing when hearing my recommendations.
Therefore, it is important to point out that I am one admissions
person from one law school with a particular point of view. However,
I think that it is fair to say that I am not too far out of the
mainstream, if there is such a thing in this business.
I realize that the law schools ask for
different things in their 'essay question.' I will be proceeding
on the assumption that the question will be similar to the one we
use at Georgetown; that is, discuss your strengths and weaknesses.
In any discussion of the personal statement,
I begin with two general principles. First, since most law schools
do not have formal interviews as part of the admissions process,
consider your personal statement to be your interview. Second, when
you fill out your application surely you must, at some point, say
to yourself, I have filled in the blank but I have so much more
to say in this area. I would like to elaborate and emphasize certain
things but the application itself just does not allow me the opportunity.
That, in my view, is precisely the use to which the personal statement
should be put.
Enough generalities. As to more specifically
what the personal statement should contain, I subscribe to the theory
that an applicant's essay should be about himself/herself. This
is as opposed to an essay about theories of law and society and
God and how they are all interrelated. It is possible that candidates
may have something interesting to say on this topic but the personal
statement is not the place for it. I am more eager to read what
they have to say about themselves as candidates for admission.
What should they write about themselves?
The key, in my view, is to stress their strengths without being
obnoxious and deal with their weaknesses without being defensive.
I know fully well that this is a lot easier to say than to do. However,
this is a large part of what we consider when looking at applicants.
That is, how persuasive are they in discussing their own candidacy.
It has been said that the law school application is the candidate's
first case and I would agree with that.
The personal statement gives the applicant
the opportunity to take the Admissions Committee by the hand and
guide them through his/her application. The big advantage here is
that it can be done solely on the applicant's term. Consequently,
if there is some activity, work, or life experience that he/she
is very proud of, that should be stressed and expanded on in the
personal statement. I realize that the particular activity etc.
may be listed somewhere else in the application. However, it is
the applicant's responsibility (and advantage) to highlight the
strongest parts of the application. One of the names of this game
is to separate yourself from the pack. By stressing the strong points,
whether it be in the academic area or the 'subjective area,' the
applicant maximizes his/her chances.
A note of caution. Be careful in how
this is done. Confidence is a fine quality for a future law student
and lawyer. From an admissions point of view, however, arrogance
is something else. The line between the two is fine, but it is crucial
that the applicant understand the difference.
As for the weaknesses part of the formula,
I am well aware that there are some people who would say that you
should not discuss your weaknesses in a personal statement. They
argue that to deal with your weaknesses only draws attention to
them. There is merit in that, of course. The problem with that argument
is that it supposes that attention would not be drawn to the weaknesses
Part of our job is to examine closely
both the strong points and the weak points. The issue is not whether
the weaker parts of the application will be examined. The issue
is on whose terms will they be examined. If the applicant deals
with the weaknesses (i.e., low LSAT, low GPA, poor semester), he/she
can frame the discussion on his/her terms and offer reasonable and
informative explanations (i.e., history of poor performance on standardized
tests, highly rigorous courseloead, lots of hours spent working
or involved in activities, change of major from premed, personal
or family tragedy etc.).
The theory on which this proposal is
founded is the same as that learned by students in a first year
evidence class. If the other side has damaging information to your
case, you introduce it first to defuse it on your terms. It is hard
to look at a personal statement in terms of 'damage control.' But
the fact of the matter is that unless applicants deal with their
good and bad points up front in their way, we will deal with them
in our way.
Finally, I have noticed that some applicants
are reluctant to discuss certain aspects of their background, such
as history of disadvantage, ethnic status, etc. This is a mistake,
plain and simple. No one is asking for lengthy stories of heroism
in overcoming enormous obstacles. Information of this kind, however,
is very valuable to Admissions Committees and in every instance
it can only work to the applicant's advantage.
Some closing thoughts. First, applicants
should be brief. They should say what they have to say and no more.
There is no need to ramble on about how they wanted to be a lawyer
since age four. . . . my experience tells me that two pages is usually
Secondly, a large percentage of law school
applicants subscribe to the theory that admissions is strictly a
numbers game and that most personal statements are never read. Speaking
for Georgetown and, I assume, most law schools, this is simply not
the case. Of course, the numbers are very important in any decision.
But we read every personal statement. Applicants should be advised
to write their statements with great care. In many cases, they will
be the determining factor.