Choosing a Personal Statement Topic
“But I don’t have a WOW factor.”
It is that time of year when applicants realize the LSAT may not be the hardest part of the law school admissions process after all. For many, it will be writing the personal statement. This difficulty often stems from one of two sentiments: the perceived lack of a “wow factor” altogether or the perceived lack of a “wow factor” that is unique. Two of the most common questions we hear from law school applicants are: “But there’s nothing unique about me; I grew up in a middle-class suburb, went to fine schools, and had no significant challenges to overcome. What could I write about that would be interesting?” Or, at the other end of the spectrum, “But don’t a lot of people write about their challenges as a first-generation American (or being raised by a single-parent, or living abroad for school or work)? Is that really unique?” Whether you believe you fall at either end of these spectrums or somewhere in the middle, my response is the same: The personal statement is about you—your experiences, your achievements, your challenges, your goals. It matters less what the topic is, i.e., whether it is common, and matters more how you write about it. What did a particular experience or challenge mean to you? How did it influence, inspire, or teach you? What decisions have you made or what actions have you taken as a result? How might you influence, inspire, or teach others as a result? As long as you write about a topic that is meaningful to you and that has somehow shaped you or defined your goals, it will be compelling.
Or as an old Harley Davidson ad stated: “When writing the story of your life, don’t let anyone else hold the pen.” No one else can hold your pen, even if his or her experience or background seems similar to yours. So don’t worry about trying to find a wow factor or whether your wow factor is unique enough; be who you are and share who you are. The admissions committee’s job is to put together a class of students that will engage, challenge and teach one another through their individual backgrounds, experiences, values, and beliefs. Thus, your job in writing the personal statement is to show the admissions committee how you would do just that.
So now that you know you don’t need a wow factor to write an effective personal statement, how do you come up with your topic? We recommend you start by doing a “life inventory.” Reflect back on your life—your childhood, college, and post-college years (if applicable)—and contemplate your:
• Personal circumstances (the geographic settings in which you grew up or spent time, family dynamic, socio-economic status, culture, religion, schooling)
• Identity (personality quirks or qualities, race, ethnicity, ideology, political affiliation, sexual orientation, gender, etc.)
• Life events or changes (moves, births, deaths, illnesses, recoveries, ceremonies, personal challenges and accomplishments)
• Academic, artistic, or athletic endeavors
• Leadership positions, substantive extra-curricular or community service activities
• Internships, professional jobs, or specific work projects
As you recall these experiences, which stand out the most? Which of them elicit a charge or emotional reaction? Which experiences, events, or moments, even, particularly engaged you, challenged you, inspired you, taught you, influenced you, or somehow changed you? Write down those experiences. Is there a common thread—a characteristic, skill, or value—running through some of those experiences? If so, that may be the theme for your essay. Do any of those experiences directly relate to why you want to go to law school or to your career goals? If so, that may be a map for an essay that outlines your journey toward becoming a lawyer. There may be one experience in particular—a challenging project or period of time at work (or within a student organization) that required you to step into a new and unexpected role, a significant accomplishment that required a sustained commitment and effort, an academic paper or project that unearthed an intellectual passion—that markedly shaped your convictions or influenced your career goals; if so, you might center your essay around that one event.
Once you have identified your potential topic, start writing. Just show up to the page and write freely—without judgment, without editing, and without a strict page limit. If you remember nothing else from this blog, please remember this tip: do not try to write a two-page personal statement in your first draft, or even second or third draft. Get your story—with vivid, detailed examples—onto the page. As your essay takes shape over multiple drafts, begin to refine and edit as necessary to meet various schools’ page requirements. Allowing yourself to write freely in your early drafts will result in a stronger, more memorable essay.
Most importantly, “Keep calm and Harley on.”