Podcast: Law School Personal Statement Deep Dive—Advice from Former Admissions Officers

In this episode of Status Check with Spivey, Anna Hicks-Jaco has a conversation with three Spivey consultants—Anne Dutia, Paula Gluzman, and Derek Meeker, former law school admissions officers at Michigan, UCLA, Penn, and more—diving deep into the law school personal statement. They discuss the brainstorming and topic selection process, how to structure a personal statement, writing tips, broad-level traits of A+ personal statements, common mistakes, and more.

You can watch the video Derek mentions in this episode, in which he walks through how to choose a personal statement topic, here. You can read bios for Anne, Paula, Derek, and Anna here.

You can listen and subscribe to Status Check with Spivey on ⁠⁠Apple Podcasts⁠⁠⁠⁠Spotify⁠⁠, and ⁠⁠YouTube⁠⁠.

Full Transcript:

Anna: Hello, and welcome to Status Check with Spivey, where we talk about life, law school, law school admissions, a little bit of everything. I'm Anna Hicks-Jaco, Spivey Consulting's President, and today we're really drilling down into law school admissions, and specifically the personal statement. How to brainstorm and choose the ideal topic, how to structure the personal statement, advice for the writing process, common mistakes to avoid, tons of valuable information.

I am fortunate to be joined for this episode by three of our amazing Spivey consultants, Anne Dutia, Paula Gluzman, and Derek Meeker, all former admissions officers at various law schools including Penn, UCLA, and Michigan, but I will go ahead and let them introduce themselves.

Anne: Hi everyone, I'm Anne Dutia, and I have been with Spivey Consulting Group since 2017. Before that, I practiced law for a bit before moving to Michigan and ending up working at the law school in the admissions office. After that, I was a pre-law advisor for a number of years, and I really enjoyed working on the other side of the process. So when the opportunity came to work with Spivey Consulting Group and some of my dear friends and people I really respected in the business, I jumped at it, and I've been here ever since!

Paula: Hi, everyone. I am Paula Gluzman. I have been a consultant at Spivey Consulting Group since 2018; I'm also the Director of the Diversity and Inclusion Committee here at Spivey. I started my career practicing civil defense litigation and transitioned into student legal services where I was working at a university helping students through legal issues. I was very fortunate to get break in law school admissions at the University of Washington School of Law in Seattle, and then transitioned over to UCLA School of Law when I moved back to California. I loved admissions, and then the opportunity came to work in career services at a law school, so all the students that I was helping bring into the school through recruiting and application review, I was now getting to work with them for three years on all of their resume and cover letter and employment assessment work. I loved that job as well; I did that at Thomas Jefferson School of Law and at University of San Diego School of Law. And then the opportunity came to work back with students in admissions one-on-one through Spivey, and I have been here ever since.

I am also a first-generation immigrant, I am a first-generation college student in America, and also a first-generation law student. And so my passion for working with students and diverse individuals has been a long-lived passion that I get to do every single day as a consultant here.

Derek: Hi, everyone, hello from Los Angeles! My name is Derek Meeker. I am a partner at Spivey Consulting and have been here since 2014. I've worked in law school admissions and legal recruiting for well over 20 years now—about eight years on the school side, I worked as the Assistant Director of Admissions at William Mitchell in the Twin Cities, and then as the Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid at the University of Pennsylvania Law School. I also worked in big law as a global recruiting manager for Paul Hastings, and I have now been a law school admissions consultant for a total of 14 years.

But I also want to talk about my writing background and experience since today's podcast is about personal statements. I basically started writing from the time I could hold a pencil. I've always loved writing. I started writing stories in elementary or middle school. I was the editor of the yearbook and newspaper in high school. I majored in journalism in college. This has just always been a passion for me and something I knew I wanted to do in my professional career. And since then, I've transitioned to writing my own personal essays and memoir and have taken a lot of continuing education classes in those areas of writing.

So I love talking about writing. I love helping people tell their stories, and I'm excited to share some advice with all of our listeners.

Anna: Well, thank you all for joining me here today for this podcast about personal statements, which is such a big and important topic in law school admissions, so I hope we're able to give tons of helpful advice, and I know with the three of you on board we'll have plenty of value to add! Let's jump right in; we have limited time.

I think the first topic that I would like to cover is how personal statements and what law schools are looking for in personal statements has changed over the years. Spivey Consulting has been around since 2012, and the advice that we gave about personal statements in 2014, Derek, when you joined, was different from the personal statement advice that we give today in 2024, and that's for some good reasons. Derek, do you want to talk a little bit about how things have changed?

Derek: Absolutely. I think the biggest change is that now, I would advise people to include why they're going to law school or why they're pursuing a legal career in their personal statement. It used to be, it could very much be a personal essay for your personal statement, which you could tell an interesting story about the coolest experience you ever had. We have examples of these. One of my favorite essays of all time that I've talked about numerous times on podcasts and written about is the cattle ranch essay, where I worked with someone who spent every summer of his college years working with Mexican cowboys, living and speaking in a different language and a different culture. It's just such a beautiful story. There was absolutely no mention in there about law school. And while it was once one of my favorite personal statements, maybe my favorite ever, I couldn't advise someone to write that essay now—or at least not in the same way, right?

So, now law schools really want to know why you're going to law school, or as Dean Natalie Blazer from the University of Virginia put it, why a legal education or a legal career makes sense for you. You don't have to know exactly what you want to do, you don't have to write about your specific practice area, but at least talk about experiences or an experience in your essay that shows how you've grown and perhaps cultivated skills or qualities or developed passion for particular subjects or issues that somehow connect to why you're going to law school or why you would make a great lawyer.

To be clear, it still should be a personal statement, right? It still has to be an entertaining story. It's just that now you have to find a way to connect it to where you are today, which is, why am I applying to law school? That's what I would say is the biggest change.

Anna: Paula, Anne, thoughts to add?

Anne: I absolutely agree. I think that we used to be able to let people indulge their passions and talk about maybe things that they loved or that were a little esoteric or could be entertaining, as long as they demonstrated a self-awareness, helping the readers understand what made them tick.

Now it has to be a little bit more focused towards, how does that apply to the study and practice of law? And I think that for most of our clients, that's a pretty easy shift. For others, it might require a little bit more self-examination.

Paula: You hit the nail on the head with regards to exactly what I put for this question as what I wanted to talk about. It’s that, no longer are the days where you can just talk about an interesting story that is a theme or a metaphor for how you handle conflict or how you persevere through difficult situations or maybe even just simply saying things that are important to you and how that's going to transfer into the kind of lawyer that you're going to be. If you are able to sort of connect the dots to the journey of journeys in your life, and find the initial reason, maybe before you even knew what law was, and what connected you to the idea of fairness or justice or advocating for others or standing up for the underdog, or maybe it was just a talent that you had that is a really great transferable skill, like strong reading and writing or really enjoying research or really enjoying critical thinking. And connect the dots between who you are as a person, the characteristics that you want to convey in your essay to how it all connects to the choices that you've made to lead you to the doorsteps of these schools. You are going to be covering all the things that an admissions person wants to know about you that can give them an idea of what you bring to the table.

So it can't just be personal, it can't just be all about law. There needs to be a really great meshing of both to be a successful essay for this climate in admissions.

Derek: And just to add something that Paula, that was stated at the end. I think I would just say yes, it's now somewhere between personal essay and statement of purpose. And I still feel like, in most cases, it's mostly personal statement, because you still want that interesting story that shows how you grew or all the things that both Anne and Paula talked about. But at some point, there needs to be that shift more toward statement of purpose.

Anna: I think that's all great advice. Part of that difference comes just from the fact that law school admissions is more competitive now than it was a decade ago. Ten years ago, it was very much an applicant's market. Things are very different, things are more competitive, and I think the personal statement is more important than ever.

Another part of it is just that law schools are looking more and more at ways to assess employability, and having a clear purpose somewhere in your application is key to establishing that employability, because that's the employment that you're going to go out and seek once you are in law school.

So that personal statement, very, very important, especially now. Probably everyone listening to this podcast would ideally write an A+ personal statement. You know, if they're listening to this, they are looking for advice to be able to write an excellent, top 5% personal statement. So my question to you all is, what are qualities of those really excellent, those top-of-the-line personal statements?

Paula: I wrote down five things that I think make a really strong, well-rounded personal statement. So if you can indulge me I'll go through them. One, in making a personal statement, it should have your genuine voice and be well written so that it's first, informative—think about the key points of relevant facts about you you want the reader to take away when they're done reading your essay.

You want it to be compelling, so again, told in a way that elicits an emotional pull or a connection to you as a writer and as an applicant. Also, so it shows your personality, right? So that makes a compelling aspect of it. You want to leave a lasting mark in the minds and in the hearts of your reader.

Three, intentionally interesting. So really think about the stories that you're choosing to tell about yourself and how they best convey your interest and the purpose in entering law school.

Four, it's reflective. Anna, you had a great TikTok about this, talking about personal statements and how important that reflection aspect of the personal statement is. The reason for that is because it shows your maturity and it shows your EQ and it shows your ability to go back and actually reflect and be self-actualized, which is huge for handling the rigor of law school and the legal profession.

And then lastly, you want it to be professional, error-free, no typos, follow grammar and formatting rules. Think about the audience of who is listening to or reading your application, right? So this is not going to be the same type of language that you're going to use with your friends or in social settings. Think more about how you would talk or speak about yourself to a mentor or to a grown-up in your life, a parent, a strong family member, a professor that you really value, and how you would speak about yourself and your life to that person. Those would be my top five elements of an A+ personal statement.

Derek: I had five also, and some of them are going to overlap, but that's good because it shows that...

Paula: Confirming.

Derek: Right, there's some agreement on this! So my number one is authenticity, which Paula touched on. I think it's just so important to be who you are and to write in your genuinely authentic voice. There's a lot of talk about differentiation and trying to differentiate in the application process and in your essay writing. You know, I think that differentiation is certainly important, but I sometimes feel like too much emphasis gets placed on that, or at least that sometimes people will prioritize differentiation over authenticity. And so they end up trying to create something, right, that maybe doesn't actually exist or just is like they're stretching it too much, because they're trying too hard to differentiate or feel like that they need to impress the admissions committee. And I often feel like some of the simplest, most everyday sorts of topics can be really engaging and some of the best personal statements, because they're just so real and so human, and you just get a sense of, you really know the person. And I'm going to talk about one of them later, I think, when we talk about some essays that we love. So authenticity is my number one.

Related to that, conversational in tone. It's not an academic piece. That doesn't mean, of course, that you can't talk about academic experiences. But I just feel like admissions people are reading, they might be reading 50 applications a day. And I always say, you don't know if you're going to be the first or the 50th that day or what's going on when they're reading it, right? So make it conversational, so it's engaging. Don't try to take on a stilted or like a “writer's voice,” as I say, right? Obviously, good grammar, all of those things apply. If you read personal essays or memoirs, you'll see that most of them are just very conversational. They draw you in, right?

I think number three, somewhat narrowly tailored. You don't want to write a mini biography. You don't want to try to cover too much. You have to really try to hone in on, what is an experience or a couple of experiences that have shaped me the most, and try to make it somewhat narrowly tailored.

I would also say number four, growth journey or arc, which is also something that Paula touched on. I feel like all the great essays, the reader goes through something. They are intrigued, or confused, or challenged, and then they discover, or they navigate, or problem solve, or they overcome something. There's a lesson, there are skills or qualities that they develop, values formed or reinforced or changed. So you want it to have that element of journey or arc to it.

And then my final one is the “three Cs”—compelling, cohesive, concise. Compelling, Paula talked about, keep the reader interested. Cohesive, make sure that it logically flows and makes sense. Each paragraph should build on the next. You don't want abrupt shifts or tangents or introducing new topics late in the essay, which I saw so often. And concise. Look, there are a lot of law schools that don't give you a page limit. Most of my clients still write a two-page essay. Some occasionally go longer and sometimes it makes sense, but the ones that do that, when they have to then do a two-page version for a school that requires it, they almost always say, you know what, I like this one better. It's tighter. I'm going to send it to every school.

Anna: I had four, but with an implied five.

Paula: Can you tell we've all practiced law?

Anne: Yeah, and they overlap with Paula and Derek's advice. One thing that I wanted to just build on a little bit is, both of you touched on self-awareness or self-examination. And what I stress to my clients also is being self-aware, but also aware of how you got to this point in your life and how you're situated within the world. Whether it's in your small environment or globally, having a pretty pragmatic sense of how you fit into the world. What kind of things you need to get to the next place you want to be. Which then I think conveys this growth, the need for growth or the trajectory that you're on. I talk to my clients a lot about trajectory, because we want to have a sense of where we are now, but how law school fits into your plan to get you to the point you want to be, or the kind of life you envision for yourself or how you envision yourself using the skills that law school will give you.

One thing that I think is a little bit different from what my colleagues said is, I suggest either universal or relatable themes or making them so. Write about your story in a way that people are going to connect to it. You want them to root for you.

And then my implied last one was, of course, that it has to be well written and my colleagues have covered that very well.

Anna: I love the focus on authenticity here, that's something that I feel like, any time we give any personal statement advice, that is such a big point of emphasis. Speaking to—here I am in this group of four people who have read law school applications for a living and who have lived this life—and I think we could all agree that law school admissions officers develop over time a real keen eye for that authenticity, being able to tell who is putting on a show, and who is really speaking from their heart. So I think that's such an important point.

Derek: Yeah, well, I think that sometimes there is this tendency to think, “Oh, I shouldn't write about teaching because so many people write about that,” or “I shouldn't write about being a first-generation American because that's so common now,” or, “I shouldn't write about working in politics, because doesn't everyone who goes to law school write about politics?” But look, if those are the most informative experiences, or if those are the things that challenged you the most, that cultivated critical skills for you, and that somehow connect to why you're interested in law school, that's what you should write about!

It gets back to authenticity. You can always find a way to make it your own and to differentiate within the story—

Anne: Absolutely.

Derek: —by finding those great, those very specific moments that mattered. A conversation you had with a student, a speech that you gave or had to write when you were working in politics. There are ways to do that. I mean, because look, the reality is, most people applying to law school are somewhere between 22 and 25, right? You've only had so many experiences, and a lot of them are going to be common. That's okay. Be authentic, be true to yourself and to the experiences that have mattered to you.

Anne: And it's your take!

Paula: And that's exactly what I was going to say, is that your experiences are your own. The path may have been followed by people before you and will be followed by people after you, but no one can take away the fact that you have perceived and experienced a common experience in your own way because of the person that you are, the life that you've lived, and the experiences that have shaped you up to that point. So if you can take the time to dig a little bit deeper and ask yourself those critical questions of, “how has that experience changed me or changed my viewpoint or propelled me further towards the law?” that is what admissions cares about, not necessarily that you had an internship with a senator, or you worked on a campaign like maybe other people that applied that year. What distinguishes your application, what makes it authentic, is how you talk about your experiences as a building block to the rest of your life. So don't shy away from common experiences—make it your own.

Anne: Or the insights that you developed from those experiences, right? Because the insights that you develop from them could be entirely different from what I did.

Paula: Exactly.

Anne: Or what your colleague did. What we want to see are the connections between your perspectives, your background, your education, and then the experiences that you had and how that shaped you and what that means for you going forward.

Derek: Yes, and if you happen to be in that very small percentage of people who did found or build a school in an underserved community or moved to a quaint town in the middle of nowhere and opened a bakery, wonderful. Write about it. You have an amazing story, right? Not going to be most people applying to law school, so don't sweat it if you haven't done something like that.

Anna: Let's talk about that a little bit more.

Anne: I think that there is that fear that I don't have something that is a really memorable story. They feel like they have to have had a challenge or done something that was differentiating. And I spend a lot of time coaching my clients that everyone has something that is interesting or differentiating.

Anna: Yes, absolutely. Let’s talk about that a little bit more, choosing a topic. Because we're starting to get into that realm of things in our discussion. And it is the first hurdle for a lot of people that you have to face when you are thinking about writing your personal statement is, okay, what am I going to write about? How do you choose a topic? Let's talk about that. What does the brainstorming process look like ideally for a law school personal statement, and then how do you choose the best topic out of that brainstorming process?

Derek: So one of the things I always talk about—and we actually have a video on YouTube that maybe our listeners have seen or listened to, and if not, please do—but I always talk about the best advice I've ever gotten from one of my writing instructors, was to think about—she used to say the “moments when everything changed” and called them “MWECs,” M-W-E-C. She was one of my professors at UCLA. But I changed that slightly to “moments when something changed,” because again, if you're 22 or 23 years old, “everything” is a bit overwhelming. But what that means is just really thinking back to those inflection points. Those points in time where something happened—and it could be personal, it could be academic, it could be extracurricular or community related, it could be professional—but those moments when something happened that caused you to, “Oh, this is new,” or, “Oh, I never realized this. I want to learn more about this.” It caused you to take action and maybe to do something differently.

So I think really tapping into those and kind of doing a life inventory of those moments in the different periods of your life and in the different settings—again, your personal, family life, the community or town that you grew up in, and in academic settings and in professional settings—that's where I always suggest starting. And then from there, again, knowing that you have to somehow get to why you're going to law school and where you are today, what are the stories within that, that somehow, you can connect to that?

Anna: Yeah, Derek, I love the terminology of “life inventory.” That reminds me a lot of how Mike Spivey and I, when we work with clients, how we talk about this, which is that, if you were to go back and look at every single experience that you've ever had in your life and then rate them on a scale of 1 to 10 on how much they have impacted the person who you are today, your personal statement should ideally be written about those 9s and those 10s, or you know, one or maybe two of those 9s and those 10s. And if they've impacted greatly the person who you are today, that is the person who now wants to go to law school, so hopefully the connection is there. But I really like the “moments when everything changed,” those “moments when something changed”; another way to think of it is rating on that 1 to 10 scale, and what are your 9s and your 10s?

Anne: So I think about it not just as formative experiences, but also formative influences, like sometimes it's family, sometimes it's where you grew up, sometimes it's being a reader or a particular challenge that you faced, and trying to derive some insight from those things, right? Maybe there's connections between the kind of problems you want to solve in the world and some of the challenges that you faced earlier in your life.

Much like Derek's process, I look for those connections, those kind of formative things, the things that shaped who a person is, and is really important to them, and then interrogate like, why are those things important? How do they affect who you are now? And what are they going to be like for you going forward?

Derek: How are they going to make you a better law student or a better lawyer?

Anne: Yeah.

Paula: Exactly. Going back and connecting it to the whole point of why you're applying to law school and not, say, medical school or to be an accountant or a social worker or a painter or whatever.

The one thing that I always emphasize when I talk to anybody about personal statements is to actually do the brainstorming. Some people come in very, very hot—and it's great!—saying, “I know exactly what I want to write about.” And I always encourage that idea to stay, because at the end of the day, if that's genuinely what somebody wants to write about, it will definitely be an element of their personal statement or somewhere in their application. But do yourself a favor and take the time to take a couple of steps back and look at it from a bird's eye view, and consider the fact that what you're going to be writing about in your personal statement also has to coalesce and work well with what might go into a diversity statement or other supplemental essays and optional essays or an addendum that you might be able to write.

And so as long as you're thinking that the personal statement is going to be the core written document that is going to be read about who I am and why law, knowing that there's going to be other essays that are going to be a part of your application process, it takes a little bit of the pressure off to have to write about everything in that two-page double-spaced essay.

So take the time to brainstorm, what can go into the personal statement, and then the purpose of the other documents that are going to be a part of your application, and what can also go into those as topics that will fuse really well with your whole story.

“I know exactly what I want to write about.” Right, if your gut is silent, and you have no idea what to write about, go through some of the prompts of the law schools that you're interested in going in, the last year's application, even if the new updated essays are not up, you'll have very similar ideas of what they might ask about by looking at prompts that are provided from the years prior. And take out some of the common themes that you see in those prompts. So why law? Of course. We've talked about personal characteristics, outside influences, learning from mistakes, obstacles overcome. And start asking yourself those “life inventory” questions of, what could I talk about in these topics that could be compelling parts of my life that I can cover?

I think the biggest thing in strategy for brainstorming is not picking just one of those topics to write about that maybe you had a really great stream of consciousness of writing down some information that came out of your brain, but then think about how you can possibly be multidimensional in combining them together. Are any of those stories in those topics connected in some way? Is there maybe a personal characteristic that is influenced by somebody or an experience from outside of just yourself? Or maybe learning from a mistake built that personal characteristic that then led you to seek something that brought you closer to the law? So if you can add dimension—if you can really show that you are a student of learning from your own life—and then reflecting that in your personal statement, that is where it gets compelling. That is where somebody in admissions is going to feel connected to you. And we've seen so many people be able to distinguish themselves authentically by being able to combine those themes by personal aspects of themselves, just by doing a little extra brainstorming and reflection and not just running straight in to write and then be done.

Anne: I have joked with some of my clients that sometimes these connections are like therapy realizations, right?

Paula: Yes.

Anne: There are things that you put together that maybe you hadn't considered were connected.

Derek: I hear that so much from the people I work with—both things, right? “Oh this was like a therapy session.”

Anne: “This was so cathartic.”

Derek: Yes, I mean, great. I mean it should be, because you're—if you're doing it right, you want to think broadly and deeply about all of your experiences. How often they say, “I would have never thought to connect those things together,” that is what's so valuable about the brainstorming process, right? Because then, so maybe it's not one particular compelling experience, but as Paula said, it might be several distinct ones that maybe don't even seem related on their face, right? But there's a theme there. “Pioneer.” I was the first in my family to go to college; that might be one part of it. And then, that leads me to be someone who has initiative and who likes to start things, and so I start a new student organization when I'm in college, and then maybe there's something from professional. So they could be very distinct experiences, but they're centered around this theme, and that's such a beautiful way of sharing multiple experiences, but they're all connected.

Paula: The one other thing that I was going to add about brainstorming that I think creates such a critical elevation and change to the final product is, when you brainstorm, give yourself the opportunity to just write a stream of consciousness. Meaning, let your brain think out loud through your fingertips as you type or as you write. Because it's through that stream of consciousness that your actual voice, your vernacular, the way you speak, that conversational element of your thinking and writing comes out. And I can't tell you how many times I've read through a brainstorming worksheet that we give our clients at Spivey Consulting, and a line is written in such a unique, creative way that in the hundreds or thousands of essays that I have read and reviewed, I've never heard a topic talked about that way or written about in that way or reflected about in that specific wording, and I highlight it.

Anne: And that makes such an impression, right?

Paula: It makes such an impression! It's like I've never—that is so unique, I've never heard that before or like, wow, that changes the way I think of it. What a beautiful way of conveying that idea, and I will highlight it. And then we will talk a little bit more about, how can we infuse this in your statement? And it's something that they probably didn't even think twice about doing.

So again, your brainstorm is yours as an applicant. Nobody needs to see that. It can be as simple or as deep as you want it to be, whatever you need during that brainstorming process. And then give it the actual look over to see, “Okay what in here is really my authentic voice, and how can I include that in my personal statement to add that authentic, conversational, unique, compelling aspect?” So don't be afraid of the brainstorming, like really lean into it, because sometimes that's where the magic happens, and then you just refine it when you finalize and edit your document.

Anne: One last thing that I wanted to mention for the brainstorming process is, when you come up with these themes to engage in like what Paula said, the stream of consciousness, there's going to be some throwing ideas on paper, and then there's going to be some weeding out. Save those ideas. I think one of our colleagues calls it the editing graveyard. Save those things because you may be able to use them for something else, an additional essay. And the things that you came up with early on may have a kernel of relevance for a ‘why [X] law school’ essay or one of the essays about grit or your connection to the rule of law. Hang on to all of those things.

Anna: Yeah, that's excellent advice.

So let's say an applicant has gone through this brainstorming process. They have selected their topic or their theme. Maybe they did the free writing, but they haven't come up with something that resembles a draft yet, so this person is starting from zero, starting with a blank page. How do you all walk people through actually structuring and starting to write that personal statement?

Anne: Can we all agree that the big, dramatic opening statement or the big “hook” is overdone and that law school admissions officers are over it? There used to be something that would, you know, required that there had to be something overly dramatic at the beginning.

Derek: Yeah, of course, if there is something that's rather dramatic, right?

Anne: Right.

Derek: I'll just give a quick example because it's pretty extreme, but it worked. I had someone whose most formative experience seared in their head was seeing their cousins who were in rival gangs actually get into a knife fight—incredibly dramatic. When we had the conversations about those moments that really stood out and changed. For this person, that was when they realized, “education is my way out of these circumstances.” But I think what you're getting at is that many of them are inauthentic, right?

Anne: Manufacturing the drama.

Derek: Right, they “have” to have a dramatic open, so it's manufactured. Yes, it can actually be very subtle.

Whoa, I have a lot to say about structuring. I mean, there's so many ways that you can do it. And I think part of it is just the painful process of the rough drafts and figuring out what's going to work. Really think about the ending. I think that that can really help for someone who's sort of lost and confused. Because if you know where you need to get to, that might help you in mapping it out. And we all know basically, at least generally, where you need to get to, which is where you are today and why you are where you are today, right, i.e., why does law school make sense for you? So it could help in thinking about that. “This is where I need to get to. So what's the story that I can tell that's going to get me there?”

Strictly chronological works very well. And so one of my favorite essays, and I think we're actually going to add it to our website, is someone who writes about dissecting electronics, like he liked taking things apart when he was a kid. He starts in the opening as a child, doing this dissecting of electronics, right? So he's establishing something that is meaningful to him, and then that leads him to choose his major in college, something in engineering, and key experiences as far as internships, and then that leads to a key professional experience, and then that leads to why he's going to law school. Right? So very chronological. An incredibly compelling essay. One of my favorites.

But I work with a lot of clients who do the “in medias res”—just to show off my Latin a little bit.

Paula: I’m impressed!

Derek: “In medias res,” in the middle of things. Very common structure for a personal statement. Again, I'll use an example. Another one of my favorite essays is someone who opens the essay, he's in Amman, Jordan, and he's meeting an Iraqi refugee that he's working with for the first time. So we start in the middle where the meeting is about to take place, and then the rest of the essay backtracks. So from there it's in chronological order, because you still want it to logically make sense and for your reader to feel grounded and to know what's happening. How did he get there? Right, so that's always a good way. Open in the middle of the plot and then the narrative, the body becomes, “How did I get here?” I first became interested in this issue or whatever, and so I learned Arabic, and then I studied these classes, and then I did an internship, and now I'm working with refugees. Ultimately, the essay loops back to the meeting, where it opens, and then he takes us through this conflict, or you know the problem that he has to resolve with this refugee that he’s working with.

You could also start with the end. This is more rare, but I've seen this also be a very effective structure. Quick example, someone who became the leader of a local chapter of a volunteer organization opens with giving a speech before the state legislature, which is the culmination of the work they put into getting a piece of legislation introduced about an issue that was personally very important to them. So they're basically starting at the end. That's the culmination. I got to this point, we're giving a speech, and then they take us through the journey of getting there.

So structure is incredibly important, but hopefully that's at least helpful in giving some ideas as to ways that it can be done. But I think the tricky part is just figuring out what's going to work best for the story that you're telling, and just trust it as you put those drafts together.

Anne: What are the insights that you're offering, right? What is the takeaway? And then think about how you can convey that in an effective way, whether it's narrative or chronological or even like a pastiche that's all fit together with an inevitable conclusion showing the connections between all of the things you shared about yourself.

Paula: I think everything that you all said is a way more intellectual, fancy way of the way I was going to describe it, which was go back to elementary school storytelling where you have an introduction, character development, plot development, some sort of a story arc where there is growth or a conflict that needs to be resolved. There's some sort of a resolution, and then a conclusion that brings everything together. And whether that's done with a theme or a metaphor or symbolism or weaving vignettes of stories together that all come together in the conclusion, that's going to be so applicant-specific, but make sure there is a strong and compelling intro. Make sure somewhere in there, you're talking about who you are and what makes you tick and how you operate in the world. Tell your story, that life inventory, and then make sure somewhere in there, the conclusion or otherwise, leads it back to the law. I think that's maybe the simplest way. And then of course adding in any of these other writing techniques that my colleagues have shared will only make your application and your personal statement stronger.

Derek: Forward movement, right?

Paula: Forward movement.

Derek: It's that—move the essay forward, move the story forward. And just getting back to where we opened, too, as far as like the whole dramatic thing. I do love an essay that opens in a scene or an action. It doesn't have to be dramatic, but just, that's often a nice way to draw the reader in, because it's active. Something is happening. And again, it's—you know, if they're, it's the 49th essay they're reading that day—it might be nice to have something where there's a little bit of movement.

If I could just read the first couple of sentences as an example, because this is another one of my favorites, but this is an example of starting with an act, not super dramatic, but here it is.

“At five o'clock, the printer screeches. Our first table has arrived. Eight burners ignite at once, and our bodies begin to move together with salt, pans, and knives.” I love it! It's like—

Anna: Compelling but not dramatic.

Derek: Compelling but not dramatic. It's action, and so we know where the writer is, and then of course—I mean, I'm not going to continue reading, but.

Anne: I feel like I'm watching an episode of The Bear!

Derek: Right, yeah, it was very timely in that.

But expositional, not a scene, not action, but just sort of explanatory can work very well too. And a couple of quick examples of those that I love. “The best gift I ever received didn't work.” Okay, I want to hear about that. That's cool. “One of my closest friends in college was an 83-year-old man named Bill the Boxer.”

Anna: Hmm, love that one.

Paula: I feel like each one of these makes me want to hear more. It didn't smack me across the face, but it still really made me want to read more. I think the best way I can describe what a reader feels like is, when we are reading 50 of these a day, you want to feel as if you're in a cozy couch with a fuzzy blanket wrapped around you with whatever beverage of choice you're deciding to have that day, and you just want to like crawl into the story that you read. I'm telling you, I'm living proof that it is so possible to fall in love with a personal statement. Those are great examples, Derek, of how to start off a story to do that.

Switching gears a little bit with regards to structuring, there are so many examples of wonderful ways to storytell in real life. One of the things that I recommend doing is take a look at some of your favorite TED Talks, or go online and find videos of the top 10 TED Talks that exist. It's not a written essay, but it is a concise, time-limited way of conveying information that has to be compelling and has to be informative. Listen to some TED Talks and see if that inspires you to structure your essays in a certain way.

Anne, you had mentioned a source of inspiration as well with regards to personal statements.

Anne: It's a little bit untraditional. It's also something that could be a little bit morbid, but some of my favorite writing is the obituary page in The Economist. The writer is just fantastic. She's able to link a person's impact and their story along with things that were happening globally during that person's life. I want to know more about the person—I almost always Google or Wiki the person to learn more, because if this person thought that that person merited mention in the Economist obituary page and then did the research to show me why, I think that I'm going to learn more. And I think that's the goal, is helping people want to learn more about you.

I used to tell my clients that when I was reading applications, I would think, “Do I want to sit down and have a cup of coffee with this person? Would they have interesting things to say? Could we talk about the world and I would want to hear their insights and feel like they were going to teach me something? Would I want to teach this person in class?” That's the kind of thing that I'm looking for when I'm reading an essay.

Derek: The writing in The Economist is so good. I don't read it, like I'm not that interested in the topic quite frankly, but I used to. I feel like it's some of the best writing, it can be really good just in terms of—here is what excellent, concise, precise writing looks like.

Also, related to Paula talked about TED Talks. The Moth. That's a great one to take a look at. So it is a story that someone writes, but then they're actually presenting it and speaking it in a radio hour. Which is great advice, by the way; you should read your essays aloud when you're getting to the point of feeling like you have a final draft—

Anna: Yes.

Derek: —because it will really help you refine it and you will pick up things that you don't just from reading it.

I think Modern Love essays in the New York Times, if you've ever read Modern Love. The L.A. Times has one too. Those are great, because they have that element of, you know, a story where there's growth and some sort of lesson and certainly about self-awareness. And I think generally books on personal essays or memoirs of people that you're really interested in are great because they have that conversational tone.

And I do, if I could, one more piece of advice—because I think it gets to your original question, Anna, about like maybe someone who's struggling with the structure and how to open the essay and how to make it cohesive—a thesis statement can really help. You don't have to have a thesis statement in a personal essay. Not all of my clients do. But I will recommend it when I see that they're having some trouble just knowing how to set it up and where to go with the essay or to make it more cohesive. So think about the end of the paragraph, however you're opening it, ending with, what is this essay ultimately about? “This experience was not only one of the most challenging, but informed the values that define me today,” or right like, that's not a great example, but okay, now I at least have something that I can anchor and go from there.

Anna: Let’s dig into the writing a little bit more. What tips, what advice do you all have for the actual writing process? Let's assume structure is basically set in stone, topic set in stone. What tips do we have for the writing itself?

Anne: I suggest throwing ideas on paper. See what sticks. Because very few people fall in love with their first draft. There's that great phrase from this British school of writers, ‘kill your darlings,’ right? Sometimes you're going to write something and then you have to kill your favorite phrases. In terms of writing, there's going to be lots of stops and starts. And sometimes you just have to throw those ideas on paper, see what you like, see what you hate, and then move forward.

Anna: I think that's good advice. We've already thrown in some writing advice to some extent as we've been talking. One really good nugget was reading your writing out loud. When you are reading your personal statement out loud, it should not feel foreign in your mouth. It should be in your voice. Like Paula was talking about, it shouldn't be as if you were talking to your childhood best friend, but if you were talking to a mentor, a professor, a supervisor at your job, but you're speaking in your authentic voice, it should sound—literally sound, as you speak it out loud—it should sound authentic. I think that's a great piece of advice for anybody.

Derek: Yeah. One of the most common things that I see in personal essay writing is overuse of “was,” or the “be” verbs in general—“is,” “was,” “were.” But “was” is the biggest culprit, and it's often passive. It often causes your writing to be wordier, because you have to say, “I was this,” like you have to add an adjective or additional words. So always try to write with action verbs whenever you can. Of course, “was” has its purpose, “is” has its purpose, and sometimes it is the best choice. But there are so many times when you can change it. In fact, I'll even do a search and find “was,” and I'll sometimes point that out to people that I work with. “You have 30 uses of ‘was’ in this essay.” That is a flag, right? Go through them and see, are there any that I can change here to an action verb?

Same with adverbs too. Like adverbs have their place, but overuse of adverbs and just throwing in a lot of adjectives to fluff it up, you don't need it. Paula talked about earlier, go back to your elementary, middle school grammar lessons. Sentences with strong nouns and action verbs. Specific nouns, strong action verbs, if you're doing that, you don't need a lot of “was this” or “is that,” and you don't need a lot of adverbs and adjectives. Nouns and verbs can do most of the work.

Anne: Absolutely true. I prefer direct, clear prose over something that I have to then search back three lines to find the subject of the sentence. Eventually, when you get to your legal writing class, your instructor is going to make you do that anyway. We want your prose to be clear, direct, and not overly flowery.

Derek: Yes, and I also feel compelled now since I bragged about The Economist’s amazing writing, so The Economist, I think it might be owned by a U.S. company now, but it was a British publication, and I think its headquarters are still in London, right? The reason I point this out is because they put periods and commas outside quotation marks in the U.K.

Anne: Yes!

Derek: And so you'll see that in The Economist. That is not the rule in the U.S.! Commas and periods always go inside quotation marks. It is one of the most common errors. And with good reason, because you see it in British and other countries, right, other languages, they do it the opposite.

Anne: Although, how do you feel about direct quotes in personal statements? I try to have my clients limit them, just because I think they take up a lot of space and often, it's just as effective to say what was said or paraphrase what was said, rather than saying the direct quote.

Derek: I mean, I think you hit it right on the nose, which is, I'm fine with them; just use them sparingly and wisely, because I do think that it can just break up the writing, right, the narrative a bit. So it sometimes can be very effective just in changing the cadence and keeping engaged. So mixing in a little bit of dialogue or a quote here and there is fine. But yeah, you really want to do it sparingly.

Anne: And details can often derail the narrative. But I think that's when we're talking about later drafts, going back through and removing some of the details that aren't necessary.

Anna: Anne, I think that goes back to your “killing your darlings.” Just because you write something and it's a beautiful description and you love the words you used, doesn't necessarily mean that it fits in your personal statement or that it makes sense within this particular context. I think that's good writing advice too, is, be prepared to make cuts even when something is really lovely writing that you appreciate. The purpose of the personal statement is not to show that you are a beautiful creative writer. It is to show that you can communicate well and then of course the substance to let the admissions office get to know you as a person.

Paula: That piggybacks perfectly into what I was going to say, which is, for your first draft and for your writing, write what you need to say, knowing that it's probably going to go over two pages, and that you're going to have to make some edits and some cuts to what you write. So don't necessarily start off with this restriction of a two-page double-spaced essay, because that already puts too much pressure on you to condense twenty-something years of life into two pages, and that is really daunting and scary. Write what you need to say. Obviously, within reason. You don't want a twenty-page manuscript; you have to edit to two pages. Give yourself the opportunity and the freedom to write what you need to write, and then from there, you can figure out how to condense or how to limit what it is that you need to say about a certain aspect of your essay to move your story along. I think that's just super helpful.

Anne: Yeah.

Paula: It sometimes makes our life as consultants a little bit more difficult because now we have to help with that, but I think it's just helpful to have authentic writing and we have more that we can work from.

Derek: You can't know what's going to work—

Paula: Exactly.

Derek: —in the first or even the second or third draft sometimes, right?

Paula: Exactly.

Derek: So at least initially, more is better.

Paula: Right.

Anne: For sure.

Derek: So we see what we have to work with and then we can shape from there.

Anne: Because we can't go back and pull stuff out of their head.

Paula: Right, right. It's harder to add in more later rather than see everything and then help differentiate what can stay or what's relevant or what is compelling.

The second thing that I was going to say, too, is, to move your essay forward, think about every concept or idea as sort of like a paragraph or a section of your essay, and conclude with transitional statements that are reflective on how it brought you to the next step. So if we're thinking of a drawbridge, or you're hiking and there is a bridge that has little wooden panels that are connected by hopefully very strong rope, that rope is going to be that transitional sentence that links that next wooden panel that takes you to the other side of the bridge.

So many times in editing essays, all the components are there, but there is just something that is missing. This human element that brings the reader on that path with you to that next step. And so take the time to think about, “Okay, I'm going to be talking about X, Y, and Z. What brought me from X to Y, or from Y to Z?” And make that be an example or a demonstration of your self-actualization, your emotional maturity, and your ability to reflect and show that growth as you've gone through. I think that sometimes is where writers get stuck, is they just don't know how to bring those two together, and the easiest way to put those two ideas together is your reflection on it.

Anna: I think you've all given some excellent writing advice. I'd like to take a moment to talk about some things not to do, some sort of common mistakes that you'll see if you read enough personal statements, if you read enough applications. And I would love to share some of those with our listeners also so that they can avoid them.

Paula: Absolutely. If you've done any research on this, Spivey blog or otherwise, I think you'll see them, but it's nice to sort of just lay the foundation.

You don't want to talk too much about other people. You want to make sure that you are talking about yourself. If you are talking about other people, it should be about your reflection or your experiences from observing or working or interacting with those folks.

Another thing, and I, I don't know if this is more of a preference thing, so I'd love your input, everyone else, but don't start with a quote from a famous person.

Anne: No.

Derek: No.

Paula: If I had a nickel for every Gandhi quote or—

Derek: Definitely not.

Paula: —every Martin Luther King Jr. quote or Mother Teresa quote, I would be a very rich person. So just don't do it. It's not authentic. That's not the way you want to start.

Your personal statement does not need a title.

And the other one that I think nowadays I think is getting a little bit more nuanced is, you don't want to talk too much about a law or “the law” or portray that you know already so much about the law, because your audience is most likely made up of lawyers or former lawyers or faculty at law schools, and the one thing that rubs them the wrong way is having someone who has not been in law school yet, think that they already know so much about the subject that they're going to be learning. So it's okay to talk about something that you care about or that there is a law or a policy that affects you, but keep it as general as possible without showing that you've already learned everything that you need to know about it before you get to law school.

Anne: And Paula, if I could also add on to that. Not as much anymore, but I used to see a lot of people claiming that certain experiences or certain skills would make them great lawyers, and I think that those are spurious claims or those are very tenuous connections to make when one hasn't actually practiced law. Maybe if they've had some paralegal experience or legal assistant experience, they can talk about it with a little bit more specificity. But just saying that, they're a hard worker and so they'll be a great lawyer, those kinds of claims tend to rub people the wrong way as well.

Paula: Well, and they're conclusionary, right? I'd rather see how you can demonstrate that through a story or an example rather than you telling me. I think that's a really great point.

Anne: Great point.

Derek: So I have my five points. The “resume tour,” as I like to call it right—

Anna: That’s a big one.

Derek: —is a, is a mistake. Yep, just taking us on the tour of the resume, rehashing, and so you're not delving into any particular experience.

Paula: Cover letter versus a personal statement, right?

Derek: Yep. Number two, not connecting the story to why you are where you are today, i.e., applying to law school, so we already talked about that. When you get to the end, like, okay, I love this story, but in looking at this personal statement and their other materials, I have no idea why they're going to law school or what they're interested in doing.

I mentioned this earlier, I see a lot that are disjointed, like they have fragments of interesting experiences, but they don't necessarily build on each other. There isn't a clear thread. That's where that thesis statement can really help.

Too long. I have seen essays and I've worked with some people who have done longer than two pages—two and a half, in rare cases a three-page. But I just feel like there are so many that it's like, they have this beautiful essay that could have ended, but they felt like, because Berkeley says you can write up to four pages or, you know, whatever other law school says there's no limit.

Anne: I get that question a lot.

Derek: They feel like they had to add more, and so then there's this whole other thing that they start talking about, like, what does this have to do with what you just wrote about? The other thing is now there are more essays than ever. Everyone has the opportunity to write a lived experience or perspective statement. There are multiple optional essays at most schools, so be very mindful of how much you're writing and how many essays you're doing, right? If you're also writing a lived experience essay, “why essay,” and maybe you have an addendum to explain something, do you really want a three-page personal statement? No, you don't.

The other thing, too, again, a lot of what we talked about is just not being authentic as another common mistake. It can be helpful to share your essay with other people that you trust. But I think you really have to be careful about that, because I can't tell you how many times I've seen someone with a great story and essay share it with someone, and then that person, whether it's a faculty member or a lawyer—for some reason, I don't know, lawyers are often the worst at giving advice on personal statements. I should probably be careful about saying that! But the thing is, I feel like professors often feel like it needs to be more academic, lawyers often feel like it needs to be “why I want to be a lawyer.”

Anne: And people want to be helpful.

Derek: And people want to be helpful, right. They're doing it with good intention. But what happens many times is that it takes away the reader's authentic voice, right? Because it becomes more of an academic piece or it becomes a story of “why I want to be a lawyer.” You don't want an entire essay to just be about, “I've wanted to be a lawyer since I was five years old, and here's why I'm interested in being a lawyer,” right? So.

Paula: It loses a little bit of that roundedness of who you are when it comes from a lens that is very specific. That's oftentimes what I see when I have clients who come back and they say, “Oh, my dad's best friend is a partner at a law firm,” or, “My professor really wanted to review my essay and so here's this new draft,” and it loses everything that we had worked so hard strategically, specifically for law school admissions.

I recommend, if you want somebody to read your statement, have them read it for your voice. Ask them, does this sound like me? Is this my story?

Derek: And is it cohesive?

Paula: Yes.

Derek: Does the story make sense, right?

Anne: Yeah.

Paula: Yes.

Derek: So for those reasons, absolutely.

Anna: And then proofreading. Other people can be helpful in catching mistakes that you've made.

Paula: Yes.

Anna: So, although, certainly double-check for things like punctuation inside of quotation marks and things like that.

I'll throw in one more common mistake that ties in with a lot of what we're talking about—don't look at your personal statement in a vacuum. And when we're talking about getting feedback from others, oftentimes they are looking at your personal statement in a vacuum. They're not seeing all of your other materials.

Paula: Yes.

Anna: Something that I've seen when an applicant gets feedback from their friend, or from their professor, or from whomever, is that person will say, “Hey, why didn't you talk about this great thing that you did?” or, “Why didn't you mention your experience here?” And it's because that is in other parts of the application, that's in your optional essays, that's on your resume. Don't feel like you have to put everything in, because the admissions office is reading, in almost every single case, your full application all at once. They're not just reading your personal statement and then going back to your resume next week.

The other way that that can lead to another common mistake—your personal statement, because it's not being read in a vacuum, should not conflict with any other element of your application.

Paula: 100%.

Anna: I can't tell you the number of times I read someone say, “I want to do XYZ with my law degree,” in their optional essay, and then in their personal statement they're talking about a whole other topic and a whole other area of law that they're saying is deeply important to them and core to their being. And I'm like, but you just said that you wanted to practice corporate law right after law school in this other essay. Everything has to come together. Don't ever think of your personal statement purely in a vacuum. It is a part of a full application. That's my last piece of advice on common mistakes.

Paula: And just to follow up a little bit on that, that is exceptionally true and important if you're writing a character and fitness addendum. And so if you are going to be writing about an element of your life through the perspective of growth or something else, and you're writing a character and fitness addendum about a conduct or a criminal activity or something like that, your reflection and your growth doesn't match with what you wrote in the character and fitness, that negates so much about your character and your fitness to go to law school. So just be critically careful about using the podium or the forum of a personal statement to really speak from your voice if there is something bigger and more objectively viewed in your application that needs to be handled in a more delicate way.

Derek: To Anna's point really quickly, because this gets to a writing tip that can be really helpful. Once you have what you think are your final drafts, read your personal statement, and then read any supplemental essays, and then read your addenda. Law schools might read things in different order, but I think that's the most common way. In most cases, it's going to be personal statement first, followed by the optional essays, and then addenda. And that can be really helpful too, because then you might avoid the mistake that Anna just talked about, right? Because you see, “Oh, I've been too repetitive in this essay. I need to maybe tweak that,” or, “These things aren't all aligning. There's not a synthesis here.” They have to synthesize and come together.

Paula: And a great way to be able to do that is, once you've completed your application—even at the very end, right, as consultants, this is a service that we offer our clients—go through, save a PDF preview of your full application, and you can actually see how a school orders your essays for that particular school.

Anna: Yes.

Paula: And that may or may not affect how you word something or how you do or do not bury the lead on a certain topic once you review your application. There is so much to be gleaned by being able to read your application as an admissions officer will read it, and you will probably catch something that you wouldn't have caught looking at everything separate, even if it's a finalized, perfect document.

Anne: And I think that a good example of that is University of Virginia's essay or question about compassion, grit—

Derek: Resilience.

Paula: Yes.

Anne: Resilience. That’s within the application. So that's actually the first essay that they read. That's something that I mentioned to clients about. Think about how that's going to come across as well before they read your personal statement.

Anna: This is all such great advice, and thank you all. We are reaching the end of our time, so I would love to end on, what was the best or what are the couple of best personal statements that you have ever read? Because you have all had long careers in admissions and working with applicants as they craft their personal statements. So what are the ones that stand out to you from all of those years of reading personal statements?

Anne: I had one where a client mentioned that he couldn't figure out why he was the only person in his family who hated cilantro. Hated it. It was in all of the food that they had, but he couldn't stand it. It tasted like soap to him. As he went on in his education and got into science, he learned there's a genetic component that makes it taste like soap to some people, which then sparked a question of, why does the rest of my family not think it tastes like soap? That led to his discovering that he was adopted—

Paula: Whoa.

Anna: Wow.

Anne: —and a period of great reflection for him. So I thought that was a really interesting and told a story. It also led to an interest in him wanting to do intellectual property work, because he had majored in biotech in college. So I thought it all tied very well together.

Another, which is probably back from my first or second year in admissions reviewing applications, was a young man talking about working in the fields with his migrant worker parents. They lived in different places every couple of months as they followed the crop rotation, and after college, he was going to get his master's in social work and then to law school, but his dad said something to him, “You're following the same path we did, whereas we were following the crops, you're following your dreams,” and that stuck with me so well that, when he actually ended up going on recruiting trips for Michigan and I was with him, I heard him say it, and I turned to him and said, I remember that from three, four years ago.

Paula: That's amazing. That's a compelling, memorable personal statement.

Anne: Absolutely. So those are two of my favorites.

Paula: I'll go next if that's okay. And the ones that I'll share are ones that, again, are still memorable from the years that I've reviewed applications and helped clients, and I'll also put in some of the literary tools that were used in writing them.

So one of the ones that used symbols was a client who wrote about packing for this next chapter in their life, and they used three items that they packed that symbolized aspects of their past, their present, and their future. And it was a beautiful way of being able to say how this one item reminded them of their family history, and one reminded them of how they make connections with people through this activity that they did. And then the next one was why they're pursuing law. And at the end, it ended with closing up the suitcase and going forward to start that new chapter.

There was one using the metaphor of a bag of Cheetos, and I will never forget it because it started off in that action of being in their office as a physical therapist and hearing this popping sound of crinkly aluminum paper and “the scent of cheesy nirvana filled the air,” and it made them smile. And it was because in being a physical therapist, when they work with their patients, it's not about the physical thing that they are trying to fix on their body, but what is an action in their life that they want to be able to do independently on their own. And they were working with a child who couldn't open—because of whatever was going on with their hands and wrist—couldn't open their own favorite bag of their favorite snack. She used that as a way of talking about working with insurance companies and learning about health law to get her patients more sessions in physical therapy, realizing she loved the law more than she loved physical therapy work. So I'll never forget the bag of Cheetos metaphor.

Anne: That’s great.

Paula: There was a use of bookends starting off with childhood trauma of being in the court system through family and divorce, and then ending with, “I want to be back in the courtroom as the person who advocates for clients who are just like me as a child.”

Formative event. A client was a really competitive dancer and broke their ankle on stage during like a key huge top performance and refusing to give up and working all the way through that performance with a broken ankle, and how that resolve of never giving up and working through the pain is going to be how they approached everything in life and in law school at the end.

And then sort of a life story, common thread of pursuit of truth. This was a philosophy major who realized that, even from childhood through things and hardships that they had to overcome and a broken family, to pursuing the work that they did at school, to getting to college as a first-generation college student, it was always in the theme of pursuing truth. And then law school was just another aspect of that, and becoming a lawyer was another aspect of that.

So lots of amazing stories told through these amazing literary tools that really bring the reader to a nice closing at the end of those two pages.

Derek: That is another example of great structure for a personal statement.

Paula: Yeah.

Derek: I mean, I have so many that I love, so this is not easy. But so this is just the two that immediately came to my mind.

I wanted to do one that was more like just a sort of everyday one, because I feel like people get intimidated and feel like, “Oh, I don't have that major epiphany or moment or cool experience.” So, I had someone who wrote about being the only introvert in their family. When he went to college, he was just being an introvert, got his own single room and was just keeping to himself. And one day in the hall, someone says something like, “Hey, other Bob.” And so he had this moment of, “Oh my goodness, is that how people think of me? I’m ‘other’ whoever?” Right? And so, just a common, like, a little thing that happened, but it made him go through a period of self-reflection. There's nothing wrong with being an introvert, but he just started thinking, maybe I need to do a better job of connecting with people, and so he goes through the narrative of becoming more engaged and then becoming a leader. I love that story. He had great results because it was so authentic and so real.

Then I also wanted to give one that was more surprising or unusual. I think we're going to put this one on our website soon too. The skateboarding one, I talked about it in a TikTok video too. But I had a client who, through our post-brainstorming discussion, starts talking about skateboarding. It never occurred to them that they could write about skateboarding in an essay. But when I was asking questions about it, it was clear that this was the thing that was the most formative growing up. Skateboarding was a refuge for them from difficult circumstances at home. But beyond that, it opened their eyes to racial and social inequity because the skateboarding community is very diverse. They were treated differently than the friends they made who were skateboarders that were people of color. They have this awareness of, “Oh there's a problem here.” And then they ultimately become a teacher, and the lessons that they learned from skateboarding and the awareness of inequity and social justice, they see that playing out in the education system too.

Paula: Wow.

Derek: And so ultimately that is why they want to go to law school, to address those issues. And so it encompassed so much, you learned skateboarding terms, and he takes you into the life of a skateboarder, but it's also about awareness of social justice issues and how that informs their path moving forward.

Paula: Skateboarding is life.

Anna: Derek, you sent me that essay. It was beautiful and so compelling. That was an excellent personal statement.

Paula: Oh and just another way of saying, too, to think outside the box for your topics.

Anna: I think that's what all of these favorite personal statements collectively should tell anyone listening to this podcast, is that a truly excellent, stays-with-the-admissions-officer-for-years type personal statement, can come from all of these different directions. It does not need to be the world's most dramatic thing that's ever happened. Some personal statements will be about something very dramatic and something hugely formative that jumps off of the page, and many of those will be great essays. But there are excellent essays that are about things that probably have happened to a large number of applicants who are applying, that aren't super differentiating in their topic in and of themselves.

So I hope that that is helpful and reassuring to anyone who's listening and doesn't know yet what they are going to be writing about. You can write an A+ personal statement. I strongly believe anyone can write an A+ personal statement.

Paula: I was just going to end with trust yourself. Look, you've gotten to this point, and you're making the really difficult decision to engage in a very challenging, rigorous, and very rewarding degree. Trust yourself to be able to write about who you are and why.

Derek: You know yourself better than anyone else.

Anne: Yep.

Derek: No one can write your story but you.

Anne: Mike used to say that your target audience is you. If you're writing about something that is interesting and compelling, then you'll be able to write about it in a way that's compelling to others.

Anna: I think that is a great place to end. Thank you all so much for your time and for all of this wisdom and advice that you have imparted to our listeners. Those of you who are listening, if you found this helpful, please feel free to like and subscribe, and tune in next time. Thanks, everybody!

Paula: Thank you.

Anne: Thanks.