Apart from your LSAT score and your undergraduate GPA, the personal statement is often the most important component of your law school application. Step one is choosing your topic—but how do you determine what the best topic is for you? This video from our consultant Derek Meeker addresses that question.
Derek Meeker is a nationally respected professional among law school admissions and career services deans. His more than 20 years of experience include serving as Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid for the University of Pennsylvania Law School, as Recruiting Manager for global law firm Paul Hastings, and as an admissions reader for the University of Chicago Law School.
As Dean of Admissions at Penn Law, Derek evaluated and made the final decision on every J.D. application–over 6,000 per year. During his tenure, Penn Law received a record number of applications, increased selectivity, and expanded need-based, public service, and merit scholarship programs. As a consultant, he has guided hundreds of law school applicants through 10 admission cycles and has advised law schools on their admissions and career services strategies. He also has counseled law students on the big law hiring process, interviewing skills, and etiquette. He has spoken at dozens of colleges across the country and served on committees and panels for various professional organizations, including as a research assistant and Chair of the New Admission Personnel and Faculty Members Workshop for the Law School Admission Council (LSAC).
A first-generation college student from rural Ohio and member of the LGBTQ community, Derek is most proud of his legacy of increasing racial, sexual orientation, and socio-economic diversity at Penn Law and in helping to launch diversity scholarships at Paul Hastings. He also has served as a career mentor and writing coach to first-generation college applicants in the Los Angeles area.
A former practicing attorney, Derek holds a B.S. in Journalism and takes continuing education courses in the Writers’ Program at UCLA. He is passionate about writing and loves coaching students to be better writers. Derek is based in LA and enjoys acting, yoga, meditation, biking, and camping.
Hi everyone, you're watching the Spivey Consulting law school admissions YouTube channel, and I'm Derek Meeker, partner at Spivey Consulting and former Dean of Admissions for the University of Pennsylvania Law School. Today we're going to be talking about choosing a personal statement topic. The personal statement is the centerpiece of your application. It puts a human face or gives a voice to the quantitative factors of your application. It's like an interview on paper. It's your opportunity to have a conversation with the admissions committee, to sort of answer that ever-vexing and ambiguous question, “Tell me about yourself.”
The challenge is, most law schools give very little to no guidance on what they're looking for. Some don't even give a page limit or a word limit, merely saying what you write about or the length of your personal statement is entirely up to you. So with such vague parameters, how do you even begin to approach selecting a topic? What exactly is the admissions committee looking for? Given that this is only one of a few written requirements they're looking for, there must be something that they want to read about.
Today I'm going to give you some points to think about from the admissions committee’s perspective in putting together your personal statement. When I worked at Penn, the question that we always had in the back of our mind when we were reading an application was, “What contribution is this person going to make to the classroom, to the law school community, and to the legal profession? How are they going to add value?”
The thing is, in law school, professors don’t lecture; they're questioning. They're questioning you the students to elicit answers. Answers that will lead to, well, usually more questions, but also really insightful discussions and conclusions. And what admissions committees want to know is, what perspective are you going to bring to those discussions, what voice are you going to add? And the perspective, the value, the voice that you bring is going to be based on your experiences up to this point. Your life experiences, your academic experiences, your extracurricular or community experiences, and of course your professional experiences. By putting together a narrative in your personal statement, perhaps, that covers one anecdote or three anecdotes maybe that are connected by a common thread—by putting together that narrative that is based on your experiences, the things that have challenged you, your mistakes, your failures, your successes, your achievements, the good times, the bad times—by doing that, you are, in essence, conveying how you would add value and contribute to a classroom discussion. You are showing the voice and perspective that you will bring to the law school community.
So with that in mind, let's actually sit down and do some brainstorming on choosing a topic. I would start by doing what I call a life inventory. Reflect on your childhood experiences, your college years, and your post college years. When you reflect on those experiences, what are the moments and the experiences that immediately come to mind that elicit some sort of charge or emotional reaction from you?
As one of my writing teachers at UCLA shared with us, think of the MWECs, M-W-E-C. “Moment when everything changed.” Okay ‘everything’ is a pretty big word, so maybe think of it as the moment when “something” changed. If you're stuck or feeling overwhelmed, go back and think about those moments in your life when something changed you, somehow caused you to take a different path, or take a different action, or choose a new way of doing things.
And as you're thinking about those moments and reflecting back on your childhood and your college years and your post-college years, go broad, and go deep. Because there are nuggets there in every aspect of your life. Think about where you grew up, the geographic setting, your family dynamic, your socioeconomic status, religion, culture. All of these things shape who we are and the values that we develop, and oftentimes the ones that we carry with us until we leave those settings and then have our premises challenged for the first time, and then we learn something new. There is gold in those moments and those experiences, so really give serious thought to them as you're sitting down to brainstorm your topic.
Also think about your identity, what makes you who you are. Maybe that's your gender, your sexual orientation, your race, your ethnicity, even personality quirks or traits. The things that distinctly make you who you are, and that again have somehow influenced the way that you perceive the world and the things that you have chosen to do in your academic studies and in your professional pursuits. Think about major life events. This might be related to athletic or artistic or creative pursuits, perhaps extracurricular or leadership experiences.
As you're thinking about these experiences, write down the ones that really resonate with you and that immediately come to mind as having somehow influenced or shaped you. And as you write them down, look to see, is there a common thread there, perhaps a value, or skill, or trait, that seems to keep running through? That could potentially be the theme of your essay. Do any of these experiences directly relate to why you want to go to law school? If so, there may be a map there that outlines your journey toward law school.
Okay, now that you've done your brainstorming, and you've written down all of these various experiences that have shaped your life and who you are, how do you narrow it down and choose the topic that's going to be the best one? The first thing I would say is, think about your entire application, and the other components of it. Who's writing your letters of recommendation, and what are they going to be saying about you? What other information do you have in the application, in terms of your resume, are you going to be writing any addenda, and what information are you providing in those?
So as you think about all of the various pieces of your application, and look at the topics that you've brainstormed, which are going to allow you to provide the most new information? You don't want to be too repetitive of other parts of your application. Each piece of the application is an opportunity to present new information.
The other thing that I would think about is making sure that you're writing about something that is not just an internal reflection, but that is also outwardly-looking, and ideally forwardly-looking. And what I mean by that is, how have the lessons that you've learned, how are you applying those, how are you now teaching others based on what you've learned, or inspiring others, or challenging others? What are you doing outside of your own world, and what is it that you hope to do moving forward? In other words, what has brought you to this point that you are now applying to law school? How do all of those experiences tie in to where you are today and importantly where you hope to go?
Now let's talk about some personal statement “don'ts.” First, don't rehash your resume. Now I know you're probably saying, “But Derek, you just talked about how I should be thinking about all of the experiences that I've had—my jobs, my internships, my academic experiences—in terms of choosing a topic.” Yes, but keep in mind the resume is the very general broad overview of everything you've done. What you're doing with the personal statement is, you're choosing an experience or perhaps a few experiences that have been the most formative, and you are really digging deeply into those experiences. You're getting into the nitty-gritty, the day-to-day of what you were doing on a particular job or project that you were working on in school or at work. So that's the difference. You don't want to just do a broad overview of everything that you've done.
Another “don't” is, don't focus the essay too much on someone else. It's fine to talk about someone who is influenced you, that can be an important part of your life and a critical element of the essay. But you don't want the entire essay to be about that person, otherwise the admissions committee leaves with the sense that they really want to admit that person to law school.
You also don't want to use the personal statement to explain low grades, or LSAT score discrepancies—that is what the addendum is for. Again, this is your opportunity to share information about you that as personal and interesting, is going to show how you're going to add value to the law school community and to the legal profession.
To summarize, you know yourself better than anyone. You know the experiences that have mattered the most to you and that have shaped who you are. So trust your instincts.
Thanks for watching. If you found this helpful, please like our video below and subscribe to our YouTube channel for more advice on things like waitlists and interviews from former admissions officers at schools such as Harvard, Yale, Vanderbilt, and Columbia.