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From the Vaults: The Biggest (and Most Obvious) Mistakes to Avoid in Your Personal Statement

This post first appeared on MSS in November 2015. Given that application season opens in about two months, this article is worth another careful read.

Writing a law school personal statement is hard. Your job is to tell law schools about yourself and about why you want to and should go to law school. It’s a challenge to come up with the right topic and figure out the best way to present it. Fortunately, there are some things you definitely don’t want to do in your personal statement, and they’re pretty straightforward.

Don’t list your accomplishments.

You’re going to submit a resume, too. That’ll list everything impressive you’ve done. Your personal statement should tell some kind of story about you and why you should be in law school. It’s not a comprehensive summary of your qualifications. The other elements of your application will make those clear.

Don’t brag.

There’s no need for false humility, either. But claims about how much of a hard worker you are and how generous and caring you are don’t really belong in your personal statement. Ideally, your letters of rec will say those great things about you, and your transcripts and resume will imply the rest. If you’re still in school, get to thinking about who you might want to write those letters of rec, and start to develop those relationships.

Don’t make excuses.

If there’s something in your application that looks bad, and you need to explain it, the personal statement isn’t the place to do it. That’s where an explanatory essay comes in — and even that shouldn’t stray too far into excuse-making. If some significant hardship you’ve faced is a big part of why you want to become a lawyer, then, sure, you can make it your personal statement topic. But the focus should be on how your experience makes you a good candidate for law school, not on how it explains something that looks bad about your application.

Don’t be fake.

You may have some preconceived notions about what kind of candidate law schools are looking for. The point isn’t to convince them that you fit that mold. If you try, it’ll be obvious and not terribly compelling, and furthermore, your preconceived notions may be off the mark. Your job is to tell them about you. That doesn’t mean that you show them everything, warts and all. But your personal statement should reflect who you are — the point is to convince law schools that you’re who they want.

Don’t kiss ass.

If there’s something in particular that makes you a good fit for a particular law school, that’s fair game and definitely something to discuss. But, general comments about how great a law school is and how much you want to go there, just look bad.

Don’t send the wrong letter to the wrong school.

This one is a corollary of the last one. Read each law school’s requirements carefully and edit as needed. And if you gear your letter toward a particular law school, make doubly sure that you don’t accidentally send that letter to the wrong school. This one should be obvious but calls for an abundance of caution.