I recently interviewed Michelle Fabio, Esq. of Personal Statement Artist via email.
Our discussion follows.
1. Is it possible for an applicant to write a successful personal statement about why he or she wants to be a lawyer? If so, how?
The wording of this question implies that writing such a statement is a usually bad idea. I’d say that’s correct, especially if it’s a “save the world” theme (it’s difficult for it to come off as sincere and credible — sorry!). Also the topic is simply overdone *but* if you’ve had a particularly formative, recent experience that has stirred your passions for practicing law, sure, it can work.
Just about any topic can work, in fact, so long as you always focus on your “law school qualities” that you exhibited and or learned from that experience — focus, dedication, organization skills, leadership, thoroughness, attention to detail, hard-working, etc. Regardless of your topic, those qualities should be the theme of your essay.
That said, anything such as high school or worse, elementary school, moot court and the like should be avoided at all costs. And the “my parents always told me I should be a lawyer because I like to argue?” Yeah, don’t go there either.
2. What about a personal statement about a traveling experience or time abroad? If so, how?
Interesting travel experiences and/or time spent abroad can also be good topics, but again, you have to zero in on *your* qualities that you brought to and/or learned from the experience — and usually, a very specific experience within the broader experience.
Being exposed to different cultures and languages (if you’ve studied abroad, for instance) as well as showing compassion for and a desire to help others (if you’ve volunteered abroad, for example) are certainly positive characteristics and make for an interesting, well-rounded candidate, but on their own, those experiences just aren’t going to convince an adcomm that you deserve a place in the 1L class.
You really need to hammer home what a great law student you’ll be as illustrated through a particular experience, whether it’s traveling abroad or starting your own business — and so we’re back to those “law school qualities.”
Sensing a theme here? 😉
3. What are some examples of successful “diversity statement” topics you’ve seen from applicants who are not traditionally classified as being racially diverse?
This is an excellent question because many applicants think only race is an appropriate topic for a diversity statement, but there are many others; now is a great time to start thinking outside of that proverbial box you’ll be hearing a lot about during law school.
Some of the best diversity statements I’ve seen come from students who grew up in low-income homes/communities, maybe are the first to go to college in their family. I’ve also seen some good ones that focused on non-traditional childhoods such as being raised by grandparents because parents were out of the picture for whatever reason and even being homeschooled. Overcoming a disability is another “diverse” diversity statement topic that can work as well.
Just as with personal statements, though, it’s all about how you present your law school qualities vis-à-vis that experience.
4. What are some of the most common / funniest mistakes you’ve seen in students’ personal statements?
You might have thought I was joking in #1 about applicants’ writing about people who said they were good at arguing, but I’ve seen that in more than one rough draft. It’s never good. Ever.
Another common mistake is what I call the “resume rundown,” where the applicant simply restates his or her resume from college on through every job. Aside from being boring, the resume rundown wastes the only opportunity applicants have to present the more human side of themselves to the adcomm. The personal statement should round out the application and show the adcomm the full person, highlighting qualities that exist between the lines of the resume and that deserve to be emphasized, so don’t throw away that chance by repeating things that can be found elsewhere in your application.
5. What are some examples of addendum topics that applicants should avoid?
I’ve had several people write to me and ask about whether they should write an addendum about a low LSAT score, and generally I say no — especially if you’re going to explain that you’re not good at standardized tests since law school is all about one-and-done tests. If it was because of testing conditions that day or something outside of your control, the question that comes up in the adcomm’s mind is, “Why didn’t you take the test again then?”
A low GPA can be an OK topic if you’ve shown marked improvement over the course of college, while a low course grade may also be an acceptable topic under certain circumstances, e.g., the death of a parent or someone extremely close to you. This should go without saying, but don’t lie when you’re writing these kinds of explanations — adcomms do go back and look at transcript and make sure your dots connect, so to speak.
If you do decide to write an addendum, make it as short and to the point as possible, and accept full responsibility where appropriate. The worst addenda end up looking like the applicant is scrambling to make excuses and that doesn’t reflect well on a candidate for law school and could even harm the application.
Michelle Fabio, Esq. is a professional writer and editor, law school survivor, attorney, and former About.com Guide to Law School. After helping hundreds of applicants with essays through About.com, she has started Personal Statement Artist, a review and editing service dedicated exclusively to law school applicants. At PSA, Michelle offers several different levels of assistance, including brainstorming help, to help future law school students turn their applications into works of art.