If you’ve started your law school applications already, you may have noticed that they ask you to tell them about prior run-ins you may have had with the law. The exact language varies from school to school—some ask about crimes with which you were charged, others about anything you were convicted of. Many students wonder what to do about their personal disclosures, as they’re afraid that the particular skeletons in their closets will keep them out of law school. The rule to follow, though, is simple: if in doubt, disclose it.
There are a few good reasons for this. First and foremost, for the average law student, those past peccadilloes won’t be enough to make the difference between admission and rejection (more on this later). But an even better reason is that the worst case scenario if you hide something is basically the complete decimation of your future. One of the main reasons that schools require these disclosures is that they’re in the business of turning students into lawyers. And lawyers, in the U.S. at least, must be admitted to a state bar. State bars require character and fitness certifications, and they’re very thorough; while your character is being evaluated, any crimes that you’ve committed, been charged with, were accused of, etc., are probably going to come to light.
If the bar finds that you’ve willfully concealed anything, it can be grounds for denying your application, which means that your pricy legal education may very well not lead to a career as an attorney. So, basically, when schools ask for disclosures, one of the things they’re evaluating is whether your prior actions were bad enough to keep you from being admitted to the bar. If they were, the utility of a legal education becomes questionable, and the school may be doing you a favor by not encouraging you to spend your money on a diploma that you might not be able to use.
It’s worth keeping in mind that most of the things that students worry about won’t necessarily keep them out of law school. I personally know two people who were very anxious that their disclosures would count against them. One had been charged with possession of marijuana in college, and the other received a citation for drinking alcohol as a minor. Both of them were accepted to good law schools, even after the panic-inducing disclosures. Someone in my class in law school had been cited for entering a restricted livestock-only area at a county fair; someone else had been wrongfully convicted of murder and later exonerated. The range of disclosures is broad, and it’s unlikely that your misdeeds are anything that the admissions committee hasn’t already seen.
You may have some trouble obtaining information necessary for your disclosures. Good starting points, if you know that you have a charge or conviction to disclose, but don’t know the specific details, are your local courthouse and/or the relevant police department. They can help point you in the right direction, and again, chances are that they’ve dealt with similar requests before, so don’t be afraid to approach them with yours.
Previous: Law School Personal Statement
Next: 7 Preparation Tips for the LSAT
Many prospective law students can feel overwhelmed when faced with the task of writing the law school personal statement, one of the most subjective pieces of your law school application. It is easy to feel torn between what you think law school admissions officers want to read, how to make yourself sound confident without coming across as arrogant, and making a great case for yourself.
Your first task in learning how to write a law school personal statement that is a strong effective part of your law school application is to figure out what your actual task is. Remember to carefully read the question on each school’s application; they are sometimes subtly different. Here are some helpful tips, steps, and frequently asked questions to guide your writing process.
1. Do your research
Many law students begin their personal statement writing process feeling completely confused and lost. If you have friends who are in law school, reach out to them for help. They are a great resource because they were just in your shoes not too long ago.
It’s also helpful to find sample personal statements online. Read all of them, not just the good ones. It’s helpful to know the difference between what makes a good personal statement and what makes one sub-par.
2. Read your personal statement prompt
Reading the personal statement prompt for each application is critical, especially if you are applying to multiple schools. The majority of law schools have relatively broad writing requirements, but they often differ. DO NOT use the same personal statement for every school.
Even though the prompts may seem similar, 99% of the time they are different in a way. It’s best to change your statement just a little and tailor it to the school, even if you do encounter two identical prompts. You’re applying to that specific law school for a particular reason, so if possible, tie that into your writing.
3. Check your emotions
Yes, your personal statement should be personal—and thus emotional—but it should not be a sob story or make the reader feel like they just watched a sad movie. There is a difference between telling a compelling story and being emotionally manipulative.
If there is an extenuating circumstance or a particular issue you need to address, most law schools have places in the application where you can explain that. If you know that you are going to be writing about an emotional topic, give your statement to someone who may not know you well and see how he or she reacts to it.
4. Do not submit an essay version of your resume
You will submit your resume in a separate portion of your law school application, so there is no need to expand on that here. Use this portion to let your voice come through and to give the admissions committee the opportunity to get to know you on a personal level.
One of the most common mistakes everyone involved in admissions has seen is the “everything but the kitchen sink” personal statement; since I work with students on a regular basis, I know that this error usually springs from a kind of low-boil panic. Students start wondering if their personal statement topic is “big enough”, or if there are additional items on the resume that could use some highlighting; the “all in!” personal statement is a function of the competitiveness of the admissions process.
Unfortunately, it also almost always leads to a weaker personal statement. First of all, rest assured that law school admissions offices will be looking at every single aspect of your application, including your resume; the law school personal statement has a different function, and does not need to re-state something already included elsewhere in your application. That’s the appropriate area to show off your versatility; the personal statement is all about going deep and getting specific!
5. Be yourself
This should go without saying. The admissions committees utilize the personal statement portion of the application to learn about you and why you want to go to law school. Be honest, tell your story, and do not try to hide who you really are.
The personal statement is an integral part of the law school application, and it is important that you not only take it seriously but also try your best to have fun with it. While working on their statements for law school admissions, applicants often feel lost. So many questions may be circulating in your head that you feel like you need to have answered before you really start to write your personal statement. Let’s look at three of the most frequently asked questions applicants have about writing their personal statement.
What can I expect from the personal statement prompt?
The first question that pops into many applicants’ minds is: How in the world am I even supposed to know what to write for this prompt?
Most law school personal statement prompts are pretty vague and give the applicant a lot of room to interpret it as they see fit. Try to get an early start on your personal statement. This will give you time to look at the prompt and think hard about it before you even type a sentence. This will also give you time to plan and outline what you want to include. Having a solid plan for tackling the prompt can add structure to your personal statement and keep yourself on track.
How should I respond to the prompt?
Your personal statement can be about anything as long as it is about you and pertains to why you want to go to law school. Everyone’s experiences are different, so it’s really important to dig deep and first consider why you want to go to law school. If you can’t find a good reason, it’s maybe time to really consider if law school is ultimately the path you want to take.
If you have a long list of reasons for why you aspire to go to law school, try to narrow it down to three at the most. These three should be compelling reasons—a little more profound than simply saying you want to become a lawyer to make money. After you come up with solid reasons for why you want to go to law school, try drafting out some ideas that can connect those reasons to the prompt. Once you have that down, it’ll be much easier to form that into a concrete essay.
What Not To Do
Don’t write the personal statement you think a law school admissions office wants to see.
The other direction the “competition panic” can push applicants on the personal statement is toward blandness… or B.S. In other words, students start to write what they think a law school admissions office will want to hear; either a personality-free, “why I want to go to law school”-themed essay, or a manufactured set of passions or opinions that are not necessarily your own. In the first case, remember the old maxim from creative writing class: “show, don’t tell.”
A story illustrating the reasons you want to go to law school is always going to be more effective than a generic essay that anyone could have written; remember the point of the law school personal statement is to show a law school something unique about yourself. In the second instance, it is not necessary to mention specifics about a school or faculty to make your case– although if it really is your dream school, go for it!
There’s a third kind of overambitious personal statement: making up big goals or interests that you don’t actually have because they seem in line with the school’s. The law school personal statement really is all about being yourself.
How personal should my personal statement be?
When you are trying to be yourself in your personal statement, it often leads to another question: how emotional I should be in my writing. Incorporating emotion into your personal statement could make it more interesting and easier to read, but if you overdo it you can sound like you’re whining, begging, or trying to write a sob story—which can in turn be perceived as disingenuous.
Admissions committees want to see passion, but they also want to see who you really are. It is extremely important to be honest. Law schools can see right through feigned emotions. Remember, they’ve probably read hundreds of thousands of these, and it’s very easy for them to detect when people aren’t being authentic. Allow yourself to be vulnerable, open, and clear—but make sure it comes from the heart.
A law school personal statement does not mean a mandatory hardship story. While getting through a rough life situation can definitely be a great place from which to pull material for your personal statement, it is not even close to the only way to write a stellar piece, especially if it means overstating reality or making up emotional lessons that weren’t really present.
The biggest key to the law school personal statement is to be honest; the story you want to tell about how you’ve gotten where you are today doesn’t have to be exciting or on a grand scale or heartbreaking, it just needs to show something important about you.