Bad Topics

Most students have no idea what is interesting or unusual about their lives. They see themselves as a part of their environment, and don't realize that it is the environment itself that makes them different. That's why it is essential to get outside help on your personal statement: you need someone to look at your life experiences objectively.

Family members and close friends are not good choices for this task. They often come from the same background that you do, and make the same assumptions. And I can't tell you what to write about, because I don't know you; but I can tell you what NOT to write about.

Good essays work for a reason.  They show who you are, explain weaknesses in your file, and tell a good story.  Great essays do all three. The admissions officer who reads your essays should not just feel informed; she should feel entertained.  

No one can tell you what should be in your essays without knowing your entire personal and family history. However, there's general agreement on what law schools don't want.

The commonest bad personal statements are:

The expanded resume: “I did this, then I did that; afterwards I joined X, formed Y, and won award Z.”
Why this is bad: all of that stuff is on your app and your resume. Your personal statement contributes zero to your file.

Bad Advice: Several students have mentioned hiring one of our competitors for essay advice.  They were told to write an expanded resume.  I  said it was bad advice, and made a different recommendation.   So what's an applicant to do? One of them went  with us to a Law Forum; we imposed on two different admissions officers to look it over.  They both agreed with me — bad.  So I don't care what you-know-who at you-know-where says.  An expanded resume is not a personal statement.

My Most Unforgettable Character: “Mary is homeless. She carries her possessions in two shopping bags, which she never lets out of her sight. She wasn’t always homeless. Once she had a husband, three children, and a suburban home. What happened? .... And that’s why I want to work with the homeless.”

Why this is bad: This is often a really interesting statement -- about Mary. If the school is looking primarily for a writing sample, this will do; if it wants to learn more about the applicant, it won’t. It's a fine balance between writing about a topic and writing about how that topic affected you. This essay on k.d. lang is a good example.

What I did on my summer vacation. Whether you went backpacking through Europe or worked as a Congressional page, this essay tries to make a single event into an essay.
Why this is bad: If it tells what you did without discussing why it was important, it will be no better than an expanded resume. This essay can work if you turn it into a Major Event essay (see below).

Patriotic Fervor. When I asked one admissions officer if she too was having the "So Boring I Could Cry" blues, she agreed, then surprised me by adding, "and if I have to read another essay about how September 11th affected the applicant's life..." [After all, this was 2007!]

I was really perplexed; I hadn't seen anyone writing about 9/11 for a while. But then two personal statements crossed my desk, and I understood what she meant.  One was by an Arab and talked about the way her family has been treated since 9/11; the other was by a military person talking about the sacrifices he is making to keep our country safe.

So unless you want to win that special prize for the one millionth applicant who connects a present desire to attend law school with the fall of the World Trade Center, find a better topic.  

So why are all those “great personal statement” books filled with essays like these? Because people make the mistake of thinking that if a person got accepted to a top school, their personal statement must have been good. Even at top schools, people get accepted with mediocre personal statements; their biographical info and recommendations make an adequate argument for them. But personal statements like these won’t get you into your reach schools.

What makes a good personal statement? Here are some starting points:

  • Your proudest personal achievement.  Look for something that doesn’t show on your resume or transcript — learning to swim, saving money for a long-range goal, making a bookcase, painting a picture. Explain why it was important to you: why was it a goal, why had you failed to do it before (or failed to try), what was different that enabled you to accomplish it now, and what you learned about the world or yourself from having accomplished it.
  • A major event in your life, either good or bad.  This could be a trip, a family illness, a move to a new city. Explain what life had been like before the event, how the event changed you, and what you learned from it.
  • A changed belief.  Explain where the old belief had come from — family, peers, life experiences. Tell what made you rethink the belief, and what you believe now. Explain why the new belief is important to you.

These topics will show something about you that’s not already in your file, and will give the reader something to relate to and to like about you. This kind of personal statement can significantly increase your chances at your “reasonable reach” schools — the ones where you’re just a few points below the medians.

The worst essays defy categorization. They're discussed, however, at annual prelaw and law school conferences. Click here for the nominees for worst application Essay or Stunt in an Admissions File.

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