The University of Southern California's annual Law Fair was held last Monday, November 7th, and I was fortunate enough to be in attendance. Over the course of the day I was able to speak to dozens of prospective law students about their LSAT plans, a number of other test prep companies about their various offerings, and, most central to this blog, an incredibly gracious admissions officer from UC Hastings College of Law.*
Our conversation was largely free-wheeling and unstructured, as spontaneous chats tend to be, but from it I've distilled three key admissions points that you should keep in mind as you complete your applications.
1. Personal Statement Preferences Vary by School. Interestingly, while the principles of how to write are universal (the elements that make up compelling prose), what schools would like to see you emphasize in your PS is much less consistent. That is, you'll always want to use proper grammar and varied sentence structures, you should ensure that your spelling and punctuation are error-free, and you need to tell a "story" that's both dynamic and personal.
However the desired theme, the objective, of your story is far from singular.
We've given a lot of advice on personal statements over the years right here on this blog (here is a great compilation of posts) and on our Forum (see Dave Killoran's correspondence in this thread, for instance), and most of it boils down to this: you want to write something that's unique and interesting and that demonstrates implicitly why you'd be an asset to a law school, without it sounding like a resume or an overt plea for admission. And that's as true as ever!
But what I found intriguing about my conversation with the rep from UC Hastings was his/their desire to read exactly what put you, the applicant, on the path to law school. To quote, "I want to know why someone wants to get a law degree, and what factors are likely to motivate them past the finish line. Tell me in very specific terms what brought you this far and what your goals are going forward."
Granted that's not a complete departure from our "paint a unique, personal picture of yourself" recommendation...but it is much more direct and to-the-point than the majority of schools' requests I've encountered previously, where the whole "I want a law degree so that I can..." narrative is more trite than transfixing.
Clearly there's more variety in what schools want than most applicants realize, and this opens the door to exploring alternate avenues and amended, customized presentations as you craft your essay.
How can you know what to focus on then? Keep reading...
2. Numbers Aren't Everything. At least not everywhere. Sure, your LSAT and GPA are the two largest contributors to acceptance or denial, but how schools treat the "soft" factors in your application--letters of recommendation, personal statement, resume, addenda, even the Writing Sample (LSAC provides a more comprehensive list here)--is wholly school-dependent and often extremely divergent from one to the next.
For instance, about half the schools I spoke to last week said they pay fairly close attention to the unscored Writing Sample that accompanies your LSAT score (UC Hastings among them), particularly for non-native English applicants to gauge facility with the language under time pressure and without outside assistance.
The other half? Largely indifferent. The question of "How much weight do you give the Writing Sample?" was met with a shrug and something roughly like, "We're much more concerned with LSAT and GPA, and rarely even read Writing Samples."
Now granted the Writing Sample is generally considered the softest of the softs, its influence well beneath your application essays and letters of rec, but even the weight of these is much more school-specific than generally acknowledged. Some schools, particularly those ranked outside the notorious top 14, will be more open-minded to outlier numbers if your other factors are especially flattering (and significant variation exists even then), whereas other schools are incredibly number-centric and care little about anything beyond your LSAT and GPA.
How will your target school(s) treat your application's component parts? Keep reading (almost there)...
3. Call Schools Directly and Ask! I'd like to believe this is now obvious given the amount of inconsistency I've just described, but the sad fact is that most applicants either (1) presume all schools are the same and thus assemble a single, generic, potentially-misguided application, or (2) recognize school differences but feel they'll be a bother and so keep their questions to themselves.
These are both mistakes!
To the first, you should clearly strive to build an application--from your essays to the recommenders you choose and beyond--best suited to the school or schools you hope to attend, rather than a cookie-cutter app that may be more applicable to other programs than to yours. A school like UC Hastings is going to prefer your personal statement speak directly to your legal motivations and ambitions, whereas other schools will prefer a less-legal essay that describes perhaps a seminal event in your life or outlines who you are as a person irrespective of your future student self.
Similarly, if you're applying to schools where you know the LSAT is weighted with extreme prejudice, and your highest score is still well beneath their medians, then you'll likely need to retake and improve if you want in. Elsewhere, that sub-median score might be remediable by emphasizing your other qualities, perhaps with glowing letters of rec or a powerful addendum. UCH, for example, is more inclined than some to forgive a lower LSAT or GPA if you can demonstrate your worth elsewhere; other, similarly-ranked schools will undoubtedly be less flexible.
To the second about self-censorship, as well as to the questions I've concluded points 1 and 2 with up top, the solution is simple: contact schools directly and ask them!
Because here's the thing: law schools want to accept you. Truly! If they could justify a "yes" to every single applicant--if they could admit everyone and still feel confident that each would graduate and pass the bar and find employment--most would immediately unlock the doors and roll out the red carpet. Admit letters would rain down like confetti.
So why don't they? Reputation. Prestige. Rankings matter and those are based on hard metrics: accepted LSAT and GPA numbers, graduation rates, bar passage statistics, and post-grad hiring data. Letting in everyone would torpedo each of those categories and doom the school to "degree factory" status. Some exclusivity is needed to better guarantee attendees' success and to maintain an air of, well, exclusivity. The pickier you are the more elite you can claim yourself to be, and elite is often synonymous with desirable.
Still, if there's a reasonable means by which you could get in, they want to help make that a reality. So I suppose I could rephrase "schools want to accept you" as "schools want you to be acceptable"...but really they come to the same thing. If there's a way to take a borderline case and tip the scales to "yes" then it's in the school's interest to do so. "No" doesn't pay the bills, after all.
The takeaway is that you're far from a burden to an admissions department when you call and ask them pointed questions about how they treat the hard factors, and what they're looking for in the soft factors, and how to best present yourself start-to-finish so as to most closely conform to their ideals.
But you won't know until you reach out and inquire. Make that your first step.
Questions or comments about your application? Let us know below, over on our Forum, or directly at 800-545-1750 or email@example.com.
Image "Inner Compulsion" courtesy of Peter Randall-Page.
*This post is in no way meant to be an endorsement for (or against) UC Hastings College of Law. They're not affiliated with it or us in any way. I just happened to have the longest, most revealing conversation with UCH's rep, so that's served as my go-to point of reference above.
List of Personal Statement Prompts by School
Postby rolark » Thu Jul 16, 2009 4:56 pm
For everyone starting to work on their personal statements but unable to access the actual applications since we're in the off-season, I thought it might be helpful to post the prompts. This any applicant can focus on a piece of writing that hits the major bases of the schools s/he is most interested in.
If you have any, post them below and I'll add them. I'll try to keep them in US News ranking and put the length stipulations in bold. I think I only copied what I found to be most important, so if anyone has the full length prompts for the schools below, that would be great.
Personal Statement — Don't have the exact wording, but think it was something along the lines of "use the essay you sent to other schools."
250 Word Essay — Most applicants to Yale Law School have outstanding academic records and LSAT scores. Faculty readers look to the two required essays to obtain a nuanced picture of each applicant. The 250-word essay helps readers to evaluate an applicant’s writing, reasoning, and editing skills, as well as to learn more about the applicant’s intellectual and personal interests and ability to think across disciplines. The subject is not limited; the choice of topic itself may be informative to the readers.
Personal Statement — Candidates to Columbia Law School are required to submit a personal essay or statement supplementing required application materials. Such a statement may provide the Admissions Committee with information regarding such matters as: personal, family, or educational background; experiences and talents of special interest; reasons for applying to law school as they may relate to personal goals and professional expectations; or any other factors that you think should inform the Committee's evaluation of your candidacy for admission. This statement should be printed on a supplementary sheet or two and should be returned to the Law School with other application materials. If applying electronically, you must submit an electronic attachment.
Q: How long should my Personal Statement/Essay be?
A: While there is no official page limit, a good guideline is two double-spaced pages, using readable fonts and margins. Your personal statement/essay should be clear, concise and an example of your best writing. It should also be free from spelling and grammatical errors
Personal Statement — Please provide more information about yourself in a written personal statement. The subject matter of the essay is up to you, but keep in mind that the reader will be seeking a sense of you as a person and as a potential student and graduate of Berkeley Law.
Berkeley Law seeks to enroll a class with varied backgrounds and interests. If you wish, you may discuss how your interests, background, life experiences and perspectives would contribute to the diversity of the entering class. If applicable, you may also describe any disadvantages that may have adversely affected your past performance or that you have successfully overcome, including linguistic barriers or a personal or family history of cultural, educational or socioeconomic disadvantage.
Your personal statement should be limited to four double-spaced pages. Please include your name and LSAC account number on each page of the statement. If you are applying electronically, use an electronic attachment, and include your name on each page, instead of your signature.
Personal Statement — Don't have the exact prompt, but I think it was pretty open.
Optional Essays — Supplemental essays allow you an opportunity to provide us with relevant information that you were not able to include elsewhere in your application materials. If you wish, write one or two essays (but no more) on the following topics. Each essay should be about one page.
1) Describe your current hopes for your career after completing law school. How will your education, experience, and development so far support those plans?
2) If you do not think that your academic record or standardized test scores accurately reflect your ability to succeed in law school, please tell us why.
3) What do you think are the skills and values of a good lawyer? Which do you already possess? Which do you hope to develop?
4) How might your perspectives and experiences enrich the quality and breadth of the intellectual life of our community or enhance the legal profession?
5) Why Michigan?
Personal Statement — The admissions committee requires that every applicant submit an original example of written expression. The purpose of this personal statement is to provide you with as flexible an opportunity as possible to submit information that you deem important to your candidacy. You may wish to describe aspects of your background and interests--intellectual, personal, or professional--and how you will uniquely contribute to the Penn Law community and/or the legal profession. Please limit your statement to two pages, double spaced.
Optional Essays — If you wish, you may write an additional essay on any of the following topics. These optional essays allow you an opportunity to provide the admissions committee with additional relevant information that you were not able to include in your personal statement. Please limit optional essays to one page, double spaced. When transmitting electronically, use the electronic attachment option.
1) Why are you interested in pursuing your legal education at Penn Law?
2) Describe how your background or experiences will contribute to or enhance the diversity of the Penn Law community (e.g., based on your culture, race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, ideology, age, socioeconomic status, academic background, employment experience, etc.).
3) If you do not think that your academic record or standardized test scores accurately reflect your ability to succeed in law school, please tell us why.
4) Discuss a time when you voiced an unpopular opinion.
Personal Statement — PLEASE ATTACH TO YOUR APPLICATION A PERSONAL STATEMENT that will give the Admissions Committee any information you believe relevant to the admissions decision that is not elicited elsewhere in the application. (Use an electronic attachment if applying electronically.) The statement is your opportunity to tell us about yourself; it may address your intellectual interests, significant accomplishments or obstacles overcome, personal or professional goals, educational achievements, or any way in which your perspective, viewpoint, or experiences will add to the richness of the educational environment of the School of Law.
What sort of information do you like to see in a personal statement?
Include with your application a personal statement that will give the Admissions Committee any information you believe relevant to the admissions decision that is not elicited elsewhere in the application. The statement is your opportunity to tell us about yourself; it may address your intellectual interests, significant accomplishments, obstacles overcome, personal or professional goals, educational achievements, or any way in which your perspective, viewpoint, or experiences will add to the richness of the educational environment of the School of Law.
Do you put a word limit on the length of personal statements?
No, we invite applicants to write essays that are long enough to express whatever they think the Admissions Committee should know. That said, applicants should remember that succinctness is a virtue.
Personal Statement — You are required to submit a personal statement. The statement is your opportunity to introduce yourself to the admissions committee and should include (1) what you think have been your significant personal experiences beyond what may be reflected in your academic transcripts and on your resume, and (2) your personal and career ambitions. There is no required length.
Optional Essays: You are welcome to supplement your personal statement with optional essays. You may submit a Duke-specific essay by letting us know why you want to go to law school and why you have decided to apply to Duke. You may also choose to submit an essay that describes how you will enhance the educational environment of the Law School and contribute to the diversity of the student body. Because we believe that diversity enriches the educational experience of all our students, Duke Law School seeks to admit students from a variety of academic, cultural, social, ethnic, and economic backgrounds. If you choose to submit the diversity essay, tell us more about your particular life experiences with an emphasis on how the perspectives that you have acquired would contribute to the intellectual community of the Law School.
Personal Statement — You may write your personal statement on any subject of importance that you feel will assist us in our decision. (please double-space)
Personal Statement — Please provide a separate essay not to exceed two double-spaced typed pages, no less than 12 point font (or use an electronic attachment). In this essay you may discuss any attributes, experiences or interests that would enable you to make a distinctive contribution to the law school and/or the legal profession.
Public Interest Essay — Please write an essay of no more than four double-spaced pages responding to the following: We are interested in knowing about the concept and vision for your future public interest practice. This can derive from your personal or professional experience, your philosophy of how public interest practice relates to contemporary issues, your approach to problem solving, or some other relevant criteria of your own choosing. How do you hope that your public interest career will develop, and what are the means by which you expect to achieve your public interest goals?
Personal Statement — Please present yourself to the Admissions Committee by writing a personal statement. You may write about your background, experiences, interest in law,
aspirations, or any topic that you feel will help readers of your application get a sense of you as a person and prospective law student. If you are applying
electronically, please attach your statement to the electronic application form. Please limit your statement to two pages and provide your name and LSAC
number (if available) on each page.
Personal Statement — The admissions committee gives careful attention to your personal statement. We are particularly interested in your motivation for studying law, your academic background, and qualities you possess that may enhance the diversity of our student body. If you are a college senior or recent graduate, you may wish to mention your work history and extracurricular activities. If you have spent a year or more in the work force after college, tell us about your employment experience; enclose a resume to illustrate your chronological work history.
There is no specific word or page requirement or limit for your personal statement. However, the committee values carefully crafted essays that are clear, concise, and compelling.
Personal Statement — What significant personal, social or academic experiences have contributed to your decision to study law? Please respond in two pages.
Optional Essay — In addition to your Personal Statement, you may wish to provide information regarding your ethnic, cultural or family background that is relevant to your development. You may also choose to discuss particular achievements, including obstacles overcome, that have not already been addressed in this application. Please respond in one page.
Personal Statement — The University of Minnesota’s award-winning legal writing program recognizes that written communication is vital to the success of our graduates. All first-year students receive intensive individual instruction and writing credits are required during all three years at Minnesota. In making admissions decisions, Minnesota carefully considers the applicant’s writing ability as demonstrated by the personal statement and other submissions.
This application requires that you present yourself in a personal statement. This essay may be on a subject of your choice and may be used to assess not only your writing skills, but your judgment, passions and analytical abilities. Your decision about what to present and how will assist us in evaluating you as a potential student and alum of the University of Minnesota Law School.
We suggest that your essay be at least two and not more than five typewritten pages long. No single spacing please. If there are ancillary matters that you wish to explain, such as breaks in your education or any other particular issue, please submit a separate essay or electronic attachment
Personal Statement — Every year we receive many applications with similar academic credentials. In order to get a better sense of our applicants, we require a “personal statement” on a topic of your choosing. This allows you to demonstrate your ability to communicate effectively and concisely through your writing. Sharing this information provides another opportunity for us to get to know you beyond your academic record. Your personal statement should not exceed two pages double spaced.
Last edited by rolark on Sat Aug 08, 2009 10:45 am, edited 6 times in total.