How do I get started?

I recently received a worried email from an applicant and I know that she’s not the only facing this dilemma, so I thought I’d share my response with all of you.

Q: My main question is regarding the personal statement. I have no idea where to begin.

A: Personal statements are often the most difficult part of the application process, but they’re also one of the most important.  If you haven’t seen it already, I have a few pages on my website with general tips on personal statements and other essays/addenda you may need to draft. I urge you NOT to look at sample personal statements, because it is very difficult to get that other person’s voice and life story out of your head once they’re inside.  It’s critical that your statement be as genuine as possible, not modeled on someone else’s statement.

Once you’ve read the general tips, you might try a couple of strategies for getting some words on the page.  The first is to imagine that you’re getting back in touch with someone you knew very well in high school, but with whom you haven’t talked in years.  What would be the most important things you’d want that person to know about you?  How you’ve changed, for example, or how you’ve become even more whatever you already were?  Or what would be the critical event/development in your life that s/he’d need to know about? Write that email.  Don’t worry about style or really editing yourself at all at this point.  Just write about the most important pieces of your life in the last couple of years.  Eventually, you’ll need to connect this up to why you want to go to law school, but that’s not the point of what you’re writing right now—at this early stage, it’s about getting yourself writing.

An alternative tack is to ask yourself a few key questions and try to answer them: what’s the topic that, if asked, you could go on forever about, because you’re that passionate about it?  What would those who know you well say are your most important qualities?  What’s the most important thing you’ve learned (in or out of class) in the last few years? And a couple of follow up questions for each of these: why is that topic/quality/lesson so important to you?  How did it develop or come about?

One final strategy is the more direct one: why do you want to go to law school?  What do you want to do with your law degree?  Why? What experiences developed that ambition in you and what do you hope to get out of it?  This last set of questions and answers should not form the basis for your statement, but they will inform everything else (and you will need to touch on your reasons for going to law school at some point in your eventual essay). 

These questions should help you generate some ideas for what your statement will ultimately be about, and, as important should get you writing. Overcoming the blank screen is always the toughest step.  And don’t forget that one of the primary services I offer applicants is reviewing and giving feedback on personal statements—feel free to send me a draft when you have one.