Law school personal statements--WTF?

I've been getting a lot of questions about law school personal statements lately: "What should I write about?" "Should I do a different one for each school?" "How do I even get started?" "What's the most important thing I should think about?" "Is it okay if I write about my dog/grandma/nationality/personal trauma/favorite TV show?" "This whole personal statement thing: WTF?" My short answer to all of these is "Relax. You're overthinking it. Get it done, and get back to studying for the far-more-important LSAT."

Much longer, much less sarcastic answers below.

Before I address the specific questions, let me tell you a little story:  At a certain large, mid-ranked law school a couple years ago, the director of admissions told me that they had a total of three admissions staff members evaluating all ~6,000 applications they had received that year for ~500 spots in the incoming 1L class.

Now let's do a little thought experiment: Do you seriously think they read all 6,000 of those personal statements? They'd never admit it, but I sure don't think they do. Actually, I think they'd be stupid if they did.

Assume you're a rational admissions committee with limited resources. You've got a huge mountain of applications--you've got one spot for every ten applicants. You know you're going to be ranked, every goddamned year, by goddamned US News & World Report. You know that you will be fucking fired if your goddamned US News & World Report ranking doesn't go up--and possibly worse than fired if it falls. You can't control a lot of the factors that goddamned US News is going to rank you on. But you CAN try to maximize a couple factors goddamned US News cares about: LSAT score and GPA. Fortunately for you--an overworked law school admissions staff member--both LSAT score and GPA fit nicely into a spreadsheet. Spreadsheets have a nifty "sort" feature.  So you put all 6,000 applicants into a spreadsheet and you sort them by LSAT and/or GPA. (Probably an index of both, actually.)

And what do you do next? Well, frankly, you might admit the very top 100 of your sorted LSAT/GPA list without even reading the personal statements. What's the point? If someone with a 178 and a 3.9 GPA applies to any school outside the top ten or so, any rational admissions committee would be forced to admit them. Actually, wouldn't they be derelict of duty if they didn't admit them? I don't see how you could possibly justify it to your boss: "I know she would have made our LSAT and GPA numbers look a lot better, but something about her personal statement just rubbed me the wrong way." Boss: "GODDAMNED US NEWS ISN'T GOING TO READ HER PERSONAL STATEMENT!"

Next, after admitting all the candidates you simply can't say no to, you're probably going to divide the 5,900 remaining applications into two piles: A small pile called "probably yes" and a bigger pile called "probably no." The "probably yes" pile is going to contain the next-highest chunk from your LSAT/GPA index. The "probably no" pile is going to include everyone else. If you're already in the "probably yes" pile, then you're probably going to get admitted. The job of your personal statement, then, is to keep you from getting put into the "probably no" pile. If you're in the "probably no" pile, then your personal statement probably isn't even going to get read. Why would they, if they've already filled their class with much higher LSATs and GPAs? How could you justify it to your boss? "I know his LSAT and GPA both suck, and he is going to kill our numbers and our ranking, but his personal statement was just so lovely--it brought a tear to my eye." Boss: "GODDAMNED US NEWS ISN'T GOING TO READ HIS PERSONAL STATEMENT!"

So there's my starting assumption: At most schools, for most students, if they are reading your personal statement then they have already decided they would like to admit you. Your job is simply to avoid fucking that up. In other words, it's a necessary condition, not a sufficient condition. Does this apply to Harvard?  Um, no. But most of you are not applying to Harvard.

"It's necessary" means: If you don't do one, or if you do something very stupid, it can definitely keep you out. If you're disrespectful, or immature, or careless, they're going to think you're not serious and they're going to admit the next person in the "probably yes" pile, who might have slightly lower (but basically identical) numbers.

"It's not sufficient" means: If your LSAT and GPA don't put you in the "probably yes" pile, then your personal statement, no matter how wonderful, is not going to miraculously get you in.  They're probably not even going to read it.

All my answers below are going to be colored by this starting assumption. If the starting assumption doesn't apply to you (i.e., you're applying only to Harvard and the like) then what follows probably doesn't apply to you either. Okay, on to the questions:

1)  "What should I write about?"

Admissions officers will tell you "don't tell us what you think we want to hear," and "show us your personality," and "be creative." To all that, I say: Probably bullshit. I think you should tell them what you think they want to hear. They already want you, based on your numbers. So now they want to make sure you're not going to go crazy and drop out during the first year. They want to make sure that you're not lazy. They want to make sure, as much as they can, that you're going to be a success in law school and eventually donate a lot of money to the endowment. So a personal statement should, ideally, answer one or both of the following questions: First, why do you want to go to law school? And second, why are you going to do well once you get there? If you're able to convince me that you have thought it through and have good reasons for wanting to attend, and furthermore you're able to convince me that you'll kick ass once you get there, then I think you've written a terrific personal statement. If you're able to show some personality/creativity along the way, that's fantastic. But don't show me your personality by saying "My favorite TV show is 'The Wire' and being a lawyer looks awesome." That's a horrible reason for going to law school. It makes you look immature--like you'll wash out in your first semester. If you can't think of a theme, here's what it should be: "Law school is a perfect fit for me because of X, Y, and Z."

2)  "How do I even get started?"

Well, I've already given you a theme, above. So have a glass of wine and write as fast and shitty of a first draft as you can possibly muster. The key to good writing is quick, high-volume, shitty first drafts, followed by lots and lots of careful editing. Try to write three times as many words as you'll eventually need. When you boil it all down, it'll be perfect. Start with "I want to go to law school because _________" and see what comes out. Later on you can come up with a snappier lead sentence. For now, just generate the raw materials. Send me a draft, I'm happy to give it a glance and tell you if I think you're on the right track.

3)  "What's the most important thing I should think about?"

You should think about not wasting your entire life writing this thing, and you should think about polishing the shit out of it. Consider it a hoop that you have to jump through to get into law school. Keep it simple and get the stupid thing done. Believe me, I have seen a lot of these things and they are all basically fine. I promise I'll tell you if I think it's crap. The content is rarely the problem. The editing is almost always the problem. The sooner you get something on paper, the sooner you can start polishing it up. The final version can be boring, but it cannot have any typos. So stop wasting time, and get it done.

4)  "Is it okay if I write about my dog/grandma/nationality/personal trauma/favorite TV show"?

Sure, I don't care. Just remember that the essay should ultimately address the issues of why you want to go to law school and why you'll do good once you're there. If your dog legitimately connects to these issues, then by all means go for it. I'm not saying don't show them your personality, but I'm definitely saying don't show them too much personality. The cutesy essay you wrote for your creative writing assignment in freshman English is probably not going to be the best fit. Be confident but humble and respectful. Show them that you've done your research and you're going to be a solid member of their law school community.

5)  "How long should it be?"

No longer than necessary. Let's say two pages, typed and double spaced, maximum. If you can't say why you want to go to law school, and why you'll be an asset to your law school, in less than two pages then you probably can't say it in 20 pages either. Less is more here. Keep it simple.

6)  "Should I do a different one for each school?"

Hellllllllll no. I can hardly imagine a bigger waste of your time. Just write one solid, generic statement--super-well edited, with zero spelling/grammar/punctuation/formatting mistakes--and use that solid essay for every school you're applying to. If you have ONE dream school, and you know that your LSAT/GPA make you a stretch for that school, and you have the extra time, then maybe you could write one finely crafted special essay that targets that school. But it's not necessary. And 30 essays for 30 different schools? No fucking way. Spend that time on the LSAT instead, it will pay much bigger dividends.

A further cautionary note here: When I applied to Hastings in 2008, the LSAC sent Hastings two copies of the same one one of my letters of recommendation, rather than sending them one copy of each of two different letters, as they were obviously supposed to. So the LSAC definitely makes dumb mistakes. With that in mind, do you really want to have 30 different essays for 30 different schools, giving the LSAC copious chances to accidentally send the wrong statement to the wrong school? I didn't think so.

And one final thing: If you are planning on doing that thing in the last paragraph where you go "For the aforementioned reasons, I believe I am the perfect candidate for <INSERT SCHOOL NAME HERE> and your fabulous <INSERT CLINICAL/EXTRACURRICULAR PROGRAM I OBVIOUSLY PULLED FROM YOUR WEBSITE>," for God's sake, please don't do this. This type of "customization" is so incredibly transparent that I think it's actually worse than not customizing the essays at all.

Wow, okay, that's a lot for now. Please let me know what I'm missing!

--nathan