Personal Statement Tips

March 1, 2010

I still have not heard from DU or CU about whether I have been accepted, so no news there yet.

I have noticed in my “top searches” a lot of hits from people looking for personal statement advice, so I’m going to use this down-time to see what help I can provide regarding this.

I do need to emphasize (again) that I am no expert, and honestly, I may never know how well my own personal statement is received. I haven’t posted anything about my own personal statement because I’m a little paranoid about plagiarism and don’t want anyone to copy mine. But what I can do is give you the general gist. I’m sure there are a lot of women in a position similar to mine who could relate, so this one’s for you.

Set yourself apart.
With the personal statement, the trick is to differentiate yourself from all the other applicants. This can be pretty tricky if you’re like me: a middle-class white woman who hasn’t faced any earth-shattering challenges (yet). I imagine it’s even more difficult for white males. You don’t want to take something trite and make it sound like a bigger deal than it is. Yet you want to impress the admissions board with some tale of heroic achievement. Where to begin?

First of all, if you have overcome any real challenges, that is where you start. It could be the death of a parent, the loss of a job, dealing with an illness, fighting with an insurance company — anything that you can use to leverage your way into the admissions board’s heart and mind.

If you’re like me and are blessed by no deaths in the immediate family, no job loss, good health, and so forth, it can be a little trickier. In my case, I ultimately settled on addressing the fact that it took me 11 years to finish my undergrad degree. This may not be an obvious choice, but for me, finishing my degree at the age of 32 was really the slingshot that threw me into the law school madness. I decided to spin what appeared to be a bad decision on my part initially into an actual benefit that changed the course of my life.

Go with what comes naturally.
In your case, you’ve probably been thinking about a topic for a while. Write down everything you think of and stew on it. Write down opening sentences. Write down “zingers.” Write down every angle you could take. You will probably find yourself being attracted to one specific life event; that is the one you need to write about. It will come most naturally, and you will feel more passionately about that than something else you may think the board wants to hear.

Remember Composition 101? They were on to something.
Coming up with the topic is the hard part. Now you’ll have to write it. If nothing else, use good basic writing. Make sure your spelling and grammar are perfect. Use an outline and stick to it. Intro with thesis, supporting paragraphs, conclusion with restatement of thesis. You learned this in Composition 101. A rep from DU told how the dean was ticked off when someone didn’t capitalize “Denver.” Those are mistakes you can’t afford to make.

Keep it interesting.
The admissions board undoubtedly reads a lot of dry essays. I wrote mine in a story-like tone, keeping the language simple and flowing. I didn’t use a lot of big words to show how intelligent I am. My goal was to engage their interest with the very first sentence and to keep them reading till the end. I wanted to make it fun for them, not a chore. I inserted a little humor without being unprofessional. I also wanted to come across as someone who may have made “mistakes” but is comfortable with who she is.

Get your essay reviewed.
I had several people read my essay. When they were nitpicking at commas, I knew that the content was pretty good. I should have taken advantage of Regis’s writing center, but I didn’t. If you have access to a pre-law advisor or writing center, USE IT. They will tell you where you need improvement. Mine was reviewed by people who know me very well, a professional technical writer, and a colleague. I made sure to get a green light from all of them.

From here on out, I’ll just kind of run down how I wrote out my essay. Perhaps someone will gain a little inspiration from it. :)

Paragraph 1: I immediately addressed my “mistake” of not finishing my college degree on schedule and set up the rest of the essay by implying that was actually “the right thing at the right time.”

Paragraph 2: I did not go into WHY I didn’t finish undergrad on time; that’s not the point. The point is how the intervening years shaped my life and ambitions, and gave me the confidence to tackle law school – something I wasn’t ready for eleven years ago.

Paragraphs 3-4: I talked about my career and how I benefitted from that.

Paragraph 5: I set up how becoming a stay-at-home mom changed my life (but this is NOT about the kids–I felt that talking about “how becoming a mom changed my life” would come across as insincere and insipid. Besides, that would have taken my essay totally off course.). I took on two significant leadership roles during this time that helped prepare me for law school/career.

Paragraph 6: I told how I assumed a major leadership role in my freelance editing position–I really wanted to emphasize how adult this role was, and send the message that I Am a Leader. (Leadership was really my overriding theme.)

Paragraph 7: I told how my volunteer position as a Girl Scout troop leader further shaped me as a leader and added a bit of humor. I showed how I have really dealt with the nuts and bolts of dealing with people on an intimate level while trying to keep order and harmony whilst pursuing real goals. I also added this to show that while I was a SAHM, I wasn’t just sitting around watching Oprah all the time. I was actively involved in my community.

Paragraph 8: I shifted focus on my desire to go back to work, finally finishing that college degree, and how doing that shaped my ambitions to become a lawyer.

Paragraph 9: I reminded them that if I had finished undergrad school on schedule, none of the events they’d just read about would have taken place. I would not have acquired the skills, confidence, focus and direction that I have now. This is why finishing college 11 years late was actually a good thing — for me.

Paragraph 10: I concluded my essay by restating my thesis and telling how I plan to use a law degree to continue my community involvement and leadership, just on another level.


One comment

  1. […] years of staying home with the kids, but it can be done. I’m no expert, but I wrote my tips here. Let’s just hope you’ve been doing some volunteer work or something in the […]

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