Recipe for Disaster: Mistakes to Avoid When Applying to Law School

Take a few buzzwords like "pro bono," "intellectual property," "empower," "clerkships," "diversity." Season with legalisms "heretofore," "whereas," "therein." Add a pinch of acronyms - DA, TRO, M&A, ADR, IPO. Stir in generous platitudes about "forces that molded you into the person you are today" and "the top-notch faculty, diverse student body, and outstanding alumni network" at the schools to which you are applying. Cook on your hard drive while seeking feedback from a group of your fifty closest colleagues, friends, and relatives. And voila! You have a law school personal statement.

No, you may have a recipe for rejection.

All too often law school applicants grope for a recipe for success, a one-size-fits-all approach to writing the essay. Push the right buttons, stir in the correct ingredients, and you'll have it made. Right? Wrong!

That recipe doesn't exist. You aren't making pancakes here; you're trying to portray yourself as a multi-faceted, one-of-a kind gem. How do you do that? Use the tools below to focus on your uniqueness, accomplishments, and strengths as you refine your essays.

  1. To thine own self be true.

    Sincere self-reflection forms the basis for insightful essays. Go beyond the superficialities like "I want to participate fully in the legal and political process," or "I want to protect underserved communities," or even "I want to make $$$$." Go deep into yourself so that you will answer distinctively and honestly.

    Examine all areas of your background to determine what unusual qualities and experiences you can contribute to your law school class. When have you overcome obstacles? Where did you excel? What is important to you — besides obtaining a JD? Why? Where have you served someone or some cause other than yourself? Why? When have you assumed a leadership role? How did you become interested in law? What aspects of legal work appeal to you? What experience do you have in a legal setting?

    The answers to these questions form the raw material for your essay. You will mine them repeatedly as you go through the writing process. If you go through this stage with sincerity and integrity, you will find the gold vein. Fool's gold is for those who lazily fool themselves.

  2. Do your homework.

    You should have some idea what you want to do with your degree and why you are applying to the particular programs that you have chosen. Much information about the schools and their programs is available. Use it to determine which schools you should apply to and how to target your essays.

    I recommend the following sources:

    1. The schools' literature, information sessions, and Web sites.
    2. US News & World Report provides a wealth of statistics and links about law school programs.
    3. has tips on writing essayssample essays, a monthly newsletter, and an admissions bookstore.
    4. Current students and recent alumni.
  3. Look at the application as a whole and use the personal statement to bring out information not found elsewhere.

    In the essay, don't merely repeat information contained in your transcript, resume or those little boxes on the application. Highlight your multi-faceted personality, diverse interests, and accomplishments.

    Strategize. While you could write about significant research experience or a legal internship, shouldn't the adcoms also know you are a disciplined athlete who has competed on a master's swim team for years? Perhaps you led a political campaign for a local politician, or volunteered for three years at a local legal aid clinic and assumed increasing responsibility. Perhaps you founded and led a neighborhood group that negotiated with a large conglomerate when the latter's development plans threatened local wild life and a fragile ecosystem.

    Focus on the achievements that are most important to you and distinctive about you.

  4. Develop a theme for each essay.

    A theme should be a one-sentence summary of your essay. This theme, the main point you are trying to convey, may or may not appear verbatim in the essay, but it should guide you in writing and ensure that you stay on topic. Throw out anything that doesn't support your theme.

    It is particularly important to clearly state your theme if you are writing about more than one event or aspect of your life. Stating a lucid theme immediately following the lead (see #6 below) can provide the reader with a roadmap to your essay and contribute to the essay's cohesiveness.

  5. Use concrete examples to support your theme.

    Oh the generalities! The complex sentences! The $64 words! The wasted forests! Law school application essays prove that lawyers start obfuscating at an early age.

    But you don't want to obfuscate; you want to hone. Use specifics, vivid images, anUse concrete examplesd details to convey your points. Don't merely discuss a belief or value; illustrate it. For example if you want to write about your mother's influence, start with details that allow the reader to see, hear, or touch your differences and similarities. You could start, "Although Mom and I are very different people, I consider her the most profound influence on my values and the person I have become. I constantly try to emulate her." OK. Yawn. Or you could start, "I love jogging, tennis, skiing; she considers walking to the car to be exercise. My alarm clock rings at 6:30 AM on Sunday; her day begins at noon. I need a certain amount of time pressure to produce my best; she hates a last-minute rush. Yet, despite these irritating differences, Mom has set an example of determination, professional excellence, and service to the community that I am constantly trying to emulate."

    Note the amount of information conveyed in a short period of time. Note also the interest created by not identifying the mysterious "she" immediately. Finally and most importantly, pay attention to the use of detail. It creates interest and forms an intrinsic part of a distinctive essay.

    Specifics are also important in discussing extracurricular activities and professional achievement. Numbers are particularly revealing (and take up little space). Which says more? "Under my leadership, our pre-law society grew greatly." Or, "By actively encouraging participation and initiating a host of new activities as president, I watched the average attendance at pre-law society meetings soar from 10 to 50." Don't write about "volunteering"; write about helping ten Guatemalan day laborers avoid eviction. And if you choose to write about a major writing project, let me know its length and some of the difficulties you encountered on the way.

    Specifics and detail distinguish you, add interest to your essay, and speak volumes about you.

  6. Start your essay with an attention-grabbing lead that immediately illustrates your main point.

    The opening of your essay will determine whether it is read out of obligation or interest. You need to start with a lead, something that grabs the reader's attention. Journalists constantly capture our attention with anecdotes, quotes, interesting statistics, and gripping descriptions of a scene or event. Use the same techniques.

    Anecdotes are particularly effective openings. Perhaps you are proud of a particular achievement. Which moment best illustrates that accomplishment? Start your essay with that moment and then write about its influence and significance. Or perhaps one event really influenced your decision to pursue a career in law. Write about it so vividly that I too can experience it.

  7. Include description and analysis in your essay.

    While I have emphasized the importance of detail, the essays also must provide insight into you. Balance description with analysis. Facts without analysis can easily turn into a resume in prose or a boring, superficial autobiography. Combine a few critical events with insightful analysis and you will really polish the gem.

  8. Don't whine.

    Everyone has blemishes. Don't whine or cry about them. Doing so merely magnifies them. If you feel you must address some poor grades or a less-than-desirable LSAT, then take responsibility; if relevant, explain the circumstances that contributed to the weakness, and move on. If you can portray the difficulty as a growth experience, you could turn a liability into an asset.

  9. Conclude.

    Don't leave me hanging with no sense of completion or unity. Bring your essay full circle by referring back to your lead, perhaps stating your thesis, and highlighting the main points you would like the reader to remember.

  10. Write it right.

To make this baby really shine, ensure it is correctly written. The essay must follow the rules of good grammar, punctuation, and style. Here are a few tips:

  1. Use transitions between paragraphs.
  2. Avoid the passive voice, overuse of the to be verb, redundancy, and awkwardly constructed, convoluted sentences. (Who, me?)
  3. Correct unreferenced pronouns, dangling modifiers, misplaced apostrophes, and missing articles.

Read the essays to yourself (or into a tape recorder) to catch errors that your eye misses.

And while I do not recommend seeking feedback from your fifty closest friends, I do recommend showing it to a few people, preferably two to five. Ask those who write well to comment on the writing and ask those who know you well to comment on whether it reflects you.

No, you won't find a good recipe for a winning personal statement. Writing compelling essays requires self-reflection, research, and hard work. But using these tools to produce and refine a revealing, multi-faceted portrait of you will also create a unique gem of an essay.

For more tips on writing your personal statement, feel free to download's free special report, 5 Fatal Flaws.