Commandments for Writing a Personal Statement that Doesn’t Suck

Nathan Fox

Nathan Fox

Aug 19, 2021

The past few weeks of the Thinking LSAT podcast and last week’s lesson have turned into an extended personal statement-palooza as waves of listeners and LSAT Demon students have submitted their drafts. Unfortunately, they haven’t been pretty.

As editors, Ben and I wield giant sledgehammers. Often, there’s not much left when we’re done swinging them. That’s okay, because the first step in construction is often demolition. But when we spend so much time on the demo crew, we’re unable to help with the finer carpentry. The purpose of this lesson is to draw out some general principles that will help you lay a better foundation.

First commandment: Consider your audience.

Your reader, a law school admissions officer, faces a mountain of applications every day. Let’s take a typical good-but-not-great law school like UC Hastings, my alma mater. Their 2020 ABA 509 report shows 3,319 applications. Of those, 1,283 were offered admission. So roughly one in three applications were accepted. Of those applications that were accepted, only 368 (roughly one third) actually went to Hastings. Law schools aren’t nearly as prestigious as they pretend to be.

Obviously they don’t all come in at once, but imagine a stack of 3,000-something applications. Your task is to shitcan two thirds of them, accept the rest, and cross your fingers that enough of the ones you admit enroll in your school.

How will you decide who to swipe left on?

Keep in mind that your school can survive only if you choose candidates who will succeed in law school and in legal practice. If an accepted applicant doesn’t do well in law school, they won’t get a job. If they don’t get a job, they’ll kill the school’s employment numbers and law school rankings.

You want serious, focused, winning applicants. And you’ve got a giant mountain of applications to get through. You grab the first one off the pile, and you read:

Having multiple job offers right out of college is the ideal situation to have for most. However, it put me in an exceedingly difficult situation. All but one offer was for Project Manager positions for local construction companies. The other was a consultant position for a litigation consulting firm just outside of Washington D.C. I decided to move across the country to figure out if a career path on the legal side of construction was for me.

This is from the first draft of a statement that I picked more or less at random—it’s from a Demon Live student who we’ll call Dub. (Thanks, Dub, for being our guinea pig.)

It could be worse—at least it doesn’t have the type of blatant grammar, spelling, and punctuation mistakes that are immediately highlighted by Microsoft Word or Google Docs. But it does violate several of the commandments below. And I think it also violates the first commandment above.

Ring… Ring… Ringgggg

Imagine: Just as you finish reading Dub’s first paragraph, your phone rings. As a busy law school admissions professional, you’ve got your boss—the dean—up your ass about giving him a better class this year. If your school doesn’t stop falling in the rankings, someone’s gotta be the scapegoat and it damn sure won’t be him. You’re also harassed all day by phone calls, emails, and the usual time-wasting office bullshit. Anyway, you’re called away from your office.

As you walk down the hall to some stupid meeting, do you salivate at the prospect of Dub’s application? Based on only what you know right now, does he sound like an obvious winner? As an admissions officer, will you be immediately struck with a devastating case of FOMO if you decide to pass?

When you return to your office, will you be excited to read the rest of Dub’s personal statement? Or will you peek ahead to the next application in the pile?

As you write your personal statement, it is critical to leave the reader with a good first impression. If they read only the first paragraph of your statement, they should already want to admit you.

Second commandment: Put your best foot forward.

In the first sentence, we got one positive fact: Dub had multiple job offers right out of college. Cool—that sounds like a winner. But wait, what’s this? In the second sentence, Dub starts complaining about the “exceedingly difficult” situation these job offers presented.

What planet are we on, where having multiple job offers is not only difficult but exceedingly difficult? We’re looking for winners, not people who take good situations and spin them into bad ones. And we’re looking for decisive, positive doers, not unfocused kids still struggling to figure out what to do with their lives. I wrote about this at length last week: Stop including bad facts in your personal statement. You’ve got only a page and a half. Don’t waste a single word undercutting your own case.

In the third, fourth, and fifth sentences, Dub takes us on a boring detour through multiple job offers he didn’t even accept, a job offer he did accept and which would thus be on his resume, and a cross-country move that we give zero shits about. No admissions officer ever said, “Wow, this guy actually accepted a job and then moved across the country—he’s destined to be a successful lawyer!”

By the end of the first paragraph, all we’ve learned is that Dub had multiple job offers and chose one of them. It’s not a promising start.

Third commandment: Avoid passive voice.

For some reason, applicants shy away from using “I” as the subject of their sentences—even though the personal statement is supposed to be personal. Let’s break down Dub’s first paragraph one sentence at a time.

Having multiple job offers right out of college is the ideal situation to have for most.

The subject of this sentence is “Having multiple job offers right out of college.” The verb is “is”—a form of the boring verb “to be.” The sentence would be clearer and about half as long if it said, “I weighed multiple job offers right out of college.” As I’ll discuss below, this probably isn’t the theme I want to go for. But if I were going to write about this, I’d use “I” as the subject and an active verb like “weighed.”

However, it put me in an exceedingly difficult situation.

The subject of the second sentence is “it,” referring back to the tortured subject of the first sentence. The verb is “put,” which is an active verb—normally that’s a good thing, except here, it’s a situation, not our hero, that’s doing the putting. Meanwhile, the supposed star of the show, Dub, is the one being put.

All but one offer was for Project Manager positions for local construction companies.

The subject of the third sentence is “all but one offer,” paired with the passive “was” as the verb.

The other was a consultant position for a litigation consulting firm just outside of Washington D.C.

The subject of the fourth sentence is “the other [offer],” accompanied by another “was” for a verb. Where’s our hero? He has entirely disappeared. Job offers take center stage so that they can just sit there, doing nothing.

I decided to move across the country to figure out if a career path on the legal side of construction was for me.

The subject “I” finally appears at the beginning of the fifth sentence. It’s paired with an active verb, “decided.” Active verbs are good, but this particular active verb violates our next commandment.

Fourth commandment: Omit thoughts, feelings, and other mental states.

The final sentence of Dub’s first paragraph contains not one, but two references to his mental state. First he is deciding something. And what’s he deciding? Well—hold on to your hat—he’s deciding that he wants to figure something out. This kind of mental-state-sturbation wastes precious real estate that should be used to show the hero in action.

Your mental states are interesting to one person: You. Nobody else cares what you thought, felt, decided, or learned. I mean, we do, but we don’t know you yet, and anyone can claim any desire, passion, or drive they imagine, so it sounds like bullshit.

It’s pure telling—not showing—when you delve into your own brain and share the secrets that only you could possibly know. These statements are unfalsifiable opinions and should be omitted. After all, if you really felt that way, you’d do something about it. Your passion matters only to the extent that it manifests itself in action. So skip all the mumbo jumbo about what’s going on in your head, and instead show us what you’ve done with your life.

Show, don’t tell. You can’t show us what’s in your brain, so shut up about it.

Fifth commandment: Stop talking about interviews and job offers.

This one will be short because I’ve already indicated my displeasure with it above. Dub has committed the common mistake of sharing boring, unnecessary details about job applications, interviews, offers, and the acceptance of said offers. These baby steps might have been dramatic in the moment, but every job on every resume implies the successful completion of each of these steps. Use the space to tell us about successes on the job—omit the play-by-play on exactly how you got it.

For now, start with these five. Next time, I’ll offer another five commandments for personal statements that don’t suck.

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