Crafting A Winning Personal Statement

by Jeremy Shinewald on

If you choose to write a traditional personal statement, your essay must convince the admissions committee that attending law school is the logical—if not necessary—next step in your life’s pursuit. For example, a social worker citing frustrations with the foster care system could make a convincing argument for wanting to work in the field of juvenile law. In the following sample traditional personal statement, the author convincingly demonstrates why she would ultimately like to work for a legal defense fund.

Sample Traditional Personal Statement

Before anything, I am B.K. Lingagowder’s granddaughter. This may mean nothing to someone outside my family, but it means everything to me. I am also a Badaga, part of a disappearing indigenous tribe from India, yet I am an American as well, having been born in Brooklyn. I lived in India with my grandfather until I was six and then spent three months of every year there with him until I was 21.

He was my moral compass. A village elder for our tribe, he led by example. People sought him out to discuss familial disputes or other tribal contro- versies. As a member of the Legislative Assembly of India, he strove to raise awareness of the plight of the Badagas, discriminated against as a back- ward or scheduled caste. He wore exclusively homespun fabric, showing his pride at being a member of the National Party and welcoming dignitaries such as Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi to our ancestral home. Our talks as we walked through his tea fields were often about how my duty would be to always uphold the Lingagowder name and serve my family, my community, and my country. When my grandfather died, I felt lost.

I had just graduated from Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. I was debating my next steps and thought my calling might be in government, as my grandfather’s had been. Soon after, I won a scholarship to work for a congressman in Washington, DC, as a li- aison between his office and the Indian-American community. At the time, I had only just become comfortable with my hybrid identity as an Indian American. For many years, I had felt like a stranger in both America and India, not feeling that I truly belonged in either country. At Princeton, sur- rounded by intelligent and worldly classmates, I had finally learned about and embraced my unique cultural role.

Congress was a most unwelcome shock. I had never met so many people who knew so little about someone like me. Very few could even find India on the map. Being Indian American was easily confused with being Native American. No one appeared concerned about what being an Indian American in America really means. Nevertheless, I did not condemn the politicians around me for their oversights. I believe that as a community, Indian Americans have an obligation to educate themselves about U.S. legal and political processes and to become part of the country’s social and political fabric. So, I created a political education organization—the National Association of Indian Americans—calling on all first- and second-generation Indian Americans to invest in their future and in that of their children.

That I felt a desire to learn more about the legal system is only natural, I suppose, and I started to think seriously about going to law school. I knew that I no longer wanted to be a political representative or diplomat. Instead, I wanted to study the Indian-American experience from a legal perspective, looking particularly at the group’s exclusion from legal and po- litical participation. Patricia J. Williams’s book The Alchemy of Race and Rights: Diary of a Law Professor introduced me to critical race theory. I was truly inspired. A year later, I had the privilege of sitting in on one of Williams’s classes at Columbia University, and it was one of the most invigorating classroom experiences I have ever had. Students were heatedly debating the merits of examining everyday interactions and finding the racial component in them as a means of moving the racial equality cause forward. I knew immediately that I wanted to be part of such a dynamic educational community, and as soon as I returned home, I began studying for the LSAT and making preparations to apply to Columbia Law School. That classroom experience solidified for me that a legal education and de- gree will best equip me to be effective in my chosen career.

I ultimately see myself working at a legal defense fund, helping promote civil rights through litigation, advocacy, education, and organizing. In this respect, Columbia Law School’s Human Rights Clinic will be an ideal practical complement to my educational and intellectual experience, fa- cilitating hands-on practice, with particularly remarkable international opportunities, which will be crucial as I transition into my legal career. I also believe the research and opportunities sponsored by the Center for Intersectionality and Social Policy Studies relate directly to my area of interest and will expose me to valuable new concepts, issues, and strategies. With a law degree, I could provide assistance to the poor and to civil rights and voting rights activists, and bring lawsuits against violators of civil rights. I feel that in many ways, this road was paved for me, yet in other ways, I have paved it for and by myself. In the end, I hope to follow my grandfather’s model of serving others and to ultimately make him—wherever he may be—as proud of me as I have always been of him. That would put a smile on my face.

In this essay, the candidate demonstrates a very clear connection between both her past experience and her personal identity and her desire to attend law school. After finding her calling while on Capitol Hill, she knows she needs a law degree to become the champion/advocate she now longs to be. She is in- deed on a personal mission, and law school is that vital bridge between where she now is and where she wants to go in the future. Further, she makes her claim even more compelling by connecting her desire for a JD with Columbia Law School specifically, by describing her connection to Professor Williams, detailing her classroom experience, and referencing the school’s Human Rights Clinic and the Center for Intersectionality and Social Policy Studies. Her essay therefore does not just send the message “I must go to law school,” but says, “I must go to Columbia Law School,” which will have a much stronger impact on the admissions officer who will ultimately read this candidate’s file.

Jeremy Shinewald is the founder of jdMission, an admissions consulting firm that helps applicants get into law school. This article is excerpted from his book, The Complete Start-To-Finish Law School Admissions Guide.

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