Pen and Chisel Q&A: Why is the Law School Personal Statement Difficult?

Eileen ConnerPlease welcome back law school admissions essay expert Eileen Conner, founder of Pen and Chisel. Today, Eileen is exploring an important question — why is the law school personal statement so difficult to execute well?

If you missed any of her other admissions Q&As, check them out here.

Writing a convincing personal statement can be one of the biggest challenges when it comes to creating a top-notch law school application.

This may come as a surprise to accomplished academic writers. After all, most law school applicants have finely honed their writing skills over their years of schooling. Why should writing a simple application essay present any major problems?

The key is that the personal statement is unlike most research papers — which are the main type of essay most applicants have practiced over and over throughout their academic careers. Its various requirements are sufficiently different as to present some real difficulty, even to the most talented of academic writers.

To illustrate this, let’s take a look at three differences between academic research papers and the law school personal statement.


Research papers tend to grow in length as students progress through school. From short 500-word 5-paragraph essays in early high school to 10, 15, or 20-page papers by the end of college, required essay length increases dramatically. While it’s certainly not unheard of to fill up longer essays like these by means of formatting trickery (Courier New, anyone?), length requirements also affect student writing skills. Students become very practiced and expert at verbose writing, while editing for conciseness goes by the wayside.

Personal statements, in contrast, have very strict, very short length limits. It’s rare to find an essay that allows more than three pages, and a two-page limit is considered the norm. After years of learning to write longer and longer essays, it’s time to go in the exact opposite direction. It can be a tough adjustment to shift from writing the lengthy research papers of late college or graduate school to creating a high-quality short piece like this.

Subject matter

Research papers can be dedicated to exploring any subject of academic inquiry. From psychological studies to historical debates, you may have found yourself analyzing a variety of different academic topics in writing throughout your undergraduate program. Now it’s time to tackle the personal statement — and the required subject matter is entirely different.

Instead of examining a particular academic problem or question, it’s time to turn your attention to a new topic: yourself. If you’re used to writing solely about academic subjects, making the switch to discussing your own life can be jarring. At the baseline, it’s a new and different writing experience. On top of that, your personal experience will almost certainly affect you more than any impersonal topic of academic study.

This means it can be hard to write your essay draft in the first place. It can be hard to read over what you’ve written, especially if it’s particularly emotionally important to you. And it can be very hard to look at your personal experience with a dispassionate, critical eye and edit or rewrite it to present a strong argument for admission to the school of your choice.


Academic essays require quite a bit of evidence to back up their arguments. This evidence can come from a variety of textual and experimental sources. Primary and secondary sources, statistical analyses, experimental data, or current academic research from different schools of thought — any or all of these may be part of the evidence you use to support your argument.

Can you use this kind of evidence in the personal statement? In a word: no. You are not a topic of academic study, so there will be no traditional academic evidence available to cite in the personal statement.

Of course, you do still need to support your argument for admission to law school well — but how? What evidence can you use? Because your experience is all you have to show your aptitude for success, you’ll need to find some good evidence from your own life to make a convincing argument for admission. Personal stories that directly illustrate your capacity to succeed in law — evidence that would never be accepted in a traditional academic paper — will support your claims. Needless to say, this can also be a dramatic shift if you’re used to citing lines of textual evidence in your research papers.

Start writing early!

These differences can make the personal statement a bigger challenge than it first appears, even for the best academic writers. So, to ensure that you do your best job tackling this new type of challenging essay, be sure to get started early!

If you begin the essay-writing process in spring or summer, you’ll be able to discover pitfalls well in advance of fall and winter deadlines. This will ensure that you have plenty of time to learn the ins and outs of the personal statement process, work through any difficulties, and create a strong argument for admission to law school — even though this essay is so different from the vast majority of academic essays.

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Thanks, Eileen! And good luck to everyone applying!

Got an admissions question for Eileen? Leave it in the comments!

More about Eileen:
Eileen Conner is the founder of Pen and Chisel LLC, where she specializes in helping law school candidates perfect their application essays. 

A graduate of the University of Michigan’s prestigious creative writing MFA program, Eileen is the former Senior Editor for Law at Revision Editing.

Read On:

As you embark on your law school application journey, you might want to bookmark Applying to Law School 101: What You Need to Know to Succeed.

Then check out some of the rest of the Pen and Chisel Q&A:

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  1. […] whatever reason, writing the personal statement often seems like the most daunting step in the law school application process. It can be intimidating to sit and stare at a blank piece of […]

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