Pen and Chisel Q&A: What Makes a Good Personal Statement Topic?

Eileen ConnerPlease welcome back law school admissions essay expert Eileen Conner, founder of Pen and Chisel. Today, Eileen is advising us on how to find the right topic for your personal statement.

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

Picking a great personal statement topic can be a challenge — especially because law schools tend to eschew specific essay prompts in favor of more general guidelines.

How do you know which topic to choose? To find out, let’s take a look at some criteria for top-notch personal statement topics.

Focus on You

Some law school applicants veer toward selecting an essay topic that is more academic than personal. This is no surprise when you consider that in school, when students are assigned a typical argumentative or persuasive piece, even the use of the word “I” may be strictly forbidden. So, to show the admissions committee their intellectual chops, they may go for more analytical or abstract topics — for instance, discussing a particular historical figure who inspired their law career or expounding on the concept of justice.

While this type of topic works well for an academic assignment, it is not the best plan for an effective admission argument. These topics can show intelligence and writing ability, but they leave out the most crucial information: they don’t emphasize individual strengths. They don’t highlight personality, ambition, or achievements. In short, they are impersonal — the exact opposite of the ideal personal statement.

To best show that you will be a great law student and lawyer, it’s important to pick a topic that focuses on you: your experience, your abilities, and your career ambitions. This will give the admissions committee the information they need to make a responsible decision.

After all, the admissions staff at any law school will have a good idea of the concept of justice already — but they won’t know anything about you until you tell them. So, to best show your individual aptitude for law, choose a personal story as your topic.

To do so, consider the different challenges you’ve tackled and accomplishments you’ve achieved throughout your life. Which experiences might best illustrate your skills and ambitions? Think about how you can use those stories to show the admissions committee that you have the interest, ability, and drive to succeed in this competitive field.

Pick One Topic

It can be difficult to look through your entire life experience and narrow it down to one single story or event, but that’s frequently the best choice when picking a personal statement topic. Because this is such a short essay — generally personal statements fall between two and three pages in length — it’s critical to pick a subject you can fully explain in a relatively small space.

The more stories you try to tell, the less detail you’ll be able to devote to each one — especially since you must also stay within stringent length limits. This means that trying to tell more than one story often leaves the reader with a lack of understanding of any of the stories. There simply isn’t enough space available to tell multiple stories well.

Fortunately, solving this problem is relatively easy. Simply pick one story to tell and do your best job explaining it.

If you’re having a hard time deciding between different topics, consider which story would offer the most convincing argument for admission. Think about which of your experiences could show the admissions committee the highest amount of key skills, or which could offer the clearest reason for your legal ambition.

You can also write up a rough draft of each of a few good topics, and evaluate the results to see which story presents the most convincing argument. While this does require a bit of work up front, it will leave you with a working first draft — and that’s an excellent first step toward your final essay.

Show Your Current Aptitude For Law

To make a responsible decision about your application, the admissions committee needs to assess how likely you are to succeed as a law student and lawyer. That means it’s important to pick a topic that will show them your fitness for this career choice.

Although different law schools may be looking for slightly different things in their student bodies, they do like to see some baseline abilities: the intelligence to succeed in a rigorous field, the collaborative skills to work effectively with others, and the ability to meet goals and effect real change.

Consider these traits — as well as any other traits your target law schools highlight in their admission materials — and use them to pick out a good topic. What experiences have you had that will demonstrate that you have these skills and abilities? Those stories might make good topics for your personal statement, especially if you can also connect them to your personal legal ambitions.

As you consider your options, be sure to pick a topic that showcases your current adult skill set. This is what the admissions committee needs to see to understand your potential for future success in law. You may wish to add some context for your story with a few details about your childhood or adolescence, but it’s a good plan to keep these to a minimum. For the best results, use the majority of your essay to show the admissions committee what you are capable of now.

By considering these criteria when picking your personal statement topic, you’ll have a much better chance at making a strong, convincing argument for admission to the law schools of your choice.

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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. […] schools do not dictate what topic you should write about in your personal statement. This means that the first step in crafting your […]

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