What do you look for in a personal statement? Everyone I ask tells me that there's no way to answer that, since it is "personal." This isn't very helpful advice. Can you offer any insight?
I understand your frustration with the standard mantra about personal statements, but this is an equally frustrating question to answer from our end. After all, we review thousands of personal statements every year, and each one is so different that finding a common thread in all of them is practically impossible. Well, except that maybe the word "endeavor" is totally overused and should really be banned from personal statements generally.
In any event, I've given it some thought and I think there are some common themes to successful personal statements which can help you in approaching yours. Keep in mind that I'm basing my suggestions on what I see working in Yale's admissions process, and other admissions folks from different schools may disagree. But I think that there's a way to make your personal statement a good one, and a way to make a good personal statement a great one.
A good personal statement provides a coherent narrative of what has brought you to this point (in your life, of applying to law school, or a combination of these two). What this narrative consists of will depend on the person writing it. For some, it may focus on their upbringing or cultural background. For others, it may be an intellectual journey, where certain ideas or courses influenced you. And for others it may be one or several experiences, personal or professional, that were meaningful. Whatever the narrative is, the reader gets an idea of the major events, turning points, influences, or experiences that make up who you are. This personal statement functions essentially like an on-paper interview -- it's kind of like a glorified cover letter, in fact. We get an idea of who you are, what's gone on in your life, and -- implicitly or explicitly -- why you applied to law school.
(NOTE: I do see essays every year that don't take this approach and instead focus on an unrelated topic that doesn't necessarily provide the reader with an understanding of why law school might be a logical next step. I'm not saying that this approach can't be successful. But I'm addressing general strategies here, and while your experience auditioning for American Idol may very well make for a captivating, knock-it-out-of-the-park personal statement, I'm assuming that most people want the safer, tried-and-true approach. So on to the great personal statement.)
The applicant with a great personal statement takes the above personal statement, and goes a step further by relating the things they have chosen to mention to something that is larger than themselves. Now, I don't mean that they go on to pontificate about their own personal philosophy of life. I also don't mean that they have to choose some global issue or platform -- this isn't the Miss America contest. What I mean is that the great personal statement makes connections between the experiences or events that the applicant has highlighted and, say, a larger idea or theme that it made the applicant consider or explore further. Or, for someone who wrote about their upbringing or background, perhaps they now evaluate those experiences from a new and different perspective and can make a connection between those experiences and issues they later became interested in. Another way to put this is that this type of personal statement takes something that was merely descriptive -- a cover letter -- and makes it into something that is reflective -- an essay. This allows us to learn not only what you are about and what you've done, but also how you think and what matters to you. A reflective personal statement demonstrates an ability to think critically and analytically about one's own experiences, which in turn suggests that the person will be a thoughtful and insightful contributor to the classroom and the law school community -- and that's what we are looking for.
The question I get asked the most by prospective students is, "How can I stand out?" Usually the applicant is looking for me to provide a list of courses, activities or summer jobs that he or she can check off and be done with it. But two people with the exact same resumes, GPAs, and test scores can do very differently in the admissions process based solely on how they present themselves. The one who gives us a window into what really makes them tick will be the one who stands out from the crowd. And seriously, don't use the word "endeavor."
Email questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.