In this series, a jdMission Senior Consultant reviews real law school personal statements. What’s working well? What’s not? If it were his/her essay, what would be changed? Find out!
Note: Although there are subtle differences in what each school asks for in a personal statement, in general the personal statement is a straightforward essay question that asks you to explain to the admissions committee why you are applying to law school. To maintain the integrity and authenticity of this project, we have not edited the personal statements. Any grammatical errors that appear in the essays belong to the candidates and illustrate the importance of having someone (or multiple someones) proofread your work. The names of identifying individuals and organizations have been changed for privacy reasons. Sign up for your own Free Personal Statement Review!
After I graduated from [Undergraduate College], I was given [a fellowship] to teach English in rural China. The January before I left, I attended a three-day retreat with other prospective fellows. There were about half a dozen of us, young leftist [students] desperate to travel, seeking adventure and an opportunity to change the world. It was for this reason that the director of the program explained the following:
Many of you are going to arrive at your destinations and ask yourself, “Why am I teaching English? Why, here in the midst of poverty and desperation, am I teaching something of so little practical value? Why am I not building houses or plowing fields?” The answer is that wherever you go, there will be people already who know how to build houses and plow fields. They can do it better than you, and more cheaply. All that you have to offer these people at this stage in life is your fluency in English.
I was, of course, devastated to hear this. Perhaps I was most annoyed by the fact that I knew it to be true. I never wanted to admit to myself that I wanted to be a hero, and I wanted to admit even less that I would not get the chance to be one.
However, this did not stop me from trying. I taught English for one academic year, during which time I hosted an independent creative writing workshop out of my house for the students I felt had the most promise. I wanted to give ten students and myself the chance to hash out ideas in writing outside the confines of a classroom and curriculum. It was one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. We discussed sex and drugs. We argued about Marx and capitalism. We also talked about our hopes and dreams and all the barriers that stood in our way. It was through this that I finally came to understand the tragedy of the Chinese countryside: People who had fought for decades to build their own lives and be proud of who they were had been told by generations of leaders that they had to wait their turn. After five decades of waiting, these college students had no hope of being proud, they wanted only to escape and leave the ruins of development to someone else. I felt that the director of [the fellowship] had been only partially right. While fluency in English was the only skill I had to offer, for these students it was as big as building a house or plowing a field. I was giving them the opportunity to do what they wanted – to leave the countryside behind – whether I agreed with them or not.
I left in May of 2005 to conduct research for Human Rights Watch on rural peasants who were bringing complaints of local corruption to the central government. Every peasant we spoke with was warned in advance that speaking to Human Rights Watch carried a serious risk of political retribution. However, no matter how much we warned, every person we spoke to looked me in the eye and begged me to help them. They begged me to get them justice for a relative killed, a sister raped or a house torn down by local officials. All I could do was look back at them and know that, at best, I would write a report that would receive international attention and probably get this person thrown in jail. No matter how careful I was, I knew that at least one person I spoke to would be worse off for having helped me. I could not stop asking myself what on earth I was doing all of this for. I was pushing for change on a system-wide level, but what could I do to help these people?
In May of 2006 I traveled to Jordan with the National Labor Committee. I was interviewing Chinese and Bangladeshi workers who had flown to Jordan looking for a job, only to have their passports confiscated by their bosses on arrival. They were then told that if they left the factory compound they would be arrested by Jordanian police for not having a legal work visa. The factory management was then able to force workers to work for a fraction of the legal minimum wage. Some workers were not paid at all. Many were raped or beaten. Again, these workers looked at me and asked me for help. They needed their back wages to support their relatives back home. They were willing to stay in Jordan and sew clothing for L.L. Bean and Wal-Mart, but they wanted their passports back. Again, all I could tell them was that I would write a report, call some newspapers and sit in on meetings at the U.S. State Department to see what would happen. In the end, many of the workers received their passports back. Many factories began to pay workers regularly and operate under a regular 40-hour work week.
In China, I helped write a report about abuses against real people. The result was that some people were hurt and jailed, and the system did not change. It was simply not in the interests of the central Chinese government to help these people. In Jordan, I helped write a report about abuses against real people. The result was that most people got at least some of what they wanted. It was in the interest of Jordan, under the U.S.-Jordan Free Trade Agreement, to help these people. However, I am under no illusions about what will happen a month from now or a year from now, when I am no longer in Jordan and The New York Times is no longer writing articles about the situation.
After all that I have been through and all the many jobs I have held trying to help people, I still don’t believe that the only real skill I can offer anyone in need of assistance is my fluency in English and Mandarin. I have more to offer. A legal education from [target law school] would be a significant step forward. I want to understand the real results of legal reform in China. I want to understand what force international law has when it comes to helping workers. I want to acquire the skills necessary to help those that ask for my assistance. The next time someone looks me in the eye and asks me for help, I want to do better than writing a report and hoping that someone is in the mood to listen.
Overall Lesson: Even an amazing story will not be great unless you tell it well.
First Impression: I appreciate the candidate’s straightforwardness and how she moves briskly into the action without a long, wordy introduction.
Strengths: Every once in a while, a concerned law school candidate will say to me, “But I haven’t spent years abroad helping sweatshirt workers fight for their rights.” This is precisely the type of essay such applicants wish they had the experience to write. This candidate has an abundance of intriguing experience, which provides the basis for a potentially impressive essay.
However, what makes this essay so strong is actually not its substance, regardless of how powerful and troubling that substance is, but rather the candidate’s writing—how she presents her experiences and, most importantly, shares how they affected her.
What a fantastic line this is: “I never wanted to admit to myself that I wanted to be a hero, and I wanted to admit even less that I would not get the chance to be one.”
Because this sentence is so powerful, the long quote preceding it is fine, but typically, you should not include such a lengthy quote in your personal statement.
From this point on, as I move through the essay, I am right with her. I am with her as she questions the validity of what her program director told her, and I am with her when she describes her work for Human Rights Watch and ends the paragraph with three powerful and tragic sentences:
No matter how careful I was, I knew that at least one person I spoke to would be worse off for having helped me. I could not stop asking myself what on earth I was doing all of this for. I was pushing for change on a system-wide level, but what could I do to help these people?
Weaknesses: In the penultimate paragraph, the candidate offers a very interesting contrast between her experiences in China and in Jordan:
In China, I helped write a report about abuses against real people. The result was that some people were hurt and jailed, and the system did not change. It was simply not in the interests of the central Chinese government to help these people. In Jordan, I helped write a report about abuses against real people. The result was that most people got at least some of what they wanted.
The candidate begins by making an interesting and high-stakes distinction here, but then she fails to tell us what she thinks about this disparity—and this is a significant omission. She misses an opportunity for reflection and leaps straight into her “why I want to go to law school” paragraph.
Final Assessment: I would recommend that the candidate keep most of this personal statement as is, but I would encourage her to seize the opportunity at the end of the essay to reflect more on the differences between her experiences in Jordan and in China. She is clearly very thoughtful and intelligent; the earlier lines of her essay (which gave me chills) proved this to me. So I know she has the ability to make her final paragraphs sing. She just needs to do it!
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