This is an excerpt from "The US LLM: From Whether to When, What, Where, and How," by Desiree Jaeger-Fine. The ebook is available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Kobo. It is reprinted with permission.
5. Personal statement
The personal statement is probably the aspect of the application packet that is the most feared. It is feared in part because it is an important part of the application process. But it is also feared because it requires us to do something we may have never done before and because it calls on us to write about ourselves in a way that makes us look interesting as people.
Here are some points of guidance as you think about writing your personal statement: a. Relax! Don’t worry too much about the content:
Admissions counselors and others who are on the application review team do not expect that applicants will have superhuman qualities. It is rare that law schools see an application from someone who has saved someone’s life, negotiated peace between nations, or won a prize for literary achievement. What schools do want to see, however, is a person who has some dimension beyond that of a student/lawyer. Every person is unique and this is what law schools want to see when they read personal statements. The key is to find that uniqueness in yourself and put it into words.
b. The personal statement should be well written:
The single most important thing about the personal statement is that it be well written. For most US law schools, the personal statement will double as a writing sample (most law schools do not require that you submit a separate writing sample). To that end, the personal statement should reflect that you are capable of writing a mature, serious, formal piece of writing. It should have a theme that you develop throughout the piece and write about in a coherent, well-organized fashion. You should edit your personal statement through the process of critical revision. To the extent possible, the personal statement should be free of grammatical and typographical errors. Sentences and paragraphs should flow logically from one to the next. Schedule your time so that you can leave at least one day between readings; you will be amazed at how some distance between readings can improve your editing process.
c. Make the personal statement specific to the school(s) to which you are applying:
The personal statement should be specific to the law school for which you are writing it. You should somewhere in your personal statement talk about why you want to do the LLM in general, but
also why this particular law school and program is of particular interest to you. How does this school and this program fit your overall academic, professional, and personal goals?
d. Catch the reader’s attention:
Try to write in a way that will catch the reader’s attention. Admissions counselors and others who read applications may spend day after day doing little other than reading applications. A personal statement that stands out will be part of an application that gets noticed, and is a most welcome break from reading applications that lack this dynamic. Some people like to begin with a quote or an anecdote or a question. Be upbeat, be positive, be enthusiastic! Whatever you write, be sure that it is interesting and will attract the attention of the reader. This is a great way to differentiate yourself from many other applications.
e. The personal statement should be personal:
The personal statement should be personal. This means that it is hard to give firm rules about what will work for your personal statement. But the goal clearly is to see you as a person, not just as a professional. Combine aspects of your personality with your academic and professional persona; include in your personal statement things that make you unique as an individual.
This should make obvious that your personal statement should not simply repeat what is on your resume in narrative form; the resume serves one function and the personal statement another. There is no reason to describe every program you studied in, job you have had, or deal you have worked on. These are all in your resume. The personal statement is something different, so you should avoid the common mistake of simply converting your resume into paragraph form and calling it a personal statement. The admissions office will review your resume carefully and it does not need to see the same information twice. The personal statement is your opportunity to present yourself in a different way and to give the admissions committee information about you that it will not get from your resume. Don’t waste that opportunity – use it to show something about who you are as a person that is not apparent from the much more objectively written resume, in which you describe your education and work.
So what should you write about? Assuming that you haven’t saved a life, won a Nobel Prize, or negotiated peace among nations, you can still write an interesting essay. Consider the list below, which may give you some ideas for what to write:
• Highlight accomplishments not clear from your resume
• Explain gaps, special problems
• What makes you the kind of person law schools would want in their community
• What can you contribute to the law school community?
• What demonstrates that you can handle the challenges of living abroad and studying in a
different legal system?
• What special life lessons have you learned?
• What qualities do you have that demonstrate leadership ability?
• Can you give an example of how you dealt with a difficult situation or overcame a weakness or
• What do you consider a defining moment in your life?
One additional point when it comes to the content of the personal statement. It is far preferable to illustrate your attributes than to simply state them. What we mean by this is that saying you can thrive in a fast-paced environment is much less impressive and meaningful than giving an example of how you have thrived in such a context. Let the reader arrive at that obvious conclusion on her own rather than just telling her how you perceive yourself to be. You might consider making a list of attributes that you would like to demonstrate yourself as possessing. Think of how you
Do the Same Rules Apply for Fellowship as for Residency?
The answer is yes, though following the same rules naturally leads to differences.
Generally speaking, the personal statement should/could touch on the following items:
The first time the applicant realized his or her interest in the particular field or specialty;
Times since then when that interest was refined, reinforced or redirected;
Any particular outstanding accomplishments achieved so far in following that path;
The direction the applicant now sees himself or herself taking; and
If possible, how the program would be a particular match for that direction.
What Should These Items Accomplish?
Each of these items should elucidate a particular quality or particular qualities about the applicant, and should be ones that are particular to the applicant, as opposed to being able to be said generically by anyone applying for the program. This is important.
What Are the Similarities?
Both the fellowship personal statement and the residency personal statement should describe the specific path/specific reasons that has/have led to the decision to apply for the desired position, as well as what the candidate hopes to achieve through the position from the point of view of how the candidate anticipates it will edify his or her future career.
What Are the Differences?
Answering these questions is where the differences lie between the fellowship personal statement and the residency personal statement.
For the residency personal statement, the general format is to describe the candidate's initial interest in medicine and how that was shaped into a desire for the particular field (e.g., internal medicine) being applied for. This is fleshed out with details that are relevant to the candidate's pursuit of the program (e.g., research experience, community involvement), and it is directed toward a view of the future career.
The fellowship personal statement should take this a step further by demonstrating both the personal and professional maturity that comes with having already completed significant training in the candidate's field.
How Does a Resident Applicant See His/Her Future Career?
Because candidates for residency are writing the personal statement for residency before having begun the training, it is often difficult for them to have a precise view of what they want in their future careers. While he or she may already have some inclinations of what his or her future career will be, many of those choices will be made through the course of the residency.
How Should a Fellowship Applicant See His/Her Future Career?
When it comes to applying for a fellowship, the candidate should know precisely what he or she anticipates for his or her future career, and how the fellowship training (and often the fellowship training offered at the particular institution receiving the application) is the necessary next step in that direction. The candidate should have a clear idea of who he or she is as a doctor and the specific path he or she sees his or her career taking.
The focus in the fellowship personal statement is therefore centered less on the part of the candidate's path that came before residency (e.g., original interest in medicine) and more on specific experiences that have come during residency (e.g., particular cases of interest, particular research accomplishments or involvement) or after.
What Should Be the Focus of the Anecdotes?
The anecdotes should demonstrate relevant academic and clinical competence. They should point squarely in the direction of the specialty being applied for, and any particular research interests.
How long should my personal statement be?
Generally speaking, a fully developed personal statement will be approximately 750. Some programs (e.g. dentistry), though, may require shorter word counts. With few exceptions, if your personal statement is over 850 words, it is too long. If it is under 650 words, it is too short.
The Electronic Residency Application Service (ERAS®) allows up to 28,000 characters with spaces, which is approximately 5,200 words. However, no program director will read a personal statement that long. Most won't even read any of it.
What do you mean by "be specific"?
First is to be specific to your story. If everyone else writes it in their personal statements, then you should not, unless it is particularly relevant to you.
An example of this is an IMG who writes, without any obvious reason for doing so, that she wants to pursue residency in the United States because the U.S. is at the forefront of medicine. A second example is a candidate who writes that he wants to pursue residency in a program that will give him the knowledge and training he will need to succeed in his chosen field. These are both vague statements that should be included only if they relate specifically to your personal career path.
Second is is a rephrasing of the first: to write only of your particular experience. This is your greatest strength and what will set you apart. If you write that you want to pursue a career in medicine in order to serve the community, we will ask what kind of community and what way do you see yourself serving. We will ask where this desire has come from and how you have pursued it.
If you write that you want to be a leader, we will ask where you want to be a leader, why you want to be a leader, what kind of leader you want to be, and in what way specifically you plan to lead others.
What are the most common mistakes that you have seen?
I want to "hook" the reader. What is the best way to do that?
Start with a simple, straightforward statement with how you started on the path that you are on. An example of this is: "The first time I saw how medicine can help people was when I was five years old and visited my mother in the hospital."
Second is to write of your particular experience. This is your greatest strength and what will set you apart.
I am having trouble getting started. Can you help me write my personal statement?
Absolutely, but we won't write it for you. For those needing assistance with developing a personal statement, we offer our Personal Statement Consultation service. With it, we will review your resume/CV if provided and, in one-on-one consultation with one of our personal statement editors, guide you through a series of questions and feedback to develop a concise plan for drafting your personal statement.
After you have drafted your personal statement, we will then review your personal statement with our Personal Statement Revision & Critique service for any adjustments needed to make it as polished and successful as possible.
I have followed all your advice. Do I still need to have my personal statement edited?
Yes, you should still have it edited, specifically for feedback/critique (see our Personal Statement Revision and Critique service) regarding how successful you are in communicating your points. It is our opportunity to help make what you have started as successful for you as possible.
Get More Advice on Our Blog
For more advice on personal statements, see the personal statement articles we have posted on our blog.
Sample Personal Statement
and Palliative Care
Sample Personal Statement
IMG with Leave of Absence
“You helped me edit my personal statement for my fellowship application a few months ago. Today I am writing to happily tell you that I have matched at one of the best programs in the U.S. I received many interviews from great programs, and almost all the interviewers mentioned that my personal statement was well-written and very interesting. I am very grateful for your wonderful work editing my personal statement and would like to express my sincere appreciation."
Taki U., New York, NY
“When I came to DLA for help with my personal statement, the application period had already opened, and I knew I was behind. I signed up for the consultation service and cannot be happier with the results. I just had an interview, and the interviewer said my personal statement was one of the best she had ever read, that it clearly presented who I was and the journey I have been on to reach this point. Hearing that made it totally worth the cost!”
Alessandra B., Biddeford, ME
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