If you want to develop a winning law school personal statement, you’ll need to approach it from the perspective of organization, hierarchy of evidence, showing progress, and themes. Here’s how:
The purpose of this section is not to delineate one structural approach that will work for everyone’s individual essays, but rather to discuss principles of organization that should guide you in constructing your argument. In previous sections, we have cautioned that the criteria we set forth could not be used as steps to be followed, because there was so much overlap and interdependence. Here your task grows even more challenging, because some of the principles can be mutually exclusive, and you may have to decide between them to determine which approach best suits your material.
Hierarchy of Evidence
Because your reader will be reading quickly and looking for the main points, it’s often a good idea to start with your strongest evidence. You may even highlight your most interesting experience in the introduction.
This applicant recognized that his most compelling, in-depth experience was his tenure as a deputy clerk in the local Superior Court. He jumps right into his discussion without unnecessary prefacing. He demonstrates his “hands-on knowledge of the inner workings of the legal system” first, because he hopes this firsthand exposure will help him to stand out.
By the third paragraph, he moves backward chronologically to explore the origins of his interest in law. This is an important discussion, and in real life, his initial exposure to the law through his father’s work formed the foundation for his recent work in the Superior Court. The applicant is correct to start with the present; it is more engaging because it shows the applicant in action and exercising his understanding of the law.
This approach might invite a chronological order, but we maintain that chronology should not be reason in itself (as explained in the sidebar of the Essay Structures introduction) to organize material in a particular manner. The guiding principle here is to structure your evidence in a way that demonstrates your growth, from a general initial curiosity to a current definite passion, or from an early aptitude to a refined set of skills. It differs from the Hierarchy of Evidence approach because your strongest point might come at the end, but its strength lies precisely in the sense of culmination that it creates. Chronology might not apply if you choose to show progress within a number of self-contained areas, thereby combining this approach with the Juxtaposing Themes approach described later.
This applicant chronicles the growth of her interest in international development. The growth she describes is not merely a matter of accumulating one experience after another, but rather a process of enrichment in which she learns from new angles and adds layers each time. Her interest begins through her work with underrepresented citizens, which encourages her to undertake international ventures. These experiences in turn inform her academic pursuits and further global exploration. The writer shows progress by using effective transitions such as the following:
“When I returned to college in the United States, I decided to combine my newly-piqued interest in underdeveloped economies with my intensified interest in the Spanish language.”
The writer moves effectively from experience to experience; the result does not feel like a list or a haphazard construction, but rather a logically flowing piece. Moreover, the applicant’s final points have more force because we have witnessed a process of growth, and her individual ideas combine to have a synergistic effect.
The strongest argument against a straight chronological order is the value of juxtaposing related themes and ideas. If two experiences are closely related but occurred years apart, it makes more sense to develop them as one set of ideas than to interrupt them with unrelated points.
This applicant devotes his first three paragraphs to his disadvantaged background and the obstacles he overcame. He explores his growth from a child who had to work at the age of twelve and help raise his sisters to an overwhelmed college student who struggles to survive financially. After discussing this self-contained unit of progression, he shifts gears in the fourth paragraph to describe his work in a nonprofit organization over the past three years. Although he likely began this experience during the period described in the first three paragraphs, the non-chronological placement makes sense. Interrupting the flow of the first point not only would be confusing, but also would take away from the impact of each point being fully developed on its own terms.