Like most law schools, Stanford’s essay prompt is incredibly broad:
“Please attach a statement of about two pages describing important or unusual aspects of yourself not otherwise apparent in your application.”
This prompt is wide-open, but SLS gives you one clear direction: do not reiterate what is on your resume and in other parts of your application. You don’t need to re-state what the admissions officer already knows. Essays that run through a list of your accomplishments end up sounding boastful and boring.
Now that you know what not to do, how should you approach the question?
First of all, stop and take a deep breath. A personal statement is all about telling a compelling story. (Don’t believe me? Check out SLS Dean of Admissions Faye Deal’s blog post about the personal statement.) You can do this!
Here are a few questions to start brainstorming:
- When in your life have you felt entirely engaged in an activity, project, or cause? (This is just a less cheesy way of asking what you are passionate about.)
- Why do you want to go to law school? This can be a particularly helpful starting point if you can identify a key moment when you decided to become a lawyer. (If you are unsure of the answer to this, see our post on how to know if you should go to law school!)
- Thinking back on recent college or work experiences, are there one or two moments or stories that stand out in your memory as particularly meaningful?
- What is the most challenging obstacle or setback you have encountered? What did you learn from the experience?
These do not need to be monumental events. A story about a college athlete dealing with a sports injury can be a compelling tale of perseverance and commitment. A story about learning to play an instrument as a child can be a powerful tale about navigating family dynamics. Many applicants get paralyzed by the idea that you need to stand out from a crowd of thousands of other talented, smart people. This can seem impossible, especially if you are still in college. But remember that it is not your experiences that need to stand out; it is how you describe, analyze, and reflect on those experiences. Some people will have truly unique backgrounds in military service, work experience, or public service—great! But for everyone else, the challenge is to take a common experience and talk about it with an uncommon depth of reflection.
Notice that SLS does not ask: Why do you want to go to law school?
Most applicants will end up addressing this question, either explicitly or implicitly, but this does not need to be the guiding principle of your essay. If SLS wanted every applicant to write about this topic, they would ask for it. Instead, they ask: What makes you different? What is important to you? Focus on these two things. You can write a beautiful personal statement about your love of music or the value of being part of a team or the thrill of scientific discovery. Like many schools, SLS gives you two opportunities to demonstrate your thoughtful approach to complex issues. In addition to the broad personal statement, there is an optional diversity essay: “While admission to Stanford Law School is based primarily upon superior academic achievement and potential to contribute to the legal profession, the Admissions Committee also regards the diversity of an entering class as important to the school’s educational mission. If you would like the committee to consider how factors such as your background, life and work experiences, advanced studies, extracurricular or community activities, culture, socio-economic status, sex, race, ethnicity, religion, or sexual orientation would contribute to the diversity of the entering class and hence to your classmates’ law school experience, you may describe these factors and their relevance in a separate diversity statement.” Some people are definitely admitted without submitting the additional essay. However, it is in your best interest to use every opportunity that you have to show SLS what you can bring to the school and to the practice of law.
Do not feel as though you must be a member of an underrepresented minority to write this essay!
SLS already knows a lot of demographic information about you based on the boxes you checked on the application form. They don’t need an extra essay to know your sex, race, ethnicity, etc. They do need an extra essay to know what you have learned from your life experiences—both those stemming from your identity as well as those stemming from your decisions—and how you will share that with your classmates. Your two essays should work together to demonstrate different aspects of your personality, experiences, and goals. Try to pick different themes for the two essays to avoid appearing one-dimensional.
Finally, read over your essays and make sure they are clear, well-written, and error-free.
Most lawyers spend a great deal of their careers writing, so a key element of any law school application essay is demonstrating that you have excellent writing skills.