Duke Law School Personal Statement

Private I: The Personal Statement

Gerald L. Wilson, Duke University

Many, if not most, law schools require applicants to write what is generically referred to as a personal statement. Students often find this to be the most difficult part of the application process and seek guidance from prelaw advisors (and hopefully not from one of these A Successful Personal Statements books!) Because many law school admission officers indicate that the personal statement is the second most important item in the application (after LSAC score and UGPA), prelaw advisors can be especially helpful at this point. 

First of all, the personal statement should be just what it says, personal, in the sense that it should be something that only that individual student himself/herself could write. Though opinions vary, in general, the statement should seek to connect the writer with the law school application. This is not to suggest that it should be a “I want to go to law school because”.... piece but it probably will be more useful to an admissions committee if they can gain a sense of why the student is applying to law school. In brief, the statement may well be an intellectual/experiential autobiography that makes clear as to why the writer is applying to law school. 

The essay, unless otherwise specified, and to make sure that it will be more than skimmed, in most cases should be no longer than two pages, double-spaced. It should, above all, be interesting. I cannot forget what one law school admission officer said about personal statements: “When I read a personal statement, I have one question in the back of my mind: Would I like to have a beer with this person?” (Or lunch if you prefer!) Think about what is being said there. Will the applicant be someone we want to get to know, someone who will add to the classroom experience and to the atmosphere of the law school?

Note carefully that the essay should attract the reader’s attention (without being gimmicky) and should focus on the student, not the law. Below are opening paragraphs from two of the worst personal statements I have ever read. Would you want to get to know these students?

“The best preparation for the study of law is a broad-based undergraduate education. Studying a variety of subjects in both the natural and social sciences develops both reasoning and communication skills.  Students must learn to apply logic to mathematical and social problems and to communicate using both words and numbers. In addition, extra-curricular activities and work experience improve a person’s problem solving abilities and communication skills. My diversity of academic and extra-curricular experience is my strongest attribute as a law school candidate.” 

Or, “As an undergraduate, I have taken particular interest in the structural frameworks within which society’s institutions confront recurring moral and ethical problems. Academically, I have focused on political institutions’ reflection of the society’s ethical sophistication, with special emphasis on the legal and judicial system in the United States. Additionally, my extracurricular activities have presented several opportunities to confront the ethical dilemmas of leadership in the unique circumstances indigenous to a university community. Together, my academic and extra-academic work have prepared and focused my interest in continued study of the law and legal institutions.”

Conversely, without resorting to gimmicks the opening paragraphs of the following three statements immediately attract the reader and make the reader want to read on to get to know the applicant. 

“As a little girl with olive skin, long black hair and large, dark but definitively non-western eyes, I was constantly subjected to the fascinated stars and inquiries of people curious about my nationality. Hurt by the subtle implication that I might be different from the other kids, I would smile and give the elusive response I’m an ethnic mutt. In this age of political correctness, those words would probably never leave my mouth today, but an amalgamation of unusual and distinctive elements is actually still the best way to describe myself.”

Or, “Until my mid-teens, I had believed that my father died when I was four years old. As a teenager I was told that the man I thought was my father was not my natural father. In order to conceive, my mother opted for a process known as Artificial Insemination by an Anonymous Donor, or AID. This revelatory information prompted me to research the AID phenomenon and the ramifications it posed to me as a child fathered in this unusual manner.”

Or, “Two summers ago I worked as a black foreman of an all-white construction crew in rural Georgia. It proved to be an extraordinary experience which taught me a lot about myself and which sparked my interest in becoming a lawyer.”

However, any good and exciting essay can be spoiled if not carefully proofread to eliminate misspellings, poor use of grammar, or awkward use of the language. Proof Read the document, and have at least one friend do it, too. Do not rely on spell-check on the computer. Sue and use, leaned and learned, for and fro, lust and must are all correct words but spell check may not help to discover problems with usage. A typo such as to for two suggests you do not pay attention to detail. Your documents are being read to evaluate your future performance as a good lawyer. Also, the personal statement may not be the place to discuss a bad semester or a personal matter that needs further explanation. This may best be handled by writing a separate statement. In the end, there is no formula for a successful personal statement, but there is one successful guideline: Be yourself!


  1. Do not give the essay a title
  2. Do not use quotations
  3. Do not use dialogue
  4. Do not write in the third person
  5. Do not use the passive voice
  6. Do not make the essay a narrative version of your resume
  7. Do not use footnotes
  8. Do not tell them about the law, talk about you
  9. Do not be repetitive
  10. Do not read one of those “Winning Essays That Got Me Into Law School” books
  11. Do not compare yourself to other people, i.e. “I may not be as smart as many of your applicants, but I study hard.” or “While my classmates are out partying, I am in the library working hard!”


1-10 Be yourself! Make the members of the Admissions Committee want to get to know you and have you in class.

What is more important: a high GPA or a high LSAT score?

I don’t think one or the other is more important. We look at a lot of different aspects of peoples’ academic backgrounds and try to make our best guesses as to what kind of law students they’re likely to be. You have to look at much more than just those top-line numbers to be able to really know what they mean.

For example, the cumulative GPA number is not necessarily the best indicator of what we might be considering when we’re looking at somebody’s college record. Think of somebody with a 3.5. You could get somebody who’s kind of plugged right along at that level and never been much better and never been much worse, or you could get somebody who had maybe a rough freshman year because she’s a first-generation college student and took a while to kind of figure out what she wanted to do, but then she had 3.7, 3.8 grades in the last couple of years of college. Those are very different profiles, and you can look at those and draw different conclusions about what kind of potential a student like that has.

It’s true that LSAT is more of a common yardstick. But of course, the kind of preparation you do has an impact, so you’ve got to think about that. We’re seeing more and more people taking it more than once, so we have to think about what multiple scores mean.

None of it is really just a straightforward “this is a number, and it means exactly what it means” kind of assessment. There are people who have really great classroom records, and for reasons they might be able to explain to us, their LSAT scores aren’t as strong. There are also people whose academic records are uneven, and it’s helpful when they can explain to us why that one semester is not as strong and back their GPAs up with strong LSAT performances. You could be looking at somebody who wasn’t a great student in college but has been out for a number of years and has gotten to a better place—that be confirmed with a strong LSAT score. I definitely don’t feel like one or the other of those is more important. They’re different.

Let’s say there’s the hypothetical applicant whose GPA and LSAT scores are not terrible but not terribly impressive. What can that applicant do to make up for that?

The other parts of the application are really important to us. We want to find people who are going to be enthusiastic members of the community and good fits for the kinds of experiences we want people to have here. Writing a careful, thoughtful personal statement can definitely help somebody stand out. In our application, we have two optional essays, and they certainly are optional—we admit plenty of people who don’t write either one—but they are an opportunity for people to give us additional information.

It never, ever hurts to show sincere interest in a school. This isn’t an answer for everybody, but for someone who’s very, very interested in a school, an early decision option is a way to give yourself a boost if your application is not necessarily right at the top of the heap. Still, I always want people applying early decision to be aware of the implications of a binding application— especially of the fact that you’re not able to compare scholarship offers from other schools if you are admitted.

When writing a personal statement, is it better to err on the side of safe but a little boring or exciting but a little bit strange?

It’s a tight rope, but if you can do it really well, a little bit of creativity and personality can definitely enhance a personal statement. For most people, trying something kind of gimmicky, like writing a poem or a legal brief or a newspaper article about your future self tends to be too much. You put so much energy into that framing thing that there’s not a lot of substance to your personal statement beyond that. If you’re are a good writer, it’s worth showing some creativity and personality, but there needs to be some meat on the bones as well.

Considering how difficult it is for many law school graduates to find jobs, has prior work experience become more important to you in recent years?

I don’t think so. I don’t think the makeup of our class has changed dramatically as far as that goes. One specific point in our application review process is sort of a sum assessment of personal qualities: We look at what the recommenders have to say, we look at whether the applicant has had positions of responsibility, we look at whether he has been a tour guide on his campus or something like that—something that indicates that somebody else thought he was pretty presentable and could stand up in front of people and make a good impression.

I don’t think that necessarily has to come from work experience. There’s certainly some value to that, but I don’t think that from our end it’s become more important than it was previously. The average age in our class has been about 24 for several years. Usually, about a third of our class is straight from college, about a third has a year or two of work or some other kind of post-college experience, and a bit less than a third has more extensive work experience.

Has Duke recently made any changes to the admissions process?

There’s been one major change in the last couple of years. We added a small second round of our early decision application. We primarily wanted to allow people who take the December LSAT and have a high level of interest in Duke to be able to apply through early decision, so you know traditionally for us and for most schools there’s kind of a November application deadline with a notification by the end of the year, and a couple of years ago we instituted a second round so that you can apply in early January and hear back by the end of January through our round two early decision option. That’s the most significant change I can think of in recent years. Right now, there aren’t any plans to shake things up. I think we’ve got a system that has worked pretty well. We’re always brainstorming, but there are no immediate changes in the works.

If you could give all applicants one piece of advice, what would it be?

I would advise applicants not to leave us with any unanswered questions and to make sure that everything in your application covers all the bases, like grades that need explaining or resume gaps. Don’t assume that we’ll be able to figure something out. Don’t take it for granted that we’ll understand what a certain club was or anything like that. Basically, you should make sure that everything in your application is driving towards giving us a complete and positive picture of who you are, what you’re interested in, where you’re coming from, and how you got to the point of applying to law school.

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