One of the themes that you might choose for your law school application essay is how you overcame hardship, how you turned a disadvantage into an advantage. But there are all kinds of hardship: some are serious — such as severe illness, the death of a parent or beloved relative when you were young, or extreme poverty – while others are easier to face, like getting a grade of ‘D’ in calculus. The latter may be disappointing, but it doesn’t affect the core of your life. A law school personal statement that describes how you overcame hardship should focus on an event or situation – an ‘obstacle’ – that turned your life upside down. In writing about it, you would like your reader (usually a law school professor, a third-year law student, or an admissions professional who recently graduated from law school) to know that this situation or condition was a major life event and that you managed to surmount it, developing into the person you are today. Overcoming this hardship did something else for you: it became a motivating factor in your decision to apply to law school.
But how do you write about hardship in a way that is interesting and relevant to your decision to apply to law school? The answer is that you try to tell a story – one that is factual but that also expresses your assessment of what happened. In other words, you tell a story that has a ‘moral,’ that taught you a lesson about yourself and who you aspire to be, and that motivated you to want to become a lawyer.
Your story should be approached from a positive angle: you faced an obstacle and got the better of it, and this victory fostered character traits in you that now make you a prime candidate for admission to law school. To illustrate this point, let’s construct a hypothetical scenario: You were raised by a single mom who became quite ill when you were in your early teens. As a result of this situation, you helped to care for her, held down a part-time job busing tables at a local restaurant, and applied yourself to high school coursework. You even, let’s say, managed to join the school’s debating club. At times you felt that you might crack under the pressure and stress, but you learned to organize your time and think independently; you even forged a stronger bond with your mother and found out how the healthcare system works so that you could become an effective advocate for her. In other words, through overcoming this hardship you acquired strengths of personality – independence, empathy, the ability to think on your feet and speak on behalf of someone else — that would be useful to you as a young adult and later as a law student.
Writing about your experience in this way also points up your uniqueness. Law school admissions representatives read hundreds – often thousands – of personal statements; what they’re looking for is an essay that tells a story they won’t forget, a story about an applicant whose qualities they’ll take notice of and remember. Not all hardships, however, are worth writing about (the ‘D’ grade in calculus again). So you want to choose a situation, condition, or event that transformed you, that changed you for the better, and although the event or set of circumstances, when it first happened, was not in your control, you nonetheless were able to use it to your advantage. If the experience didn’t change you in some fundamental way, it probably won’t work as the subject of a law school personal statement. You were transformed because through your own efforts you overcame a serious obstacle that threatened to throw your life off-kilter.
Which leads me to The School of Hard Knocks. If you’re a graduate of this School and if being there has been a stepping-stone on your path to law school, then you might think of writing about one of the knocks that you encountered. Just remember that you ended up on your feet.