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Writing A Personal Statement For Masters In Law

While it’s only one of many elements going into an LL.M. application, the personal statement can be a tricky one to master. 

Many law schools are not very specific about the requirements for the personal statement, aside from word count. Georgetown University Law Center, for instance, asks applicants to describe their background, goals, and reasons for applying to the program; Stanford is looking for information about the applicant’s experience in legal practice, interest in graduate study, and professional goals.

“To be honest we are purposefully broad in our description because we want applicants to have the freedom to express themselves in whatever way they see fit,” says Justin Swinsick, director of graduate admissions at Georgetown. 

“However, applicants should think about what they would say to the admissions committee if they were sat in front of them and had the chance to highlight the very best things about themselves and how the program and school will take them where they want to go.”  

Other law schools are more explicit; Northwestern asks applicants to answer two essay questions, while Harvard requires a two-part statement—one addressing a theoretical framework or analysis to a current legal problem, and another that says something about the applicant’s motivations for the LL.M. and how it relates to his/her future plans.

This year, University of Pennsylvania also updated its personal statement requirement to include a bit more guidance, calling for a statement of no more than two pages, and specifically recommending that the applicant avoid repeating his/her CV. 

For some schools, like Trinity College Dublin, the personal statement is optional; around 10 to 15 percent of each year’s pool of applicants sends one as part of their applications, according to Kelley McCabe, senior executive officer of the School of Law at Trinity.

“We’re looking for further insight into the applicant's current research interests and their career plans and goals for the future,” she says. “But we focus mostly on academic transcripts, the two academic references and the applicant's CV.”

“These documents give us a holistic picture of the applicant.” 

Tackling the LL.M. personal statement

One of the cornerstone pieces of advice is: be specific. Admissions officers read many personal statements, and you want yours to stand out in their memories. 

“Spend some time really thinking about why you want to get an LL.M.” and why that specific program fits this reason, says Elise Kraemer, director of graduate programs at UPenn.

Be honest and open about yourself; you could be moved to write about an inspirational figure in your life, an important event, or even about the school itself—which is fine, as long as you direct the statement back to you, Georgetown’s Swinsick recommends. 

Kraemer agrees: “Although a personal and/or family stories can be moving, if you use one, be sure that it directly supports your application.”

Sometimes, a well-justified directness can pay off. Swinsick says one applicant start her statement by writing that she wanted to pursue an LL.M. in order to make as much money as possible. “This was certainly an unusual way to start and played into negative stereotypes of why one pursues legal education,” Swinsick recalls. But she went on to tie this into how she planned to leverage her legal studies, career and financial success into bringing help and visibility to problems plaguing her community in a developing country.  

“It was very well written, highlighted her best qualities, and tied together why she wanted to pursue the program and why Georgetown’s program in particular would help her achieve her goals.” 

Mistakes to avoid in your personal statement

While it’s a good thing to be personal, don’t overdo it either. “Some of the more colorful statements I have read entail very personal details that usually would only be shared with clergy, partners or close personal friends,” Swinsick says.

And polish is key: proofread, check your word limit, and make sure it looks as professional as possible. For Kraemer, a minor typographical or grammatical error—especially from non-native speakers—is not a deal-breaker, but a statement that is “poorly written or contains unprofessional content” can be. 

“Take some time to work on it,” Kraemer says. “Don’t leave it to the last minute.”

And the resounding consensus from every law school is: always, always check the name of the school at the top of the page. Every year, every admission committee receives personal statements addressed to the wrong school. “I tend to be relatively forgiving on this one, but it never looks good,” Kraemer says. 

How much does your personal statement matter?

The value of the personal statement can vary from school to school, but in general, a strong one can significantly bolster the merit of an application. 

“It’s the only communication that we receive in the applicant’s own voice and is one of the best ways for the committee to ‘get to know’ the person applying,” says Kraemer. “It is not uncommon for a personal statement to have a significant impact on how we evaluate a candidate—a particularly strong or weak statement can be determinative.”

It can also afford an opportunity for the applicant to explain or put in context to the admissions committee a negative element of their application—a poor grade or language score, for instance. And this effort will show; an applicant that puts time and thought into their personal statement shows that they are serious about pursuing graduate legal education, Swinsick says.

“A personal statement is just that—personal,” says McCabe. “It gives the admissions committee a sense of who the applicant is so, when writing it, they should be true to themselves.”

LL.M. personal statement quick tips

  • Be specific. Address why you want to get an LL.M. and your career goals.
  • Be honest, about your background and the reasons for applying for an LL.M.
  • Address any negative elements of your application, such as a low TOEFL or ITELTS score.
  • Make sure to proofread your personal statement and check your word count.
  • Make sure that you've addressed the statement to the right law school.

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With the next 2017-2018 application cycle fast approaching, LL.M. applicants around the world start asking themselves: What should I write about in my LL.M. personal statement? And how should I write it? While there are internet and other resources on the subject (see our eBook with LL.M. personal statement samples and LL.M. application advice), there is still much left to say on this topic. Drawing from our own experience as former admissions committee members, we provide a fresh take on the basics – and pitfalls – of the art of effective LL.M. personal statement writing.

What is the LLM Personal Statement?

The LL.M. personal statement – some law schools refer to it as the LL.M. statement of purpose (SOP) or LL.M. essay – is the heart and soul of any LL.M. application. Because of the large number of applications law schools in the U.S., U.K., and elsewhere receive each year, they typically do not conduct interviews with prospective LL.M. candidates. Instead, in order to learn more about you and the merits of your application, they require applicants to write a personal statement. Moreover, some law schools, including Yale, Harvard, Berkeley, Penn, and Toronto, even ask applicants to complete multiple written submissions or separate the personal statement in several parts.

Click on the image above to download your copy of our LL.M. Personal Statement eBook with 10 winning personal statement samples.

The specific requirements and format for the LL.M. personal statement vary from law school to law school. While some schools require that applicants address one or more specific questions in their personal statements or essays, others – such as NYU, Columbia, Stanford, Georgetown, or LSE – prefer to have more general and open-ended themes. Typically, a personal statement will cover topics such as an applicant’s background; his or her academic and/or professional interests and goals; and the programs of study he or she wishes to follow and the reasons for doing so.

The Significance of the LLM Personal Statement

The LL.M. personal statement is a two-edged sword: On the one hand, it offers applicants the chance to significantly boost their application. Applicants with strong credentials can use their personal statement to push their application over the finish line and secure admission to their LL.M. program of choice. Importantly, “borderline” applicants with lesser qualifications may counterbalance weaknesses in their application file and rise to the top of an admissions committee’s “wish list” of applicants. On the other hand, the LL.M. personal statement also brings about the risk of sinking an otherwise competitive application. Even excellent credentials, as expressed in an applicant’s resume, transcripts, and letters of recommendation, may not help if the applicant submitted a weak personal statement.

Obviously, you should strive to use your LL.M. personal statement as an opportunity to leverage your application. First off, try to have a positive attitude towards writing your personal statement. Rather than looking at it as a burden placed upon you by mean-spirited law school officials, treat is as a favor that law schools provide you with. After all, this is your chance to talk about yourself and to convince a law school that it should admit you to its LL.M. program. Since you will not meet the members of the admissions committees in person, this is your only chance to speak out and add some personal context to your application file. Use the personal statement as an opportunity to bring together the different pieces and strands of your application and turn them in to a coherent, well-rounded application package.

What to Do in Your Personal Statement – 7 Helpful Tips

First and foremost, when writing an LL.M. personal statement, you have to think about your audience. The persons who will read your statement – and make the ultimate decision as to whether or not you should be admitted to their LL.M. program – are the members of a law school’s graduate admissions committee. These committees often consist of law professors and professional admissions officers or admissions tutors. They may also include law students. While each committee has its own priorities and each law school has different expectations, you should make sure to consider the following factors when writing your own personal statement:

1. Be (and show) yourself

Remember that an LL.M. personal statement should be a condensed reflection of your own persona. Highlight your strengths and achievements, but do not attempt to be someone you are not. Resist the temptation to use sample LL.M. personal statements. These samples will not serve the important purpose of showcasing your true personality and uniqueness. Admissions committees will immediately spot generic statements and phrases and it will reflect badly upon your application.

Present yourself in the best possible light, but remain honest and yourself. This will also make it easier for you to come across as a likeable person, which, in turn, helps you to connect with the admissions committee. After all, while admissions committee members are trained to be highly objective and to focus on measurable factors, they are still human.

2. Be focused and organized

LL.M. personal statements are often capped at tight word limits. Do not waste valuable space with irrelevant or unfocused information. Instead, focus on answering the question or questions that you are asked to address. Make sure that your statement is well-organized and that it has a logical structure. Typically, on the most basic level, a statement will have an introduction, a body, and a conclusion. Within these parts of the statement, there will be subparts, which themselves need to have adequate structure and flow.

When you feel satisfied with a draft of your statement, go back and carefully and critically read every sentence, asking yourself what information about you and your application it conveys, whether it is necessary, and whether and how you could improve it.

3. Be specific

Personal statements only too often consist of collections of broad and unsupported statements and phrases. Do not make that mistake. Be specific by providing relevant details to support what you are writing. You were always determined to study international business law and to pursue an LL.M. degree in this area? Good, but explain the precise reasons for your interest and how it developed. You are motivated and hard working? Excellent – now provide concrete examples to prove it.

Applicants are often asked to explain why they are particularly interested in the law school to which they are applying to. Do not just say that the school is “excellent” or “esteemed” or that it provides a stimulating intellectual environment. Too many applicants before you have already used those exact words. Instead, find out as much as you can about each law school and provide meaningful and specific reasons as to why you are applying. For example, you could be interested in a specific subject area that aligns with a law school’s core strengths; perhaps you know a faculty member and have a genuine interest in working with him or her; or you could explain why a particular law school or Master of Laws program is best suited to prepare you for your future academic or professional goals.

4. Be professional

Keep in mind that the LL.M. is a graduate degree aimed at current and future legal professionals or academics. Not surprisingly, therefore, law schools are especially keen on selecting LL.M. candidates that display an extraordinary level of professionalism, independence, and maturity. Show that you are up to these requirements. Use examples that indicate that you have the ability to overcome adversities and solve problems, that you act responsibly, that you have leadership qualities, or that you have regard for other people and society at large. You will also want to provide evidence that you have solid interpersonal skills and that you are a team-player who gets along with other people.

On a more formalistic level, strive to use a writing style that is formal, clear, and sophisticated, yet not over the top or overly complicated. Avoid grammatical and spelling errors at all cost. Moreover, basic – but common – mistakes such as failure to adhere to the provided word limit or mixing up university names are completely unacceptable. Therefore: double check and triple check your writing.

5. Be interesting

Law schools receive hundreds or thousands of LL.M. applications each year, often from well-qualified applicants. Therefore, in order to be competitive, you have to offer more than simply good grades or a strong resume – you have to be interesting. Thus, your personal statement should immediately grab the readers’ attention and then continue to develop a captivating narrative involving you and your aspirations as the protagonists.

Ideally, you have a life experience, interest, or activity that is unusual and lends itself as the topic for your LL.M. personal statement. Did you volunteer for a humanitarian organization abroad, have you founded your own business, are you an expert in human genomics, or do you fly jet planes? Tell the admissions committee about it, tell them how it has shaped you, and how it relates to your interest in the law and – most importantly – your LL.M. application.

Do not worry if you have nothing of this kind to discuss in your statement. Remember that if you are smart about it, anything from a world event, personal encounters, issues, or achievements, to your own insights and ideals can be significant and used as the basis for an inspiring, thoughtful, and convincing personal statement. In each case, your statement should show what makes you unique as a person and how and why you would be an excellent fit for an LL.M. program.

6. Be ambitious, passionate, and a visionary (sort of)

Good applicants can show impressive achievements in their past. Excellent applicants, however, will connect the past with the future and discuss their plans, demonstrating their potential to have an important impact in law, business, politics, or other fields. Law schools think ahead and already imagine you as a graduate of their school. Would they benefit from having you as an alumni? You do not necessarily need to be another Mikheil Saakashvili – the current president of the Republic of Georgia and holder of a Columbia Law School LL.M. degree – but you should have clear and ambitious plans for the time following graduation. Finally, ambition is best if coupled with passion. Extrinsic motivating factors that drive you to seek an LL.M., such as reputation, fame, money, or lifestyle, are less attractive. Instead, focus on your intrinsic motivation, namely intellectual curiosity or a desire to change and innovate.

7. Be (reasonably) modest

Much has been written about the importance of presenting yourself in the best possible light in your LL.M. personal statement. This, of course, is true. Nevertheless, in addition to being yourself, avoid being overly boastful. Instead of expressly saying how smart and distinguished you are, let your credentials and the substance of your personal statement speak for themselves. If you provide the underlying facts and information, LL.M. admissions committees can and will draw the right conclusions.

Yet, keep in mind that there are different threshold of boastfulness, depending on cultural factors. In particular, international applicants should be aware that when applying to U.S. law schools, they can in many cases put greater emphasis on their own attributes than they would normally do when applying to an institution in their own country. In contrast, applicants to U.K. programs should be more careful when singing their praises, while those who target schools in mainland Europe should exercise even greater care in this respect. Overall, however, it is always a good idea to stay modest. Nobody likes a showoff, including law school admissions committee members.

Conclusion

The LL.M. personal statement is probably the single most important piece in the puzzle that is your LL.M. application. In addition to the items discussed above, when writing your personal statement, always remember its deeper purpose. Simply put, it is a means for law schools to find answers to the following questions: Who are you? What makes you unique? Do you have the intellect, experience, professionalism, strengths, and passion that a law school wants in their LL.M. class? When you feel confident that your personal statement provides satisfactory answers to all these questions, you are on the right track.

(If you are interested in learning more about this subject, make sure to have a look at our eBook Top Personal Statements for LL.M. Programs and the Personal Statements and Essays section on our law school resources page).

 
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