Writing Personal Statement Essay

What is the biggest mistake an applicant can make on her personal statement?

We often respond to questions from readers on the admissions process for graduate and professional schools. Here is a question we recently responded to: 


Q: What is the biggest mistake an applicant can make on her personal statement?

A: The biggest mistake you can make on a personal statement is to write without a clear sense of purpose.

Often I see applicants who write about high grades they achieved, activities they participated in, or career aspirations they have, but they don’t organize these points around a clear purpose. Law schools want to see thoughtful candidates who carry a sense of purpose in what they are doing — in why they chose certain classes, why they volunteered for specific extracurriculars, why they even wanted to attend college.

This is important because admissions officers reading your application, particularly at elite universities, are evaluating whether to bet on you by admitting you to their entering class. The bet they are making is not only whether you can handle that school’s academic work and successfully graduate, but whether you are likely to excel there, and in turn whether you have strong potential for becoming a leader in your future career field and an ambassador for the school. Students who carry a clear sense of purpose quite simply have a better chance of achieving those things compared to students who don’t.

How do you show a clear sense of purpose?

Showing a clear sense of purpose in your essay involves at least two things. First, it involves showing that you have proactively taken advantage of the academic and extracurricular opportunities available to you. Rather than simply doing what was assigned to you or following a well-trodden path, you instead sought out new opportunities, proactively pursued and excelled in them, even created opportunities that didn’t previously exist.

Second, it involves organizing your story around a theme — not simply bullet-point listing all the wonderful things you have done, but showing how one thing you did links thematically to another thing you did, which in turn links to other things. And, consequently, when you “zoom out” and look at the broader arc of your academic and extracurricular choices, you can see a pattern around those choices that supports a theme about who you are, how you make decisions, and your sense of purpose in the world.

Interpreting those thematic links requires meaningful self-reflection on the “why” behind your choices. Why did you choose this extracurricular activity? Why did you enroll in this class rather than that one? Why did you decide to volunteer for this organization instead of that one? Why did you — or didn’t you — pursue a leadership role for a particular activity?

What an admissions officer is trying to understand with these questions is how you make the decisions that are important to you, what you learned from your experiences, and how they changed you. Students who are in the habit of reflecting in this way are demonstrating an intrinsic self-motivation and ability to experience challenges and grow from them. They are showing that they know how to teach themselves how to learn — and grow. They are able to show this because they have a clear sense of purpose.

And that is exactly the kind of applicant the best universities want to attract.

Be sure to check out our law school admissions guide “How to get into Harvard Law School (whether you have the highest scores or not)” for in-depth tips on writing your personal statement and strategies for winning admission to elite law schools!

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Andrew C.

Andrew Chen is a graduate of Harvard Law School. He was admitted to Harvard on his first attempt at applying – in the very first round of applicants. He was also admitted to the law schools at Stanford, Columbia, NYU, and Chicago among others – also all in their first rounds. You can follow him on LinkedIn and Twitter.