With the next 2016-2017 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.
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.
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).