Admissions tutors reading law applications aren't just looking for the sports captain who works part-time in a solicitor's office. Well-rounded applicants, with a firm grasp of current affairs and a genuine reason for wanting to study the law, are really who they're after.
"Schools of law know that not all candidates have had access to high prestige work experience," says Steve Jones of the University of Manchester, who recently conducted research into personal statements. "Focus on the skills that you do have. Think carefully about why you want a law degree and what you'll do with it. Everyone says they're 'passionate' about their subject – think instead about what makes you different from other applicants.
"Don't talk about your hobbies unless they're directly relevant to your chosen programme. Spend time researching the university departments and degree programmes for which you're applying. There's no big secret to the personal statement: universities just want applicants who are well prepared and have lots of potential."
So make sure you have done your research. Aled Griffiths, deputy head of the law school at Bangor University, says students must show an up-to-date understanding of the legal profession. "It's a bit naïve nowadays to say 'I want to be a barrister' unless you have some idea of how that might happen," he said. It's important to say which areas of law you're interested in, though it's fine for students to be undecided "as long as they understand what confronts them".
Reading newspapers is considered to be more important than reading law texts. "We want to know what turned you on to law, whether it's constitutional issues in Egypt or civil marriage," said Griffiths, adding that students should demonstrate a "knowledge of world events and the applicability of the law".
Griffiths said introductions should be about why you think you'll make a good lawyer or what attracted you to law. "Personal experiences which sparked your interest are great, but don't give us your whole life story," he added.
And it's no longer novel to mention your favourite law drama. The worst thing you can do is list your achievements without exploring their applicability to a law degree – even mentioning a placement at Jones Jones LLC is meaningless unless you say what you thought of it, Griffiths said.
Similarly, Deborah Ives, director of admissions for the University of East Anglia's school of law, recently rejected a 3 A* candidate who said "I want to be a lawyer because my father's a lawyer". Ives said that unless this has led to experiences which have generated a personal interest in law they are not interested "We are looking for an informed decision."
Some of the possible hobbies that relate to a law degree are public speaking, debating, languages and advocacy. Most admissions tutors, however, make it clear that there are many activities which teach transferable skills relevant to law.
Ives said that students underestimate how important sport is – any sport – especially if a student is good, because it shows motivation, diligence and determination. Work experience doesn't have to be directly law related either: "I was most impressed by a lad who was explaining about his interest in criminal law and how that had developed, and how he had gone down to the police station and volunteered to take part in identity parades," Ives said.
Every law school wants different things, however. Claire McGourlay, admissions tutor for the University of Sheffield's school of law, said the best thing to do is ring up the university and ask them what they are looking for. "I don't look for work experience that's just law related," she said, adding that she'd be just as impressed by someone who has got up at six every morning since they were 14 to do a paper round.
"As long as they can demonstrate that they have done something – a bit of an all rounder really," she said. "And they don't have to be an Olympic athlete, just as long as they have done something." Nor do applicants have to be clear on their career aspirations – it's OK if you don't yet know if you want to work in law.
McGourlay says every personal statement is individual. "Some are very creative, some are more concise. I don't mind either way as long as it shows them as a whole person and shows a general interest in the subject.
"The key is to write fluently. No spelling mistakes, no bad grammar, not plagiarised." The worst personal statements are always the ones that haven't been proofread, she said.
Daniel Attenborough, admissions tutor at the University of Leicester, agreed – saying that personal statements are a "sales pitch" and students need to express themselves in an eloquent and elegant way. He advised against simply stating that you like chess. Explain that chess has encouraged your independent thinking and competitive nature, and why this is relevant to a career in law.
If students mention something like enjoying the TV show Suits "it usually just makes me laugh," says Attenborough. "It doesn't necessarily go against the student at all." But he's more impressed by an interest in how the law interacts with broader social issues – how the law is shaped by capitalism, or the impact of UK law on asylum seekers.
And it's important to remember that the personal statement is only one part of the application. Neil Kibble, director of law admissions at Lancaster University, said he is reluctant to set too much store by personal statements as he's very aware that some students get more guidance than others.
"We don't want to privilege two or three types of extracurricular activities at the expense of others," he said. "We would ask students to reflect on whatever experience they have had, whether it's working in a shop or looking after a member of the family, and say what they have learned from it."
Kibble said he tends to pay more attention to personal statements during clearing, when a particularly strong statement can win him over to a candidate who has not achieved the right grades.
They'll be looking for:
- why you want to do the subjects you've chosen
- any ideas you have about what you'd like to do after 6th form (it's fine to say you're still making up your mind though, if you're not sure!)
- why you're applying to the 6th form you've chosen (they basically want to see that you've done a bit of research and know something about the place you're applying to)
- what skills & qualities you've developed in your school life so far & what your strengths are (e.g.teamwork, communication, time management etc)
- anything you've done at school outside of lessons, e.g. clubs, extra responsibilities
- any out of school interests you have, or any work experience you've done (say what you've gained from these - skills & experience)
- summarise it with something like "thank you for considering my application and I hope to have the opportunity to continue my education at (whatever 6th form you're applying to).