Grand Canyon University students are adept at finding their purpose and knowing what inspired it, but that’s especially vital for undergraduates with designs on getting into law school, members of the student club Pre-Law Society learned on Thursday night.
They were eager to take in the College of Humanities and Social Sciences’ Personal Statement Workshop by justice studies instructor Kevin Walling, who one might dub GCU's law school whisperer.
Walling has made it his mission to help GCU students reach that goal, which this year also includes a new course through the Honors College on preparing for the admissions exam. He told the group of nearly 30 students that one of the most important aspects to the application is having a personal statement that sings.
A personal statement is an essay that is one of four determining factors in law school admittance, in addition to grades, letters of recommendation and the Law School Admissions Test (LSAT).
“You cannot hang your hat on a high GPA. A personal statement can make a difference. It’s who you are, what makes you unique, your personality and character and why the law is your future,” said Walling, who has practiced law and been a judge. “If that law school has 400 applicants, what is going to make you distinct?”
Walling told students he had to dig hard on his personal statement when applying for law school. Though he was a first-generation college student, the son of working-class parents, he had what he called a charmed upbringing in southern Oregon. “My life was good. We had dessert.”
He instead focused his statement on what he intended to do with his degree – and eventually got into Willamette University Law School in Salem, Oregon. Walling also used his trademark humor, a trait that has followed him into the classroom.
He talks the students’ language of “struggle-boating” with technology, personal statements that are “weak sauce” or “cra-cra” while emphasizing good points with a “holla!”
But Walling was not there to be a softy.
“He’s not difficult,” said Tristan John-Jandles, the club’s vice president, “but rigorous.”
Walling told students not to make a personal statement a sob story, but if it is a sob story, make it believable.
“This is the temple of truth,” he said. “You don’t need to be babied. I’m here to help you.”
Students offered examples. One wanted to work in family law because of the injustice she saw during her parent’s divorce. Another said she played 35 instruments and helped children learn the violin.
“Bang. Use it,” Walling said.
Afterward, Sophia Drinkward said the presentation helped solidify her thoughts on a personal statement.
“I was home-schooled, and in our free time, my mom would take us to feed the homeless,” said the Portland, Oregon, native. “I had heard that Portland had tunnels utilized for sex trafficking purposes. One place we went to had a basement with an open tunnel that people could walk into. This is real. This is happening in my city. It is crazy. So I want to work for the International Justice Mission, a Christian organization to combat sex trafficking.”
As Walling would say, “bang.”
The Pre-Law Society is not just for pre-law majors, said the club’s president Tina Armstrong, and it will host speakers who are legislators and lawyers in addition to its study groups to assist with LSAT preparation. Several student clubs are geared to CHSS majors, including Sociology and Social Work Club, Government and History Club, and many others.
Walling said it’s valuable for clubs to join faculty in workshops such as these. “We can get students involved in different activities and raise their overall knowledge of things going on in the University as well as events outside, and ultimately some places they might go in their careers.”
If they want to be an attorney, students learned they can expect law school to involve reading 35-50 pages a day, all year, including Christmas, for three years, Walling said. “Some of you are like, ‘Check please.’ Trust me, it’s (difficult) the first year of law school," and emotions can run high because of the program demands.
But if that’s what they want to sign up for, he helps them craft their personal statements to help them get in.
“It usually involves a lot of crying and a lot of hurt feelings,” he said of the process. “I am going to set out with a goal to crush your ego" (or at least check it at the door to help you get a scholarship).
No statements pass his muster on the first round, only one EVER has made it in two drafts, and another student took nine, which proved worth it. “He’s now at ASU law school.”
The personal statement sets an applicant apart by showcasing accomplishments and leadership skills but also what those mean to you with a coherent narrative of key moments in life. It’s selling yourself, Walling said, “your opportunity to shine bright like a diamond, as Rihanna says.”
Then proofread and follow the rules, such as for those applications that require double spaces.
“If you can’t do that, you are better off not going to law school and saying, ‘Would you like fries with that?’”
Tough advice, but it could help anyone filling out a job application.
Grand Canyon University senior writer Mike Kilen can be reached at [email protected]