How to Use Personal Stories in a Master of Laws (LL.M.) Application

Daria Levina

I’ve written about mining your background for stories and ideas before, mostly in relation to professional life. However, if you’ve read examples of personal statements, especially for American-style applications, you may have noticed that they rely extensively on personal stories.

One of the reasons is that most law school essays available online are written for JD (juris doctor) programs, i.e. programs for people who are not lawyers yet and who want to get access to the US market by getting their first law degree. These people need to answer the ‘why law’ question (why become a lawyer) in their essays, which often leads to discussing their personal development and their personal associations with law.

A master of laws (LLM), however, is an entirely different story. People who apply for an LLM are already qualified lawyers. The question they need to answer is ‘why LLM’, i.e. why this new degree now. It is significantly more specific and, in my view, harder. Focusing on why you like the law is usually not enough here, and you need to delve into your professional experiences to build an argument about why you want to pursue an advanced law degree. So you’ll naturally focus more on your trajectory as a lawyer up to date.

That being said, in a personal statement for an LLM, there is also space for personal stories. After all, professional development is rarely, if ever, independent from personal formation and growth.

In this post, I’ll talk about the guidelines I consider effective when interpreting personal experiences in a master of laws application.

Connect your personal experience to your professional life, goals, and motivations for applying

Since the primary goal of applying for a master of laws is to foster your professional life, it’s natural to have primary focus on your professional choices.

Personal stories therefore work best when connected to your professional life and professional choices.


  • A client of mine wove a story of her becoming a vegan into her LLM application. It was pertinent, because it was the start of her interest in environmental problems that eventually led her to specializing in environmental law. It also highlighted her struggle for professional identity: for a long time, she didn’t know how to translate her personal values into her professional life, until she did a climate litigation project at the law school which gave her an idea to seek work in environmental law. The story also connected nicely with her plans of getting involved into the EU environmental policymaking.
  • Another client relied on his experience of participating in all major protests in Russia between 2014 – 22 and being arrested to support his goal of using the LLM to work in transitional justice and democracy-building.
  • Another client used the story of working with his mom in the garden as a child to explain how he became interested in pursuing agriculture in college.

Talk About your personal experience, not someone else’s

That one sounds obvious, right? Well, not so much. Quite often, applicants choose stories that are not about them but about other people. It may be people they want to help after getting their degree, or people who are important to them in some way. Or, another mistake, they would spend the entire word count not on themselves but on their trauma. This is not going to serve you well. So please be careful with that. Your stories and your personal statement need to be about you and your life.

Example of how NOT to do it:

  • ‘As a once-undocumented immigrant, I can relate to the reality and fear my father and community live in daily and can make a critical difference in the immigration law community. Seeing my father overshadowed by his legal status created a fearless passion in me to become an advocate for him and other fellow immigrants’.

This is not to say that you can’t talk about how seeing injustice affected your choices. You can. But you need to package it as your experience and show it through your own lens. Example above talks about the applicant’s father and his experience, not her own. The message to the reader is therefore that the applicant didn’t work through her own experiences enough to be able to relay them in her essay as a reason for pursuing a law degree.

It has to be relevant and connected to your overall message of ‘why this degree now’

Everything you include in your essay has to be relevant to your application. Everything has to make sense in the context of your overall message of why you are applying for a master of laws.

Each story or experience you include in your essay has to pass the ‘so what’ filter. Yes, it was an important milestone in your life. So what? How does it prove that you should be admitted? How does it play into your motivation to pursue this degree?

Example of how NOT to do it:

  • ‘I was the first LGBTQ+employee to come out at the openly Christian company where I worked’.

The immediate reaction I have as a reader is yes, I understand how difficult that was. So what? Why are you applying to law school? The applicant didn’t explain that in her essay. She made a broad statement about wanting ‘to help those who are taken advantage of, discriminated against, and harassed in the workplace. I want to show people that they can feel safe and protected because they have rights, and I want to help protect the rights of the people who need them most’. The problem, however, is that by definition, everyone who applies for a law degree wants to protect other people’s rights (or at least they say so). It’s therefore implied, otherwise you shouldn’t go to law school at all. You still have to connect your personal experience to the professional choice that you make.

Other examples of using personal stories in away that makes them look irrelevant:

  • ‘I vividly remember seeing the shadows of two people dressed in black, one pointing a gun at my mother and me, while the other took things we worked so hard to get’.

This experience sounds brutal, to say the least. However, the applicant didn’t interpret it in a way that’d connect it to her motivation for applying to law school. She just left it there, hanging. It does not pass the ‘so what’ filter.

More examples of irrelevancies:

  • ‘Outside of class, I joined the school’s rugby team and began learning how when in harmony, a team could outmaneuver or overpower anyone standing in their way’.
  • ‘Not only do I have a strong family connection to the football team, after attending countless games with my father over the years, I share the core values Notre Dame upholds – of diversity and compassion for others’.

The above examples are demonstrations of the poor use of a personal experience. They do not explain how sports led the applicant to a decision to become a lawyer (both were applying for a JD in the US).

If it’s a story from a remote past, make sure it fits one of the exceptions

A rule of thumb I suggest adhering to in your applications is to keep to stories from the last 5 years or so. The reason is that generally, it is believed that focus on childhood and adolescence weakens the personal statement. It can seen as backward-looking and avoiding adult issues.

However, there are exceptions. One is that the more important the distant past is, the more relevant it is to your adulthood, the more usable it remains for a personal statement. Alternatively, you can use childhood and teenage experiences to provide context for your later decisions and events that you will be discussing in your personal statement.

Let’s say you suffered a traumatic event as a child, and that event created the necessity for you to work full-time in school while remaining close to your home. In this case, you have a good reason to share it because these early events provide context for your later decisions and achievements.

When writing my personal statement to Harvard, I also used an exception. I did it because my journey in law, quite unusually, started in high school as I won my first national competition in law when I was 14. (In Russia, there are olympiads for high schools students in a number of subjects, including law – I talk more about it here). That story was incredibly important for me to share because it provided context by explaining how I decided to become a lawyer and what law meant for me. I also connected it to the overall theme of exploring how a lawyer can become a decision-maker instead of a mere advisor.

An example of an ineffective use of a similar event:

  • I helped a friend with her motivation letter for a master of laws and finance in Germany. She asked me to review the first draft of her motivation letter. There, she also relied on her experience of participating in the high school olympiads. However, she did not connect it to the rest of the essay. Since she was applying much later than I did, the gap between her application and the experience of participating in the olympiads was about 12 years (in my case it was 7). It didn’t move her argument forward. Further, concentrating on her teenage experiences while ignoring 10+ years of professional experience looked suspicious, as if she didn’t have much else to show (which was also not true and unfair to her profile, as she had an exceptionally strong professional background). She rewrote it according to my suggestions and got in.
  • A client of mine asked for feedback on a written personal statement instead of working with me from the start. In the essay, she concentrated on the events that happened when she was 12 and involved her father. The essay didn’t elaborate on how she overcame that experience and just focused on blaming her father. On top of that, the essay wasn’t specific about what exactly had happened. It was mostly an abstract rant about her remote past. She didn’t take my recommendation to focus on other, stronger aspects of her background and didn’t get in.

It’s not the suffering, it’s the overcoming that Counts

It may sound harsh but it’s the truth. You can’t just put bad things that happened to you in your essay and expect the university to admit you. You need to show the character arc, the progression – and the relevance of it in the context of your application.

An example of how you could do that (from another client I worked with):

‘Two years ago, I was asked to step onstage to receive the best employee of the year award. My company become a leader of the national stock exchange market due to the effective investment funds management and the launch of the environmental project I led.
During the ceremony, I could not resist thinking back to where I started. No one could have predicted that success. When I started school, I faced hardships in a number of subjects, having difficulties learning dates in history classes, memorizing poems in literature, and solving equations in math. This infrequently led to being bullied by other kids. Yet, I truly loved studying. […] Eventually, I expanded my knowledge base so much that I started competing in the social science olympiads for high school students. I won the regional competitions twice. By the time I finished high school, my grades had improved so much that I became a top student in school, graduating with a silver medal, one of the highest honors’.

I love this story for a number of reasons. First, it moves along the time axis freely – it starts with a recent moment of strength, then goes back to a distant past, and finally connects it to a less distant past to show how the obstacle had been overcome. It is also directly relevant to the application because it demonstrates the academic success and a proof that she’ll do well in a graduate program.


I hope these guidelines help you strengthen your application by presenting a coherent image of your personal and professional life. Good luck ☺️