Medical School Personal Statements
Part 2: How to Begin (Goal: Engage the Reader)
Before you begin to write, I recommend that you:
- Develop a list of qualities you want to demonstrate and
- Think of events or situations that highlight these qualities
Then, you should write about one of these events or situations in a way that demonstrates these qualities and captures the reader’s attention.
1. List Your Greatest Qualities
To answer the personal statement prompt more easily, focus again on the question of what you want admissions committees to know about you beyond your numbers and achievements.
I’m not talking about your hobbies (e.g., “I followed Taylor Swift to every concert she performed in the US during this past year”), although you could certainly point to aspects of your lifestyle in your essay to make your point.
Instead, I’m talking about which of your qualities–character, personality traits, attitudes–you want to demonstrate. Examples include:
- Extraordinary compassion
- Willingness to learn
- Great listening skills
- And so on
If you have difficulty thinking of your great qualities (many students do), ask family members or close friends what you’re good at and why they like you; that will take care of things :)
Finally, choose the two or three qualities that you want to focus on in your personal statement. Let’s use compassion and knowledge-seeking as the foundational qualities of an original example for this article.
(Note: I cannot overstate how important it is to think of the qualities you want to demonstrate in your personal statement before choosing a situation or event to write about. Students who decide on an event or situation first usually struggle to fit in their qualities within the confines of their story. On the other hand, students who choose the qualities they want to convey first are easily able to demonstrate them because the event or situation they settle on naturally highlights these qualities.)
2. When or Where Have You Demonstrated These Qualities?
Now that I’m off my soapbox and you’ve chosen qualities to highlight, it’s time to list any event(s) or setting(s) where you’ve demonstrated them.
I should explicitly mention that this event or setting doesn't need to come from a clinical (e.g., shadowing a physician, interacting with a young adult patient at a cancer center, working with children in an international clinic) or research experience (e.g., making a finding in cancer research), although it’s OK if it involves an extracurricular activity directly related to medicine.
In fact, since most students start their essays by describing clinical or research experiences, starting off with something else–travel (e.g., a camping trip in Yellowstone), volunteering (e.g., building homes in New Orleans), family (e.g., spending time with and learning from your elderly and ill grandmother back home in New Hampshire), work (e.g., helping out at your parents’ donut shop)–will make you immediately stand out.
Let’s start with the example of building homes in New Orleans. Why? Because we could easily demonstrate compassion and knowledge-seeking through this experience. Notice how the qualities we select can choose the story for us?
3. Describe Your Event as a Story
Here’s where the art of writing a great personal statement really comes in.
Admissions officers read thousands of essays, most of which are very cliché or dry. Therefore, it’s critical that you stand out by engaging the reader from the very beginning.
By far the best way to capture admissions officers early is by developing a story at the start of your essay about the event or situation you chose in Step 2.
In a previous article, I wrote about the three critical elements for writing a great admissions essay story: 1) a compelling character, 2) a relatable plot, and 3) authenticity)
However, I want to go one step beyond that article and provide an actual example of how the same event can be written in a routine vs. compelling way. That way, you can avoid the common pitfalls of typical personal statements and write a standout one.
One of my most eye-opening experiences came when I volunteered with Habitat for Humanity in New Orleans during the summer months of 2014. Up to that point, I had only heard about the destruction caused by Hurricane Katrina 9 years earlier. Although pictures and stories of the aftermath compelled me to volunteer, it was not until I observed the emotional pounding the people of New Orleans had experienced that I developed a greater sense of compassion for their plight.
New Orleans was hot and humid during the summer months of 2014–no surprise there. However, for a native Oregonian like me, waking up to 90-degree and 85% humidity days initially seemed like too much to bear. That was until I reflected on the fact that my temporary discomfort was minute in contrast to the destruction of communities and emotional pounding experienced by the people of New Orleans during and after Hurricane Katrina 9 years earlier. Although pictures and stories of the aftermath compelled me to understand its effects on the community and volunteer, actually building homes and interacting with the locals, like 9 year-old Jermaine, who cried as I held his hand while we unveiled his rebuilt home, taught me that caring for people was as much about lifting spirits as making physical improvements.
Many people may feel the Routine example is pretty good. Upon closer look, however, it seems that:
- The focus is as much on New Orleanians as the applicant
- The story is not particularly relatable (unless the reader had also volunteered there)
- There isn’t much support for the writer actually being touched by the people there
On the other hand, the Compelling example:
- Keeps the spotlight on the applicant throughout (e.g., references being from Oregon, discusses her reflections, interacting with Jermaine)
- Has a relatable plot (e.g., temporary discomfort, changing perspectives)
- Is authentic (e.g., provides an example of how she lifted spirits)
(You can find yet another example of a typical vs. standout admissions essay introduction to engage readers in this earlier post.)
4. Demonstrate Your Qualities
(Note: This section applies to all aspects of your essay.)
“Show, don’t tell” is one of the most common pieces of advice given for writing personal statements, but further guidance or examples are rarely provided to demonstrate what it looks like when done well.
This is unfortunate because the best way to understand how standout personal statements demonstrate qualities through an engaging story is by reading two examples of the same situation: one that “tells” about a quality, and another that “shows” a quality.
Let’s take a look at the last sentence of each story example I provided in the previous section to better understand this distinction.
Telling (from Routine story)
“…it was not until I observed the emotional pounding the people of New Orleans had experienced that I developed a greater sense of compassion for their plight.”
Showing (from Compelling story)
“…actually building homes and interacting with the locals, like 9 year-old Jermaine, who cried as I held his hand while we unveiled his rebuilt home, taught me that caring for people…”
Notice how the second example demonstrates compassion without ever mentioning the word "compassion" (hence no bolded words)?
Moreover, the same sentence demonstrates knowledge-seeking: “Although pictures and stories of the aftermath compelled me to understand its effects on the community and volunteer, actually building homes and interacting with the locals...”)
That’s what you’re going for.
Think about it. Who do you consider to be more kind:
- A person who says, “I’m really nice!”; or
- A person who you've seen do nice things for others?
Clearly, the second person will be seen as more kind, even if there's no difference between their levels of kindness.
Therefore, by demonstrating your qualities, you will look better to admissions committees, and also seem more authentic.
In this article, Medical School Personal Statements that can beat 52,323 Applications, you will learn to create a sincere, interesting, and thoughtful essay that highlights your strengths and qualities.
With more than 50,000 applicants to medical school this year, only those with a compelling story will be selected to interview.
While metrics, such as the MCAT and GPA, are crucial, admissions committee members view applications holistically meaning who you are and what is important to you matters just as much as your “numbers.”
We’ve got you covered:
Below are some strategies you can employ that will help you stand out from the crowd.
Let’s get started:
Whether you’re applying to AMCAS, TMDSAS, or AACOMAS essay prompts are generally not topic-driven like a traditional essay you might write for an academic class. So let us guide you to understand Medical School Personal Statements that can beat 52,323 Applications.
Keep in mind:
We encourage applicants to try and write a topic-driven essay that has a distinct theme.
“I have a great theme, why I want to be a doctor.”
Of course, from time to time, a student might write a beautiful essay with a theme, but, most of the time these essays do not succeed in telling an applicant’s story comprehensively and convincingly.
Related:Too Early to Start Working on Your 2018 Medical School Application? – When to Start Your First Draft
I don’t have anything to write about.
Of course you have a story.Everyone does.
Here is a list of questions that can help a student find key elements of his or her story.
How should you start your medical school personal statement?
You hear conflicting advice. Some tell you not to open with a story. Others tell you to always begin with a story. Regardless of the advice you receive, be sure to do three things:
1) Be true to yourself. Everyone will have an opinion regarding what you should and should not write. Follow your own instincts. Your personal statement should be a reflection of you, and only you.
2) Start your personal statement with something catchy.Think about the list of potential topics above.
3) Don’t rush your work. Don’t panic. Composing great documents takes time and you don’t want your writing and ideas to be sloppy and underdeveloped.
Medical school personal statements that can beat 52,323 applications.
SHOW, DON’T TELL
Know this mantra:
Something my clients hear me say throughout the application process, and a common mantra for anyone who works in admissions, is to “show” rather than “tell.”
What does this mean, exactly?
It means that whether you are writing a personal statement or interviewing, you should show evidence for what you are trying to communicate.
Here’s an example.
In a personal statement, never say that you are compassionate and empathetic; instead, demonstrate that you possess these qualities by offering concrete examples.
Medical School Personal Statements that can beat 52,323 Applications via GIPHY
Also keep in mind:
Like your personal statement, your interview responses, too, should evoke all the qualities and characteristics that your interviewer is seeking. Again, show don’t tell.
And consider this:
The following is a medical school interview question, “Tell me about your most valuable shadowing experience and why it was important to you.”
Hit them with this kind of answer:
“My most valuable experience was shadowing Dr. Brit. I really learned so much about oncology, which I found fascinating. I would go home every night and read about what I had heard and learned. But I also enjoyed watching him talk to patients. I noticed that he held each patient’s hand, listened to them attentively and made clear to each person that he really cared.”
And there’s more:
By talking about his mentor, this applicant shows his understanding of the importance of compassionate care, and in expressing this, further suggests that these ideals are important to him, too.
The mantra “show, don’t tell” cannot be said enough. Remember this throughout every stage, written documents and interviews, of the medical admissions process.
Where can I find further inspiration? Need help with your personal statement med school?
1) Click hereto visit the Student Doctor Network website to find out how other students are preparing to write their personal statements.
2) Click hereto see what students on the Reddit medical school personal statement premed forum are saying about their personal statements.
3) Your application materials must be authentic, but sometimes a little inspiration helps. Read The MedEdits Guide to Medical School Admissions. There you will find examples of ‘successful’ personal statements and application entries.
I would like more resources about medical school personal statements and how to apply.
RELATED: What to Watch out for in Medical School Interviews
Where should I look?
For those of you who love to drink coffee and stay up until the roosters come out.Here’s a great “go to” list where you can read about more personal statement and application topics.
1) Click here to visit www.AAMC.org to learn about AMCAS, the allopathic (M.D) application service.
2) Click here to visit the American Association of Colleges of Osteopathic Medicine website to review important requirements for your AACOMAS application.
3) If you want to apply to most medical schools in Texas, you will need to complete the TMDSAS application. Click here for more information.
Personal Statement for Medical School Myths
Personal Statement Myths:The list below is based on an article I wrote all the way back in 2010 for The Student Doctor Network.I guess some solid advice never gets old.
#1: Never write about anything that took place in the past or before college.
#2: Never write about topics unrelated to medicine.
#3: Never write about a patient encounter or your own experience with health care.
#4: Always have a theme or a thesis.
#5: Don’t write about anything negative.
Click here to read the article on SDN.
Example Personal Statement
Synopsis: A first generation college student learns from family illness. This personal statement is an excerpt from The MedEdits Guide to Medical School Admissions, P. 162.