For the past few weeks, I’ve been editing medical school personal statements. I never considered this as a way to help future medical students, but I’m thrilled to be able to support others where I can. Polishing them so that they shine can be challenging at times, but the payoff is incredibly rewarding when people find a better approach to sharing their story in a way that highlights all the best parts of them.
So far, I’ve had the pleasure of reading dozens of personal statements from applicants in Canada, the UK, and every corner of the United States. How remarkable is it that we’ve all become connected through technology, united by our pursuit of a career in medicine despite being so far apart physically?
To those who have reached out to me, thank you from the bottom of my heart for trusting me with what I consider to be an essential component of your application. I’m so honored to be included in your medical school journey and I’m rooting for your success.
I’ve compiled a list of Do’s and Dont’s from what I’ve observed to help those who might need some initial guidance on where to begin.
My biggest piece of advice:
You want to sound intelligent, but you also want to sound human.
To the reader, intelligence can be deduced from transcripts, MCAT scores, and other statistics. The personal statement is a chance to show who you are beyond the numbers. Don’t include words or phrases you don’t normally use when talking, especially ones you think admissions committees might want to hear like “cultural competency”. This is the closest they will get to knowing your character before interviewing you in person, so make sure it reflects your qualities and values.
Before you begin writing anything coherent, sit down and write down EVERYTHING relevant to your medical journey thus far.
Choose qualities about yourself you want to share with the reader:
What are some qualities you possess that you want to bring attention to? Are you optimistic, curious, respectful? Find 2-3 qualities first, then think of times you’ve demonstrated these qualities throughout your journey so far and write about those. Refer back to your brainstorm session for inspiration. Often times choosing experiences first makes it more difficult to incorporate qualities into those stories. When writing, make sure to show instead of tell, which is later discussed.
Find a theme:
The best personal statements have a theme presented in the introduction. This gives the option for each experience to be tied back to it, so that the narrative flows. The conclusion can also refer back to the opening story or theme, so that things come full circle. A theme really helps with making coherent transitions, so that there aren’t multiple disjointed paragraphs.
For example, the theme of my personal statement was about how I wanted to make the world a better place. It’s one of the tenets that Girl Scouts pledge to live by, and it was my favorite line in the Girl Scout Law. I continued that by explaining my various childhood escapades in attempt to make the world a better place. Despite my best intentions, I didn’t have a clear approach until I attended a brain festival in elementary school and found that science was going to be my path forward in achieving that goal. I followed with several anecdotes and related them back to how they played a part in my attempt to make the world a better place through science. In my conclusion, I referred to my opening story while reemphasizing why I wanted to pursue medicine to wrap everything up.
Show instead of Tell:
Many people give the advice “show not tell” and now I understand why. Many applicants state something along the lines of: “I am passionate, patient, determined, and empathetic.” “I was motivated to…” ” I made an impact…”. Instead of explicitly saying these things, paint a story using specific instances to show the reader how you demonstrated the qualities you want to include.
Instead of saying: “I’m very coordinated with my hands.”
Try saying: “Having a baker for a father and an artist for a mother meant that Saturdays were infinitely longer than any other day of the week. I’d wake up before the sun rose to add delicate touches to cakes before the shop opened, and my afternoons were spent doing arts and crafts.”
Incorporate Non Medical Experiences:
Before reading through a personal statement, I like to go through the applicant’s resume. Many applicants are so focused on incorporating experiences they think will impress admissions committees (research, shadowing, and clinical volunteering) that they forget to discuss their other notable and very unique accomplishments.
Everyone else is probably thinking about doing the same thing, but you are the only one who has gone through your journey. Instead of including just shadowing or research, what about your experience as a high school and collegiate athlete? What about your time as a scuba diving instructor? What about your involvement as a Girl Scout/Boy Scout? Many of your activities and interests will get their time in the spotlight during your work and activities section. Use this time to highlight the ones that really show your uniqueness!
Not every experience has to be medically related, but every experience has valuable lessons that make you a complete human being and can relate back to medicine.
Use characters wisely:
Readers go through DOZENS of personal statements a day and you have a limited number of characters to share your story and leave a memorable impression. Use those characters well and hook the reader from the start. In your body paragraphs, make sure the you include enough details to paint a picture for reader, but include ones that are relevant to the story. Otherwise, you’re wasting valuable characters.
Discuss a family member’s illness extensively:
Many applicants had a family member who became ill or are in the field of medicine. If you choose this type of story for your opening, what is it about your experience with either of these topics that makes it unique and stand out? Almost everyone has had a family member fall ill and has had to take care of them, that’s a normal part of life and is usually expected. Also remember that this personal statement is yours. While their illness has played a part in your wanting to pursue medicine, you need to supplement it with your own experiences.
Include Unnecessary Negativity:
Complaining about healthcare professionals, your family, or your situation reflects poorly on you. You can present this information differently, so that the attitude of your personal statement is a positive one. Instead of focusing on criticism, how did you learn or grow from these difficult or unpleasant situations?
Focusing on the negatives could rub the reader the wrong way and you end up wasting space that you could have dedicated towards building the case for YOUR candidacy. At this point in time, you’re the one being assessed, not the readers who are most likely health professionals already working in the field.
Write about role models:
When talking about volunteering or shadowing experiences, many applicants discuss how the doctors they’ve worked with said or did something inspiring that they “wish to emulate” once they’re a physician. Similar to writing about an ill family member, this takes the focus off you. It’s possible you’ve been inspired by such a role model, but make sure your personal statement talks about you.
Don’t include phrases that say read like a politician’s speech. Phrases like “If accepted into this program, I…” It doesn’t show any substance. Using examples of your previous accomplishments will give medical schools a better idea of how qualified you are as an applicant.
Use famous quotes:
This is overdone and readers would rather know your story in your own words rather than someone else’s.
The personal statement is one of the most difficult parts of an application. It takes a lot of time to craft one that’s honest, shows your personality, and delivers a compelling explanation for your motivations for pursuing medicine instead of including fluff or empty promises. Remember that I am only one person and that this post reflects my opinions and beliefs. Ultimately, you call the shots on what you want to write about and include, but if there’s nothing else you remember from this… Write a personal statement that is honest to you and accurately reflects who you are and write it in an intelligent, yet humanistic way.
Feel free to reach out for personal statement help or advice. I’d love to help out, so that your statement sparkles!
For more posts regarding premedical advice, check out: THE PREMEDICAL YEARS