“I have no idea what to write.”
“I want to stand out.”
“I want to be different.”
“I want to have a theme.”
These are all comments I hear from medical school applicants as they start thinking about what topics to include in their medical school personal statement. I find that applicants often feel pressured to be unique and to write something the medical school admissions officer has never read before. But if you follow a few basic guidelines, you will create a personal statement that is all yours and achieves the ultimate goal of telling your story. Remember, your personal statement should be personal!
In writing your personal statement you must answer a few fundamental questions:
What have you done that supports your interest in becoming a doctor?
I always advise applicants to practice “evidence based admissions.” The reader of your essay wants to see the “evidence” that you have done what is necessary to understand the practice of medicine. This includes clinical exposure, research, and community service, among other activities.
Why do you want to be a doctor?
This may seem pretty basic – and it is – but admissions officers need to know WHY you want to practice medicine. Many applicants make the mistake of simply listing what they have done without offering insights about those experiences that answer the question, “Why medicine?” Your reasons for wanting to be a doctor may overlap with those of other applicants. This is okay because the experiences in which you participated, the stories you can tell about those experiences, and the wisdom you gained are completely distinct—because they are only yours. Medical school admissions committees want to know that you have explored your interest deeply and that you can reflect on the significance of these experiences. But writing only that you “want to help people” does not support a sincere desire to become a physician; you must indicate why medicine in particular—rather than social work, teaching, or another “helping” profession—is your goal.
How have your experiences influenced you?
It is important to show how your experiences are linked and how they have influenced you. How did your experiences motivate you? How did they affect what else you did in your life? How did your experiences shape your future goals? Medical school admissions committees like to see a sensible progression of involvements. While not every activity needs to be logically “connected” with another, the evolution of your interests and how your experiences have nurtured your future goals and ambitions show that you are motivated and committed.
Also keep in mind some common myths about personal statements that I hear quite often:
- My personal statement must have a theme.
- Not true. The vast majority of personal statements do not have themes. In fact, most are somewhat autobiographical and are just as interesting as those statements that are woven around a “theme.” It is only the very talented writer who can creatively write a personal statement around a theme, and this approach often backfires since the applicant fails to answer the three questions above.
- My personal statement must be no longer than one page.
- Not true. This advice is antiquated and dates back to the days of the written application when admissions committees flipped through pages. If your personal statement is interesting and compelling, it is fine to use the entire allotted space. The application systems have incorporated limits for exactly this reason! Many students, depending on their unique circumstances, can actually undermine their success by limiting their personal statement to a page. That said, never max out a space just for the sake of doing so. Quality writing and perspectives are preferable to quantity.
- My personal statement should not describe patient encounters or my personal medical experiences.
- Not true. Again, the actual topics on which you focus in your personal statement are less important than the understanding you gained from those experiences. I have successful clients who have written extremely powerful and compelling personal statements that included information about clinical encounters – both personal and professional. Write about whichever experiences were the most important on your path to medicine. It’s always best, however, to avoid spending too much space on childhood and high school activities. Focus instead on those that are more current.
Want more interviews? Be sure to read this important article about AMCAS activity entries.
- In my personal statement I need to sell myself.
- Not exactly true. You never want to boast in your personal statement. Let your experiences, insights, and observations speak for themselves. You want your reader to draw the conclusion – on his or her own – that you have the qualities and characteristics the medical school seeks. Never tell what qualities and characteristics you possess; let readers draw these conclusions on their own based on what you write.
Finally, when writing your medical school personal statement be sure it:
- Shows insight and introspection
- The best medical school personal statements tell a great deal about what you have learned through your experiences and the insights you have gained.
- Flows well
- You want to tell your story by highlighting those experiences that have been the most influential on your path to medical school and to give a clear sense of chronology. You want your statement always to be logical and never to confuse your reader.
- Is interesting and engaging
- The best personal statements engage the reader. This doesn’t mean you must use big words or be a literary prize winner. Write in your own language and voice, but really think about your journey to medical school and the most intriguing experiences you have had.
- Gives the reader a mental image of who are
- You want the reader to be able to envision you as a caregiver and a medical professional. You want to convey that you would be a compassionate provider at the bedside – someone who could cope well with crisis and adversity.
- Illustrates your passion for medicine
- Your reader must be convinced that you are excited about and committed to a career in medicine!
Above all, your personal statement should be about you. Explain to your reader what you have done and why you want to be a doctor with insight, compassion, and understanding.
Read some medical school personal statement examples in The MedEdits Guide to Medical School Admissions.
Jessica Freedman MD
JESSICA FREEDMAN, M.D., is president of MedEdits Medical Admissions and author of the MedEdits Guide to Medical Admissions and The Medical School Interview. Follow Dr. Freedman and MedEdits on Facebook and Twitter.
The medical school application is your single best opportunity to convince a group of strangers that you would be an asset both to the school and to the medical profession. It’s your opportunity to show yourself as something more than grades and scores. Granted, every person who applies will have strengths and weaknesses. But it’s how you present your strengths and weaknesses that really counts. Recommendation letters, personal statements, and admission interviews are ways to showcase your talents and convince the school that you have what it takes.
How to Get Great Recommendations
Letters of recommendation are typically sent in the latter part of the application process with Secondary Applications. However, it’s important that you start to think about and solicit your letters much earlier in the game.
Admissions committees are generally very specific about from whom they want to receive letters on your behalf. Don’t take these requirements lightly. You should do everything you can to give the medical schools exactly the kind of letters they have requested.
Sometimes a medical school will ask you for a “pre-med committee letter.” These letters are typically of two types: Either an original letter written by your undergraduate premedical committee on your behalf, or a summary of excerpts of comments made by individuals who have submitted letters (at your request) on your behalf. While the pre-med committee letter used to be a standard component of any applicant’s application, they are rarer today.
Alternatively, you will be asked to submit two or three individual letters of recommendation, of which at least one or two must come from senior science faculty. A letter written by a teaching assistant usually carries less weight. However, letters cosigned by both the teaching assistant and professor are generally acceptable. In addition to the recommendations from science faculty, most medical schools request a letter from a humanities or social science professor, especially for non-science majors. You may also be asked to submit a letter by someone familiar with your clinical experience, research, or work history.
Supplemental Letters of Recommendation
Generally, it is permissible to send supplemental letters of recommendation in addition to the required letters. But note, these will be additional letters, not letters in substitution of those requested. As a rule, you should never send more than twice the number of letters requested. Additionally, remember that more letters is not necessarily better. If you’re going to send supplemental letters they should substantively add to your application.
Make Your Recommendation Letters Personal
Recommendations are essentially personal sales letters written on your behalf and it’s important that the letter writer put the best pitch forward. Understand it this way: It’s clear that the more personal the letter, the better off you are. This means you need to get to know your professors or more importantly, you need to give your professors an opportunity to get to know you. Go to office hours; become a teaching assistant; volunteer to work in their lab; take them to lunch! Whatever it takes so that when the time comes, they will be able to write you a personal letter of recommendation.
When you approach someone to write a letter of recommendation, don’t hesitate to ask whether she can write you a strong letter of support. If the person hesitates in any way, look elsewhere. Although this may be embarrassing, it will hurt you a lot more in the long run to have someone write you a lukewarm or unenthusiastic letter of recommendation. Remember, schools fully expect these letters to be glowing endorsements. Once you have garnered a positive response, be sure to provide your recommender with a resume to provide a more complete picture of you as a person. If you have a strong academic record, you may want to include a copy of your transcript to showcase your academic prowess and consistency. Your Personal Statement and any articles or papers which you think may be helpful should also be offered. Finally, always provide the writer with clear directions for electronic or hard-copy submission of the letter to the appropriate school(s). You should provide addressed and stamped envelopes when needed.
Pre-meds who procrastinate will be left scrambling to get recommendations. Professors and teaching assistants can become overwhelmed with requests. You can imagine the potential quality of these letters. You must give at least one month for your letter writers to write and submit the letters. Keep track of the status of your letters. As the deadlines approach, call and check on their progress. Once you’ve confirmed that your letters have been sent, thank-you notes are a nice touch. Personal visits are in order after you’ve been accepted.
How to Write an Effective Personal Statement
The term “Personal Statement” brings a shiver to the spine of many a potential medical student. You should think of the personal statement, however, as an opportunity to show admissions officers what you’re made of. They want to know why you want to enter the medical profession and this is your chance to tell them as clearly and compellingly as you can.
Purposes of a Personal Statement
The Personal Statement shows whether or not you can write a clear, coherent essay that’s logically and grammatically correct. These days, students’ writing skills are often presumed deficient until proven otherwise. If you plan on submitting your application through AMCAS, the length of your personal statement should be 5300 characters, which should be ample space to succinctly set yourself apart from other applicants.
Second, it provides you with the opportunity to present the admissions committee with more of a “three-dimensional” portrait of yourself as a deserving candidate than GPA and MCAT numbers possibly can. What you choose to write sends clear signals about what’s important to you and what your values are. You can explain why you really want to pursue medical graduate work and the career path it will enable you to follow. Your essay also enables you to explain things like weaknesses or gaps in an otherwise commendable record.
How Do Med Schools Use Personal Statements?
Essays are the best way for admissions officers to determine who you are. So, don’t hesitate to go beyond your current experience for essay topics. Feel free to discuss past events that, in part, define who you are. If you have overcome significant obstacles, say so. If you were honored with an award, describe the award and what you did to achieve recognition.
Give some thought to how your past and current experiences have contributed to your intellectual, personal and professional development. Rather than make pronouncements about goals and future activities, which are easily made-up and often exaggerated, select a few stories from your life experiences that showcase the qualities and characteristics that you already possess and that will help you be an empathic, committed doctor. Always remember the adage: Show; don’t tell. Start early, write several drafts, and edit, edit, edit.
Top 7 Tips for Med School Personal Statements
Avoid the Rehashed Resume
The personal statement is not the time to recount all your activities and honors in list-like fashion.
Make It Personal
This is your opportunity to put a little panache into the application. Show the admissions committee why you decided to go into medicine. Was it an experience you had in school? Was there a particular extracurricular activity that changed your way of thinking? Did you find a summer lab job so exhilarating that it reconfirmed your love for science? Use vignettes and anecdotes to weave a story and make the essay a pleasure to read.
Avoid Controversial Topics
If you do include discussion of a “hot topic,” definitely avoid being dogmatic or preachy. You don’t want to take the risk of alienating a reader who may not share your politics.
Don’t Get Too Creative
Now is not the time to write a haiku. Remember, the medical establishment is largely a scientific community (although individual physicians may be passionate artists, poets, writers, musicians, historians, etc.). On the other hand, don’t be trite and don’t be boring. Avoid writing “I want to be a doctor because…”
For instance, if you received a C in physics, you may feel compelled to justify it somehow. Unless you believe that the circumstances truly do merit some sort of mention, don’t make excuses. You don’t need to provide them with a road map to your weaknesses. If you had a bad year or semester because of illness, family problems, etc., ask your pre-med advisor to explain the details in his or her cover letter.
Write Multiple Drafts
Have your pre-med advisor and perhaps an English teaching assistant read and edit it. Proofread, proofread, and proofread some more. Also, try reading it out loud. This is always a good test of clarity and flow.
Think Ahead to Interviews
Interviewers often use your personal statement as fodder for questions. Of course, if you’ve included experiences and ideas that are dear to you, that you feel strongly about, you will have no problem speaking with passion and confidence. Nothing is more appealing to admissions folks than a vibrant, intelligent, and articulate candidate. If you write about research you conducted five years ago, you’d better brush up before your interviews. Don’t engage in hyperbole: You risk running up against an interviewer who will see through your exaggerations.