The college essay should tell an original story about you and what matters to you. It can feel like a strange way of writing because students often engage in activities without explicitly expressing why they are motivated to do so. You want to convey your internal motivations and values to the reader.
The first step to writing a genuine personal statement is to start with free-writing and lots of it. Familiarize yourself with Common App questions and any supplemental essays. Then think through many moments and stories that could help you answer the prompts. Be specific, general statements are not as memorable You will have time to refine so focus on expression first
Think about big questions. What are your biggest dreams? What are your values? Why? How will college help you achieve your goals? What are your main academic interests? What appeals to you about those subjects?
Seek out information provided by admissions offices at your top choices. They will likely have clear language about what kind of students they are looking for and what kind of community they are striving to create. For example. Yale looks for “applicants with a concern for something larger than themselves.” Princeton looks for “students with intellectual curiosity, who have pursued and achieved academic excellence.” Find the mission statements for your top choices and practice writing stories that prove you are the kind of student they want to admit.
After free-writing, read through your stories and reflections and select the strongest points for your chosen prompt. Refine this story into a first draft then get feedback. Your Med School Coach mentor is a great resource for this. Revising will usually take longer than putting together the first draft. Don’t settle for your first draft. Go through your work critically. Be prepared to replace repetitive words, be more concise, and fine-tune your transitions. Once you revise, at least twice, get feedback from your recommenders so that they know what you are submitting.
Remember to let your voice shine through and make the statement about you, not other people. You might choose a story that involves your grandmother. Yet, your grandmother is not the one applying to college, you are. If you write about other people make sure their story does not overpower yours. You should be talking about your relationship with the other person and how it molded, shaped, and impacted you.
Your essay will be read alongside the complete application so you should think about how to tell a story that complements your overall narrative. Again, be critical of your writing. Would you be able to remember this statement after reading it once? Admissions officers will only have about 12-15 minutes to read your application so make sure you grab their attention and leave them with a lasting impression.
About the Author: Racquel Bernard
One area of the medical school application process that may seem especially daunting to applicants is the dreaded personal statement. There are other parts of the application that you may be able to complete on autopilot. You researched things? Awesome! Put your dates here, mentors there, publication right here. You volunteered at a homeless shelter? Bless your soul, now just put the details in this box over here.
You’re listening to that beautiful engine purr as you deftly handle the array of application obstacles like some sort of ninja, when all of a sudden you hit that personal statement speed bump, your gearbox falls out, and now you’re pounding the console. It was all going so smoothly!
Well fear not, brave compadre, you are not alone. The rigors of pre-medical coursework have tuned up your “left-brained” traits that have steered you to success thus far, but now is the time to ditch the formal writing structure of your O-Chem lab reports in favor of a more “right-brained” approach.
If you can break yourself from the logical, algorithmic patterns you’ve already started to develop (and will continue to strengthen in medical school), you will discover that the free-flowing, associative nature of the personal statement is, in fact, quite fun!
The most important aspect of the personal statement is to be AUTHENTIC.
You want to grab the reader’s attention, but you want to do this in a manner that is authentic to you and your personality. You want to show the reader that you are a caring human being, but do this in a way that demonstrates how YOU are a caring human being, not how Mother Theresa is a caring human being. You need to illustrate specifically why being a doctor is important to you, not why it is important for the generic med student, or society for that matter.
When you go to interviews, your interviewers are going to consciously and subconsciously compare you to the “you” that they read about in your personal statement. The most important element here is congruence–if there is incongruence between the impression given in the personal statement and the one “in the flesh”, this is going to give the interviewer (and yourself!) a less than great impression of the encounter. If you really have no interest in research, but you make yourself out to sound like a lab rat because the school you are applying to is well-known for research, then you’re going to wear yourself out in the interviews trying to pull the wool over the eyes of your interviewers.
This doesn’t even have to be in terms of content. If you spent hours on your personal statement carefully crafting witty lines like you’re some kind of cocktail party wizard when that’s just not your personality, then you might fall a bit flat in the interview. If you “spice up” a former illness or death in the family just to pull at some heart strings, you’re going to appear less than authentic when interviewers ask you about this experience, as they have been living through these experiences professionally now for quite some time.
If you are that cocktail party wizard, or have truly been strengthened by a harrowing medical tragedy, by all means, display that in your personal statements! But if that’s not you, don’t cheapen your authenticity just because other people do have these personalities or experiences. Just be you, and like Sinatra, soon enough you’ll be singing “I did it my way”!
About the Author: Dr. Stephen Brandt is a graduate of Southern Illinois University School of Medicine
During our recent MedSchoolCoach webinar, “Establishing Your Brand: How to be Unique When Applying to Medical School”, Dr. Mehta, CEO of MedSchoolCoach, spoke with Dr. Marinelli, MedSchoolCoach Director of Advising, about the personal statement if she thought there were any clichés applicants tend to use and ultimately, hinder their chances of being accepted. Read more below and avoid these mistakes!
Dr. Mehta: Here’s a question, Dr. Marinelli. Are there any clichés to avoid in the personal statement?
Dr. Marinelli: I think there are; I think a few of them are going to be extrinsic experiences that now looking back as you apply to medical school, you think would convince an admissions committee that you want to go into medicine but in actuality, they didn’t have as big of an impact on you than you may have thought. So, the best example I can think of is somebody saying, “I wanted to be a doctor since I was 5. When I was 5, I broke my ankle and I went to the doctor and he treated me so nicely that ever since then I thought that I want to go into medicine.” And maybe that is your real reason, but we do see that quite often as a cliché in personal statements, and you don’t need to find this reason or this epiphany in your life that really transformed you and made you decide to go into medicine. You can tell your own story even if it’s something along the lines of “I went to college. I explored several options, and then I decided science was great and I started volunteering, getting into community service and then ultimately clinical service, and I found I really liked it and that’s what my path is.” Just be honest. You don’t have to have some, again, defining moment in your life where you decided to be a doctor. Not everybody is going to have that and I think that’s probably the most common cliché that I see.
During our recent MedSchoolCoach webinar, “Establishing Your Brand: How to be Unique When Applying to Medical School”, Dr. Mehta, CEO of MedSchoolCoach, spoke with Dr. Katzen, MedSchoolCoach Master Advisor and previous admissions committee member at GWU, about the recommended timeline for personal statements. Read more below about when to get started with your personal statement!
Dr. Mehta: How early do you usually recommend your applicants get started on the personal statement, Dr. Katzen?
Dr. Katzen: You know, each individual writes differently. Some can write fairly spontaneously and some need to think about it for a while. The primary application is quite an endeavor to undertake and I certainly think that the personal statement is one of the more challenging parts. I’d like to see people who know they’re going to apply begin to work on it in December. By the end of January, or beginning of February, they should have a completed the essay and be at the point where they can give it to several people to read and give their opinions on. With this timeline, they can begin to think about revising it and prepare other parts of the application before it becomes live in the beginning of May.
I think some people do have the ability to sit down and write, but I think most people need to think about it, maybe need to create an outline, start with bullet points and just consider the points that Dr. Marinelli made a little while ago, which is what it is you’re going to get across about yourself in the application. You have to realize it has to have a flow and there has to be a connection from the beginning to the end.
So, it’s probably one of the more difficult essays that you will encounter. I’m one that likes to do things in advance, so I advise people to get started on it by December or January if they know they’re going to be applying in May or June.
Want some tips on writing a personal statement that will make you stand out? Check out “Applying to Med School: The Importance of a Personal Statement”.
Medical school is the bridge to something more meaningful than just a career—it is the gateway to a lifetime of service, of knowledge, of power, and most importantly, of humanism. The urge to join a profession so intricately intertwined with the pillars of science—research translated to bedside care—often seems distant and unobtainable. ‘What makes me different from all those other students?’ This question pervades the minds of many ‘traditional’ applicants—those who may not have performed such groundbreaking research as curing cancer or who may not have engaged in outreach that entailed building an entire new hospital and supplying water to a village in a third world country. However, students without the most extraordinary accomplishments should not fear—medical schools are consistently looking for specific attributes, most importantly accountability, reliability, and maturity. As long as a student displays these characteristics, they can distinguish themselves from all other students with more than just a stellar MCAT score. Easy, right?
Well, of course not. How can someone convey maturity, accountability, and reliability? Most vividly, through the interview. However, to even have the opportunity to interview at a medical school, these characteristics must be evident in the personal statement and description of activities. The personal statement is an opportunity for a student to show some creativity, ingenuity, humor, and character. However, students often push showing character a little too far. The anecdote that is supposed to grab the reader’s attention is too long or too funny or too immature. Moreover, students misconceive the need to draw together one’s pertinent accomplishments to synthesize a clear and concise rationale for why one would make a reliable and knowledgeable physician. This is especially important for BS/MD applicants, who are often perceived as having pushy parents that want their children to be physicians more desperately than the child himself.
My advice is this: start off with a short story—a reason for why you wanted to pursue medicine. Try to incorporate a motif that can be restated in the conclusion. I suggest the anecdote reflect one of your activities. For instance, I concisely described my time in EMT class. It was a short and entertaining anecdote but also reminded the readers that I am an EMT, and therefore, I have engaged in patient care and documentation first-handedly. After describing your reason for wanting to do medicine, you should dive into your accomplishments. In particular, medical schools are searching for three main targets: research, volunteer activities, and mentorship, as these are the three cornerstones where doctors can impact. Emphasize these activities. Leave out your more lighthearted interests unless you can demonstrate clearly how they apply to medicine. Your activities portion of the application can cover these in more depth. In addition, if you try to describe every one of your accomplishments, your personal statement will become a list. Pick three activities that touch upon research, service, and mentorship and bring together how these activities allowed you to develop attributes that are essential to physicians. This also conveys to readers that you have insight into the demanding but rewarding nature of the profession. Moreover, these may serve as talking points during the interview, when you can re-emphasize your most meaningful accomplishments (after all, the more your interviewer hears or reads about your most impressive achievements, the more he or she will remember them). Most importantly, this will demonstrate a commitment to medicine and level of maturity. The conclusion should revisit your introductory anecdote, the reason you wanted to pursue medicine, to remind readers that this is your dream, your goal, and your dedication.
A good personal statement is the bridge to a great interview. But of course, that topic is for another discussion!
Since most medical school applicants have strong GPAs and MCAT scores, applicants must find a way to distinguish themselves from the hundreds of applications reviewed by admissions committees. The personal statement, or essay, is the place to make this happen.
Writing a personal statement is often the most difficult part of the application process and you must give it the attention it deserves. The impression it makes can be an “accept” or “reject” factor by admissions committees. Drafting your essay should begin weeks before filing out the application.
It is not enough to say, “I volunteered at my local hospital”. You must explain what the experience says about you as a potential physician and as a person. The personal essay is the place to share with the admissions committee to help them understand your character, your attitudes, your values, your motivation, and your knowledge.
In addition to a strong background in science, medical schools want students who show compassion. This includes empathy, concern, kindness and benevolence.
Remember, to move from the application pile to the accepted pile, you must describe why you would be an ideal medical student, keeping in mind that compassionate people make excellent doctors.
We sat down with Dr. Davietta Butty, a Northwestern School of Medicine graduate, avid writer, and pediatrician! She is an amazing MedSchoolCoach advisor who has helped hundreds of students through the admissions process with a focus on the medical school personal statement. Her insights into what an admissions committee member looks for are extremely important, so read on for some great tips!
Could you give us advice for students who want to write a good personal statement but aren’t able to start one or are in general struggling to write a good personal statement?
First of all, it’s really intimidating to look at a blank document and decide “okay this is where I am going to start or this is what I’m going to do” or know how things are going to be organized. I don’t think anyone necessarily goes into their personal statement with everything figured out. I think people get stuck worrying about wanting it to be great and fabulous. It has to be first, before it can be those things. Rather than focusing on how good you want it to be, just start writing. Even if it’s a stream of consciousness or just your ideas but try to get them on the paper because once they are there then you can cut, paste or change the organization so that you have something to work with. You can then decide whether that experience speaks to you or whether you have this other experience that you think might work better; but you can’t actually do that until you are able to let go and start writing. Don’t worry about it being good at first, just worry about getting your thoughts on paper.
Great! From your experience, what are the top three things that you might have seen in great personal statements or what you think comprise a really good personal statement?
I think the best personal statements are the ones that showcase the applicant’s personality. All of the primary applications is all numbers and a lot of data and the personal statement is one of the only places where you can show who you are as a person. I think it’s important to remember that that type of thing to reach medicine but don’t get stuck in trying to be formulaic about it. Remember that this is your story and not anyone else’s story and you get the opportunity to say it how it makes sense to you. I think one of the things a lot of people struggle with is thinking that they don’t have anything unique about them or not knowing what to say in that personal statement because they haven’t lead a mission trip to Africa, won a Nobel prize or created some wonderful medical engineering invention. I think people get hung up on people not noticing them for not doing those things. What people notice is your story, your heart and your ability to show that you made connections with people. Ultimately, you hope that someone is looking at you, sees the things that you have done and say ‘good job’ while giving you an award. Most of the time people are not going to see that. The people who are going to know what kind of job you are doing are your patients. So, if you are able to show the admissions committee and the reader that you are able to in some small way touch someone’s life even in five minutes or less, then I think that’s more important than holding up an award and saying ‘hey, look at what someone else saw me do’ because people aren’t going to be watching or rewarding you for your career. It’s going to be the reward of making contact with your patient and improving their lives even in the short term.
“In personal statements, what people notice is your story, your heart and your ability to show that you made connections with people.”
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Free Webinar: Putting Together a Great Application and Personal Statement
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Join the experts at MedSchoolCoach for a free webinar focused on putting together a great application and writing an outstanding personal statement. MedSchoolCoach advisors will take you through the elements of a medical school application, how it is evaluated by admissions committees, and how you can stand out!
- Understand the logistics of the AMCAS/AACOMAS and TMDSAS applications
- Understand how an application is viewed by the admissions committee
- Learn what makes a great personal statement (and what makes a bad one)
- Get insights on how to choose which schools to apply to during the application process
- Learn from actual physicians who have served on admissions committees!