Your personal statement is the single most important part of your medical school application, aside from GPA and MCAT. We’ve compiled our very best advice from MedSchoolCoach advisors, physicians, and students over the years to create a comprehensive guide to writing a standout medical school personal statement.
“What sets me apart from every other applicant?” is a question that most medical school applicants obsess about in the months leading up to applying. And before you ever even get an opportunity to interview, your personal statement is where you must answer this question and prove to admissions committees that you deserve a shot.
Personal statements can either make or break your application for medical school.
By writing a powerful personal statement, you show the admissions committee that you are the kind of candidate who will make an exceptional physician and be a valuable asset to the school. Additionally, it helps to distinguish your application from the many other students with similar MCAT scores and GPAs.
Similarly, a weak personal statement can tank your chances of getting an interview. When a medical school admissions committee has several hundred applications to review, a poorly written personal statement with typos and lackluster content is irredeemable.
Apart from its role in weeding out unqualified candidates, the personal statement also serves as a foundation for many interview discussions and questions. Committee members often only have a few minutes to glance over an application when they sit down to interview them. Personal statements provide them with the right amount of information. They can use it as a springboard for the interview by picking out a few key points to discuss.
Since it’s possible this is the only part of your application they’ll read, it needs to be perfect.
This guide will take you through every aspect of writing your personal statement – to knowing how it’s presented on your application, to what makes a great (and not so great) essay, the writing process and tips. We’ll also share two examples of traditional and non-traditional personal statements, and include additional resources that you can study as you prepare to apply to medical school.
While applying to medical school can be a grueling process, the American Medical College Application Service (AMCAS) strives to make it a bit easier with its centralized medical school application processing service.
This means that most of your information: academic stats (GPA, MCAT, etc), work experience, volunteer activities, extracurriculars, and research opportunities will fit into nice little boxes and form fields on your application. Your application is saved so that you don’t have to reenter information multiple times if you’re applying to lots of schools.
The essay part of the application comes in Section 8. And, this is the one part of the application that you might need to tweak multiple times based on the schools or programs you’re applying to.
The personal statement prompt is presented on the AMCAS as:
Seems pretty straightforward, right? Except knowing how much weight is placed on the personal statement is what makes this deceptively simple prompt the cause of so much anxiety for students.
Before we get into what makes a great personal statement and offer some advice for writing, here are a few tips for entering the essay on the AMCAS application:
Keep it under 5,300 characters (including spaces) – You will receive an error message if you exceed the character count.
Do not type directly into the text box – Use a text only word processing tool, or type the essay into Microsoft Word or a Google Doc – but save the file as a *.rtf. This will eliminate formatting issues when you copy and paste the essay into the AMCAS box.
Proof the PDF the AMCAS generates – This version is exactly what admission committees and interviewers will see. If you see any formatting issues, fix them before submitting your essay.
Don’t settle for anything less than perfection – There is no spell checker function on the AMCAS application. In addition to checking the PDF for formatting issues, proofread carefully for spelling, punctuation, and grammar. Once you submit the application, changes cannot be made.
Even though the majority of medical school applicants have not conducted groundbreaking research to cure cancer, built a new hospital, or supplied water to a village in a third world country through outreach, medical schools still seek specific qualities when reviewing personal statements – specifically: accountability, reliability, and maturity, which are demonstrated through research, volunteer activities, and mentorship experiences.
If a student can show that they possess these characteristics through their personal statement, they can set themselves apart from other applicants.
So what, exactly, makes a great personal statement? Of the thousands of personal statements our advisors have read over the years, here’s what you should do to create a standout essay.
Being authentic in your personal statement is essential. Your goal is to engage the reader, but in a way that is authentic to you and your personality. Resist the temptation to write what you think admissions committees want to hear. What they want to hear is your truth about why you want to be a doctor, and what specifically sets you apart from other applicants.
It’s even more important to be authentic in your personal essay if you make it to the interview stage. Your interviewers will be comparing you – in the flesh – to the ‘you’ that they first met in your personal statement. If you hype yourself up in your essay then fall flat during the interview, interviewers will know you’re trying to pull the wool over their eyes.
As medical school student, Ariel Lee says, “Adcom members are very good at sniffing out hollow and disingenuous essays, so be sure to tell the authentic story of how you came to love medicine.”
You need to demonstrate why being a doctor is important to you.
We talk a lot about avoiding cliches in your personal statement. Saying you want to become a doctor “to help people” is just one of them. Dr. Renee Marinelli, Director of Advising at MedSchoolCoach, cautions that some cliches are “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.”
For example, saying “I’ve wanted to be a doctor since I was 5 because a really nice doctor helped me when I had a broken arm.” While it may indeed be your personal story, it comes off as cliche.
Your passion for medicine doesn’t have to stem from some grand experience or sudden revelation. Of course you want to help people if you are going into the field of medicine. But maybe it didn’t all click for you until college when you fell in love with psychology and started volunteering in nursing homes.
You don’t need to have a lifelong dream of becoming a physician to demonstrate your passion and go on to become an amazing doctor.
Your theme is also considered your personal brand or narrative, and it is the essence behind your answer to “Why do you want to be a doctor?”
Emily Singer, a graduate from the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA and writer at ProspectiveDoctor.com, offers this advice for developing your theme, “Perhaps a better approach to starting the personal statement is not to focus on the question that your essay will ultimately answer, but on the personal aspects of your experiences on earth that shaped who you are – a person whose goals and values align with entering the medical profession.”
Developing a central theme that connects your passions to medicine is a critical component of your personal statement. A consistent narrative keeps your essay focused, aids the flow of content, and keeps the reader engaged and reminded of your unique story throughout the beginning, middle, and end of the piece.
You can draw on many personal experiences and attributes during the process of developing your theme, including:
• Personal Experiences
• Academic Achievements
• Passions & Interests
• Values & Principles
• Research Opportunities
• Extra Curricular Activities
• Volunteer Initiatives
• Leadership & Mentoring
A memorable personal statement captures the reader’s attention from the first sentence, which is usually accomplished with an interesting personal story or anecdote. It’s absolutely ok – and encouraged – to include some creativity, ingenuity, humor, and character. However, some students tend to go over the top, let their anecdote carry on a bit too long, and ultimately come off as trite or immature.
Admissions committees care far less about what you did, and more about the reasons why you did them, what you’ve learned, and how you grew as an individual. Your personal statement gives you the opportunity to show, not just tell, how your experiences have impacted your journey to medicine.
Consider the following examples of statements about a student’s volunteer experience at a food pantry:
Which do you think performed better in terms of conveying personal characteristics?
Yes, admissions committees want to know why you want to become a doctor. But they also want to know how you envision yourself impacting the medical community in the future.
This doesn’t have to be as grand as “curing cancer.” If you grew up in an underserved community, perhaps you saw the inequity in healthcare and want to work toward accessibility and affordability.
What’s not ok to say here is, “I want to become a plastic surgeon and make a lot of money in the future” (even if there’s some truth to it!). Instead, say something more along the lines of, “I want to become a plastic surgeon to help people regain their self-confidence.”
In addition to your personal statement being grammatically accurate and error-free, there needs to be a little something-something to it! Admissions committees read hundreds, if not thousands, of essays every year. It can become tedious, especially if the writing is dry and the reader isn’t engaged. Creative writing, a distinct voice, and letting your personality shine are all good things when it comes to your essay. This is the time to ditch the onerous APA formatting and hypothesis-based research papers and dazzle adcoms with your unique story.
As Dr. Davietta Butty, a Northwestern School of Medicine graduate, avid writer, pediatrician, and MedSchoolCoach advisor puts it, “I think the best personal statements are the ones that showcase the applicant’s personality. 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.”
Personal tragedies, like the death of a loved one, can be a powerful motivator for a personal statement. In a field where life and death are constantly at odds, experiences in death can seem like an impressive qualification, but must be treated with caution.
It’s important to focus on the why, and not the how. Don’t get mired in the details of the tragedy, but show how the experience impacted you as it relates to your career in medicine. How did it help you develop skills? Have you changed your perspective as a result? How did you use that new perspective or those new skills? Would it make you a better medical student?
If you’re considering including an emotional experience in your essay, read this article for some more insightful advice.
Now that you’re inspired by the prospect of writing an insightful and engaging essay, let’s take a look at what NOT to include.
It’s already listed in the data-heavy part of your application and it’s part of a computer algorithm that determines if your personal statement is worth reading. If your personal statement is being read, then you can be assured that adcoms know your scores are worthy.
With today’s word processing solutions and free grammar checking apps, there is absolutely NO excuse for errors.
Name dropping is obnoxious in almost any situation. It’s braggadocious and brushed off at best. At worst, it could negatively impact your chances if the adcom reader thinks poorly of the person you’re talking about. If it’s a well-known and well-respected name in the medical field, and you truly worked closely with them, a better route would be to request a letter of recommendation.
See the first point above: Be Authentically YOU. False or embellished stories could backfire and tank your reputation. Honesty and integrity are prized qualities in physicians; don’t start your career off with a lie.
The personal statement is not the time to rehash your resume. It IS the time to talk about how those experiences impacted you and steered you toward medicine. “I volunteered at nursing homes” is on your CV. “Volunteering at nursing homes and seeing the effect brain exercises had on patient recall and memory made me interested in geriatric psychology and Alzheimer’s research” is an appropriate way to expand on your CV in your personal statement.
If you’re going to mention any awards in your essay, make sure they’re recent and relevant to your goal of getting into medical school and becoming a doctor. Don’t reach back to high school and talk about your “Future Scientist” award.
Admissions committees know you want to be a doctor because you want to “help others.” Other cliches to avoid include:
• an innate passion for medicine (“I’ve wanted to be a doctor my entire life”)
• dramatic patient anecdotes (“The patient was wheezing and his lips were rapidly turning blue. I knew something had to be done fast”)
• routine doctor visits (“That doctor helped me overcome my fear of immunizations and inspired me”)
• stories of pre-med students that save a patient’s life (“While on a volunteer shift I noticed the patient’s vitals drop and notified the doctor in time for the patient to get lifesaving treatment”)
Bizarre, but it’s happened! Your personal statement is about you. If you wouldn’t have a conversation and refer to yourself as “Ben,” “him,” and “he,” then don’t do it in your writing, either.
You’re not going to tug on any heartstrings relaying the story about your second cousin who broke his toe. Personal stories are good, but remember that they need to be relevant, engaging, and close to you to be impactful.
If your essay is being read, it means that your grades are strong enough to have gotten you here.
We’ve talked about a lot of big picture dos and don’ts of the personal statement. Now let’s take a look at the actual components of the essay so we can start thinking about organization and writing.
AMCAS’ 5,300 character count works out to be about 500 words, or 1.5 pages. Easy enough, right? But when you’re staring at a blank page, it can be paralyzing.
Breaking the personal statement down into manageable chunks can help some students better conquer it. In general, think about the structure of your essay containing 4-5 components:
This is your first impression, and it needs to be memorable. Start your essay with a personal story or anecdote and introduce your narrative/theme by tying it to the story.
Expand on your theme. This is where you’ll highlight pivotal experiences — remember, not just that you conducted research, but how it affected you personally and drove your desire to pursue medicine. You can also use this space to discuss your admirable traits that will make you a good physician. As cringeworthy as it feels to toot your own horn, the personal statement truly is the place where you need to shine and set yourself apart from other applicants.
This is where everything comes together and you leave a lasting impression on the reader. Instead of using the conclusion to rehash the points you already covered (i.e. “For the reasons stated above, I believe…”), use the conclusion to look to the future and share your vision for how you want to impact the field of medicine. Your personal stories, pivotal experiences, and admirable attributes you already shared will all naturally support this vision and your reason for applying to medical school.
And don’t actually say “In conclusion” in your conclusion. Just wrap it up and conclude.
Now it’s time to put pen to paper!
You know what makes a strong personal statement, what missteps to avoid, and have a plan for breaking it into manageable sections. Now let’s dig into the actual writing process.
Not all of these tips will work for all students. You know whether you’re a meticulous planner, or whether stream of consciousness writing and heavy editing works best for you. But these are some tips from advisors and students that may help you get started.
Consider the following brainstorming prompts. You can use these to get the creative juices flowing, or if you’re a more visual planner you can create an idea cloud or outline.
Significant/formative life experiences: things that have greatly influenced your life, the way you conduct yourself, your outlook on the world, or your decisions:
• Excelling at something, especially if it enables you to teach or impact others (sports, science, foreign languages, special skills)
• Getting a second chance at something
• Connecting with or working with a person that made a significant impact on your life
• Getting out of your comfort zone (traveling, moving, interacting with people from different backgrounds)
• Overcoming an obstacle or challenging life experience that was out of your control
• Reflecting on a mistake you made and how it influenced how you conduct yourself
People that had an impact on you (positive or negative), and how that affected your journey to medical school:
• Parents, siblings, or friends
• Mentors, teachers, or professionals
• Authors, actors, speakers, or personal heroes
Personal characteristics and skills that you have, and how those skills translate into being a good physician:
• Integrity, compassion, diligence, humanity, courage, respect, curiosity, or optimism
• Communication, organization, collaboration, leadership, or competence
Free writing is helpful to some people. Instead of focusing on how good you want your essay to be, just start writing. Even if it’s a stream of consciousness, or your beginning ideas, get it on paper. It’s best to start long and condense. You can always cut/paste, reorganize, and fine-tune later.
Dr. Butty reminds students that, “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.”
Rome wasn’t built in a day! Don’t try to write a perfect personal statement in one sitting. Even for people who can write off the cuff, this is typically a time when procrastination doesn’t pay. Applying to medical school is stressful enough without pulling an all-nighter trying to write something as important as your personal statement.
Dr. Katzen, MedSchoolCoach Master Advisor and previous admissions committee member at GWU, recommends starting on the personal statement in December/January for students planning to apply in May/June. This gives you plenty of time to have others review it or to get professional personal statement editing services. It also gives you time to write multiple drafts and be 100% satisfied with your final essay.
On the topic of multiple drafts, be sure to allocate enough time to take breaks between drafts and really reflect on your essay.
In fact, some advisors (and med school students) recommend perfecting a first draft, then setting it aside and completely starting from scratch on a new draft. Maybe your first draft focused on volunteer or research experience, and your second draft showcases your creative writing more. Is one better than the other? Or is there a way to merge them to create a third and perfect draft?
Ask others to read your essay, but be selective of who you ask. Close friends and family may be brutally honest and discourage you, or they may say what you want to hear and avoid any criticism altogether. If you want to involve those closest to you during the process, it’s better to ask them something like, “Why do you think I would make a good doctor?” Ask them this early in the process so that you can see how their perspective and recollection of your life experiences might tie into your personal narrative.
If you want others to read your personal statement, it’s usually better to ask someone more impartial — like a professor, work or research colleague, or a med school student who’s already been through the application process.
There is zero room for errors on your personal statement. Spelling and punctuation errors, typos, and grammatical issues WILL reflect poorly on you.
We recommend using a text only editor for the final draft of your essay so that there are no formatting issues when you paste it into the AMCAS editor. But during the writing process, it is absolutely ok to use a more dynamic word processor – like Word or Google Docs – that will alert you to errors while writing.
Bonus points if you utilize a writing assistant software that can give you feedback on more in-depth issues related to tone and syntax. To go a step further, a professional writing advisor can help you identify repetitive ideas, be more concise, fine-tune your transitions, and help you avoid common mistakes.
Best of all, the advisors like the ones at MedSchoolCoach have experience serving on medical school admissions committees. They’ve read thousands of personal statements and know exactly how to help you shine.
David Flick, MD and Associate Director of Advising at MedSchoolCoach offers some technical writing tips for the residency personal statement. While this is a longer and even more challenging essay than you’ll hopefully be writing in the coming years, the advice applies to the medical school personal statement as well!
Dynamic Writing – Dynamic writing refers to the rhythm of your writing. There needs to be a mix of long and short sentences as well as variety of sentence structure. Read your essay out loud. If you have to catch your breath in the middle of a sentence, it’s too long. If there is a repetitive rhythm it’s usually because too many short sentences are strung together.
Language & Vocabulary – It’s important to consider both the reader as well as your reputation when making language and vocabulary choices. While it’s safe to assume members of an admissions committee are intelligent, this is not the time for smarty-pants vocabulary that will distract the reader from the message. At the same time, it’s important to make word choices that elevate your writing by making sentences more descriptive.
For example, Dr. Flick says to avoid using “really” and “very” as adverbs. There is almost always a better word choice.
“Really great” can be fantastic/wonderful/amazing
“Very important” can be significant/critical/momentous
In the sentence, “I really enjoyed the research experience” the word “really” can be truly/positively/certainly
He also recommends that you avoid using contractions, as they are for informal and conversational writing, not application writing.
Punctuation – Dr. Flick argues that simple sentence punctuation is usually best. When you start modifying sentence structure with quotations, semicolons, and ellipses, it can be a distraction for readers. Even if you know how to use punctuation correctly, there’s no guarantee the reader does. They may get hung up on the placement of a semicolon and lose the meaning of the sentence.
Syntax – Syntax refers to the order and arrangement of words and phrases in a sentence. Common syntax issues are related to run-on sentences, subject-verb agreement, matching tenses, and passive voice. Writers with a solid grasp on syntax are able to craft clear, direct sentences.
This resource has some great examples of syntax errors in sentences, why they’re incorrect, and how to fix them.
Now let’s take a look at some real personal statements from both traditional and non-traditional medical school applicants.
The following example is from a medical student who made their submission an AMCAS-style personal statement. It serves as a great example for an effective personal statement and we thought it was a good read overall!
Because many medical school applicants today are non-traditional students, we wanted to provide a successful non-traditional student personal statement example.
Remember, the time to start working on your personal statement is December/January before the May/June you plan to apply to medical school. Whether you simply need a fresh set of eyes on your essay, or you need guidance throughout the entire medical school application process, MedSchoolCoach is here to help.
We’ve helped thousands of students get accepted into medical school with expert guidance from our Physician Advisors and Writing Advisors. Our Advisors have years of experience serving on admissions committees and more than 500,000 hours of advising under their belts. They’ll work with you one-on-one, get to know the real you, and help you create a compelling and authentic essay that wows.
More than 90% of students who work with MedSchoolCoach on their personal statement receive at least one interview invitation. Are you ready for yours?
Do you want to learn even more about personal statements? Dive into these great resources!
Preparing Your Personal Statement For Medical Programs
Hosted by MedSchoolCoach Director of Writing & College Advising, Jennifer Speegle
Creating the First Draft of Your Medical School Personal Statement
Hosted by MedSchoolCoach advising and writing advisors, Ziggy Yoediono MD and James Fleming
Where to Begin When Writing Your Personal Statement
Hosted by MedSchoolCoach Associate Director of Writing and College Advising, Jennifer Speegle, Associate Director of Advising, Ziggy Yoediono MD, and Writing Advisor, Carrie Coaplen Ph. D
The Medical School Personal Statement – What Makes a Great Intro and Why It’s Important
Hosted by Director of Advising, Dr. Renee Marinelli, MD, Master Advisor, Dr. Ziggy Yoediono, MD, and Founder of MedSchoolCoach, Dr. Sahil Mehta, MD
In this Weekly Weigh-In, med school students discuss their own process for writing their personal statements!
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