“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 uniquely yours and achieves the ultimate goal of telling your story. Remember, your personal statement should be personal!
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Prompts & Topics
The AMCAS personal statement instructions are as follows:
Use the Personal Comments Essay as an opportunity to distinguish yourself from other applicants. Consider and write your Personal Comments Essay carefully; many admissions committees place significant weight on the essay. Here are some questions that you may want to consider while writing the essay:
- Why have you selected the field of medicine?
- What motivates you to learn more about medicine?
- What do you want medical schools to know about you that hasn’t been disclosed in other sections of the application?
In addition, you may wish to include information such as:
- Unique hardships, challenges, or obstacles that may have influenced your educational pursuits
- Comments on significant fluctuations in your academic record that are not explained elsewhere in your application
As you can see, these prompts are not vague; there are fundamental questions that admissions committees want you to answer when writing your personal statement. While the content of your statement should be focused on medicine, answering the open ended third question is a bit trickier.
So, let’s think about these questions in a slightly different way.
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.
Who are you as a person? What are your values and ideals?
Medical school admissions committees want to know about you as an individual beyond your interests in medicine, too. This is where answering that third open ended question in the prompt becomes so important. What was interesting about your background, youth, and home life? What did you enjoy most about college? Do you have any distinctive passions or interests? Write about those topics that are unlikely to appear elsewhere in your statement that will offer depth and interest to your work.
Outline & Structure
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:
- 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.
- Start your personal statement with something catchy. Think about the list of potential topics above.
- Don’t rush your work. Composing thoughtful documents takes time and you don’t want your writing and ideas to be sloppy and underdeveloped.
Most important is to begin with something that engages your reader. A narrative, a “story,” an anecdote written in the first or third person, is ideal. Whatever your approach, your first paragraph must grab your reader’s attention and motivate him to want to continue reading. I encourage applicants to start their personal statement by describing an experience that was especially influential in setting them on their path to medical school. This can be a personal experience or an extracurricular one. Remember to avoid clichés and quotes and to be honest and authentic in your writing. Don’t try to be someone who you are not by trying to imitate personal statement examples you have read online or “tell them what you think they want to hear”; consistency is key and your interviewer is going to make sure that you are who you say you are!
The bulk of your essay should be about your most valuable experiences, personal, academic, scholarly, clinical, academic and extracurricular that have impacted your path to medical school and through which you have learned about the practice of medicine. The best personal statements cover several topics and are not narrow in scope. Why is this important? Many different people with a variety of backgrounds, interests, and ideas of what makes a great medical student will be reading your essay. You want to make sure you essay has broad appeal.
As I have outlined in my book, The MedEdits Guide to Medical school Admissions, the following exercise will help you to determine what experiences you should highlight in your personal statement.
When composing your personal statement, keep in mind that you are writing, in effect, a “story” of how you arrived at this point in your life. But, unlike a “story” in the creative sense, yours must also offer convincing evidence for your decision to apply to medical school. Before starting your personal statement, create an experience- based personal inventory:
Write down a list of the most important experiences in your life and your development. The list should be all inclusive and comprise those experiences that had the most impact on you. Put the list, which should consist of personal, extracurricular, and academic events, in chronological order. From this list, determine which experiences you consider the most important in helping you decide to pursue a career in medicine. This “experience oriented” approach will allow you to determine which experiences best illustrate the personal competencies admissions committees look for in your written documents. Remember that you must provide evidence for your interest in medicine and for most of the personal qualities and characteristics that medical school admissions committees want to see.
After making your list, think about why each “most important” experience was influential and write that down. What did you observe? What did you learn? What insights did you gain? How did the experience influence your path and choices?
Then think of a story or illustration for why each experience was important.
After doing this exercise, evaluate each experience for its significance and influence and for its “story” value. Choose to write about those experiences that not only were influential but that also will provide interesting reading, keeping in mind that your goal is to weave the pertinent experiences together into a compelling story. In making your choices, think about how you will link each experience and transition from one topic to the next.
Decide which of your listed experiences you will use for the body of your personal statement and create a general outline.
In your conclusion, it is customary to “go full circle” by coming back to the topic—or anecdote—you introduced in the introduction, but this is not a must. Summarize why you want to be a doctor and address what you hope to achieve and your goals for medical school.
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.
What To Do
Illustrate 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
Give the reader a mental image of who you 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.
Be 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.
Make sure your personal statement 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.
Show 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.
What NOT To Do (Common Myths)
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 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.
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.
Personal Statement Examples
Read some medical school personal statement examples to get inspiration for your own personal statement. COMING SOON!
Personal Statement Writing Help
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