Personal Statement 101

As previously mentioned in our overview of MD/PhD admissions, the central application for medical school is through AMCAS. One of the most important portions is the major essay, deemed the “Personal Statement” (PS). This essay is a requirement for anyone applying to medical school as a whole, so both MD and MD/PhD applicants need to complete it.

Here’s the prompt: “Use the space provided to explain why you want to go to medical school. The available space for your response is 5300 characters, or approximately one full page. You will receive an error message if you exceed the available space.”

Finally, some brief overall advice: the personal statement must explain why you want to be a physician. While many MD/PhD applicants are tempted to dive into the fine details of their research here, I highly recommend using the two MD/PhD-specific essays for that purpose. Utilize your prized 5300 characters to really convey your desire to care for patients as an MD!

However, this is certainly not to say that your PS should not mention research at all. In fact, admissions committees often state that it is an excellent idea to indicate how you will utilize research as a vital component in your ultimate practice of academic medicine. We hope the advice below will give you ideas about how to do so while keeping your focus on the clinic!

 

 

PART 1: Where to begin? Themes and common structures

Before we dive into specific tips, I’d like to share some ideas for those who feel unsure of where to begin at all. Many students initially believe that since the PS is such a big deal, it must be filled with dramatic life events… but please don’t panic! In reality, you don’t need a life story straight out of Hollywood to be admitted to medical school. 🙂

Admissions committee members will understand that there is likely not one moment when you suddenly realized you wanted to be a doctor. Instead, the key to an excellent personal statement is to build your story logically and powerfully. You want to take the committee through your own journey, showing who you are and what you value along the way.

For example, perhaps there were little moments where you recognized your strengths and passions. Maybe you first realized that you enjoyed being a leader. Then you found that you were energized by interactions with diverse groups of people. Those qualities may have led you to seek an environment where you could constantly learn and share knowledge with others. And eventually, as you shadowed or talked to doctors, you understood that a career in medicine would suit and strengthen your interests.

Or maybe you want to approach your PS differently. Perhaps you had one meaningful interaction when you were younger, even if it was not medically-related, and that interaction sent your life in a certain direction. What choices did you make that led you to meet certain people? What did you learn in your interaction(s)? How did this lead you to discovering the medical field?

Either way, your story does not need to be “extraordinary” for you to stand out as a strong applicant. Just share who you are as a person and explain why you are interested in medicine, as the prompt describes! Admissions committees are looking for clarity rather than idealism. Be genuine, and the rest will come naturally.

 

 

PART 2: Once you’ve started… 5 tips for nailing the PS

While there are many ways to tackle the PS, we hope the above examples give you some ideas about where to start. From there, you’ll need to write multiple drafts and revise multiple times. As you embark on this process, we will share 5 tips to help you nail the PS, summarized below:

  1. Follow the prompt
  2. Remember your audience
  3. Use “The Test” to avoid generalizations
  4. Reverse outline
  5. Ask others to summarize your work

Please continue reading for explanations and self-checks you can apply to each step!

 

  1. Follow the prompt: Focus on your motivations rather than your accomplishments.

Believe it or not, one of the most common mistakes is to neglect following the prompt – and this is easier to do than you’d think! It typically occurs as applicants stray into “the resume” version of the PS. Rather than examine why they want to be a doctor, students are tempted to explain what they have done to make them qualified for medical school. In actuality, this information is much better suited for the activity section in AMCAS. Thus, we highly suggest composing your 15 activities BEFORE writing your PS… we’ll explain more in a future post!

Again, your PS should focus strictly on your motivations to be a physician: When did you first learn about the medical field? Why were you drawn to it? How was that attraction confirmed as you grew older? What parts of being a physician interest you specifically, and why?

 

  1. Remember your audience: Stay realistic and appropriate.

You will be writing for an admissions committee at a medical school. As such, you’ll want to keep your writing very professional. You should be formal (no slang, no unexplained abbreviations, etc), yet you want to remain clear, concise, and accessible. In terms of content, this means that you’ll generally want to remain neutral and abstain from controversy. Do your best to avoid getting too personal or political here – remember, anything you write in your PS is fair game for an interview. Tell your story in a way that does not make a professional audience feel uncomfortable and that you would be happy to elaborate on later!

Additionally, you will need to keep your tone in check and make sure you are not subtly implying anything unintended. This begins by taking care to avoid sounding naïve or uninformed. Do your research! Get to know what the daily life of a physician is like through shadowing during undergrad so that you can speak honestly about challenges you may face and show that you have an idea of the rigor of the field.

Still, stay humble. You are in the early stages of learning about the profession, so there will inevitably be gaps in your knowledge. Do not share negative judgments towards anyone’s work or a certain subfield. Take care to avoid slighting any career by implying that you wanted to do “more” or “better” than one degree or specialty could offer. Asking others for help (see tip #5) is a great way to ensure that your essay doesn’t have any unintended implications and that you maintain a great level of respect for doctors of all specialties who read your PS!

 

3a. Use “The Test” to avoid generalizations.

It can be difficult to talk about yourself for 5300 characters, and students sometimes go astray. Most often, applicants tend to make generalizations about the medical field and what doctors should do or what it means to be a doctor. Remember, you want your PS to be uniquely yours! The physicians reading your essay understand the profession, but they don’t know why you want to enter it.

Thus, I suggest conducting what I call “The Test.” Read through your essay, and highlight sentences that could be in anybody’s PS. While a fairly universal transition sentence may be necessary every now and then, you should generally have no more than about 5% of your essay highlighted (maybe one sentence per paragraph, as an estimate). Otherwise, this is not really your personal statement – anyone could have written it!

This may seem difficult, but even a sentence like “Doctors must be compassionate” can be re-written to something like, “Through my interactions with Dr. X, I realized the importance of compassion in medicine…” with an accompanying explanation of why that was attractive to you and/or how that shaped your decision to be a physician. Rather than tell me what doctors should do, demonstrate how you’ve developed a certain trait that ultimately led you to medicine.

 

3b. (bonus!) Double-check “The Test” – keep the attention on yourself!

Most of the time, “The Test” should reveal instances where you are shifting away from the purpose of the essay. However, I believe there is one type of writing that may slip through the cracks, and I find it important enough to elaborate on here!

When I first went to write my PS, I was very tempted to talk about the people who influenced me. In particular, I wanted to tell the story of a young patient with whom I interacted in a serious crisis and the joy I saw within her. I felt that conveying her vivacious spirit would allow me to talk about what I witnessed that changed my perspective, which would show my personal values.

My pre-med advisor was incredibly apt to point out that writing my entire essay in this manner was problematic. I was not talking about me. I told a wonderful story of someone who shaped my life, but if admissions officers were asked about my personal qualities, they could only speculate. I failed to describe who I was and what brought me into that hospital room in the first place. I learned that while it is OK to bring in those who have influenced you, it is critical that you keep the focus on yourself. What led you to meet that person? How did your heart change throughout your interactions? What did you realize about yourself in that encounter?

 

  1. Reverse outline.

After you’ve written your PS, you’ll want to check to see whether you have a clear, cohesive focus to your essay. Your PS should tell one story with multiple components. One great way to see what points you are making is to reverse outline. Read over your PS. At the end of each paragraph, write down a sentence or even just a few bullet points that summarize(s) what you’ve written. See if you stayed on track. Ideally, each of these phrases should highlight a clear theme in your essay, and each should connect to your central thesis: I want to be a physician.

 

  1. Ask others to summarize your work. Even better, ask those who you do not know very well.

The most obvious thing you’ll want to have others review will be your grammar. You want to make sure that your PS connects well, transitions smoothly, and makes sense as you intend it. However, you’ll also need a level of critique that goes beyond simple proofreading.

For the latter task, I highly recommend having acquaintances read your PS rather than just your best friends. Have a few people who you do not know very well read your PS, and ask them to describe you afterwards. What personality traits can they discern from your statement? Why do they think you are going into the medical field? Their answers to these questions will help you determine whether or not your PS is an accurate depiction of yourself and if it conveys what you would like the admissions committee to know.

 

Best wishes and happy writing!
Emily Hayward, MS-1

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