Medical School Personal Statement: 3 Essential Elements
May 8, 2019
Medical School Personal Statement: 3 Essential Elements
You’ve got the grades, you’ve got the MCAT score, you’ve got the extracurriculars. But so does almost every other candidate. It’s easy to get lost in the shuffle when you’re applying to medical school alongside thousands of other brilliant students around the country. One way to set your application apart from the rest of the pool is through your personal statement. Your medical school personal statement is your chance to tell your unique story to the admissions committee and provide them with context on why you want to pursue medicine.
Your personal statement should maintain a perfect balance of compelling storytelling and strong, clear writing. In order to stay on top of the medical school application cycle, you need to start brainstorming topics for the personal statement as early as February or March, and draft it by April. The more time you invest in this essay, the better. Below, I have outlined goals for your medical school personal statement, common mistakes to avoid, how to pick a topic, and writing tips to strengthen your essay.
Your medical school personal statement must address three critical topics:
1) You 2) Your passion for the field of medicine, and 3) Your qualifications as a future medical student and physician. These three elements are foundational to both the content and purpose of your personal statement.
- If it isn’t about you, it isn’t a personal statement. A medical school personal statement is the admission committee’s best chance to get to know you. Thus, the most important characteristic of a personal statement is that it is written about you. The content of your personal statement is not relevant unless those contents pertain directly to you. For example, applicants will occasionally use their medical school personal statement to wax lyrical about the value of medicine in society. Even when brilliantly written (though they rarely are), they make you look stupid, because they demonstrate your inability to complete a straightforward task. You are asked to write a personal statement. Make it personal.
- Your medical school personal statement must make your application more, not less, coherent. Everyone has a diverse set of experiences. Your extracurricular activities might run the gamut from pianist to professional juggler, from football star to forensics whiz. Your medical school personal statement is an opportunity to reconcile this array of experiences into a coherent and unified portrait of yourself. Your personal statement for medical school must clarify how the disparate pieces of your application combine to create a single, viable, and coherent med school candidate.
- Your medical school personal statement must distinguish you from other, equally-qualified applicants. As much as you may like to ignore this fact, you are in competition with thousands of other equally-motivated and more-or-less equally-qualified applicants. Some part of what makes you excellent must differentiate you from the crowd. You must give admissions committees some reason why you should be admitted rather than the other candidates who have what it takes to succeed in medical school.
- Make sure your medical school personal statement can be summed up the way you want it to be. The admissions committee members reading your medical school personal statement should be able to summarize something important and unique about you in a very concise, memorable way. Regardless of how you choose to present yourself, an admissions committee member will be far more likely to remember you if there is a unique “catch-phrase” which could summarize the major characteristics of your application.
- Be likable and interesting. Whatever you discuss, make sure it is interesting and engaging information about yourself. One of the best ways to do this is by culling your life experiences for instructive and illuminating anecdotes and vignettes. There is nothing wrong with appearing human in your medical school personal statement; appearing complex, imperfect, and capable of learning from mistakes is the foundation of what makes you a person, and you should be sure to flesh that out in your personal statement.
2. Your Passion for Medicine and Motivation for Pursuing a Medical Career
Your medical school personal statement should demonstrate that you are genuinely interested in and passionate about medicine. Write as though admissions officers will presume that you are applying merely because it is the “next step in your life,” and not because you have a genuine interest in the medical field. You must rebut this presumption in your medical school personal statement.
You do not need to, and if possible should not, declare outright your passion for medicine - e.g., “I am passionate about medicine because of x, y, z....” Rather, your personal statement should allow the reader to naturally infer that you are genuinely passionate about medicine, and that there is some valid explanation for your passion.
In demonstrating your interest in medicine, it is crucial that your interest seems genuine, and that your justifications appear reasonable. Do not say that you are passionate about becoming a doctor because of your wish to help the downtrodden unless your experiences provide ample support for that explanation. Think about the first time you knew you wanted to be a doctor, and how the commitment grew over time. Think about the significance medicine plays in your life what your biggest concerns in making this decision might be.
Alternatively, do not say that you are interested in medicine because you watch the TV show House; that is a manifestly unreasonable explanation that will make you seem foolish. Only stating reasons such as “I like science” or “I enjoy working with people” will ring hollow. As genuine as those motivations may be, they are very common. Talk elaborately with specific examples about how your interest in science or work in medicine-related extracurriculars has helped develop your love in medicine. If a doctor was particularly influential to you, don’t just state the fact. Talk about how, or what exactly they did, or what in your conversation might have sparked motivation in you to pursue the same field.
Since you’re applying to medical school, it’s a given that you are interested in medicine. But what sets your motivations apart? It’s important that the drive and passion you have for medicine genuinely come across in your medical personal statement.
3. Your Qualifications as a Future Medical Student and Physician
You should think of each of your experiences, achievements, qualities, and skills as providing a separate reason for why you are well suited to the medical field.
Perhaps you have extensive experience with teamwork and collaborative learning, which might allow you to work effectively in a clinical setting; or maybe you are a well-seasoned debater who can quickly digest complex readings and provide thoughtful analysis on them, which will allow you to make meaningful contributions during class or in the lab.
If you decide to include a skill or quality in your personal statement, it should be clearly related to a successful career in medicine.
Don’t bother discussing how you are a phenomenal gymnast unless you can give a compelling reason for why your achievements as a gymnast are related to medical school or the practice of medicine generally.
- Your medical school personal statement should proactively demonstrate why you will make a great medical student and physician. Are you honest, respectful and mature? Do you have strong communication skills and leadership qualities? In essence, this task boils down to whether or not you possess the characteristics necessary to succeed both in a rigorous academic environment as a medical student, as well as a challenging and fast-paced professional environment as a doctor.
- Use your medical school personal statement to preempt concerns which might arise from other parts of your application. If your GPA or MCAT score isn’t too high but your personal statement is stellar, admissions committees might overlook your less desirable numbers. This is the place to make your story so powerful that you can still be a top contender for a spot.
You must be conscious of the impressions left by the earlier parts of your application. Did you struggle with your classes freshman year? Has the time you’ve spent doing community service or volunteer work flagged in the past couple of years? Whatever the weaknesses or holes in your application, you must be aware of them, and takes steps to counteract them with a powerful personal statement.
Whatever topic you choose for your medical school personal statement, the theme and story must align with the rest of your application. The narrative which is maintained throughout your application and distinguishes you from other applicants is your application persona - the consistency followed by your extracurricular activities, your research and voluntary experiences and the story you convey in you medical school personal statement. Your application persona could highlight your initiative in carrying out blood drives and creating a mobile clinic to help out the victims of a natural disaster your local community faced. Or, you could have been inspired to become a doctor from your experience as a patient in a children’s hospital, and have been motivated to work with children ever since, through mentoring and volunteering.
When thinking about what moves them toward medicine, students sometimes choose to focus on one of the following:
- Personal growth
- Notable achievements
- Overcoming adversity
- International travel
- Childhood stories
- Passion projects.
While these aren’t inherently bad, they’re very common. Your personal statement should feature a story only you can tell. It’s what differentiates you from your peers. There is of course no wrong answer when brainstorming your medical school personal statement, but keep in mind your application persona and typical themes.
Yes, your personal statement needs to tell your story, but you also have to pick the right angle and perfect it. There are a few mistakes that admissions committee members have seen countless times that could instantly put you in the “no” pile. Look at your drafts with a critical idea and make sure you aren’t guilty of any of these mistakes....
- Don’t exaggerate adversity you have faced. If you overcame bad grades in college, don’t create extreme circumstances to explain how they went up, if all you did was study more regularly or turn in your work on time. If a friend of yours suffered a natural disaster that you barely witnessed, don’t take their story and turn it into yours.
- You shouldn’t attempt to appear diverse if it doesn’t apply to you. You’re an adult. Use your own discretion to determine whether the story of a marginalized community in your city counts as your story just because you’re from the same area. Don’t insert yourself where you probably don’t belong.
- You’re an adult. Leave high school in the past. Just like college admissions officers don’t want to know about middle or elementary school achievements, medical school admissions committees don’t want to know about all of the medals you won in 11th grade. Talk more about activities you did in college, or what you learned from your clinical or research experience.
- Moreover, you’re obviously not a doctor yet, so don’t pretend to be one! The admissions committee members reading your application know far more about medicine than you. Don’t act as if you already know everything there is. Medical schools don’t want students whom they have nothing to teach. The whole point of applying to medical school is that you’re trying to become a doctor!
- Don’t just rewrite your resumé. Admissions committees look at all parts of your application - they will already have seen that.
Getting Started on the Writing Process
Now that you’ve gone through the do’s and don'ts of writing your medical school personal statement, it’s time to start writing!
Picking a Topic
This can take a while. After all, this is probably the most important essay you’ve ever had to write, but no pressure. Don’t rush it. Jot down the ideas that come to your mind. Try to re-imagine the question behind the essay prompt. Come up with a one-line summary of your motivation to study medicine. Talk to friends and family for topic ideas, because they’ve watched you grow into the person and prospective doctor you are. Everyone has their own method, but the idea here is just to get the ball rolling.
You don’t have to know the perfect topic immediately. You could start with three themes that you think might tell your story best, wait for a few days and come back to it. Look at them again. Ask yourself which topic feels the most you, tells the story you want to tell, and can help boost your application. Taking some time away and thinking about your goals in writing might just help you find the perfect medical school personal statement topic.
Writing Your First Draft
Once you’ve got your topic and your outline, it’s time to actually start writing. You’ve probably written some papers (or maybe a lot, depending on your major) in college. Everyone has their own writing method that works best for them. You could be the type of person who just needs to get it all out, or you might prefer to perfect each sentence as you go. Either way, your goal here is to get a first draft down. You should submit the medical school personal statement with the AMCAS as soon as it opens. Finish your first draft by April so that you allow yourself two months for revising and editing. Don’t risk falling behind!
Revising and Editing
The revising process is very important. Whether you track changes on your computer, or print your personal statement out and scratch and rewrite using a pen, you want to have at least ten drafts. When proofreading, never rely only on grammar and spelling checkers: look out for words that could be easily confused (such as “where” vs. “were”) that a spell checker wouldn’t catch. As for grammatical errors, watch out for run-on sentences, comma splices, and subject-verb agreement.
Read the essay out loud, read every sentence carefully, read the essay backwards, sentence by sentence. Make sure the narrative flows smoothly, and the essay makes sense. Your paragraph transitions should be logical, instead of abruptly shifting gears into a completely different topic. Be certain that the essay clearly demonstrates your application persona. Have friends and family read through it, get as much feedback as you can, but remember, at the end of the day it is your work.
Your personal statement needs to reflect your passion for medicine and your qualifications as a future medical student. Don’t forget to focus on what makes you unique and tie all of the pieces together. If you pick a great topic and write a medical school personal statement that checks all these boxes, you’ll stand out as a memorable candidate and inch one step closer to becoming a doctor.