Why are personal statements so important?

If it seems like everyone makes a big deal about personal statements, that’s because it is kind of a big deal. Dr. Stephen Nicholas, a former senior associate dean of admissions with the Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons, says the personal statement “really can cause me to look more deeply at the entire application."

However, this doesn’t mean you have to stick to a traditional topic. In fact, showcasing your personality is what admissions officers want to see. The point of the medical school personal statements is twofold. According to admissions experts, a personal statement “helps admissions officers figure out whether a premed is ready for med school, and it also clarifies whether a premed has a compelling rationale for attending med school.”

A personal statement can be difficult to write, because it’s a document most students haven’t written prior to their application to medical school. With admission to a dream program on the line, there can be a lot of pressure placed on a single document.

To get started, Dana Lovold, a career counselor at the University of Minnesota suggests four areas students can think about. Lovold recommends focusing on their motivation for applying to medical school, their fit in the program, capacity, which they can demonstrate “through holistically aligning with the competencies expected in the profession”, and their vision for their future impact on the medical field. 

Here's how you can get started...

1. Write, rewrite, let it sit, and write again

Sit down with your thoughts, and begin by crafting two lists. In one list, write down the reasons why you want to go into medicine. In the second list, “outline the qualities you have which you want to get across in your personal statement.”

2. Stay focused

It can be easy to get into the weeds when it comes to explaining why you want to attend medical school. Instead, try to remain focused on the task at hand, which is helping admissions understand who you are, and why you want to go into medicine. Stay focused, try to keep your writing clear, and be concise.

3. Avoid cliches

Spend time thinking about your true motivations for going to medical school. For example, saying “I want to help,” or “I’ve always wanted to be a doctor” may be true, but it’s also cliched. Many applicants are going to say those exact phrases, so in order to stand out from the crowd make sure you’re leaving cliched phrases and reasoning out of your personal statement.

4. Find your unique angle

What makes you unique, memorable, and unforgettable? Those are the things that will set you apart from the competition and make you memorable. For example, Britt D. Gratreak wrote about her experience in an E.R. for her admissions essay. She writes, “My personal statement detailed one of the worst days of my life and began in the emergency room. Instead of describing specific diagnoses, I described what the experience felt like, looked like, and what I was reflecting on in that moment. My first paragraph didn’t report what happened; instead, it described waves of thoughts I had while waiting for imaging results. Slowly I revealed the context, the injury and the implications. I used 118 words to vividly describe four words I never outright said: post-traumatic stress disorder.”

5. Be interesting

Take some time to really think about your hook and your angle. What’s interesting about you? Can you speak many languages? Do you play an interesting sport or instrument? Have you cooked your way through Julia Child’s Joy of Cooking? Whatever it is, make sure you highlight it in your statement.

6. Show don't tell

Gather your experiences that will be relatable to joining a medical school cohort, and make sure you’re able to demonstrate in your personal statement how you can use those experiences in medical school. Use specific examples to paint a picture of who you are, and what skills you already have.

7. Embrace the 5-point essay format

This is a very easy-to-follow personal statement format from college admissions specialists Princeton Review: 

  • Paragraph one: 4-5 attention-grabbing sentences.

  • 3-4 body paragraphs. Introduce who you are, use one to showcase your clinical experience, and the last to “reflect service.” 

  • Conclude by reflecting on your first paragraph, give a brief summary of yourself, and comment on a “challenge for the future.” 

8. Good writing is simple writing

Keep it simple. Focus on clear, concise writing, simple sentences, and don’t get overly grand with your vocabulary. Demonstrate your smarts without trying too hard.

9. Structure it carefully

Make sure the transitions between paragraphs are thoughtfully planned out so they don’t seem choppy or as if you’re jumping from one topic to another. Your essay should flow well, with, if possible, a common thread throughout the essay.

10. Stick to the rules

Each medical school may have a different prompt or expectation on how they would like the personal statement written. Therefore, you will need to review each application package to make sure you’re following the rules so your application won’t be rejected. This also demonstrates attention to detail, and an ability to follow directions, which are important in medical school candidates.

11. Stay on topic

Pick a topic, and stick to it. Remember, in these circumstances, less is often more. Don’t try to stuff a lot of different things into your personal statement.

12. Don't overdo it

As tempting as it can be to pack as much information into your personal statement as possible, don’t overdo it. Instead, make sure you’re being intentional about what details you reveal, as well as how you present them. Take your time to sort through your ideas and what you would like to share.

13. Seek different opinions

Before sending in your essay, make sure you get multiple opinions. Ask trusted friends, family, your career counselor, or medical school application advisor to read your personal statement and give you feedback.

14. Double-check the details

Before you hit send, make sure to go through your document with a fine-toothed comb. Double and triple check all the details to make sure everything is completely accurate and factual. Errors will be noted, so make sure that’s not something that’ll hold you back.

15. Consult the experts

There are people who are available to help you with your personal statement and getting prepared for medical school, so use them! Most universities offer career counseling, with many career services offices having a designated professional to help with medical school applications. (It is, after all, in their interests to help prospective medical students.) Additionally, you can ask for help from those already studying or working in medicine and or have experience with writing applications and professional documents. Don’t be afraid to ask for help.

Remember, your personal statement is “an opportunity for an admissions or review committee to get to know you, the “you” that cannot be captured in a CV or resume. For that reason, it is important to be confident, be honest, and be yourself.” Think about who you are, what you want to share with the admissions committee, where you are now, where you want to be in the future, and how you plan to get there. By taking your time, being open to critique and suggestions, and sharing an honest version of yourself, you’re sure to do well. 

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