Every pre-med is aware of the requirement of writing a personal statement before applying to medical school. Every pre-med also knows how dreaded this essay is. The personal statement can be one of the toughest parts of your application because it will likely amount to one of the most challenging essays you’ve ever written. In 5300 characters or less (strictly), you are required to show medical school Admissions Committees (adcoms) why you are worthy of an interview and acceptance without sounding like a pretentious a-hole. This is no easy feat.
Even though it may be tough, it is very important to submit your application with an excellent personal statement. The PS is the first introduction that adcoms get to you as a person. In this essay, you typically answer the question, “Why medicine?” The way in which you choose to answer this question, while displaying your admirable personal qualities and accomplishments, is what can get tough. The process of writing the statement usually involves several drafts with significant amounts of editing. The time and effort are worth it, though, because a marginal personal statement is likely to cost you an interview.
So where do you begin?
I think the most important question to answer before you begin your drafting is “Why medicine?” You may have had a single defining moment that led you to choose this career path, or it may have been a culmination of many events that pushed you to apply to medical school. What is your reason? Why are you willing to spend eight years in school, plus 3-7 years in residency, 1-3 years in fellowship, AND become buried in debt for such a challenging career? Why are you excited about devoting your life to being a servant of others? If these questions raise emotions inside of you, these are the emotions you need to pull on when drafting your PS. If they don’t, it’s time to do some soul-searching and develop your answers. Your reader needs to have a satisfying answer behind the question of why you are pursuing medicine. You must make this clear, and it must be personal, and authentic. If someone else could have written your essay, you are not doing it right. This is the time to dig deep.
In addition to answering the above question, you must also answer for your reader, “Why me?” Why should they choose you for an interview? What qualities do you possess as a person that will benefit their school and the field of medicine? Why should they let you in? Rather than telling AdComs these things, you must show them. Tell them why, not what. For every claim that you make, such as “I learned that doctors must be compassionate while shadowing Dr. Smith…” you must give an example. How did you learn that doctors must be compassionate? What experience showed you this? How will you translate this experience into your future practice of medicine? These are the important questions to answer.
While making sure to answer the pertinent questions above, you must make this an interesting read. If you are bored writing it, your reader will be bored reading it. Adcom personal statement readers can read dozens of these in a day, and hundreds every application cycle. How will your PS stand out? Keep your essay alive with detail and emotion. Tell them a story if it will help tell your story. Include experiences that had a significant impact on you personally and professionally without restating your AMCAS experiences. You have the space to expand on a few very important encounters with life and medicine in your PS. But use your space wisely. Every sentence should be supportive of you and only you. Adcoms care about you, and they want to know more about you. So give them what they want!
Remember that if you need to address a shortcoming, that’s ok, but you should always back it up with how you’ve overcome it or what you’ve learned from it to make you a better person. Being honest about things that have happened or challenges you’ve faced is just fine, but you should immediately explain what you did to correct it. “My grades suffered because of poor organization.” becomes “In the past I suffered from a lack of organization. I recognized this, however, and began diligently entering assignments, due-dates, and reminders in a calendar to keep myself organized.’ This is an important skill because when you do interviews they’re going to want to hear about overcoming adversities or improving weaknesses, an essential skill for any physician. This also applies to any personal hardships you have faced, which are ok to address as long as you are comfortable talking about them.
When I first sat down to plan my personal statement (which I did several times before writing a decent first draft), I made a list of all of the experiences that had a significant impact on my life, both involved with medicine and my personal background. The experiences I chose also happened to be those I had chosen as my Most Meaningful in my AMCAS 15. This is NOT to say that this is something you should do. I did this without even being aware that I did. But this showed me that I had chosen correctly for my most meaningful experiences – they truly were the most meaningful. I then created a theme around which I could relate these experiences in order to tie them together coherently. Your essay must be easy to follow, and it should complement your AMCAS application essays. The order in which you decide to write about these events must make sense. It can be chronological, or not. Find a thread that best suits what you want to say, and how you want to say it.
When I was ready to draft up my first PS, I sat down with my iPad on a bench outside as the sun was setting. The campus looked beautiful in the golden light of dusk, and I was inspired. I was happy to write up this draft because it meant that I was making another baby step toward my ultimate goal. When it comes time to write your draft, get inspired. Go sit by a lake, in a quiet bar with a beer, or in the silence of the upper floors of the library if that’s what gets your gears churning. Make sure you are in a happy state of mind when you write this draft. It will show in the vocabulary you choose and in the emotional connection you make. Your reader will pick up on this inspiration and will hopefully feel inspired themselves.
Don’t be this guy:
Another idea for content is to include what your future goals are. Did you go on a mission trip and plan to return to that location as a doctor? Do you plan to continue research? We know that becoming a doctor is first and foremost, but where will this degree take you? This shows vision, which is a quality of someone who may contribute new and valuable things to their field.
Make sure to have your PS edited by someone you respect (a professor, doctor, or both). If your school has a Pre-health office, ask them to read it and give you suggestions. You can also take it to the doctor you shadow, a mentor, your research PI, a professor, or even the writing center. Don’t get it read by too many people though, because you will start to obtain overlapping and/or conflicting advice. Give it to a few people you think will benefit you the most, and leave it at that. You also have the option to not take any of their advice. If you don’t agree with their opinions, don’t take them. Kindly thank them for their help and make the changes that you feel are appropriate, whether it be all of them or none of them.
Don’t wait until the last minute to begin your draft. As you can see, it is a process and you must give yourself due time when creating something so important.
If you have any questions about writing your personal statement, ask them in the comments below!