Medical School Application Personal Statements

Having reviewed thousands of personal statements over the years, admissions committee chairman John T. Pham, DO, has come up with his own rule of thumb.

“When I look at a personal statement, if it doesn’t catch my attention in the first paragraph, then I’m not interested in reading further,” says Dr. Pham, who is the vice chair of the department of family medicine at the Western University of Health Sciences College of Osteopathic Medicine of the Pacific-Northwest in Lebanon, Oregon.

The personal statement provides an important glimpse of a candidate’s noncognitive traits such as self-awareness, empathy, passion and fortitude. A vivid well-written essay conveying a medical school or residency program applicant’s motivations and aspirations can be a deciding factor in inviting that candidate in for an interview.

“The personal statement is really the only way you can make a memorable mark on admission committee members before you meet them,” says Benjamin K. Frederick, MD, a third-year radiology resident in Columbia, Missouri, who runs an essay-editing service called Edityour.net.

Dr. Pham advises students to have their personal statements critiqued before submitting them to medical schools or residency programs. Applicants should seek feedback on their draft essays from their classmates, physician mentors, college guidance counselors, and friends or family members with strong editorial skills, he says.

Some students take this process a step further by seeking professional help with their statements. Dr. Pham is not opposed to students’ enlisting help from private admissions consultants and essay editors as long as the personal statement reflects the applicant’s own words, insights and experiences.

But Adam Hoverman, DO, who has reviewed many personal statements to assess med school and residency applicants, is concerned that heavily edited, overly polished essays do not accurately portray a candidate’s communication skills.

“Being able to organize your thoughts and write effectively is vital for transmitting knowledge as a physician,” says Dr. Hoverman, an assistant professor of family medicine and global health at the Pacific Northwest University of Health Sciences, College of Osteopathic Medicine in Yakima, Washington. “An essay that reflects someone else’s skill set is misleading.”

Common pitfalls

But those who provide essay-editing services argue that they help future physicians become better, more reflective communicators. If it weren’t for their help, they maintain, many talented, compassionate individuals would not gain entrance to medical school or competitive residencies.

Medical school candidates often produce personal statements that are superficial and clichéd, says Linda Abraham, the founder of Accepted.com, an admissions consulting and essay-editing firm.

“The applicants will write in very generic terms about how they want to help people, and you don’t see where this comes from,” she says. “They don’t give their background story, and they don’t provide examples.”

When I look at a personal statement, if it doesn’t catch my attention in the first paragraph, then I’m not interested in reading further.

Dr. Frederick notes that many students try to cram too much information into their personal statements, which end up reading like CVs or résumés.

“The personal statement should be a narrative about an experience that led to personal growth in the pursuit of a medical career,” he says.

Vagueness and a lack of illustrative stories are the death knell of many personal statements, says medical school admissions consultant Cynthia Lewis, PhD.

“What I tell my applicants is that only one half of one sentence in a paragraph should be ‘This is what I did.’ The rest needs to be a reflection on why you did something,” says Dr. Lewis, founder of Lewis Associates. “What did you get out of it? How did it change you? How do you think differently about the world as a result of this experience?”

Telling a story

When Dr. Pham reads a personal statement, he wants to be wowed by the applicant’s story. Maybe the candidate decided to pursue medicine because of experiences in the Peace Corps, hardships overcome, a community service project, a family member’s battle with a disease or any other life-changing situation.

“Does the personal statement engage me from the get-go?” Dr. Pham asks himself. “Does it have a good story line and tell me a lot about the person and whether he or she is really dedicated to medicine?”

Being able to organize your thoughts and write effectively is vital for transmitting knowledge as a physician.

Applicants to osteopathic medical school are limited to 4,500 characters (including spaces), roughly 700 words, for their personal statement, so it must be concise and to the point. Dr. Lewis recommends that candidates divide their personal statements into three components. The first part, she says, should be a one-paragraph “uniqueness statement”—something significant the applicant has accomplished, a passionate interest or hobby, or a challenging or deeply moving experience.

She recalls one client who had several stories to choose from. When he was studying abroad in Spain, his wallet was stolen while he was traveling in England and he had to navigate Europe without his passport or any other ID. He also learned how to play flamenco guitar that year.

“You need to pick one key experience or interest and talk about it,” Dr. Lewis says. “This will say a lot about you, what you care about and how you think.”

The second part of the personal statement should describe the applicant’s journey to medicine, she says. The candidate should explain in a couple of paragraphs what initiated his or her interest in becoming a physician, what has sustained that ambition over time, and why he or she feels ready to apply to medical school.

Taking considerable time to self-reflect and write a compelling personal statement is a valuable exercise.

The final part of the essay should explore the candidate’s interest in osteopathic medicine. “Don’t just say, ‘I shadowed an osteopathic physician,’ ” urges Dr. Lewis. “Explain what you learned from the experience and how you might incorporate osteopathic philosophy into your future practice.

“If you are applying to osteopathic medical schools, the people evaluating your application need to see that you have an understanding of the osteopathic approach to care.”

However, warns Dr. Pham, applicants should not try to address all of the osteopathic tenets in the essay, which would seem forced and insincere.

“Applicants should not tell us what they think we want to hear,” he insists. “We know that many students apply to both DO and MD schools. But if a student is strictly applying to osteopathic schools, it’s important to tell us why.”

Months-long process

Unlike personal statements for osteopathic medical school, which are submitted with the application through AACOMAS, those for residency can be customized to the specialty and program, as ERAS permits. But that doesn’t make them any easier to write, says Kim M. Peck, the director of academic and career guidance at the Michigan State University College of Osteopathic Medicine (MSUCOM) in East Lansing.

Residency candidates need to tell the story of how they came to be interested in a particular specialty and what their long-term career goals are, according to Peck. “I advise students to be specific,” she says. “Don’t just say, for instance, that you are good with your hands and would make a great surgeon. Give an example of how you came to realize that, including details. Did an attending compliment you when you assisted with suturing? Was it an interaction with a hospitalized patient that helped you make up your mind?”

MSUCOM’s website includes a list of 14 questions students should ask themselves before they begin writing their first draft, such as “Which course work and clinical experiences have you enjoyed the most and why?” and “What is unique about you and your experiences?”

The process of writing an effective personal statement may take months, not just days or weeks, Peck says.

“Medical students are so busy doing rotations, taking shelf exams, and jumping through all of the hoops that are part of the residency process that they often don’t have time to think about themselves and where they’re going,” she observes. “Taking considerable time to self-reflect and write a compelling personal statement is a valuable exercise that helps ensure that students are making sound, thoughtful career decisions.”

Medical communication: An overlooked skill?

Googling “medical personal statement editing” yields more than 590,000 links to services and informational websites.

“Evidently, these services have arisen because of demand: Students feel they have not been adequately prepared as premeds to write persuasive personal essays,” says Dr. Hoverman, who stresses that educators should be teaching aspiring physicians communication skills alongside biology and chemistry.

“The ability to frame your thoughts in a manner that is productive for a peer, a patient or the community is substantially relevant in all aspects of health care,” he says.

Premeds interested in educating themselves can take electives such as creative writing classes and advanced speech classes. Medical students may consider pursuing writing opportunities on their own, such as starting a blog or writing research papers or articles for medical publications.

Picking up communication skills will help aspiring physicians do much more than write better personal statements, Dr. Hoverman notes.

“Organizing clinical teams, developing treatment plans, engaging in health advocacy—all of these things require physicians to be excellent communicators,” he says. “Consequently, a personal statement should genuinely reflect an applicant’s communication skills.”

Part 2: How to Begin (Goal: Engage the Reader)

Before you begin to write, I recommend that you:

  1. Develop a list of qualities you want to demonstrate and
  2. Think of events or situations that highlight these qualities

Then, you should write about one of these events or situations in a way that demonstrates these qualities and captures the reader’s attention.

1.   List Your Greatest Qualities

To answer the personal statement prompt more easily, focus again on the question of what you want admissions committees to know about you beyond your numbers and achievements.

I’m not talking about your hobbies (e.g., “I followed Taylor Swift to every concert she performed in the US during this past year”), although you could certainly point to aspects of your lifestyle in your essay to make your point.

Instead, I’m talking about which of your qualities–character, personality traits, attitudes–you want to demonstrate. Examples include:

  • Extraordinary compassion
  • Kindness
  • Willingness to learn
  • Great listening skills
  • Optimism
  • Knowledge-seeking
  • Persistence
  • And so on

If you have difficulty thinking of your great qualities (many students do), ask family members or close friends what you’re good at and why they like you; that will take care of things :)

Finally, choose the two or three qualities that you want to focus on in your personal statement. Let’s use compassion and knowledge-seeking as the foundational qualities of an original example for this article.

(Note: I cannot overstate how important it is to think of the qualities you want to demonstrate in your personal statement before choosing a situation or event to write about. Students who decide on an event or situation first usually struggle to fit in their qualities within the confines of their story. On the other hand, students who choose the qualities they want to convey first are easily able to demonstrate them because the event or situation they settle on naturally highlights these qualities.)

2.   When or Where Have You Demonstrated These Qualities?

Now that I’m off my soapbox and you’ve chosen qualities to highlight, it’s time to list any event(s) or setting(s) where you’ve demonstrated them.

I should explicitly mention that this event or setting doesn't need to come from a clinical (e.g., shadowing a physician, interacting with a young adult patient at a cancer center, working with children in an international clinic) or research experience (e.g., making a finding in cancer research), although it’s OK if it involves an extracurricular activity directly related to medicine.

In fact, since most students start their essays by describing clinical or research experiences, starting off with something else–travel (e.g., a camping trip in Yellowstone), volunteering (e.g., building homes in New Orleans), family (e.g., spending time with and learning from your elderly and ill grandmother back home in New Hampshire), work (e.g., helping out at your parents’ donut shop)–will make you immediately stand out.

Let’s start with the example of building homes in New Orleans. Why? Because we could easily demonstrate compassion and knowledge-seeking through this experience. Notice how the qualities we select can choose the story for us?

3.  Describe Your Event as a Story

Here’s where the art of writing a great personal statement really comes in.

Admissions officers read thousands of essays, most of which are very cliché or dry. Therefore, it’s critical that you stand out by engaging the reader from the very beginning.

By far the best way to capture admissions officers early is by developing a story at the start of your essay about the event or situation you chose in Step 2.

In a previous article, I wrote about the three critical elements for writing a great admissions essay story: 1) a compelling character, 2) a relatable plot, and 3) authenticity) 

However, I want to go one step beyond that article and provide an actual example of how the same event can be written in a routine vs. compelling way. That way, you can avoid the common pitfalls of typical personal statements and write a standout one.

Routine

One of my most eye-opening experiences came when I volunteered with Habitat for Humanity in New Orleans during the summer months of 2014. Up to that point, I had only heard about the destruction caused by Hurricane Katrina 9 years earlier. Although pictures and stories of the aftermath compelled me to volunteer, it was not until I observed the emotional pounding the people of New Orleans had experienced that I developed a greater sense of compassion for their plight.

Compelling

New Orleans was hot and humid during the summer months of 2014–no surprise there. However, for a native Oregonian like me, waking up to 90-degree and 85% humidity days initially seemed like too much to bear. That was until I reflected on the fact that my temporary discomfort was minute in contrast to the destruction of communities and emotional pounding experienced by the people of New Orleans during and after Hurricane Katrina 9 years earlier. Although pictures and stories of the aftermath compelled me to understand its effects on the community and volunteer, actually building homes and interacting with the locals, like 9 year-old Jermaine, who cried as I held his hand while we unveiled his rebuilt home, taught me that caring for people was as much about lifting spirits as making physical improvements.

Many people may feel the Routine example is pretty good. Upon closer look, however, it seems that:

  • The focus is as much on New Orleanians as the applicant
  • The story is not particularly relatable (unless the reader had also volunteered there)
  • There isn’t much support for the writer actually being touched by the people there

On the other hand, the Compelling example:

  • Keeps the spotlight on the applicant throughout (e.g., references being from Oregon, discusses her reflections, interacting with Jermaine)
  • Has a relatable plot (e.g., temporary discomfort, changing perspectives)
  • Is authentic (e.g., provides an example of how she lifted spirits)

(You can find yet another example of a typical vs. standout admissions essay introduction to engage readers in this earlier post.)

4.   Demonstrate Your Qualities

(Note: This section applies to all aspects of your essay.)

“Show, don’t tell” is one of the most common pieces of advice given for writing personal statements, but further guidance or examples are rarely provided to demonstrate what it looks like when done well.

This is unfortunate because the best way to understand how standout personal statements demonstrate qualities through an engaging story is by reading two examples of the same situation: one that “tells” about a quality, and another that “shows” a quality.

Let’s take a look at the last sentence of each story example I provided in the previous section to better understand this distinction.

Telling (from Routine story)

“…it was not until I observed the emotional pounding the people of New Orleans had experienced that I developed a greater sense of compassion for their plight.”

Showing (from Compelling story)

“…actually building homes and interacting with the locals, like 9 year-old Jermaine, who cried as I held his hand while we unveiled his rebuilt home, taught me that caring for people…”

Notice how the second example demonstrates compassion without ever mentioning the word "compassion" (hence no bolded words)?

Moreover, the same sentence demonstrates knowledge-seeking: “Although pictures and stories of the aftermath compelled me to understand its effects on the community and volunteer, actually building homes and interacting with the locals...”)

That’s what you’re going for.

Think about it. Who do you consider to be more kind:

  • A person who says, “I’m really nice!”; or
  • A person who you've seen do nice things for others?

Clearly, the second person will be seen as more kind, even if there's no difference between their levels of kindness.

Therefore, by demonstrating your qualities, you will look better to admissions committees, and also seem more authentic.

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