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Getting Into Medical School: The Personal Statement

In this lesson, I’m going to help you to write a good personal statement.

Writing a good personal statement is essential for getting an interview. As its name suggests, it is personal and it is important that it brings out the aspects of your personality that are distinctive and interesting. A good personal statement illustrates your uniqueness.

Keep this in mind as you’re writing your statement and as you are preparing for your interview. If you look and sound like everyone else, your chances of being remembered are low.

The more your personal statement sounds like anyone else’s personal statement, the less personal it is and the less interested in you a committee will be. Uniqueness does not come from formulas. It comes from your life experiences and your singular perspective.

A theme is a unifying idea or core concept that runs through the entirety of a piece of writing. Demonstration of personal growth and insights, as well as maturity and concern for others, are great themes in personal statements. Skillful writers will develop a theme that ties together the stories they tell. I use the word “stories” for a reason. Simply saying “I am a hard-working person,” conveys very little to someone reading the statement who does not know you. It is a claim with no evidence or context. Telling a story about balancing two jobs with classes while raising a kid, by contrast, illustrates your work ethic and gives readers a clearer idea of your character and life circumstances.

Are there things you should NOT do in a personal statement? First of all, don’t model your statement on something you read on the internet. Your personal statement should be original and your readers should “hear your voice,” not someone else’s. Next, student personal statements often read like a list of activities and accomplishments or a collection of unrelated stories. This is a terrible idea. A personal statement should reveal your personality, a task that takes introspection, insights, and honesty. Lists tell people nothing about you other than that you have done many things.

People who define themselves by lists of accomplishments sound as if they view their experiences as notches on a belt, not a real live, meaningful event. Value is measured by the quality and impact of the experience, not by whether you think it sounds good to an interview committee.

As you are probably coming to realize, it is easy to discuss what not to do in a personal statement. It is much more difficult to talk about what works. Here is what I have seen. A solid personal statement will be

  • Interesting
  • Truthful
  • Compelling
  • Easy-to-read
  • Original
  • Something that makes the reader curious about you
  • Accurately and uniquely you

If there was ever a time for you to think creatively, this is it. There is nothing worse than a boring personal statement unless it is a boring interview. More to the point, a boring personal statement may torpedo your chances of getting an interview. The personal statement paints a picture of you to the selection committee. If it is interesting and sounds genuine, the committee will want to know more about you and invite you to interview. If it sounds canned or phony, you are in danger of rejection.

A good personal statement is introspective, but not obsessive. It reveals qualities about you without sounding self-centered. It is honest and it is open. It should reveal you to have some depth.

One of the most important things you must demonstrate in your personal statement and your interview is that you are an adult. You no doubt see yourself as an adult, but that doesn’t mean that you are one or that others will see you that way. Not appearing adult is an automatic way to be given a few more years to grow up before being considered again.

Your written language conveys a lot about you. Besides correct grammar and spelling, style is important. How do you construct your sentences? If you don’t know the value of short sentences interspersed with longer ones, then go back to writing class.

If the committee senses that you are throwing around big words you don’t normally use or if you use them improperly, you’re in trouble. A too simple vocabulary is problematic, as well—you want to sound like an adult, who can use language confidently and with nuance, not like a third-grader.

The purpose of the personal statement is to give the selection committee a sense of who you are as a person. An effective way to do this is to employ a story or two from your life. They don’t have to focus entirely on medicine.

In fact, one problem arises when students think that every other word or sentence they use has to involve medicine. BORING. Even the most dedicated physician in the world has skills and interests besides medicine.

These talents may well make a person a better doctor. So, although you do want to convince the committee that you are truly passionate about medicine, think about how to communicate that idea without outright stating it in so many words. One reason for this advice is that pretty much anyone can claim to be dedicated to medicine, hardworking, brilliant or compassionate. If you are compassionate, then your actions reveal that compassion.

Conveying to a reader that you are compassionate should be the easiest thing in the world, but many students think too literally and write too literally—“I am compassionate because…” People trained in science like the committee reviewing your application will look for evidence and come to their own conclusions about you.

My last piece of advice is that while you’re in college, by all means, take some classes in creative writing. At the very least, they will help you to avoid pedestrian writing—stating the facts and nothing more. Second, and this is a reminder, a personal statement is not a life story. It needn’t be chronological, but it should have a unifying theme. Third. Ask a wide variety of people to read it and give you honest feedback. This should include people who know you well like friends and family and people who don’t, like professors. With all of this in mind, you’re on your way to writing a memorable personal statement.

In this lesson, I covered the do’s and don’ts of personal statements, emphasizing the need for them to be genuine, uniquely you, and creatively composed.

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Written by

Kevin Ahern

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