Applying to Medical School

How to Write About COVID-19 in Your Medical School Personal Statement

Many medical school applicants will write about how the pandemic has personally affected them. Here’s how to distinguish yourself with a show vs. tell approach, and how to make your personal statement stand out amongst the influx of COVID-19 content. 

Don’t Make Your Personal Statement All About COVID

COVID-centered personal statements are sure to inundate current and future admissions cycles. The pandemic has indelibly altered public health, virology studies, the forms and pace of medical education as well as life in general.

Since your medical school admissions readers are likely also physicians treating COVID-19 patients and guiding the community toward best practices for reducing transmission, there’s not a lot they haven’t already heard about the virus. They likely teach on campuses that suspended instruction or shifted it online last year and are well aware your MCATs were canceled or moved. They may even know first-hand how much more help is needed around the house back home, including consoling folks who are afraid of the vaccine for a variety of reasons.

That’s why it’s all the more important for your medical school essay to illustrate a life that centers on you.

Show Instead of Tell to Illustrate Your Story Personally

The applicant’s life should be the main idea of the personal statement, even though COVID can play the role of literary foil. COVID is an unfortunate part of your daily life, but you can still keep your personal statement about yourself, not the pandemic. This way, you allow your reader to feel the aggravation and doom of these moments while enabling you to emerge as the story’s main character. Don’t just “tell” your story. “Show” your story. See what I mean.

Example 1:

Telling – “COVID disrupted my MCAT.” 

Note: Can you write about this in a more personal way? 

Revised to Showing: “My phone vibrated with a notification that the MCAT was canceled. And here’s what I did to overcome that obstacle.”

Example 2:

Telling – “Among the public are vaccination skeptics.”

Note: Who from the public have you talked to and what was the history and context of their medical fear? 

Revised to Showing – “Grammy and I had a looooong conversation about her grandmother’s flu from the 1918 pandemic.” Then compare and contrast the public’s reaction between then and now, and the importance of vaccinations.

Example 3:

Telling – “I’ve been taking care of my little brother and my father.”

Note: What was asked of you? How did you respond?

Revised to Showing – “From his basement lair, my dad hollered, ‘Test tomorrow! Place Values and Number Sense!’ I searched upstairs for my little brother who was hiding from Math under all the laundry. My dad’s in quarantine, the dairy’s in the snow. And Paris in springtime means I’m Mom now while blackouts are rolling through Texas.”

When you show the core competencies suggested by AAMC, you create a picture for your reader to visualize how you could be an excellent physician in a way that makes your personality shine through.

You: Resilient and adaptable at a push notification’s notice.

You: Ethical and moral with the vulnerable.

You: Taking on extra responsibility. COVID is still prevalent, just decentered because yours is a story about teamwork. 

Set COVID-19 as the Supporting Character in Your Personal Statement 

Set the scene with the pandemic details that help you tell your story.

If your narrative anecdote is about ice hockey team practice, let it be that. Surely there are NHL COVID protocols the team has made and adjustments to uphold, whether it’s “minimize handshakes, high fives and fist bumps” or (courtesy of Highly Questionable on ESPN) “don’t lick opponents in the face.”

These are the details that should provide context and are important for illustrating life distinctly to ensure you haven’t stated the obvious or something that other applicants have already covered. Since it’s about you, personally. 

Another way to include COVID in your story is to consider how it relates to your work in STEM. For instance, Scientific American rendered COVID in 3D. Maybe you have similar accomplishments you’d like to showcase. In your personal statement, include some of the technical details of the project but focus on what it was like to work with your lab partners and perhaps highlight your own sense of reliability and dependability. 

A whopping topic like COVID-19 has the capacity to overshadow even the best pre-med if allowed to dominate an essay.

Customary topics and redundant statements will undercut what the Personal Comments Essay is designed by AAMC for you to be able to do. See their Application Guide to see how you can distinguish yourself from other applicants.

Make your essay all about you and write the daily life details that make your story personal. That will get you accepted, and hopefully, we can put the pandemic behind us.

If you’re still feeling stuck on your personal statement or want expert feedback on an existing personal statement, check out MedSchoolCoach. With MedSchoolCoach, you get the benefit of working with a professional writing advisor to help you develop your essays into a great application. 98% of students who used MedSchoolCoach last year to develop their personal statement received at least 1 interview invite.

Jacqueline Wigfall

Jacqueline Wigfall is veteran faculty of Writing in Medical Education at the Duke University Summer Biomedical Sciences Institute. She published Do It Yourself Medical School Admissions Essay: DIYRXDOC in response to COVID-19’s cancellation of SBSI 2020.

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